Friday, 30 December 2011

Quiz of the year - will it all get worse from here?

NEW Year’s Eve 2010, you sit down to a pub quiz. Among the questions are these:
1 What major industrial plant is located on the Japanese coast at Fukushima?
2 Of what country is Benghazi the second largest city?
3 In which capital city is Tahrir Square?
Be honest, now – would you have answered any of those questions confidently, or correctly, a year ago? And are they all fairly easy now?
Together they hint at what a remarkable, transformative year 2011 has been.
And that’s without mentioning the sudden closure of the world’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, or the enthralling (and on-going) public inquiry it led to.
Or the sudden changes of government in Greece and Italy and the threat (also on-going) of European economic meltdown.
The even more startling regime changes in Tunisia and Libya (Egypt was hinted at in question three). Or the protests, rioting and governmental shifts in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria.
The astonishing, widely under-reported, number of people who took part in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York. Or the long-running, peaceful spin-off protests in other cities, including London.
From Washington to Moscow, Cairo to the Cape, 2011 has been the year of the protester.
Democracy, so much better at absorbing protest without really changing, has in one way shown itself superior to autocracy.
Even without elections, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece were ousted without having to be hunted down, dragged from a drain and beaten to death.
In that way, Muammar Gaddafi became as iconic in the bloody manner of his death as he was grimly comic in the manner of his 42-year misrule of Libya.
Whether democracy’s greater flexibility will ultimately prove more durable, or less grim, remains an open question. One to be answered only by the history of the future.
As does the question whether 2011 will be looked back on as one freakish year of upheavals – or just the beginning of a deluge of greater upheavals to come.


THE television highlight of 2011 was undoubtedly the BBC’s brilliantly filmed Frozen Planet series.
That a series set purely in the apparent wastelands of the Arctic and Antarctic should be so beautiful, so gripping, and so much talked-about was a wonder in itself.
The contrived ‘controversy’ over the filming of new-born polar bears in captivity was a red herring.
Series producer Vanessa Berlowitz dismissed it summarily, and quite rightly, on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour last Friday. To try to shoot the scene in the wild would have been life-threatening – not just to the crew but, even more crucially, to the bears themselves.
Far more importantly, travel writer Sara Wheeler was asked in the same programme about the melting ice-caps: “When you’re there, how much does it worry you?”
Her measured reply concluded: “I don’t know what the right-wing agenda is, to pretend that global warming isn’t going to cause serious problems for all of us.
“Because the scientists who are there, bringing the data back, don’t know the answers, but they know that something bad is going to happen.
“And they also know that it’s not the earth that’s going to suffer.
“The planet will be OK, it will restore itself, as it always has. It’s us that are at risk.”
Indeed so. But I think I can offer Ms Wheeler some insight into that right-wing agenda.
It’s not just that they’re in what psychologists call a state of denial – though millions of people seem to be. It’s also partly the typical right-winger’s blinkered selfishness.
The 19th-century pit-owner didn’t want to know too much about the grinding poverty of the workers whose toil kept him in luxury.
The man in the 21st-century street doesn’t want to know too much about how his comfort depends on the desperation of generations not yet born.
At the end of 2011 his quietly nagging fear must be that the reaping of the whirlwind may not be so far off after all...

2011: the environmental harvest

  • In the year the world’s population topped seven billion, greenhouse gases rose to record levels, the melting of the Arctic ice almost topped the 2007 record, there were record extremes of both heat and cold in the US, droughts and heatwaves in Europe and Africa and record numbers of weather-related natural disasters.

  • 2011 began with floods in Australia which covered an area the size of France and Germany combined, and ended with a tropical storm that killed 1,000 people and made 300,000 homeless in the Philippines.

  • Thailand had its worst floods in 50 years, while both China and the Horn of Africa suffered their worst droughts in 60.

  • In one seven-week spell early in the year, Argentina, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tonga, Burma, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Sulawesi, Fiji and New Zealand were all hit by major earthquakes.

  • And that was before the quake off Japan on March 11 that unleashed a tsunami which killed 15,500 people, caused the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima and led to 160,000 people fleeing the area or being moved away.

  • The big wave is now reckoned to have cost around £134billion in lost production and physical damage. Decommissioning the station is expected to cost a further £10bn.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Have we lost the true meaning of Saturnalia?

THE music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the rear pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, Canon Kevan McCormack, made it quite plain in his excellent speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
That tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we all shared and should encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
One of my friends made a nice seasonal joke the other day. Maybe, on reflection, it wasn’t really a joke at all. It was more a statement of attitude, again one I rather share.
It went like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Quite. Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Father Christmas may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, as Canon McCormack puts it, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
Happy Hanukkah.


MY first reaction to news of the death of North Korea’s Great Leader Kim Jong-il was: “How could they tell?”
I wish this was original but it was in fact how Dorothy Parker, wit among wits, greeted the demise of former US President Calvin Coolidge in 1933.
My second reaction was to wonder what change – if any – it will bring about in that most benighted, most cut-off of countries.
By all accounts, change isn’t something they’ve had much of in North Korea since it was severed from the South (where change has been extreme and rapid) in the 1940s. Apart from the change between years of desperate famine and those of relative plenty.
Were those pictures of anguished wailing really typical of North Koreans’ reaction to the demise of their dictator?
Were they carefully selected for their propaganda value? Or do they reveal just how thoroughly people will accept and believe what they are told to believe?
Is it true that the North Koreans were shown film of their team celebrating the one goal they scored at South Africa 2010 – actually in a 2-1 defeat by Brazil – and told they had won the World Cup? Or is that just what WE were told?
How many impossible things can a people be made to believe before breakfast?
Including us?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Taking the long nuclear view

Picture of Lorna Arnold from TalkWorks
MY Aunt Lorna turned 96 this week.
I’m not in the habit of marking family birthdays – even within the family, never mind in print – but this one seems worth mentioning.
Not just because there aren’t many people left who were born before the Battle of the Somme, but because Lorna Arnold remains a passionate, powerful intellect. A woman of unsurpassed knowledge in her field who is still well worth listening to.
Not least here in Suffolk, where the Sizewell power stations generate as much controversy as electricity.
You may have seen Lorna on television. She turns up quite frequently in documentaries about the Cold War, the nuclear industry or the atom-bomb. She featured in last year’s fascinating BBC4 series The Secret Life of the National Grid.
You are perhaps more likely to have seen her, fleetingly, last March when The One Show discussed the catastrophe at Fukushima.
It’s fair to say that after leading a long, fairly secret life of her own, Dr Lorna Arnold OBE has become in her 80s and 90s a talking head, one of TV’s go-to experts.
After early experience in the War Office – she was the first British woman to enter Berlin with the Allied Control Commission after the German surrender in 1945 – and the Diplomatic Corps in Washington, in 1959 she joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority. She was appointed to the authority’s historical department in 1967 and went on to become the official historian of British atomic power.
She has written books on British atomic policy, on nuclear testing in Australia, on the H-Bomb and on the 1957 Windscale fire. Recently she has been engaged in writing her memoirs.
It’s doubtful whether anyone knows more about the history of the nuclear industry, and its production of both power and weapons.
And like many of the scientists she has worked alongside over more than 50 years, she has changed her views as her knowledge has increased. And those views deserve and demand respect.
More than respect, indeed. Her experience is valuable – vital – never more important than now, with the whole future of energy production once again in the melting-pot.
And with enough nuclear weaponry still out there to make the world uninhabitable for a long time to come if anyone should start throwing it around.
Here, from a short series of new films made by Oxford production company TalkWorks, are a few of the things she has to say:


“I think nuclear weapons are a somewhat overlooked danger today.
“We went through a period of great public anxiety, almost panic, about the dangers of nuclear weapons during the Cold War but … you can’t maintain that level of anxiety and fear.
“You get used to it, it just becomes part of everyday life. I’m very much afraid that is when things become dangerous.
“It also becomes dangerous when you have decision-makers who are not experienced, who don’t understand what they are dealing with.
“I felt much safer when we had ministers like Heath and Healey in the government because they knew about war from first-hand experience and behaved accordingly. But [today’s politicians] do not know what they are dealing with, and that is a very dangerous situation.”


“At the time I joined the UKAEA, civil nuclear power seemed to be a great new future for mankind, a wonderful source of clean, efficient power which would be – as Churchill said – a perennial fountain of world prosperity.
“It was an exciting and most hopeful time. An enormous amount of skill, hard work, enthusiasm and money contributed to this great project.
“Unfortunately, as time has gone on it has been shown that though nuclear energy has been in many ways efficient and has provided up to 25 per cent of Britain’s electricity, it has been a very expensive method of generation.
“It has a great many unforeseen problems and dangers.
“The problems of nuclear waste are still not solved.
“Nuclear accidents, though rare, if they occur can be devastating.
“The rich sources of the raw material, uranium, are pretty well worked out. It is becoming a scarce and very expensive resource because of the difficulty of mining and refining it.
“It is quite possible that if many countries wanted to develop nuclear programmes, there is only about enough economic uranium in the world to fuel one more generation of power stations.
“So there is not much future, as far as I can see, in civil nuclear power.
“One sad effect of the concentration on civil nuclear power has been the neglect of research and development in renewables.
“I think on the whole civil nuclear power was a very interesting, very valuable but very limited option.
“I think it is drawing to its end and something new has got to be found in its place.”

Friday, 2 December 2011

The public versus the privatisers

NIGEL Lawson, the man who towered over the British economy in the 1980s, is a shadow of his former self. He has become small and wizened, a walnut where he used to be a pumpkin. Still talks rot, though.
As George Osborne prepared to stand and deliver his autumn statement, BBC News propped up Lawson outside Parliament to give his view.
Which boiled down to supporting the chancellor in his squeeze on working people because it was “needed” to keep interest rates low. As if low interest rates were somehow more important than people’s lives and futures.
As chancellor himself from 1983 to 1989, Lawson presided over much higher interest rates than we have now. As well as reducing taxes on companies and the higher-paid while increasing Vat, thereby putting more of the burden on the less well-off. Well, he is a Tory.
He was also a key figure in the first wave of mass privatisations. Or, as another former Tory chancellor, Harold Macmillan, put it, “flogging off the family silver”.
It is partly because of what Lawson did then that we are up the creek now.
Lacking a manufacturing base for our struggling economy, while gas, electricity, telecoms and British Airways continue to make profits for private companies not the public good.
Lawson also played a central role in preparing for Maggie Thatcher’s carefully prepared, sustained and vicious attack on the coal industry.
Thatcher’s enthusiasm for nuclear power stemmed from her eagerness for the assault on coal.
She was not going to be brought down, as previous Tory PM Ted Heath had been, by a stoppage of the coal supply to power stations. She was going to make sure the electricity continued to flow into the nation’s homes and businesses no matter who she picked a fight with.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a turning-point in industrial relations in Britain.
It so happened that for three months of that period I was on strike myself, over a matter not obviously related (the loss of newspaper jobs through the imposition of new technology).
Striking miners occasionally visited our picket line, and we visited some of theirs. To use a phrase recently hijacked by our ruling toffs, we were all in it together.
And of course, as history knows, we lost together.
The eventual defeat of the miners, and the devastation of their industry, was a shattering blow to the whole of trade unionism. Which was exactly what Thatcher intended all along.
What Lawson, particularly in his earlier role as energy secretary, helped her plan and prepare for.
This week’s strike by public-sector workers was billed as the biggest walk-out since 1926. In terms purely of the number taking part, it was. One day of protest, however, hardly equates to the bitter, protracted disputes we lived through in the 1970s and 80s.
It does have this in common, though, with the miners’ strike. That it was a fight picked by a Tory government. And that no one will have been more pleased by it than those who provoked it.
Just like in the 1980s, it gives them a chance to split the populace into an “us” and a “them”. To divide and conquer.
Which is not to say that the unions and their members were wrong to take action. Frankly, they had little choice.
And this, surely, is merely the beginning, the marking-out of the battleground between the government and the people they supposedly represent.
Osborne’s statement, though conveniently hidden from full media attention behind the strike, drew more of those lines.
The pre-publicity was mostly for what you might call the good news. Extra spending on schools, youth unemployment, the building of houses, railways and roads – including a possible new toll road from Felixstowe to the Midlands. New (though piffling) investment in the space industry, green technology and research into animal disease.
The detail showed that the bill will be picked up by public-sector workers and the low-paid.
The independent Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that Osborne’s new policies will cost 710,000 jobs in the public sector, compared with the 400,000 it had previously expected as a result of the government’s spending cuts.
Welfare campaigners say his decision to scrap an increase in child tax credits will result in an additional 100,000 children dropping below the official poverty line.
He signalled the end of national pay bargaining within two years and set a two-year one per cent ceiling on public-sector pay rises – measures surely designed to provoke the unions into further action.
Osborne, of course, is banking on the majority public mood supporting him as he casts the public sector and their union leaders in the role Thatcher cast the miners and Arthur Scargill.
I wonder.
I wonder if Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union Unite, isn’t perhaps nearer the reality.
People, he says, “have seen their living standards get squeezed while the rich get richer.
“They look at the teachers, lollipop ladies and civil servants marching and then they look at the millionaires in cabinet, and they know which side to support.
“Trade union members aren’t some inconvenient troublemakers making life hard for the public: they are the public.”


THE Bhopal disaster of 1984 was and remains a massive example of man’s inhumanity to man. Of the shocking disregard of rich people in one country for the lives of poor people in another.
At a conservative estimate, the leak of poison gas from the American-owned Union Carbide factory killed 15,000 inhabitants of the Indian city.
To say that the company’s admission of responsibility came grudgingly and late, and that the compensation event-ually paid was insufficient, is to put it mildly.
Anything further from the “Olympic values” of “Respect, Excellence, Friendship” would be hard to imagine.
Dow Chemical, the company which now owns Union Carbide and the fatal Bhopal plant, is a major sponsor of London 2012 and is scheduled to have a massive advert in the form of “an artistic wrap” around the main Olympic Stadium.
But Lord Coe (right), chairman of the organising committee, airily brushed aside the protests of outraged Indian athletes at a Parliamentary hearing last week.
He said: “I am satisfied that the ownership, operation and the involvement either at the time of the disaster or at the final settlement was not the responsibility of Dow.”
Which sounds to me – as it does to the Indians – like a slippery avoidance of responsibility.
Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001 and insists the legal claims surrounding the incident were resolved long before it acquired the company.
That is still being contested in the Indian courts.
Meanwhile there are many people in Bhopal still suffering from the crippling effects of the disaster – in their own health and in the loss of family members.
Local experts say pollution from the disaster is still causing deformities and cancers among families using contaminated groundwater.
Respect, Seb? Friendship? Or is it all just about money?
In this case a measly £7million – money which would go a lot further if it were put to alleviating the misery suffered by the people of Bhopal.
If the Indian Olympic Association votes next week to boycott the Games, don’t blame them. Blame Coe.