Friday, 25 June 2010

The beauty of South Africa

SOUTH Africa – from all one hears, and every picture you see, it’s an astonishingly beautiful country.
I’ve been invited there a few times over the years and I can’t say I’m not tempted.
Even 16 years after apartheid’s official end I’m not sure it’s the happiest, or most secure, country to visit, though. A murder rate roughly 35 times Britain's must mean something.
And, fascinated though I am by wildlife of all kinds, I’m not sure I really fancy going “on safari”, a pampered tourist in a four-wheel-drive bubble of privilege.
The invitations have been of two kinds, neither terribly specific.
There was the time, 23 years ago, when I stood among a crowd of enthusiastic anti-apartheid campaigners in a very English marketplace to hail a speech by Desmond Tutu.
Thanking us all for supporting the struggle, the good archbishop ended by declaring: "You must all come and visit our wonderful country… in a few years when all its people are free."
Rousing. Heartwarming. And in a curious way I still feel a little as I felt then, that he meant it.
As, no doubt, do those South African friends I have made online who have suggested visits since.
Friends whose sumptuous photographs have on the whole revealed more of South Africa’s natural beauty than of the reality of life for its people.
And for all the enormous strides taken since apartheid’s end, that reality is still hugely divided between those who have a lot and those who have very little.
Which, of course, means a climate of constant fear and insecurity for those on both sides of the divide.
Too many of the photos have shown the splendour of Table Mountain – that same proud aspect which has formed the backdrop to Gary Lineker’s cosy chats with his footy pals this past couple of weeks.
Not that Table Mountain isn’t a wonderful sight to behold. But I would welcome a little more insight into the life of the city, Cape Town, which sprawls at its foot.
The BBC have been trying. I can’t recall any previous World Cup at which telly coverage included nightly excursions to meet the ordinary folk living in the shadows of the sparkling new stadiums they can’t afford to enter.
What some of those folk have made of Alan Shearer standing on their doorsteps repeatedly muttering "uh-huh" in response to their tales of hardship, only they will know.
I hope they’ve been pleased that the rich world has noticed them and listened – even if only for a moment – to hints of their life stories.
I hope – though I doubt – that they feel this festival in the world’s spotlight has been worth the billions spent on those stadiums while nothing has been spent to alleviate their own poverty.
Whether this World Cup turns out to have been a success for South Africa will depend on far more than the progress (or, rather, lack of progress) of their wholehearted but limited football team. Or, indeed, any other football team.
What use is made of those stadiums once the circus has left town is one thing.
What effect, if any, the money spent, the visitors hosted, the month in the world’s spotlight have in the long run is another.
It will be hard, if not impossible, to judge. Opinions on it will vary wildly.
But one can already see that there is at least one positive.
When I stood and applauded Archbishop Tutu in 1987, South Africa was still officially segregated. Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Black people and white were still kept apart, not just by economics, but by law.
Law savagely enacted and often savagely enforced.
The country was an international pariah, cut out of official participation in international sport.
The staging of sport’s biggest jamboree there is a colossal symbol of how things have moved on.
Much remains to be done before it becomes a country one can visit, or live in, without reservations.
But that such a huge change has been accomplished without a bloodbath, or the grinding terror and dysfunctionality of neighbouring Zimbabwe, is in itself a South African triumph. A victory far, far beyond anything attainable in sport.
And, incidentally, a beacon of possible hope for another troubled country.
Another where racial divisions, enforced by economics, law and armed might, have created unsustainable tensions and inequalities.
As someone wiser than I once put it, the best way out of Israel’s impasse would be for the Palestinians to turn their struggle into an anti-apartheid-style civil rights campaign.
Well, it worked once. Twice, if you include America’s South.


QUESTION put this week on a popular Facebook page: "Do you think solar and wind energy can sustain the current demand on the power grid?"
Bearing in mind that the questioner lives in the United States, that’s a pretty big demand he’s talking about.
And the answer – well, my answer anyway: "Reducing waste and lowering preposterous expectations is probably a necessary start. But yes, harnessing solar energy in the Arizona and Nevada deserts could power even America."
Converting all the Las Vegas casinos into one massive solar panel would be pretty much a win-win scenario.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Showing solidarity on £35 a week

PREJUDICE and misunderstanding abound, so I salute my near-neighbour Claire for her warm-hearted display of solidarity with those seeking asylum in Britain.
Her blog, has been an interesting read throughout the five weeks she has been trying to live on £35 per week.
That’s the allowance given to those who have come here seeking refugee status and are waiting for permission to stay.
They are not economic migrants – and there is nothing remotely “illegal” about them in any way.
They are people fleeing persecution in their home lands, who have made themselves known to the authorities here and exercised their legal right to apply for asylum under the Refugee Convention.
They are not allowed to work until their case has been determined, which can means many months living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence in Britain.
How would you make out on just £35 a week to cover everything? As Claire found, it’s not easy – and she was doing it in the heart of a warm, loving family, with a secure roof, good clothing, a decent kitchen, speaking English as her first language and thoroughly familiar with British ways of life and shopping.
I was most moved by her account of an encounter in the supermarket queue.
When the woman in front of her declined a ‘buy one, get one free’ offer, she requested the free bread for herself.
How many asylum seekers, I wonder, would have the confidence to do that, even if they had the understanding?
As a well-dressed, well-spoken Englishwoman, she naturally felt compelled to explain herself. And that led, inevitably, to a dispute in the queue about the rights of what she was doing – in particular, about the rights (and supposed wrongs) of asylum seekers.
For Claire, this was a small and rare taste of the ignorance and prejudice which asylum seekers themselves – indeed, migrants of all kinds – face constantly.
To be branded alongside a fearsome, indeterminate “They” left her physically shaken.
Yet “they” are damaged, threatened human beings who have fled here, maybe at great personal risk and hardship, because their life elsewhere has become unbearable – sometimes literally unliveable.
If you are escaping from war or human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iran, or Somalia, say, Zimbabwe, China or Iraq, the least you should expect here is to be treated with compassion.
If each person in that supermarket queue were to sit down with an individual refugee or asylum seeker and hear their story, some of those who speak most harshly about “them” might respond more kindly. More welcomingly. Less begrudging of a pitiful £35 a week.
I hope so.


I WAS just hanging out the washing when a bird flew down and landed on the feeder not six feet away.
What’s more, it stayed there while I fetched my camera, and remained posing sweetly while I took its portrait from several angles.
The little ball of bluetit fluff, still sporting its bright yellow ‘feed me, mum’ beak markings, has clearly not yet learned to be afraid of people. Or, indeed, the dog that was lying equally unconcerned under the feeder.
This delightful close encounter occurred just minutes after I completed my stint of garden-watching for the RSPB’s latest national survey.
I’ve taken part every January for years in the Big Garden Birdwatch. This was my debut, though, in the summer version, titled Make Your Nature Count.
The tally for my hour was five blackbirds, five bluetits (one busy adult with four chicks), four great-tits (two and two), three robins (one of them a chick), two woodpigeons, two collared doves, two dunnocks and a pair of chaffinches.
Plus the rarest of the lot, three blackcaps, two of them brown-capped chicks.
I’ve known for a few years that there was a regular blackcap nest in a holly tree just outside my garden. This is the first year, though, that I have seen the young ones.
I initially only identified them because I was able to watch the parents feeding them and I’ve seen them a few times since.
I don’t know whether the great-tits I can see outside the window right now are the family that was raised in my nesting-box, but I imagine it’s likely.
And then there are the longtailed tits.
They made no appearance on survey day. But a day or two earlier they arrived in the late afternoon sun and stayed, resting, feeding and chirruping in the holly and my apple tree, for a good couple of hours.
As ever with this most charming of species, they were travelling not just as a family, but as a whole troupe. I didn’t count them, but I’d estimate four or five adult pairs, each with three or four chicks.
And why do I tell you all this?
Simply because all this abundance of life around us brings me joy, and I hope it does you too.
To notice and to care about the non-human seems to me one of the best things in being human.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Flag-waving and over-optimism, our national sport

HERE we go then. Time to wave the flag, set up the telly and indulge – for a couple of weeks at least – in another national bout of over-optimism.
The friendlies, the qualifiers, the arguing over who goes – they’re all over. The real action starts here.
Well, for England it starts tomorrow in the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg.
And against a team that includes a Watford defender, a Bolton reserve midfielder and a striker who scored twice in 30 games for Hull last season, you’d have to feel Fabio Capello’s side have more than an even chance. (That’s Jay DeMerit, Stuart Holden and Jozy Altidore.)
The one area where the USA look stronger than England is in goal.
I’d pick Everton’s Tim Howard or Wolves’ Marcus Hahnemann over any of the three keepers in the England squad.
In fact, if I were Capello I’d have taken three different goalkeepers – not David James, Robert Green and Joe Hart, but Paul Robinson, Chris Kirkland and Steve Harper.
Of course I’d have given them all a few games first. And England would still have looked weaker in that crucial position than Spain, Italy, Brazil or the US.
Broadly speaking, you have to say Capello has got the outfield squad about right.
Darren Bent may be unlucky. The second highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League (24 goals) is left behind while Emile Heskey (three) gets a chance to improve his abysmal England strike rate (58 caps, seven goals).
But then, however much we may love him as one of our own, can anyone who regularly watched Bent in an Ipswich shirt picture him as a World Cup winner?
Heskey’s chief contribution may have happened already. It was his tackle in training that cost England the man who was to have been captain.
And who is to say that Michael Dawson, the replacement for Rio Ferdinand, isn’t a better defender right now anyway?
If England are to have a hope of winning the trophy, someone will have to excel themselves in defence, and it could just be the uncapped Dawson.
For most in the oldest squad England have ever taken to a major tournament, this is now-or-never time.
Very few of this lot will be around in 2014, when James Milner, a World Cup rookie this time, will likely be captain.
One survivor will surely be Wayne Rooney.
But now is the time for the Manchester United star – 60 caps already at age 24 – to show he really is one of the world’s best.
If he does that – and keeps a lid on his explosive temper – maybe the dream isn’t impossible this time.
Either way, let’s enjoy the show, not just England’s part in it.
Not just players such as Messi, Kaka, Ribery, Ronaldo and Torres, whose star quality we already know about. But those we haven’t heard of yet who will light up the tournament on behalf of Cameroon, Chile, Slovenia or one of the Koreas.
I’m looking forward to the clash between Brazil and Ivory Coast on June 20. Before that, tomorrow’s game between Argentina and Nigeria should be much more than a curtain-raiser for the England game to follow.
It may provide a clue as to how far Argentina can profit from having the world’s best array of attacking skill (Messi, Milito, Tevez). Or how much they’ll be hampered by having the World Cup’s most incompetent coach (Maradona).
England-USA won’t tell us much about anything, except perhaps our boys’ collective mental state.
Form and history suggest England should reach the last eight. It will be a disappointment if they don’t.
Once there, let’s hope Capello has found a way to clear the mental demons from the players representing the country with the worst record of any in penalty shoot-outs.


I FEEL very sorry for the Koupparis family and hope their baby twins recover soon and fully from their injuries.
But the public response to one incredibly rare – one might say unique – incident is as hysterical as it’s predictable.
Foxes are wild creatures and this one clearly panicked in an unfamiliar threatening situation.
There is another creature about the size of a fox, much commoner, potentially as dangerous and overall a much greater nuisance. They are rife on the streets and bold enough to enter homes deliberately.
So, a cull of cats, anyone?


DAVID Cameron promises cuts that will change the whole British way of life.
Bet it won’t impinge too much on him and his fellow-millionaire buddies.
Kind of him, though, to ask us all what we’d like to see privatised “to save money”. (Since when did giving things away to business save money?)
I’m quite clear on this, so I can tell you now, David.
Government money shouldn’t be wasted on things that aren’t needed.
So no cash to bankers, the nuclear industry or weapons manufacturing.
On the other hand, nothing that is needed should be trusted to private enterprise.
So time to take the water, electricity and gas services, the railways, the Post Office and all those bits of the NHS that have been surreptitiously given away, back into public ownership, where they belong.
And hands off our schools.

Friday, 4 June 2010

One Laws for the rich...

DIDN’T take long for the first ‘star’ of the coalition to fall, then.
I have heard some sympathy expressed for David Laws, whose tenure as treasury secretary lasted just 18 days. Or about £570 worth of dodgy rent.
Sympathy for what?
Well, OK, he wanted to keep his private life private. Fair enough, I suppose.
But I am sure there are ways he could have done that without cheating the taxpayer out of £40,000 in falsely claimed rent payments. Or, to put it another way, stealing. From all of us.
If I’d done that, simply offering to pay it back (even if I could) wouldn’t get me off the hook.
In fact, my next claim against Her Majesty’s Government would probably be in rental for a prison cell.
And that headline £40k isn’t the whole of it, either.
A thorough examination of his past expenses claims reveals he claimed £150 a month for utilities and £200 a month for service charges. Until receipts began to be demanded, at which point those claims suddenly dropped to £37 and £25 respectively.
Obviously Mr Laws wasn’t very good with money.
So how did he get a double first in economics at Cambridge? And how did he last five years as a vice-president of international investment bankers JP Morgan? Or hold down a top job with Barclays de Zoete Wedd, where he was something called Head of Dollar and Sterling Treasuries?
I don’t know what those jobs involve, but they sound posh. And they sound as if they feature larger sums of money than Laws has been trousering on the sly since he’s been a mere MP.
Perhaps JP Morgan and Barclays de Zoete Wedd don’t care if their executives fiddle their gas and electricity accounts.
But try getting away with it on the dole.
Or try telling the housing benefits office you’re paying rent to the person whose bed you share. That’d give them a good laugh. They don’t tend to be as keen on your privacy as David Laws was on his.
Laws has never been out of work. In fact, he has probably never been paid as little as you or me.
I don’t suppose he has much understanding of what it means to be among the low-paid, or no-paid. Yet those are among the people whose lives and futures he held in his hand until last Saturday.
The whole purpose of the job he’s just quit was to wield the axe, to find the £6billion he could slash from public expenditure.
So a man who could casually claim nearly £300 a month for non-existent utilities and services was to tell junior nurses, teaching assistants, police clerks and road-menders that their jobs were no longer worth paying for.
It has been suggested that Danny Alexander, who has taken over Laws’s old treasury role, lacks the necessary grasp of economics.
What – the grasp of a man who can’t distinguish between £62 and £350?
In defence, it’s been said that what the job requires isn’t knowledge of economics, but something called “good judgement”.
Let’s hope Alexander has better judgement than his predecessor, who left still apparently unable to see he’d done anything wrong.
Who failed to see that nobody, surely, gave a stuff about his sexuality until he was caught cheating us all, supposedly to cover it up.
Even as they were accepting his resignation, Cameron and Clegg were talking about one day welcoming Laws back into the ranks of government. Which surely calls their judgement into question too.
But even if his political career is toast – as it should be – I wouldn’t waste any sympathy on him.
Whatever his future may hold, it’s unlikely ever to be a personal “age of austerity” such as he was preparing to inflict on the rest of us.
He will never have to join the dole queue or dodge the benefit snoops.
He can always go back to being a banker. And claim in ‘bonuses’ the kind of sums a dodgy politician can only dream of.


“WE’RE sorry for the disruption of lives,” says BP spokesman John Curry.
Sorry. I bet they are.
Sorry that what President Obama has already called the worst environmental disaster in US history will go on unchecked until at least August.
Sorry that the millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico threaten the extinction of several animal species as well as thousands of human livelihoods.
Sorry that safety concerns were waved aside when the exploded well and its rig were first planned.
Sorry that they have no real idea how to stop the oil from gushing. Even though their best ‘experts’ said it was safe.
Are these, I wonder, the same kind of ‘experts’ who insist that nuclear power is now safe?
That accidents won’t happen – and if they do, we have the know-how to handle them?
Anyone who listens to the pro-nuclear lobby might learn a useful lesson from BP’s current misadventure.
Never trust the safety pledges of anyone with a vested interest.