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Articles on this Page
- 12/04/13--02:47: _Why Cameron's marri...
- 12/04/13--02:54: _Do smart people dri...
- 12/04/13--03:46: _If chimps become "l...
- 12/04/13--04:09: _Watching 12 Years a...
- 12/04/13--04:59: _Osborne and Carney ...
- 12/04/13--05:15: _Five questions answ...
- 12/04/13--05:31: _PMQs review: Clegg ...
- 12/04/13--06:19: _Ifa Muaza: Anatomy ...
- 12/04/13--07:23: _Norman Baker interv...
- 12/04/13--08:11: _The New Statesman c...
- 12/04/13--08:35: _Why local councils ...
- 12/04/13--07:02: _The "murder" of Ste...
- 12/04/13--14:50: _Clegg has made coal...
- 12/04/13--23:26: _Morning Call: pick ...
- 12/05/13--00:00: _Lez Miserable: How ...
- 12/05/13--00:01: _Stella Creasy: ‘‘Th...
- 12/05/13--00:06: _What it means to be...
- 12/05/13--00:10: _Will Self: A "south...
- 12/05/13--00:19: _Umberto Eco and why...
- 12/05/13--00:19: _In search of feral ...
- 12/04/13--02:47: Why Cameron's marriage tax break plan is dangerous for the Tories
- 12/04/13--03:46: If chimps become "legal persons" terrorism suspects should too
- 12/04/13--04:09: Watching 12 Years a Slave in a Blindingly White Capital City
- 12/04/13--04:59: Osborne and Carney should enjoy their day in the sun
- 12/04/13--05:15: Five questions answered on the UK governments’ infrastructure plans
- 12/04/13--05:31: PMQs review: Clegg sings from the Conservative hymn sheet
- 12/04/13--06:19: Ifa Muaza: Anatomy of a failed rendition
- 12/04/13--07:23: Norman Baker interview: David Kelly's death is "unfinished business"
- 12/04/13--08:35: Why local councils should become energy suppliers
- 12/04/13--23:26: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 12/05/13--00:00: Lez Miserable: How do I tell if I'm a girl or a woman?
- 12/05/13--00:06: What it means to be northern when you're Down South
- 12/05/13--00:10: Will Self: A "southern sod" discovers the north on foot
- 12/05/13--00:19: Umberto Eco and why we still dream of utopia
- 12/05/13--00:19: In search of feral apples and underground men
Andy Coulson warned the PM that the perception that the Tories frown upon single parents was "electoral halitosis".
More than eight years after David Cameron first pledged to recognise marriage in the tax system, George Osborne will (to his great reluctance) finally announce details of the policy in his Autumn Statement on Thursday. Under the new system, basic rate taxpayers not using all of their personal allowance (which currently stands at £9,440) will be able to transfer up to £1,000 to their spouse or civil partner, reducing the latter's tax bill by around £200.
After finally meeting his pledge, and appeasing Tory grumblers, one might have thought Cameron would quietly move on. But speaking to reporters in China, the PM has now revealed he wants to go further. He said: "It’s something I have long wanted to do, so I am pleased we will be achieving it. I believe in marriage, I believe marriage should be recognised in the tax system. I see this as yes, a start of something I would like to extend further."
The allowance is, as I've written before, terrible policy. It will reduce work incentives by encouraging second earners to stay at home, further complicate the tax system and do little to support those families most in need of help. It's also, as the socially liberal Osborne has recognised, bad politics.
In a GQ article earlier this year, Andy Coulson described the perception that the Tories frown upon single parents as "electoral halitosis", but this policy unambiguously discriminates against them. Among those who also don't gain from the policy, as the campaign group Don't Judge My Family has noted, are widows and widowers, people who leave abusive relationships and working couples. Are liberal Conservatives really comfortable with tilting the tax system against them? The philanderer on his third marriage gains, while the hard-pressed single mother is ignored.
Before rushing to make tax breaks for marriage a defining part of the tax system, Cameron should pause to consider the political consequences. If he isn't, his Chancellor certainly is.
Alcohol consumption has been found to correlate positively with verbal ability, evolutionary adaptability and going to university.
It’s the booziest time of the year, and also the most hung over: According to one study, 96 per cent of Americans have been hung over at work after a holiday party, or know someone who has. Creative hangover cures like dried sour plums and poached duck embryos may ease (or exacerbate) physical symptoms, but here’s something that might help the self-reproach: You can blame your hangover on your high IQ, because studies show there might be a positive correlation between intelligence and alcohol consumption.
The sooner you talk, the sooner you drink
Finnish researchers gathered data on 3,000 fraternal and identical twins and found that the sibling who was the first to develop verbal ability—speaking words, reading and using expressive language—also tended to be the first to try alcohol and to drink more heavily throughout adolescence. Verbal development may be correlated with social intelligence; the verbally precocious twin also had, on average, more friends, and could be more likely to end up in social situations where alcohol is present: “Good language skills reduce the likelihood of peer rejection .... higher social activity predicts more frequent drinking in adolescence,” write the authors.
Earlier speaking age is also associated with better academic performance throughout middle and high school and a higher chance of graduating from college—and achieving higher levels of education is also correlated with higher alcohol consumption. The authors hypothesize that intelligence is correlated with curiosity and a desire for new experiences: “Cognitive performance and reading abilities in childhood are related to higher stimulation-seeking tendencies.”
Drinkers are evolutionarily adaptive
According to the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis posited by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, the human brain has trouble dealing with situations that did not exist in the Pleistocene environment we evolved in, but some brains (less intelligent ones) have more trouble than others. Writes Kanazawa, “the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment ... general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems.” Alcohol consumption is “evolutionarily novel”—humans began cultivating and consuming alcohol only about 10,000 years ago (though we may have ingested trace amounts of ethanol in fermented fruits before that)—so this model would predict a link between intelligence and drinking.
When Kanazawa analyzed data on UK children, he found that link. Drawing on the results of the National Child Development Study, which tracked for 50 years all British babies born during one week in March 1958, Kanazawa found that kids who scored higher on IQ tests grew up to drink larger quantities of alcohol on a more regular basis than their less intelligent peers. He evaluated other factors, including religion, frequency of church attendance, social class, parents’ education and self-reported satisfaction with life, and found that intelligence before age 16 was second only to gender in predicting alcohol consumption at age 23. In Kanazawa’s model, illicit drugs constitute another evolutionarily novel experience—and he (and others) have also found a link between high IQ and experimentation with drugs. In Kanazawa’s study, the higher a respondent’s IQ before age 16, the more psychoactive substances he or she had tried by age 42. Another study found that 30-year-old women who had earned high scores on an IQ test at age five were more than twice as likely to have smoked weed or used cocaine in the previous year; men who had scored highly on IQ tests as children were 50 percent more likely to have recently consumed amphetamines or ecstasy.
Smart people prefer wine
A study that compared 1,800 Danish men’s IQ scores to their drinking habits from the 1950s through 1990s found a strong correlation between high IQ in young adulthood and preference for wine over beer later in life, regardless of socioeconomic status. (Very few respondents—less than 1 per cent—preferred spirits; this preference was unrelated to IQ.) Twenty-two per cent of men who were grouped into the highest of five IQ categories at age 18 preferred wine in their 30s, compared to 9 per cent of the men grouped in the lowest IQ category. By their 40s, the differences were even more pronounced: 39 per cent of the men with the highest IQs, but only 13 per cent of those with the lowest, preferred wine. According to the paper, “in the predominantly beer-drinking Danish population ... wine drinking has traditionally been a sign of high social standing.” The correlation among income, education, social status and intelligence could explain their findings.
College graduates drink more
Researchers at the London School of Economics examined data on thousands of British adults in their 30s and found a positive correlation between educational attainment and daily drinking. The relationship was stronger for women: Women who had graduated from college were 86 per cent more likely than women who hadn’t graduated high school to admit to drinking on most days. Possible explanations include: “a more intensive social life that encourages alcohol intake; a greater engagement into traditionally male spheres of life; a greater social acceptability of alcohol use and abuse; more exposure to alcohol use during formative years; and greater postponement of childbearing and its responsibilities among the better educated.” The link between education and drinking holds for American adults: According to the U.S. Department of Health, rates of alcohol consumption rise with education level, with 68.4 per cent of college graduates describing themselves as drinkers, compared with 35.2 per cent for adults without high school diplomas—perhaps reflecting people bringing the binge-drinking habits they learn on campus into adulthood.
The good news is that the principle of habeas corpus may soon apply to chimpanzees in the US. The bad news is it still won't apply to humans suspected of terrorism.
If the Nonhuman Rights Project wins the lawsuits they are putting forward this week, four New York chimpanzees will be given "legal person" status. If these chimpanzees are recognised as persons under the law, this will confer on them the “fundamental right of bodily freedom” and so they will be released into a sanctuary. The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that because of chimpanzee’s high cognitive abilities they should be recognised as autonomous human beings, and so the principle of habeas corpus should be applied to them.
It will be an interesting case to watch – and it would be great to see greater legal protection for apes. The US still carries out medical tests on chimpanzees, which is now banned in the UK as well as several other countries, although it has significantly reduced the numbers of chimps in laboratories earlier this year, transferring around 300 to animal sanctuaries.
The case couldn’t help remind me that plenty of human beings are being unlawfully detained without trial in the US too, violating the fundamental legal principle of habeas corpus. Under US military law, terrorism suspects can be detained indefinitely without charge. Over 160 detainees are still being held in Guantanamo, some of whom have been there for over a decade, and of these only 6 have been formally charged of any crime. Around 600 of the 779 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001 were released without charges, and nine have died in custody.
I’m not anti granting chimpanzees "legal person" status, I’d just like terrorism suspects to be treated as ‘legal persons’ too.
Desiree Wariaro watches 12 Years a Slave in Stockholm, a city where it can take generations to become the sort of person considered unquestionably native.
I pretended to read, conscious of the shuffling at the other end of the bench. A man turned towards me. Glancing up apprehensively I saw he was an alcoholic, not the destitute kind, but getting there. A fellow member of Stockholm’s precariat, this one consigned to cracking open beer cans on street corners while the government rests on its dubious laurels. “You look nice,” he said, in the exclamatory way drunks say things. I got up, anticipating trouble. He huffed, “You think you’re so great, but you’re just a nigger reading a book! He raised his voice, “Another nigger girl who thinks she’s beautiful!” I sprang away with that word burrowing into me, reshaping and fragmenting my thoughts like the resurfaced memory of a broken heart. While the people I rode the train home with would never have put it that way, with their expensive coats and restrained inquisitiveness, I thought about how they spoke when I wasn’t there.
It can take generations to become the sort of person everyone in Stockholm finds unquestionably native. If you are white when you enter you get to bypass the queue. If you are black you could hold hands with a white person, so your grandkids become as effortlessly Swedish as any wiry blonde with monosyllabically oratory English. Although, for certain people the quarantine between entry and embrace does not apply: Roma people - who can trace their origins in Sweden back to the 16th century - still wait in line amidst widespread scrutiny and suspicion. People of African and Roma descent are statistically the most discriminated: in the housing market, in the job market, in the workplace, on public transport - virtually every sphere of life – we are shown a proverbial trapdoor. As a middle-class light-skinned black Swede I don't encounter a lot of overt racism (despite the anecdote); my family tree and network is not mapped in a police registry, which it would be if I were Roma. Only Kristeva’s abject could begin to justify the way racism dances inside a victim's head, disturbing everything with its flailing and screaming.
Watching the film 12 Years a Slave will make you connect the dots between drunk men ejaculating racist profanity and a shredded social contract. A while ago I sat in a cinema watching it. I had listened to the podcast Black Girls Talking where the audience vis-à-vis 12 Years a Slave was discussed; the eponymous girls had all watched the film separately with other people they alternately approved (“unexpectedly full of black people”) and disapproved (‘’a white couple making out while I was sniffling”) of. As I was consigned to one venue, on a posh street in the middle of Stockholm, I didn’t have much choice but to acquiesce with the disappointingly pale crowd of other people filing in. I willed away my indignation, longing for the proximity of a moveable feast of black and brown bodies while watching the echelons of male thespianism flounce their brightest feathers, in a retelling of the many-splintered beast that is white supremacy; my download of ‘Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana’ (1853), vanquished from the screen of my muted phone, had a nearly identical plot.
Despite its facilitation of modern capitalism, most creative minds du jour don’t occupy themselves with the knowledge that black people built the world. I’m suspicious of the reasons for financing this film. Never mind the genius of director Steve McQueen, the film star Danny Glover has spent decades trying to make a film about the Haitian Revolution. 12 Years a Slave is an opiate for the disgruntled, approved by greedy executives vying for white tears and black masochism. (And I took the bait.)
It is not often anti-racist ‘torture porn’ is sanctioned for worldwide viewing, but I see no need to be as allergic to the punch-in-the-gut imagery as the critics who disparage the director Steve McQueen's claims towards good art by way of memento mori. McQueen’s Achilles’ heel is his commitment to the truth, feminist icon bell hooks has aptly criticised 12 Years a Slave for its lack of imagination, dismissing it as ‘sentimental’. Chances are Hollywood has asphyxiated the scriptwriters capable of producing both intellectually and visually dazzling films about what it means to be black.
It is the character Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong'o) circle of hell, and the circumstances of her silencing in contrast to the white ‘sisters of Shakespeare’ that depresses me the most: she is slapped around and torn apart only to be slapped around and torn apart some more in an infinite loop. Racialised women are subjected to twice the amount of discrimination in society as their white counterparts - not only do we duck the blows of patriarchy but we battle white supremacy when reading novels in public, even when we are one of the richest women alive shopping in a high-end Swiss boutique. I don’t particularly enjoy being the lowest member on the totem pole of racial hierarchy pioneered by the Swedish school of biology that brought you eugenics and concentration camps. The EU profits off my unhappiness. There are no monuments commemorating the lives lost to Sweden’s slave trade, and nobody writes about how the country I live in produced the iron that shackled the sixty million or more kidnapped bodies that made our surroundings possible. We cower under the whip of a racial paradigm.
A group of British abolitionists sailed to Stockholm in 1847 to lobby the Swedish government, igniting a vicious debate in the Riksdag. In the aftermath Sweden freed the slaves on its Caribbean colony. Today, the Aryan People’s Party in parliament, colloquially called the Sweden Democrats, are riling a crowd against me, obfuscating facts like expert magicians. I'm scared, and wonder whether I would have joined the crowds if my circumstances had been different.
As victims of our unreliable and permeable minds we require representations of ourselves in film that serve up slivers of recognition. 12 Years a Slave isn't blackness portrayed in a way I remotely know or recognise, it is blackness in a state of emergency - the usual boring way cinema and the media tell stories about us - a way that is somehow deemed truer, and, in so, better (!), than a middle-class experience of blackness. It is not that I self-centeredly expect Hollywood to order a treatment of my NSA files, I’m just starved of nuance, like all the other fed-up women of colour tweeting about the weird erasure of their lives. Soon, I might go so far off the grid there will be no doubt I never existed; a voluntary self-silencing to negate a world that hands a one-size fits all corset to racialised women. Although I suppose 12 Years a Slave could make fair-weather types who believe(d) in the post-racial myth focus on the heart attack-like urgency of plain meat and potatoes racism.
Desiree Wariaro is an editor at Media Diversified
The UK fast becoming a stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity.
If last week’s markets were quiet and range-bound due to Thanksgiving celebrations and a paucity of frontline data, this week could hardly present a more different proposition. Monday saw a strong US Manufacturing ISM survey, and yesterday the RBA decided to sit on its hands, but the committee was once again at pains to point out that they view the AUD’s strength as "uncomfortably high", with a "lower level of exchange rate likely to be needed to achieve balanced growth in the economy". They also highlighted that "public demand is forecast to be quite weak" and "considerable uncertainty surrounds this outlook" (for a pick-up in activity). More rate cuts are coming in Australia as Asia slows. The RBA are very perceptive - they realise that the Chinese 3rd plenum, although very constructive in the medium-term (10-20 years in Chinese terms!) implies slower growth in the short-term, as the economy rebalances away from export-fest to the kind of consumer-lead growth that is all too familiar to us in the UK.
We are entering a dangerous era of change for global growth, with the onus being passed to developed markets to take over as locomotives. Really?! With an economic block the size of the Eurozone destined to flatline for years to come, or implode, and a US economy that will struggle to reach escape velocity as the Fed removes the punch bowl, this looks like a vain hope. Just look at the effect on the US housing market of even the suggestion of tapering and a 100 bp rise in mortgage rates this summer-and the housing recovery has played a very significant part in what meagre growth we have seen thus far.
Against this backdrop, Messrs. Osborne and Carney are beginning to look pretty lucky (and smart actually) with the UK fast becoming the stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent annualized clip, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity, which is another good story. In his 5 December Autumn Statement, I expect Chancellor Osborne to be able to announce that the OBR has made a £13bn reduction in its official forecast for the 2013/2014 government deficit, compared to its March forecast, i.e. 5.8 per cent of GDP, rather than 6.9 per cent, and also to make reductions in deficit forecasts for the future. I would also expect upward revisions to growth prognoses.
Governor Carney seems to be fully on-board in helping out the Chancellor, with repeated promises that rates will stay lower for longer than recent positive data surprises would otherwise suggest. Last week’s decision by the Bank of England to restrict its Funding for Lending Scheme to the provision of cheap liquidity to banks for business lending, rather than also for household mortgages, also implies a concrete, and rather subtle, message that the Bank will use macro-prudential tools to cool parts of the economy if it deems this necessary - and not conventional monetary tightening. This having been said, I’d say this change in policy will have negligible effect on the UK housing market, as cheap liquidity is currently plentiful anyway, and the government’s two Help to Buy schemes will be the real policy drivers of the housing market - eventually achieving the Nirvana of increased home building, as well as the feel-good factor from higher prices that British homeowners crave like the next heroin high. I would be extremely surprised if Help to Buy was altered at all before the next election in May 2015.
The real question is whether the UK can continue to thrive in the face of headwinds from Europe, Asia and possibly the US.
After Danny Alexander admitted to underspending on infrastructure over several decades, just how much do they expect to spend?
Today the government unveiled its infrastructure plans for the next two decades. We answer five questions on the announcements.
What is the big news from the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) announced today?
The most significant news includes the government selling off its 40 per cent stake in the Eurostar rail service, as reported by the BBC. What's more, the insurance industry, which isn’t traditionally a big infrastructure investor, is to invest £25bn in infrastructure over the next five years.
The government has already announced a £10m guarantee for new energy efficient lighting systems across car parks in the UK.
It has said it will also open a £10m competitive fund in early 2014 to test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas of the UK.
Plus it will build on the Spending Round commitment of £2.3bn capital investment for flood defences by developing a new long-term plan, including naming key projects by Autumn Statement 2014.
How much is expected to be spent over all?
About £375bn of investment is expected to be spent on energy, transport, communications, and water projects.
What has the government said?
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, told the BBC: "The most important thing we've done as a government is create an environment in which people want to come in and invest in British infrastructure."
But he admitted that the UK had "underinvested ... over several decades".
He added: "There are projects going on in every part of the country."
Lord Deighton said today 45 per cent of the projects that have been announced by the government since 2010 are under construction, with lots already completed.
What have the experts said?
Mat Riley, Head of Infrastructure at EC Harris told the Telegraph:
“Today’s revised infrastructure spending programme is, again, strong on headlines, but unclear on delivery. The government is working hard to attract investors such as the insurance funds, but the UK still does not have the right policy environment for these funds to be put to good use and make a real difference, which is compounding the problem.”
“Who would want to take the risk and invest in a nation that cannot even put together a coherent Energy Policy without fear of ridicule? Regulation is largely ineffective, and the balance of power now sits with asset owners and their investors, which means only one outcome for the consumer, and that is higher costs. Politicians are in denial, the real issue is how much cost consumers are ultimately going to bear, and by when.”
What has the opposition said?
Chris Leslie, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, speaking to the BBC said: "With the country facing a cost-of-living crisis we need to invest in infrastructure to create jobs, boost living standards, and strengthen our economy for the long-term."
He added that the government’s record on infrastructure had been "a complete failure".
"The Office for National Statistics says that infrastructure work is down 3.7 per cent in the last year, and fell by 10 per cent in 2012.”
Such was the force with which the Deputy PM delivered the Conservatives' attack lines that Peter Bone said he was "turning into a Tory".
Nick Clegg may publicly insist that he is neutral between the Tories and Labour but today's PMQs (at which he deputised for the absent Cameron) was a reminder of why it is so hard to imagine him working with the opposition if there is another hung parliament in 2015. Such was the ferocity with which Clegg tore into Harriet Harman that, by the end, his Conservative bête noire Peter Bone declared that he was "turning into a Tory".
Taking his script straight from CCHQ, he attacked Labour's energy price freeze as a "con", "economically illiterate" and "a fantasy". This was followed by a series of Cameron-esque blasts at the party's trade union "bosses" and "paymasters", and an unqualified defence of the bedroom tax (which his party's conference voted against) on the grounds that it was merely a continuation of the policy introduced by the last Labour government in the private sector. With Tory MPs cheering him on, he declared that Labour wasn't even an "opposition-in-waiting", let alone "a government-in-waiting", a line that shows why a Clegg-Miliband coalition seems increasingly implausible.
Both Labour and Lib Dem MPs attempted to lure Clegg away from his Tory masters, with Lucy Powell questioning him on Cameron's marriage tax break plans (which his party opposes) and Charles Kennedy asking him whether he welcomed the fact that Cameron was now a loyal supporter of Britain's EU membership (on account of the pro-European policies pursued by the government). But Clegg failed to rise to the bait, merely praising Kennedy for his "mischievous wit and wisdom" and, on the marriage tax allowance, remarking that there were acknowledged "differences" within the coalition.
There were jeers from both sides when he rather hyperbolically declared that "without the Liberal Democrats, there wouldn't be a recovery", a preview of what will be his main general election message. But after his blitzkrieg against Labour, the Tories were content to let it pass. Clegg's challenge is to ensure that his party wins its share of credit for the return of growth, while doing enough to differentiate itself from the Tories. Rarely has he failed more in this balancing act than today.
Last week, the Home Office tried to deport Ifa Muaza, a 45-year-old Nigerian man who has been seeking asylum in the UK since July. James Bridle investigates the shadowy technological aspects of how Muaza was taken from London to the Mediterranean, to Malta and back again, and over multiple countries and jurisdictions.
Over the weekend, just before Amazon sucked all the air out of rational discourse with its absurd PR flim-flam about drone deliveries, a far more sinister aerial story was developing. On Friday, the British Home Office announced that it had deported Ifa Muaza aboard a private jet.
Ifa Muaza is a 45-year-old Nigerian man who has been seeking asylum in the UK since July. He claims he is under sentence of death from the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram, which he refused to join. His case has been supported by British politicians, peers, celebrities and human rights groups. Muaza has been on hunger strike at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre since the beginning of August, and this week was reported to be close to death. Open Democracy reported on his case and the associated legal wrangling a few weeks ago, when he had been refusing food and water for 85 days, while the Guardian reported that he was expected to die in custody, despite a court ordering his release on mental and physical health grounds. According to Julian Huppert MP and Lord Roberts of Llandudno, by the beginning of last week he was “no longer able to see or stand”.
Despite his condition, Muaza was “fast-tracked” through immigration procedures and placed aboard a plane on Friday morning, on a stretcher, in an attempt to get him out of the country. The plan did not quite work out however: Nigeria refused to allow the plane to enter its airspace, and it diverted to Malta, where, according to the Guardian, “an angry dispute broke out with the authorities over the plane’s right to use its airstrip”. After flying for a reported twenty hours, the plane, with Muaza still on board, landed back at Luton in the UK, and the detainee was returned to Harmondsworth, the other side of London, hard up against Heathrow Airport and British Airways’ global headquarters.
The apparently unusual move of deporting detainees on private jets is not a first for the Home Office, which has previously used private aircraft to spirit contentious cases out of the country. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is currently looking for ways to strip Britons of their citizenship in contravention of British and international law, has used the tactic at least twice, including in the deportation of Abu Hamza, the fundamentalist cleric rendered to Jordan despite the clear threat of torture which should have stopped the process, again under both British and international law.
I wanted to know more about this journey. I find the shadowy technological aspects of these abominations against the person to be revealing of the underlying moral bankruptcy of the perpetrators. Technology is politics reified in electromechanical systems. When the government is deleting from the internet its own speeches promising greater transparency, consider this another kind of seeing through the cloud: an exercise in OSINT, using the tools of the network against its darkest masters.
According to media reports, Muaza’s plane left Britain at 8am on Friday 29 November, and returned, some twenty hours later, to Luton airport. I initially assumed it must have left from Luton as well, and examined the departure and arrivals at FlightRadar24 and FlightAware. However, these services do not cover most private flights. Plane-spotters, however, do. (I am indebted for this strategy to the work of Trevor Paglen, who has worked with enthusiasts worldwide in his research, most significantly tracing the CIA’s rendition programme in Torture Taxi.)
The spotter community is active online, and maintains sites such as Luton Movements, listing arrivals and departures from the airport. Comparing the logs for the relevant dates, I identified a couple of flights which roughly fit within the reported timings – but none of them matched exactly, and their flight paths, where visible, were indistinct, or unlikely.
Then I searched for similar communities in the aircraft’s other known location: Malta, the tiny island nation fifty miles south of Sicily, and two hundred north of Africa, in the middle of the Mediterranean. Malta has its own fascinating and hybrid history: both a Christian and a Muslim stronghold for centuries; part of the British Empire from 1814 until 1964, when it was a critical naval base; site of the first meeting between Gorbachev and Bush Sr in 1989, signalling the end of the Cold War. Of course, Malta has spotters too.
There’s something obvious there: 29 November, an aircraft with the registration G-WIRG, an Embraer Legacy private jet, arriving and leaving on the same day.
Back to FlightRadar24, and we can track G-WIRG’s journey. The Luton confusion is cleared up: on the friday morning it takes off at 08:26 (possibly 07:26 UK time), but from Stansted, another large, international airport north of London. (The logs show it was at Luton the day before though, on the 28th, departing at 18:00). It circles west around the city and heads south across France, passing over Barcelona at 11:23. Half an hour later, we lose the track – although this isn’t too unusual. FlightRadar24 uses tracking provided by ADS-B transponders aboard aircraft, with the data collected and passed on by a network of receivers on the ground. These receivers have a relatively short range, and are concentrated on the European mainland, which means coverage over the Mediterranean and Africa is poor.
We don’t know how far G-WIRG got before it was turned back by Nigerian air control, in the radar darkness – to European eyes – over Africa; what strange manoeuvres along designated air corridors between and across nations, climbing and banking to avoid thunderheads and moral accountability.
At some point later in the day, G-WIRG is spotted at Malta airport. And that night, the ADS-B beacon is picked up, approaching Nice on the southern France coast at 22:24 – an expected flight path northwards along the Italian coast from Malta. The jet passes over Paris at 36,000 feet a little after midnight (French time – an hour ahead of the UK), and the Luton spotters logs show it landing again at 00:05 UK time on Saturday the 30th, some sixteen hours after it left the country. With driving time from Heathrow to Luton/Stansted of around an hour, plus waiting time, Muaza, a man close to death from starvation and dehydration, clearly spent nearly a full day in transit, only to return to the same cage he started from.
The Embraer Legacy 650 is a twin-engined regional jet capable of carrying 13 passengers, “split in 3 areas: front club 4, middle club 4 and a separate area at the rear with a club 2 plus a 3 seat divan”. It is unknown how many officials accompanied Muaza on the trip. The media is reporting costs of £95,000 to £110,000 for the exercise. You can see photos of G-WIRG at airliners.net, photographed at Luton in October and November of 2013. It was only delivered to Air Charter Scotland, the operator, on 7 October– in these pictures, the registration is taped on – and it’s not listed on their website yet, but on 24 October they posted the following video to YouTube:
“You always wished to fly high. You always looked for freedom. You always dreamed of controlling time. Now you have it all.
“A legacy of freedom. This is your freedom to fly.”
- Embraer Legacy 650 G-WIRG operated by Air Charter Scotland Ltd promotional video
Air Charter Scotland is active on Twitter as well: they announced the arrival of G-WIRG in a series of tweets and photos from manufacture, to delivery, and into service. (Open Democracy, I later discovered, made the link to ACS some days ago.) ACS’ website is likewise full of exhortations to “Enjoy the peace and comfort of your own space… In today’s fast moving business world, time efficient travel is a key factor in staying ahead of the competition” – an invitation Theresa May clearly took up in her efforts to override the British justice system. ACS also operate Alan Sugar’s personal jet, with the predictable registration G-SUGA. Meanwhile, Embraer, the Brazilian manufacturer of G-WIRG, also produces the R-99, a military variant of the Legacy, used for remote sensing and AWACS missions. Brazil uses such jets to patrol the controversial Amazon Surveillance System, while the Greek Air Force deployed an R-99 to monitor the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011.
From London to the Mediterranean, to Malta and back again, over multiple countries and jurisdictions, through airspace and legal space. The contortions of G-WIRG’s flight path mirror the ethical labyrinth the British Government finds itself in when, against all better judgements, it insists on punishing individuals as an example to others, using every weasel justification in its well-funded legal war chest. Using a combination of dirty laws and private technologies to transform and transmit people from one jurisidiction, one legal condition and category, to another: this is the meaning of the verb “to render”.
At 10:08 on Saturday morning, G-WIRG departed Luton again, on some other mission, one of a network of obscure, advanced machines, looking for freedom, dreaming of controlling time. Ifa Musawa was back in Harmondsworth, still hungry, still looking for the same thing.
This article was originally published at BookTwo.org
Home Office minister says the Attorney General would have to "reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed".
No coalition appointment has caused more consternation than that of Norman Baker as Home Office minister. The promotion of the man best known for claiming that the British security services covered up the murder of Dr. David Kelly was said to have left his boss, Theresa May (along with many others), "spitting tacks".
I interviewed Baker about this and much else for tomorrow's NS. Here are some of the highlights.
On David Kelly's death: "unfinished business"
Baker, who stepped down from the Lib Dem frontbench in 2006 in order to devote a year to writing a 424-page book (The Strange Death of David Kelly) claiming that David Kelly was murdered, told me that he stil regarded his death as "unfinished business". He told me: "People who attack it by and large haven’t read it. And I’d like them to come back and deal with the facts, if they want to deal with the facts." When I asked him whether he would use his post at the Home Office to lobby for a new public inquiry, he said:
What would have to happen is: the Attorney General would have to reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed. So that’s a matter for him.
He added: "The fact that there was no coroner’s inquest appeared to be of no interest to the collective media; I just find that absolutely astonishing . . . People can look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions. All I would say is in 2003, we had a situation where the prime minister of the day lied to parliament about the case for war . . . and then people say to me, ‘You should believe everything the government said in 2003.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy that."
On whether the Iraq war was illegal, he said: "I’ve got to be careful what I say as a minister, haven’t I? There are many who believe it to be illegal and they’ve made quite a strong case."
On NSA/GCHQ surveillance: there should be an inquiry
Baker broke with the government line on the allegations of surveillance by the British and US intelligence services by calling for a full inquiry. Asked whether one should be held, he said: "Yes. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Guardian to raise questions about the balance between the state and the individual to take account of the fact that technology has moved on a huge amount and the law was drafted when we didn’t have the means of communication we do now – Skype and everything else – and the capacity of the security services, or the Americans, to engage in trawling for stuff."
On tuition fees: "eduction should be free"
The Liberal Democrat conference voted earlier this year to support tuition fees of up to £9,000, with Vince Cable telling delegates: "We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition." But Baker told me that he still believed university education "should be free", adding that the fees vote in 2010 was "the only time in government that I’ve come close to resigning".
He added: "I’m very conscious that people of my generation benefited from free education. I come from a poor background, unlike most people in government, and I couldn’t have got where I was without a really good state education. I’m deeply grateful for that and I couldn’t have done it had I had to pay a lot of money for it, so I feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea of charging for tuition fees as a principle."
On Ed Miliband: "I've got a lot of time for him"
While refusing to say whether he would rather partner with Labour or the Tories in the event of another hung parliament, Baker told me that he has "a lot of time" for Ed Miliband. "He seems to me to want to try to articulate a position which is different to what came before – I’ve always got time for that. And I think he’s prepared to take the odd gamble, which is right in politics." He added, somewhat immodestly: "As someone who pushes boundaries and envelopes all the time, I like someone who does the same thing. I think that’s good about him."
Editors can choose to give algorithms control over parts of the editorial process - and while it's early days now, it's worth considering what that means for how we value writing.
Would you want to read a newspaper that was written by robots?
Maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe it’s better to ask whether you’d know you were reading a newspaper that written by robots. That’s an important distinction.
The Guardian has performed a little experiment this last month with a newspaper that was semi-curated by an algorithm, called the Long Good Read. Here’s Justin Ellis from the Niemen Journalism Lab explaining how it works:
The Long Good Read began life several years ago as a digital-only experiment from former Guardian developer Dan Catt. The idea was to harvest the paper’s feature pieces and longer stories into a stream of articles best meant for RSS or a read-it-later queue. These were the stories that lent themselves to dedicated reading time, that quiet moment after work or a lazy Saturday morning. That, Kiss said, also fits the description of print: “It’s part of a noble heritage: people wanting something to read when they’re drinking their coffee or tea.”
Catt built an algorithm that scans The Guardian’s API, stripping away blog posts, multimedia, and other pieces in favor of articles over a certain length.
The robot does the legwork, leaving an editor to pick and choose what stories work for the edition before handing the process off to a different robot. In this case, it’s The Newspaper Club’s ARTHR tool, a layout program that lets people feed in content from different sources, either links or individual text and images. Tom Taylor, head of engineering for The Newspaper Club, said they use a semi-automated version of ARTHR for the Long Good Read, which allows an editor to enter story links and lets the program develop the layout on its own.
The final edition of the paper goes out to the Guardian’squaint coffee shop in Shoreditch, east London, for people to peruse up if they so wish.
This isn’t a proper robot-written newspaper, as the individual pieces are still authored by fleshy humans, but it remains an early example of what will happen to fields like journalism, or accountancy, or architecture, or even art. Those things that we think of as “human” for their expressive creativity will be replaced by machine mimicry of a quality that we cannot complain about, and at a price that we can’t resist, in exactly the same process that affected working class jobs.
Another example: here’s the match report for Crystal Palace against West Ham last night, from the BBC. At the top of the page is a journalist's report, but at the bottom of the page there’s live text commentary provided by the sports statistics company Opta. Its staff visit games and transcribe the action, live, uploading it to a server where it is then distributed to clients around the world.
Those live commentaries convert the fluidity and chaos of a match into a set number of expressions and phrases. It makes something digital out of something analogue. There's no reason that a computer - one that’s trained in understanding how a football match works - can't do exactly the same job one day, turning recorded footage of a game into statistics.
This isn’t science fiction - it’s been happening in sports like baseball (which, with its more limited range of events, is easier for robots to understand) for a few years now. There was a weird case in 2011 where a machine managed to write “better” copy than a human journalist when reporting on the same baseball game. Companies like Narrative Science in the US have made huge leaps in developing algorithms that suck in individuals facts on one end and spit out properly-written wire copy on the other, while in the UK, it’s possible to see Summly as an obverse - turning lengthy, wordy human writing into something more concise.
In this techno-utopian future, the media will automatically compensate for spin. The journalists of the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, and so on, will be replaced with teams of developers that compete with each other to compile the perfect, passionless, disengaged robot writer.
It sounds a bit colourless, but it’s not as if newspapers haven’t already realised that there’s value in hiring outspoken columnists instead of news reporters. Robots can’t do investigative reporting, yet, nor can they explain to us why we should care about things like football. It’s hard to imagine the New Statesman being written by a machine, because we quite like to be opinionated here... and yet, well, there's no theoretical reason that there can’t be a Turing Test for opinion.
If a computer makes us care about something, would we care any less that it was a computer, not a human, that wrote it, or composed it, or built it, or created it? We can’t rule that out.
McKinsey & Company released a report this year detailing the global impact we can expect between now and 2025 from what it perceives as the 12 most disruptive emerging technologies. Mobile internet led the way - it’s likely to create add as much as $25 trillion to global GDP - but in second place was automation of knowledge work, something that could simultaneously add $9 trillion to global GDP while making the jobs of nine percent of the world’s population redundant. Not too shabby for a robot-curated newspaper in a Shoreditch coffee shop.
Freeing local authorities to compete in the energy market would reduce prices, attract green industry and create jobs.
Since Ed Milliband unveiled his plan at the Labour Party conference to freeze energy bills until 2017, the price of energy has rarely been out of the news. The problem with the narrow debate around the size of household bills is that it fails to address the issue of diversifying energy generation. The key to lower prices is, ultimately, a more competitive market. Local government has its roots in energy generation – modern Birmingham was built on the revenue from the local gasworks. It’s time we got councils back into the energy game.
The benefits of a new generation of local authority energy provision will not just be felt in terms of greater competition and lower bills. Councils can sell energy to raise money to pay for public services and, if this is positioned smartly, spur green economic development, creating a new generation of good jobs in the sustainability sector. The low carbon economy already accounts for 8% of GDP. With support from councils, it could grow significantly.
Some councils are already using green energy capture to cut their own fuel bills locally. Birmingham, Islington and Woking are all experimenting with energy generation and redistribution. Islington’s Bunhill Energy Centre, for instance, captures wasted heat to provide cheaper energy to estates in the local area – but these initiative tend to be on the periphery of activity. Scaling this up, generating energy on a much larger scale and linking it to local economic growth strategies could completely transform how we control and use energy at a very local level.
Local authorities have a huge role in economic development. If councils were freed up to compete in the energy market on a local basis, to generate and provide energy, this could attract green industry, create jobs and, crucially, underpin communities with green infrastructure. Local authorities are best placed to shape local markets and skills to align to the green energy agenda.
Generating and recycling energy at a local level would also have a huge benefit to local people in a way that the Big Six just can’t achieve. Local authorities would be able to provide cheaper energy directly to their residents, which should take advantage of local resources in the process. Communities would also become much more directly involved in the energy market by working with local authorities through energy co-operatives for instance, to capture and recycle energy to use themselves and sell back to councils for cheaper redistribution locally. Giving this power directly to communities would both incentivise behaviour change locally whilst helping to reduce the cost of living.
Some will question why councils should return to energy. Why not instead partner with energy suppliers and set up joint ventures to distribute cheaper energy? The problem is that attracting this sort of investment is a real challenge. Local authorities have the financial muscle to invest in this sort of infrastructure development that could accelerate projects quickly, whilst linking it to economic growth strategies.
But the real answer to this question lies with community ownership of resources, which would transform how councils and residents interact with the energy market. Given the current direction of energy bills and how powerless people feel to control it, recycling and generating energy using local resources will become more, not less important, in addressing this problem. Behavioural change will only come alongside ownership of these resources and local authorities, as guardians of localities, are ideally placed to lead this.
Laura Wilkes is Head of Policy and Research at the New Local Government Network
Boris Johnson used the third Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London to make a fool of himself, and the results of the British Journalism Awards would be hard to disagree with.
I usually take a jaundiced view of journalists’ awards ceremonies, being of the opinion that readers’ appreciation should be sufficient reward for mere hacks. But at least the British Journalism Awards (not to be confused with the British Press Awards, though the differences are as arcane as those between various Maoist sects) gave prizes mostly to the right people this year.
Many who attended the ceremony at Stationers’ Hall in London expressed surprise that the Guardian didn’t win awards for the “Snowden files”, its exposé of surveillance by GCHQ and America’s National Security Agency. Instead, Michael Gillard won Investigation of the Year and Journalist of the Year for his Sunday Times exposure of the violent gang leader David Hunt, whom the Metropolitan Police found “too big for them”.
Guardian journalists may have risked prosecution but Gillard risked his life and it was hard to argue with the judges’ verdict.
Playing the fool again
Boris Johnson used the third Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London to make a fool of himself, which is always to be welcomed. But perhaps a left-wing think tank should start a rival Thatcher memorial lecture. It would point out that her achievements, described by Johnson as “colossal” and “irreversible”, are in fact unravelling.
For instance, according to Johnson, she “introduced millions of people to the satisfaction of owning their own home”. This is the biggest Thatcher myth. Home ownership rose from 57 per cent in 1981, when selling off council homes began, to 67 per cent in 1991. This simply continued a trend that started in 1918; there was a bigger leap, in a shorter time, between 1953 and 1961. Now the proportion of homeowners has fallen back to 65 per cent.
About a third of the council homes sold are owned by private landlords. People who once would have rented from local authorities now rent in the private sector. The rents are higher, and so (through housing benefit) are the costs to public funds.
Again, Thatcher allegedly democratised share ownership. It is true that, during the 1980s, the proportion of UK adults owning shares tripled to 15 per cent. But share ownership hasn’t widened significantly since then and the proportions are much higher in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. More importantly, the proportion of shares (by value) owned by individuals fell from 28.2 per cent in 1981 to 10.7 per cent now. The widening of share ownership was a tokenistic exercise. Financial corporations are more in charge than ever.
However high his IQ, Johnson shouldn’t be allowed to get away with propagating disinformation about Thatcher’s legacy.
Muddle of the league
International league tables such as the ones just released about pupil performance in maths, reading and science – as usual, we Brits do badly – are, in my opinion, to be treated with scepticism. But it is always fun to find confirmation of one’s prejudices. Sweden’s free schools inspired Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to introduce similar schools here. It’s fairly well-known – except, apparently, to Gove – that Sweden has fallen down the league tables steadily since free schools were introduced. What I didn’t know was that Swedish schools appear not to teach maths at all beyond the simplest levels.
According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa), a clear majority of Swedish 15-year-olds has never heard of exponential functions, divisors, quadratic functions, vectors, polygons, congruent figures, cosines and arithmetic means. You may not have heard of all these but, as the proud holder of A-level maths (failed), I assure you they’re pretty important. Even most Peruvians know about them.
Spooky beyond belief
Has anything ever happened that wasn’t orchestrated by MI5 or the CIA? No sooner have we been reminded of the latter’s (or was it the FBI’s?) role in John F Kennedy’s assassination than the Sunday Times reports claims that Stephen Ward, who introduced the Tory minister John Profumo to Christine Keeler, did not, as previously thought, deliberately overdose in 1963 on the last day of his trial on charges of living off immoral earnings. No, he was “fed a lethal dose of barbiturates by an MI5 agent”, named as Stanley Rytter.
Perhaps Rytter, a few months earlier, poisoned the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. And for all I know helped arrange the Great Train Robbery that year, too, and assisted the CIA to bump off JFK. He’s supposed to have died in the 1980s but you don’t have to believe that. He could have survived to murder David Kelly in 2003. As they say in science-fiction films, nothing is as it seems to be.
The risk for the Deputy PM is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price.
There is a new puppy in Downing Street – plaintive-eyed, poorly house-trained and, no, it isn’t called Nick Clegg. Days before delivering his Autumn Statement on the economy, George Osborne announced that No 11 had acquired a bichon frise called Lola. She is a gift for the Chancellor’s children from which, no doubt, newspaper diary columnists will also benefit.
So far, the Liberal Democrat lapdog jokes have been few, which is noteworthy given that Clegg was once caricatured as a Tory poodle. The gag doesn’t work any more. The Labour reflex is still to deride the Deputy Prime Minister as a gutless accomplice in Tory wickedness but many opposition MPs are starting to accept what Conservative backbenchers have been complaining about all along: that Clegg’s role is much more than ornamental.
Proving that junior coalition parties wield real power is half a victory for the Lib Dems. It rebuts the old charge that there is no point in voting for them. It doesn’t prove that their contribution has been a good one. Clegg’s strategy relies on people thinking he has thwarted the Conservatives’ beastlier impulses, while imposing kinder – but still affordable – measures of his own.
Neither Labour nor the Tories wants to encourage that interpretation, while their actions reinforce it. David Cameron flatters the Lib Dems by claiming that their signature policy – lifting the income tax threshold for low earners – was a Conservative plan all along, although in 2010 he insisted it was an unaffordable luxury. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has accepted that voters see spending restraint as a mark of a party’s economic credibility, which makes it harder to attack Clegg for conceding the same point on day one of the coalition.
The economic case that there was a better, slower pace for cuts is now academic. There was a time when some Lib Dems, most prominently Vince Cable, looked queasy in their commitment to the government’s economic plan but that dissent was crushed at the party’s conference in September. Cable is now the spent cartridge from an anti-austerity shot that was fired into the air.
With growth restored, the debate inside government has shifted to the balance between rewarding voters for enduring years of hardship and reminding them that the job of repairing the public finances is not yet done. Too much pre-election generosity could signal that the crisis is over, which, as the Treasury sees it, amounts to “permission to vote Labour again”. Too heavy an emphasis on constant belt-tightening looks obsessive; militant accountancy trumping compassion.
Here, too, the Lib Dems see an opportunity to position themselves as guardians of the middle way. Clegg will not match Osborne’s pledge to keep cutting through the next parliament until the Budget is in surplus. Nor does he agree with the Chancellor that all future deficit reduction should be achieved without raising taxes. “It can’t be done,” a close ally of the Deputy Prime Minister tells me. “Or rather, it can be done but not if you care about distributional fairness.” The Lib Dems will let the Tories campaign for ever-stingier benefits, while they promise a “mansion tax”.
Not for the first time, Clegg is being helped by the Tories’ self-defeating – and arguably not very conservative – quest for doctrinal purity. Cameron once understood that voters like Budget discipline because it sounds practical, not because they see public expenditure as the thin end of a socialist wedge. These days, he asserts that the state should be leaner “not just now, but permanently”. Austerity, in the Prime Minister’s view, is no longer the response to a financial emergency but the enactment of Tory philosophy.
The Lib Dems think that allows them to pose as the steady-handed surgeons, wielding the knife because the patient needs it, not because it gives them pleasure. This they will contrast with what one cabinet minister describes as Osborne’s “ideological fetish” for cuts.
The question that then arises is why, if Clegg occupies what his strategists call “the liberal centre”, does his party still languish so low in opinion polls? One explanation is that, in a climate of voter contempt for politicians and economic insecurity, the centre has moved to somewhere less classically liberal. Some Tories see Ukip’s success as proof that politics is now about the survival of the toughest – on crime, immigration, Europe, welfare, the colour green; areas where the Lib Dems are liable to look soft. By contrast, Labour detects a renaissance of left populism, marked by the appetite for government to slap down greedy energy companies and raid bankers’ bonuses.
A more prosaic account of Clegg’s poll woes is that standard surveys of national voting intentions ask the wrong question where potential support for his party is concerned. In a close race, what matters is whether, in constituencies where Lib Dem candidates have a chance, people see them as a possible insurance policy against undiluted rule by whichever of the big two parties they like less.
Since Labour and the Conservatives will paint each other as wild-eyed ideologues, the offer to anchor either of them in moderation may not sound too far-fetched. The risk is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price. It is already a problem for the Lib Dems that many people don’t know what they stand for and many who thought they knew before the last election feel betrayed. Clegg’s closest advisers recognise that their “liberal centre” position needs to find expression in values that voters recognise before it becomes a campaign. Without that, it sounds like a plot to thwart other leaders’ ambitions. Left and right will accuse Clegg of obstructing progress by gaming for a hung parliament. He will be cast as the ideological mongrel in the manger, which is a lot better than being written off as Cameron’s dogsbody.
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
As George Osborne takes centre stage, we should understand his forecast is 1% about the economy and 99% about election politics, says Martin Kettle.
I would want to honour courageous, often faceless Brits who stood up to power, writes Owen Jones.
3. Britain no longer needs to envy Germany (Times)
The Continent’s most important economy is in retreat, says Tim Montgomerie. Osborne must ensure the UK does not follow.
4. George Osborne has given the Tories a working plan for victory (Daily Telegraph)
The Chancellor fully deserves his triumph - but it's hard to make sense of his economics, says Peter Oborne.
5. State pension: age-old problems (Guardian)
A link between life expectancy and retirement age is so obvious, it's strange it wasn't introduced before, says a Guardian editorial.
6. The young are being squeezed by the old (Financial Times)
Employers forced to make good on final salary promises are having to find the money from somewhere, writes Chris Giles.
7. Let’s expose these apologists for injustice (Times)
Defending forced marriage – and segregating public meetings by gender – is an attack on the victim, says David Aaronovitch.
The war on terror is now an endless campaign of drone and undercover killings that threatens a more dangerous world, writes Seumas Milne.
9. Public parks nurture private wealth (Financial Times)
Cities must ensure that such works amount to more than a benefit scheme for one group, says John Gapper.
10. MoD tanks are parked on the Treasury lawn (Daily Telegraph)
Civil service policies on hiring and firing face criticism from the man overseeing reform, writes Sue Cameron.
Perhaps a cervical screening test is the “gateway to womanhood”, the rite of passage I’ve been waiting for.
‘‘Dear Miss E Margolis, I am writing to invite you to come to a cervical screening test.”
As far as summonses to have my vagina probed go, this one is at least polite. I never had a bat mitzvah; as I conclude my first quarter-century as a female, maybe this is the “gateway to womanhood”, the rite of passage I’ve been waiting for.
Sometimes it takes a letter from the NHS to remind you that you’re a woman. Not a girl, not a lady, not a nubile young wood nymph; a woman – with a great, blood-spewing uterus and a mighty triangular thicket of pubic hair. With oestrogenengorged ovaries and the most lewdly primal of instincts. It’s not that this clinical reminder of my biology makes me want to run up a hill, naked, relishing the cold wind against my tits and screaming, “I am woman.” But in a society that constantly infantilises young women, emotionally void letters containing the word “cervix” are sometimes extremely welcome.
A reminder that I’m biologically a woman is an indicator that I should regard myself as one linguistically. I rarely think of myself as a woman. In my head, I’m a girl, a guy (as in “Hey, guys!”), or a lesbian. My mum is a woman. My doctor is a woman. The various female bosses I’ve had have all been women, regardless of age.
There is certainly something authoritative about the word “woman”. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I hear it is a lady on a horse, frowning.
For many years now, the likes of Cath Kidston have been insisting, with a polka-dot paradigm from Hell, that even women in their forties are girls. And I’m part of a generation that’s cuffed to the word “girl” with bunting shackles. From cupcake-shaped vibrators to Bic ballpoint pens “for her” in pastel colours, women in their twenties are being aesthetically mollycoddled into prolonged girlhood. Society is doing its utmost to strip women of their woman-ness (woman-ness rather than womanliness, because womanliness somehow evokes patchwork aprons).
When you’re an adult, being a girl is dangerous. Can a girl live alone, do her tax returns and start a career? Of course not.
“Girls” are the girls in HBO’s Girls; “women” are the women in The Good Wife. Girls wear animal onesies and eat cereal for dinner; women wear comfy jeans and eat animals for dinner. There’s no fine line between girl and woman – it’s a big, hefty Maginot Line. It is also one that we’ll never cross if we allow seedy cupcake merchants to brainwash us.
I’m not looking forward to my smear test. A Google Image search has shown me that the nurse wrenches you open with a miniature scissor jack. There’s no guarantee that, during the procedure, I’ll transcend the bondage of girlishness metaphysically – that I’ll have an out-of-body experience in which the ghosts of Simone de Beauvoir and Boudicca crown me with a golden boob hat and say, “Welcome.” But on the off chance that I leave the examination room in a state of mind less addled by frilly baked goods, it will have been worth all the hideous probing. Knowing whether or not there are cancer cells in my cervix will also be quite useful.
The Labour MP answers the NS Centenary Questionnaire.
What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?
Medically, I would say probably IVF and transplant surgery. Our capacity to regenerate ourselves and our capacity not just to fix but to address health problems to give people hope is phenomenal. I guess the internet is the obvious candidate in terms of overall transformative capacity. And it’s still evolving all the time. Can you believe that Tony Blair didn’t send a single text message while he was prime minister?
And scientific invention?
I’d say the Higgs boson and also DNA, as we should recognise the input of Rosalind Franklin. It’s so important to me to understand the fabric of life.
And sporting event?
You could trace back to the 1913 Derby and Emily Wilding Davison. Or perhaps the 1972 Olympics, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, or the Olympics of 1968 with the Black Power salute. And then, of course, there are the 2012 Olympics.
Which book, film or work of art had the greatest effect on you?
One of my very favourite films of all time is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I love that film. There’s something about it a bit like Some Like It Hot– people get away with things, whereas usually people in films get their comeuppance. There’s a great line from Ferris Bueller that I use too much in politics: “Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.”
Who is the most influential and significant politician of the past 100 years?
Evan Durbin – a Labour politician who sadly died saving a child from drowning [in 1948], and therefore never had the opportunity to realise his potential. It is a tragedy for us as the left to have lost him. He could have been an amazing character in our history. The left gives up far too easily sometimes, I think. We get too grumpy – well, I mean we get frustrated.
And the most influential writer?
Philip Larkin. That makes me sound like I was a really depressed teenager.
Antony Gormley. He has really pushed contemporary art’s boundaries to people in a way that is very accessible. There is a pomposity sometimes about [British] art. His work is very meaningful in a very humble way.
How about anyone in business?
Henry Ford, clearly. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, too, because, within a generation, they revolutionised the world.
And a sportsperson?
Would you count [the skydiver] Felix Baumgartner as a sportsman? That was just amazing; when you look back at somebody training to jump from the edge of space, it is quite overwhelmingly inspiring.
And the most important philanthropist?
George Soros or Bill Gates. I think Soros is very interesting – consciously and ideologically – whereas Gates is well-meaning, but less overtly political about the choices that he makes.
Do you have a favourite quotation?
Apart from the one from Ferris Bueller? I have a lot. There’s Harold Wilson: “We are a moral crusade or nothing.” Or maybe Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Women are like tea bags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water.”
How about a favourite speech?
Keir Hardie and “the sunshine of socialism” is a popular one to say, isn’t it? Keir Hardie was an amazing man in terms of his range and the things he brought together. We sometimes forget that on the left.
What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
We will have to be much more adaptable as a nation and as a world. There is a fantastic [Brazilian] professor, Roberto Unger, who talks about how the challenge of the left isn’t to redistribute resources but to redistribute entrepreneurship. To be able to take advantage of the way that the world is becoming strikes a chord with me.
What is your greatest concern about the future?
That we fracture into fighting the future, rather than shaping it. What we are seeing now in terms of the rise of the far right is, for me, an expression of anger and hatred rather than solidarity. It would be destructive if we allowed people to set themselves against each other and not recognise our mutual interests. We are not going to build a better country and a better world if people sit about like muppets.
What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
I worry that we will carry on with the same people and the same mindset. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. If you do things differently, then you might surprise yourself.
Rachel Cooke has now been Down Here far longer than she was Up There, but is still suffused by a hard-to-describe northern sensibility.
Exile: how it clarifies things. Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly northern. At school, I was bullied for being posh, perhaps because I said “lunch” rather than “dinner”, though this was an aberration since I called dinner “tea” and still do when I’m tired. Yes, we lived in a terraced house, made of the local sandstone, blackened down the years so that it looked just like a slice of burnt toast. But it was a relatively big house. My dad kept two greyhounds and raced them but since he was also a university lecturer, this was something of an affectation on his part – a desperate, Jim Dixon-style bid to cling to his working-class roots (see also his ferrets and his request in pubs for “a glass with a handle”).
My granny did rather better in the authenticity stakes, living in a terrace with a proper “entry” (a kind of tunnel) that led to a shared yard at the back and an outside loo, too. Then again, she was from the Black Country originally, which rather muddled things. My sense of myself as northern was, I think, only really to be glimpsed in my disdainful and secretly timorous attitude to the south in general and to London in particular. When I tell friends that I was 20 before I caught sight of St Pancras Station, they look sceptical. It’s true, though. I had no need of the capital then. More to the point, it had no need of me.
It was distance that changed all this, emotional and physical. I’d hoped to go to university in Manchester. Then, for once in my life, something went drastically right and I found myself in Oxford, which presented me with a problem. How northern was I and how northern should I be? It was hip to be from the north in those days, especially if you had tales to tell of the Haçienda. I hadn’t but I’d got my soles sticky at the Leadmill and other Sheffield Nite Spots and I was dressed for the part in conker-coloured Dr Martens, Levi’s and a floral shirt. I thought the blonde girls with velvet hairbands who’d hotfooted it to Oxford straight from Surrey looked ridiculous, so I felt quite content, at least about my appearance.
But my voice. How to put this? I worried that I sounded unsophisticated, stupid. I remember precisely the moment this craven anxiety pierced my carapace of cool. I was in a restaurant with a first-term friend (in light of what I’m about to say, you’ll be amazed to hear she’s still my friend), sharing confidences. She was from Hampstead and all kinds of smart, but we had an important thing in common – bolter fathers – and I felt as happy as Larry to have met her.
Only then . . . Uh, oh. Her head on one side, she was gazing at me, in wonderment, as if I were a gazelle in a zoo. “What is that accent of yours?” she asked. “Is it . . . a northern accent?”
For the next three years, I was in a state of flux, identity-wise. I had only to see the sign for the M40 for my vowels unconvincingly to lengthen. Hoping to sound more Castle Howard than Castle Market, I would occasionally refer vaguely to my home “in Yorkshire”.
Inside, though, something was hardening and by the time I’d got a job and moved to London, I could feel it beginning to burst through: not pride, exactly, but a growing conviction that I understood (or not) the world through the prism of being from the north and that this mattered, that it made a difference to all kinds of things, from the way I read and ate and listened to music right through to my relationships.
It was a conviction made even fiercer by a certain ache, one I still feel, for all that I’ve now been Down Here far longer than I was Up There – and perhaps you think I’m only suffering a particularly bolshie form of homesickness. You might argue, moreover, that one part of Britain is much like another these days; that I am a deracinated romantic, drowning in nostalgia; that my feelings are no different from those of, say, a Cornishman who finds himself at Paddington and pines for Polzeath. I will disagree, though.
My trouble is that I believe there is such a thing as a northern sensibility. It’s nigh on impossible to describe it, but I know it when I see it in another person and I feel it myself in my bone marrow. Granted, it involves all sorts of customs, habits and idiosyncracies, from putting gravy on chips to kissing select adults on the lips, but it also extends far beyond them. It’s metaphysical. It’s an attitude: a kind of empathy, or intuition. There’s no such thing – there simply isn’t – as a “southern sensibility”, whereas the emotions I am trying and failing to describe are not connected, for me, only to Sheffield, or only to Yorkshire.
On a train, my shoulders will drop at Derby and all points west or east of it; I will exhale, suffused with relief, the foreigner at the border crossing. On the high hills close to Barnard Castle in County Durham, where England is at her narrowest, I have the happy sense, on a clear day, that the north lies in every direction, as far as I can see. No wonder that this is my favourite spot in all the world. I look around and – I cannot put it any better than this – feel entirely understood.
Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape, because when you’re labouring up and down hills rather than caroming through cuttings, you register every minute alteration.
There’s nothing that the great mass of us enjoy more than exercising our fine discrimination: “This is good,” we delight in saying, “while that is emphatically bad.” We point to the sky and announce, “Up!” Then gesture to the ground while weightily intoning, “Down.” We have no hesitation when it comes to branding things, convictions and even people as either U or non-U and, although our numerical system is decimal, we’d probably prefer it if it was binary. All of which explains, at least in part, why it is that we speak of “the north” and “the south” as if they were entirely distinct places, separated not by another debatable land, the Midlands, but miles of desert or raging ocean.
I say this mental foible provides only a partial explanation because the history of our false regional dichotomising is bound up with our history. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no distinctive culture in the north of England – I’m not suicidal – but the great extent to which we perceive it as so is, I think, paradoxical. As the first industrialised nation, we experienced the great homogenising impact of the railways earliest – and began accommodating to it right away. By the 1840s, you could travel from pea-soupers to mushy peas in a matter of hours and I’d contend it was the sheer pleasure in traversing this disjunction that helped to preserve it in the aspic of our anecdotage.
Today, with local dialects being steadily submerged beneath the estuarine mud and quaint customs crumbing into dust like desiccated corn dollies, we find only the strong contrast provided by rapid north-south transit gives us any sense of change at all – and so we laud it: “This is north!” We cry, clogdancing our way into Piccadilly, although we were soft-shoe-shuffling our way through the London one only a short time before. But if you want to understand how the south shades imperceptibly into the north, there’s a way at hand (or, perhaps, foot): simply walk there – which is what my 11-year-old son and I did this summer, setting off from our home in London on the morning of 12 July and arriving in Whitby, North Yorkshire, 15 days and 288 miles later.
Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape, because when you’re labouring up and down hills rather than caroming through cuttings, you register every minute alteration in vernacular architecture, in flora and fauna; and when you stop in a pub for a ginger beer and packet of crisps, you also register the equally subtle modulation of the barman’s accent as against that of the barman in the last pub. On the East Coast main line, Peterborough seems like an outer-London suburb, gained after an hour or so of clacking and snacking; but if you take five days getting there and spend the night before at Cromwell’s home town, Huntingdon, you’re in no doubt that you’re in the Roundheaded Midlands.
And if you then set off across the shimmering agri-desert of Lincolnshire – which takes another five days to traverse on foot – you begin to appreciate how this land is a great and dappled unity. Indeed, Lincolnshire is so very big that while its feet dabble in the metropolitan hugger-mugger, its head is in the northern fastness. In Spalding, there was still a nasal whine to the accent and the speciality in Turner’s chip shop was mushy peas with balsamic vinegar but by the time we got to Caistor on the northern edge of the Wolds, we were being served chip butties within eebah-gumming distance of the Humber.
Still, if I were forced to identify a precise point where south met north and it was quite impossible for me to exercise my own fine discrimination, then I’d say it came in the little village of Helpringham, about 111 miles due north of London. We came sweating in out of the heatwave to the Nag’s Head pub, got our ginger beers in and sat watching, enthralled, as a group of middle-aged men started performing calisthenic tricks in the public bar. One picked up a beer mat with his mouth while doing the splits, then a second – still more Father William – was encouraged to do his party piece: standing on his head. With jokey asides, we were made to feel that we were included in this display and while I’m by no means certain that such antics don’t go on down souf, nonetheless the sense of beery masculine sodality seemed, to this southern sod, very definitely of the north.
Visions of ideal societies have recurred throughout history but such societies were nearly always placed in an irretrievable past.
The Book of Legendary Lands
MacLehose Press, 432pp, £35
Places that have never existed except in the human imagination may find an incongruous afterlife in the everyday world. Umberto Eco tells of how an attempt to commemorate the brownstone New York home of Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s orchid-loving fictional detective, runs up against the resistance of fact. Wolfe’s house cannot be identified because Stout “always talked of a brownstone at a certain number on West 35th Street, but in the course of his novels he mentioned at least ten different street numbers – and what is more, there are no brownstones on 35th Street”. Using Eco’s typology, a fiction has been transmuted into a legend: “Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are in effect a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.”
Because they involve the belief that they existed, exist or can be made to exist – whether in the past, the future or somewhere off the map – legendary places are illusions rather than fictions. The distinction may sometimes be blurry, as the example of Nero Wolfe’s house shows; but the difference is fundamental to this enriching and playfully erudite exploration of the fabulous lands that human beings have invented.
Fictions we know to be neither true nor false and paradoxically this gives them a kind of absolute veracity that historical facts can never have: “The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man ... All the rest is open to debate.” Unfortunately, humans have an invincible need to believe in their fictions. So they turn them into legends, which they anxiously defend from doubt – even to the point of attacking and killing those who do not share them.
Eco thinks it is not too difficult to explain why humankind is so drawn to legendary places: “It seems that every culture – because the world of everyday reality is cruel and hard to live in – dreams of a happy land to which men once belonged, and may one day return.” Nowadays everyone believes that the ability to envision alternate worlds is one of humankind’s most precious gifts, a view Eco seems to endorse when, at the end of his journey through legendary lands, he describes these visions as “a truthful part of the reality of our imagination”. Yet Eco highlights a darker side of these visions when he describes how the Nazis drew inspiration from legends of ancient peoples, variously situated in ultima Thule (“a land of fire and ice where the sun never set”), Atlantis and the polar regions, who spoke languages that were “racially pure”. Himmler was obsessed with ancient Nordic runes, while in an interview after the war the commander of the SS in Rome claimed that when Hitler ordered him to kidnap Pope Pius XII so he could be interned in Germany, he also ordered the Pope to take from the Vatican library “certain runic manuscripts that evidently had esoteric value for him”.
The Nazi adoption of the swastika began with the Thule Society, a secret racist organisation founded in 1918. Legends of lost lands fed the ideology of Aryan supremacy. In 1907, Jörg Lanz founded the Order of the New Temple, preaching that “inferior races” should be subjected to castration, sterilisation, deportation to Madagascar and incineration – ideas, Eco notes, that “were later to be applied by the Nazis”. Legendary lands are idylls from which minorities, outsiders and other disturbing elements have been banished. When these fantasies of harmony enter politics, a process of exclusion is set in motion whose end point is mass murder and genocide.
A metamorphosis of fiction into legend occurred when some Nazis took seriously a picture of the world presented by the Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In his novel The Coming Race (1871), Bulwer-Lytton tells of the “Vril-ya”, survivors from the destruction of Atlantis who possessed amazing powers as a result of being imbued with Vril, a type of cosmic energy, living in the hollow interior of earth. He intended the book as an exercise in fantasy literature but the founder of the Thule Society, who also founded a Vril Society, seems to have taken it more literally. Occultists in several countries read Bulwer-Lytton’s novel as a fictional rendition of events that may actually have happened and the legend was mixed in the stew of mad and bad ideas we now call Nazism.
The process at work was something like that described in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world subverts and disrupts the world that has hitherto been real. The difference is that in Borges’s incomparable fable the secret society that devised the encyclopaedia knew it to be fiction, while 19th-century occultists and some 20th-century Nazis accepted Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction as a version of fact. Among the marks that Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya left in the real world, the most lasting was reassuringly prosaic: the name given to Bovril, the meat extract invented in the 1870s.
Among the legendary places human beings have dreamed up, those that Eco calls “the islands of utopia” have exercised a particular fascination in recent times. As he reminds us, “Etymologically speaking, utopia means non-place” – ou-topos, or no place. Thomas More, who coined the term in his book Utopia (composed in Latin and only translated in 1551 after More had been executed for treason in 1535), plays on an ambiguity in which the word also means a good or excellent place. Using a non-existent country to present an ideal model of government, More established a new literary genre, which included Étienne Cabet’s A Journey to Icaria (1840), in which a proto-communist society is envisioned, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872, an anagram of “nowhere”) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890).
Visions of ideal societies have recurred throughout history but such societies were nearly always placed in an irretrievable past. The paradise of milk and honey of which human beings dreamed – a land of perpetual peace and abundance – belonged in religion and mythology rather than history or science. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the fiction of an ideal society had been turned into a realisable human condition. Already in the second half of the 18th century, Rousseau was writing of an egalitarian society as if something of the kind had once existed – a move repeated by Marx and Engels in their theory of primitive communism, which they believed could be recreated at a higher level. More’s non-existent land was given a veneer of science and situated in a non-existent future. Having been a literary genre, utopia became a political legend.
The Book of Legendary Lands covers a vast range of non-places, including a flat and a hollow earth, the Antipodes, the lands of Homer and the many versions of Cockaigne (where honey and bread fall from the sky and no one is rich or poor). A fascinating chapter deals with the far more recent invention of Rennes-le-Château, a French village near Carcassonne that has been hailed as a site of immense treasure and of a priory established by descendants of Jesus, who supposedly did not die on the cross but fled to France and began the Merovingian dynasty.
Presented by Eco in light and witty prose, these legendary places are made more vivid by many well-chosen illustrations and historic texts. Yet this is far from being another coffee table book, however beautiful. As in much of his work, Eco’s theme is the slippage from fiction to illusion in the human mind. Rightly he sees this as a perennial tendency but it is one that has gathered momentum in modern times. So-called primitive cultures understood that history runs in cycles, with civilisations rising and falling much as the seasons come and go – a view of things echoed in Aristotle and the Roman historians. The rise of monotheism changed the picture, so that history came to be seen as an unfolding drama – a story with a beginning, an end and a redemptive meaning. Either way, no one believed that history could be governed by human will. It was fate, God or mere chaos that ruled human events.
Legendary lands began to multiply when human beings started to believe they could shape the future. Non-places envisioned by writers in the past were turned into utopian projects. At the same time, literature became increasingly filled with visions of hellish lands. As Eco puts it, “Sometimes utopia has taken the form of dystopia, accounts of negative societies.”
What counts as a dystopia, however, is partly a matter of taste. Aldous Huxley may have meant Brave New World (1932) as a warning but I suspect many people would find the kind of world he describes – genetically engineered and drug-medicated but also without violence, poverty or acute unhappiness – quite an attractive prospect. If the nightmarish society Huxley imagines is fortunately impossible, it is because it is supposed to be capable of renewing itself endlessly – a feature of utopias and one of the clearest signs of their unreality.
Whether you think a vision of the future is utopian or not depends on how you view society at the present time. Given the ghastly record of utopian politics in the 20th century, bien-pensants of all stripes never tire of declaring that all they want is improvement. They assume that the advances of the past are now permanent and new ones can simply be added on. But if you think society today is like all others have been – deeply flawed and highly fragile – you will understand that improvement can’t be inherited in this way. Sooner or later, past advances are sure to be lost, as the societies that have inherited them decline and fail. As everyone understood until just a few hundred years ago, this is the normal course of history.
No bien-pensant will admit this to be so. Indeed, many find the very idea of such a reversal difficult to comprehend. How could the advances that have produced the current level of civilisation – including themselves – be only a passing moment in the history of the species? Without realising the fact, these believers in improvement inhabit a legendary land – a place where what has been achieved in the past can be handed on into an indefinite future. The human impulse to dream up imaginary places and then believe them to be real, which Eco explores in this enchanting book, is as strong as it has ever been.
John Gray is the lead book reviewer of the NS. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)
My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells.
It’s a Sunday evening in late, late November and I’m just about to walk down through the village with my wife to her mother’s for tea. There will be homemade pies and celery sticks in a jug. I’ve got my thick coat on and my lucky Barnsley FC hat, and I’m carrying my carrier bag and my stick. Actually, it’s not really my stick: it was the one my mother had for the last few years before she died, the one she hung on to in the hope she might walk again.
The sky is clear as we set off and the full and insistent moon lights up the field behind the high wall; the herons are there, four of them sitting on the bare earth like constructions, like toys. We stand and watch them not moving, being still. Behind the field the Grimethorpe bypass is lit by passing cars, and the huge ugly Asos warehouse glows beside the hill that used to be the Houghton Main pit stack.
I’m pointing with my stick at the stars. I wish I knew more about the names of the constellations. Maybe I could just make some up: Uncle Frank’s Cap. The Unravelling Muffler. Somebody did it once, after all. Beyond Asos is the RSPB site, the ducks rising and falling from the water to the air and back again beside the double-glazing place.
My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells. Winding gear and slag heaps were slapped on to landscapes that had hardly changed over decades and miners like my father-in-law walked to work down a bridle path that had been there for centuries.
There was a persistent rumour of a mandrake growing in the swampy patches near the river; “When tha pulls ‘em up they scream!” Jim Marsden said one afternoon as we stood together in the drizzle at the top of the hill listening for sounds of the men working in the mines underneath. Jim insisted that some days you could hear them. “Blokes coughing” he’d say, “and blokes swearing.”
I walk this route every morning at the crack of dawn and I tweet about it; I see the most amazing things and I struggle to squeeze them into 140 characters, like the time I saw that man in a camouflage jacket walk by that man in a hi-vis jacket and as they passed they cancelled each other out.
The owner of the big house put a wall up some time in the last century so that he wouldn’t be able to see men like my father-in-law walking to Houghton Main, and now the workers from Asos stroll that way too, a historical continuation with boots and snap bags. I never found the mandrake but there are three or four plum trees down there, grown from spat stones; the jam glows (metaphorically) at the back of my pantry.
Now we’re at the top of the bridle path and I pull the carrier bag out of my pocket and get my stick ready. This is the reason for the stick – the apple tree by the wall, still full of fruit even this late in the year. Us hunters of the feral apple know what a good year 2013 has been: that mini orchard by the roundabout at Junction 37 of the M1, that huge crop of green beauties across from Tesco’s at Stairfoot near the fossil bank that my kids used to dig in, those heavy cookers that fall to the ground beside the fishing tackle shop in Low Valley.
And these: Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon” hanging just out of reach. Potential crumbles that I poke with my stick until they tumble and I catch them in the carrier. Some are as small as marbles but I’ll take them home anyway. Some roll into the road and a car passes and somebody beeps their horn and gestures to me. It’s either a thumbs-up or a raised pair of fingers. You can’t tell round here, in this Barnsley of the mind where layers of history cover the ground like fallen apples. I’ll just keep poking with my mother’s stick.