Saturday, 28 September 2013

Attenborough and the uncomfortable truth

The term “national treasure” applied to a human being doesn’t sound right to me. And from what I know of David Attenborough, I can’t imagine it rings true for him either.
But if there has been a wiser, saner, more admirable person in the history of television than Sir David, I can’t think who it might be.
For almost all my life he has had a profound influence on the way I – and millions of other people – see the world.
His name on any programme guarantees that it will be worth watching, for natural spectacle, fascinating insight, the “wow” factor. And for a thoroughly humane, intelligent – and well informed – attitude to humans’ relationship with the world’s other species.
When David Attenborough speaks, in that warm, familiar voice, you know he speaks from both the heart and the brain. To put it bluntly, you know he speaks the truth.
Which is why he has politely declined every invitation – and there must have been a lot of them – to lend that voice to advertising.
“My stock in trade is dealing in the truth as far as we can see it,” he says. “If I say that dinosaurs have feathers I hope people believe me.
“So if in the next five minutes people hear me telling them to buy a brand of margarine they’ll probably presume I’m telling lies about one of these things.”
And of course the truth – unlike advertising – is often uncomfortable.
Attenborough was decades ahead of most of the media in drawing attention to mankind’s often devastating effect on the natural environment. The threat to the rainforest and the coral reef. The extinction of increasing numbers of animal and plant species.
And he’s ahead of most, too, in pushing past the taboos to state the almost unsayable truth about the world’s catastrophically huge human population.
Earlier this year he said: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.
“Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.
“Until humanity manages to sort itself out … it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Well, yes. The combination of more and more people and more and more desert is a certain harbinger of those apocalyptic horsemen War, Famine and Death.
Those of us born in the affluent West since the end of the last world war are probably the luckiest generation of human beings ever to have lived. That luck cannot last forever.

Attenborough walks dodgier ground when he says, “the last sensitivity - and the most tricky of all - is the fact, when you talk about world population, the areas we're talking about are Africa and Asia”.
Well, yes and no, David. It’s all of us. And not just the sheer numbers in those “developing” areas of the world, but the fact that they – understandably – aspire to the way of life we in the West already enjoy.
There are, arguably, enough resources in the world to sustain a population of seven billion humans – but not to give them all American cars, a European diet and a new iPhone every two years.
Who are we, though, to enjoy those things ourselves while denying them to others?
When he says it’s “barmy” to send food to famine areas, Attenborough risks offending human decency.
As did Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, with her compulsory sterilisation programme in the 1970s. Or China’s ruling Communists with their one-child-per-family policy.
All of them, though, were at least trying to address humanity’s biggest and most intractable problem. Posterity may view them more kindly, as visionaries.
If the Apocalypse doesn’t come first.


A friend of mine stunned me today by describing Britain as a “capitalist meritocracy”.

That phrase sounds to me like “bright darkness”, “military intelligence” or that staple of football-reporting, “narrowly wide” – an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms.

Yes, we live in a capitalist society. Mostly – and getting more so with the flogging off of vital services such as the Royal Mail.

But a meritocracy?

In what conceivable way do David Cameron, George Osborne, the governor of the Bank of England or the boss of Tesco have more merit than my plumber, your old mum, or the woman at the checkout?

They’re certainly richer, they’re certainly more powerful. They might, in some instances, be cleverer – though not, by any means, in all. Privileged access to a certain kind of education can make them seem cleverer than they are.

But better people? More deserving? More trustworthy?

Young Prince George may be a very “good” baby – but is he a better baby than one born yesterday at the Norfolk and Norwich?
My dictionary defines meritocracy as “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class, privilege or wealth; leadership by able and talented persons”.

You could hardly have a more precise definition of what we don't live in.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Millar's tale of bikes and doping has a moral for all sport

True Christian morality – the kind based on the actual reported sayings of Christ – can be pretty tough.
Take the parable of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always thought it a trifle harsh on the hard-working elder son that it should be his riotous kid brother who got the party and the fatted calf.
There is something of this in the way professional cycling has responded to the former Cofidis team-mates David Moncoutié and David Millar.
You’d have to be a pretty keen fan to have heard of Frenchman Moncouti√©. Over a 15-year career, he won two stages of the Tour de France and four of the Vuelta a Espana and was twice King of the Mountains in the seven-day Paris-Nice race.
What is exceptional is that he did it all clean – that is, drug-free – at a time, and on a team, when that was not generally considered the normal way to win things.
Millar, who began his career at the same time, also started out determined to do it clean. For a few years he tried, and had some success.
Ironically, by the time he was arrested for doping in 2004 he was again racing clean. But in between times he had made regular use of the banned performance-enhancing EPO.
At his eventual trial in a French court he was acquitted of legal offences, but his admission of cheating had already cost him a two-year ban from cycling.
The first of those two years, by his own account, was pretty much one continuous bender. By the end of it he’d gone from riches to rags, from playboy lifestyle to living on his sister’s floor. He was every bit the prodigal.
But what makes him really interesting is the way he acknowledged his own errors and failings and set about using his experiences to help clean up what had become a very dirty sport.
Who better than a reformed doper to sit on the athletes’ committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency?
Someone who really knows what he’s talking about. Someone who understands how easy it can be to slip into a world where doping is expected. Who knows first-hand about both the physical and psychological effects.
Millar’s ‘Racing Through the Dark’, in which he lays all these things out clearly and starkly, is the best book about sport that I’ve read.
Not the best written, perhaps. But probably the most honest, certainly the most revealing and the one with the most emotional punch. And he doesn’t go easy on either himself or his sport.
Written before the full public revelation of Lance Armstrong’s years of drug misuse, it’s very interesting in its depiction of the disgraced American.
In the early chapters, Armstrong comes across as unexpectedly likeable. Later, though, once Millar has returned to cycling as an anti-drug crusader, there’s a coldness between them.
“Lance is a charismatic but controversial man,” Millar writes.
“Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all he has said and done, it would be unforgiveable.”
Just so.
And then there’s Bradley Wiggins, the man who – along with this year’s Tour de France champion Chris Froome – has demonstrated more clearly than anyone that it is possible to win the Grand Tours without dope.
After a good start between them, Millar falls out with Wiggins too. Not over anything to do with drugs but because of Wiggins’s single-minded pursuit of his own personal success – rather like the young Millar, maybe, but unforgiveable to the dedicated team-player he has become.
Well, perhaps not quite unforgiveable as the two have teamed up since in the GB Olympic team.
And Wiggins, of course, has made nonsense of Millar’s claim that “we were certain that he’d never be on the podium at the Tour”.
The most ironic thing in Millar’s book, though, is an episode which demonstrates that drug-use is not quite the clean-cut issue some people suggest.
After crashing at the 2001 Vuelta, he suffered a severe reaction to the perfectly legal anti-inflammatory cream he was given. The cure for that was a dose of cortisone – legal as a treatment for tendonitis but not for any other use. So his team reported that he had tendonitis.
Sometimes it’s not only the cheats and liars who weave tangled webs, but the authorities too.
There are some dark times and tangled webs in Millar’s book, both for himself and his sport.
But it’s a tale with some true heroes – notably Dave Brailsford. The head of both British Cycling and Team Sky has been at the forefront of cleaning up the sport, but he was also there for Millar – literally at his side – when times were hardest and his disgrace deepest.
Millar’s tale – of racing through the dark and emerging into the light – is cycling’s tale too. And it’s finally an uplifting one.

Leg irons and stun guns, suitable for use in torture, were found to be on sale in London last week at a major international arms fair. Illegally.
This is appalling. But is it really any more sickening than the huge array of ingeniously lethal weaponry on sale perfectly legally at the same glittering function?
As long as Britain goes on making and marketing weapons of war, it’s hard to see how our leaders can claim any moral high ground over the people who buy and use them.

Friday, 13 September 2013

So fast so good

Any weight loss? the doctor asked. Well yes, there has been, I said, but I think thats directly attributable to my being on the 5:2 diet for a year. The doctor just smiled and moved on.
Today I weigh two stone less than I did a year ago, when telly scientist Michael Mosleys programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer was first aired in the BBCs Horizon series.
I wasn’t what you’d call fat before, but middle age was spreading about me in ways I didn’t care for.
The gain had been slow and insidious over years, a common experience. The sort of incremental increase you don’t notice day by day, even month by month, until you find yourself buying clothes a size or two bigger than before.
No one looking at me would have thought – as I sometimes think of strangers in the street – “Gosh, he needs to diet”.
But I certainly feel a lot better not having to carry those extra lumps of fatty tissue about with me everywhere I go.
After years of more or less putting up with the idea that I'd never again be the svelte youth I once was, I'm back down to what I always used to consider my “proper” weight. And I've had to buy new trousers in a size I feared I might have grown out of forever.
I don’t want to shrink away entirely but I’m happy with the weight I am now, and fairly confident of maintaining it.
But the regime was never primarily about losing weight. The difference on the bathroom scales is merely a by-product. A welcome by-product, certainly, but no part of the main goal – which is
nothing less than lengthening my life. And, along the way, improving the quality of my living.
Sounds faddy, I know, and perhaps it is. But if it works, those seem to me like pretty worthwhile goals to achieve. And a year in I’m still struggling to see any down side.
I don’t normally go in for fads, and I don’t do diets. Companies that sell you diet products do so in the confident expectation that the effects will be temporary and you will come back for more later.
But I’m not buying anything from anyone. In fact I’m saving money slightly because I’m buying less food. Well, maybe.
If you haven't encountered the 5:2 yourself and Ive been amazed since starting it how many other people seem to be doing it too it’s gloriously simple. For five days in every week you eat just as you always did. For the other two (non-consecutive) days you fast. Which in this case doesn’t mean going without food altogether.
What’s suggested is a total intake on that day of 600 calories for men or 500 for women – a quarter of what the NHS recommends daily to “maintain weight”. The increasing habit of some shops to label their food by its calorie count is a big help. 
Dr Mosley’s scientific approach to the possible benefits, and drawbacks, of various forms of fasting, and his ultimate endorsement of the 5:2 diet persuaded me as I watched.
I was struck by the idea that short spells of hunger seem to trigger regeneration of brain cells and may actually ward off Alzheimer’s.
Add to that the lowering of cholesterol and blood glucose – and yes, reduction in fat and body-weight – and you add a significant lowering in the risk of heart trouble and strokes. All things well worth avoiding if you can.
It seems pretty obvious to me that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to eat well on some days and not at all on others.
But are the “fast” days difficult? And do I feel the urge to gorge myself on the other days?
Well, no and no, actually. Though I do really enjoy my food the next day.
The passing waves of hunger are easily quelled by black coffee and near calorie-free nibbles of celery, carrot and courgette.
At the end of my fast days I feel fuller of energy than I used to on days of takeaway pasties and chips.
Medical opinion may be divided on the 5:2 score - though my doctor seems to be happy enough with it.
It’s definitely not recommended for children, teenagers or pregnant women. But for me its a whole lifestyle that was surprisingly easy to switch into. And if it lasts till I’m 100 – bingo!


Part of me wanted Madrid to win the vote to stage the 2020 Olympics. I liked the Spanish capital’s intention to stage the Games on a budget half that of Tokyo and a tenth of Istanbul’s.
Not just because austerity is in fashion, but because the bloated nature of the Olympics has been growing ever more offensive since 1976, when the Games thrust Montreal into a debt crisis that took 30 years to clear.
Madrid – understandably, given that Spain’s economy is in almost as dire trouble as that of Greece – didn’t want to become another Athens.
But the decision to put the Games in the “safe hands” of Tokyo makes sense. Not least because of Japan’s clean record – in sharp contrast to both Spain and Turkey – in the matter of doping. Of which, more in this column next week.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Delicious crumbs from the master's table

My nephew Matt, 12 years younger than me, challenged me this week to name my 10 favourite albums of 1974. A good choice for nostalgic wallowing. While he was no doubt listening to Bagpuss and The Clangers, it was a seminal year in my teenage development, largely shaped by The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Matt’s own list of 1987 faves, post-punk and heavily indie-flavoured, contained nothing I ever knowingly heard. While mine for ’74… well, see the inset panel.
It was not in every way a vintage year. Several of my favourite bands – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Caravan – were between outstanding albums, while what I remember as my favourite album of 1974, Brothers And Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band, turns out to have been released in ’73.
It’s not generally considered to have been a vintage year for Bob Dylan, either. Eight years after the motorcycle accident that ended his most productive and creative spell and a year before his return to form with the magisterial Blood On The Tracks.
Nevertheless, there could be no doubt, either then or now, that my 1974 Top Ten had to include two Dylan LPs. Planet Waves has never had the reputation it deserved, even among Dylan fans. While Before The Flood is not just Dylan’s best live album, it’s the best live album by anyone.
But then, with the exception of the 1980s – music’s dodgiest decade and the era of Dylan’s dreary Christian dirges – there’s hardly been a year in the last 50 when he wouldn’t have been a prime contender for the chart.
And now, at age 72, he’s done it again, releasing my clear favourite album of this year so far.
Mind you, it’s nothing new.
While last year’s Tempest was no better or worse than either fans or detractors might have expected, Another Self Portrait is an instant classic. And it was all recorded in 1970-71.
Basically a bunch of 35 outtakes and alternative versions from the recording sessions that produced the poorly-received albums Self Portrait and New Morning, it’s a better record than either. More coherent than the first Self Portrait (an ironic title, since most of the songs were borrowed from other people), more interesting than New Morning. And in nearly every case the performances are better than on the versions we’ve known all these years.
Dylan’s voice on this collection is as varied as the songs, several of which are drawn from the “traditional” folk canon. Almost throughout he demonstrates that the commonly held view that he can’t sing is way off-target – or was back then.
If only it contained his versions of Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay and Donovan’s Universal Soldier, recorded at the same sessions. Those would surely have been fascinating.
This latest addition to the “Official Bootlegs” series, Volume 10, isn’t quite the best Dylan album of the 21st century. That was Tell Tale Signs, No. 8 in the set, a superb collection of outtakes and “rarities” from 1989 to 2006, released in 2008, that for me belongs in a Top Ten of all his albums.
But this one will keep me engaged until the next “official bootleg” (a contradiction in terms, surely) comes along.
Crumbs from the master's table, perhaps, but still tastier than most artists' best-prepared gourmet meals.

The morning after the House of Commons passed its most historic vote of modern times, the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown professed himself “ashamed”.
In rejecting a military assault on Syria, Parliament had – according to Ashdown – “greatly diminished” Britain.
“The special relationship with the US is seriously damaged, and Britain is now more isolated,” he claimed. “It was a bad night for the government. I think a bad night for Britain too.”
So that’s what it was all about, then, was it? Britain’s “special relationship” with the mighty US of A.
Which, as we so vividly saw in the Bush-Blair, Iraq-invading years, is the special relationship of a poodle with its redneck owner.
When Ashdown speaks in horrified tones of the “burning children” we see on our TVs he assumes it’s up to Britain to do something about it – as if our imperial past gave us a special role as global cops. As if that was not the role of the United Nations.
And as if there was anything we could do, militarily, other than make matters worse.
Even if it were proven conclusively (which it hasn’t been yet) who the bad guys with the chemicals really are.
So far from being a bad night for Britain, last Thursday’s vote was a rare and unexpected triumph for Parliamentary democracy.
And, I’d suggest – against what seems to be the common view – that it was a good night for the government too.
In asking Parliament’s opinion, and agreeing to abide by its view even against his own, David Cameron didn’t lose status as a leader so much as gain it as a democrat.