Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Lakeland 100: the easy bit

That's the easy bit done. This summer I entered the Lakeland 50, which was by some measure the toughest run I've ever done. Today I put my name down for the Lakeland 100, which is actually 103 miles and reckoned to be more than twice as hard. I now have over nine months to prepare/regret my decision. Last year's winner, Stuart Mills, reckons that 'the key to performance is simple, remain positive, do not let any negative thoughts develop'. He clearly hasn't been watching the Conservative Party conference.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sharing the pain

Next time you’re asked what savings you would make to reduce the budget deficit – for which read what services you would cut – be bold. Answer: none. We don’t need to make any cuts, not a penny.

Even if you accept the dubious premise that we have to take action to reduce the budget deficit now, before the economy’s safely out of recession, there’s more than enough money around to make the draconian adjustments announced in George Osborne’s June budget. And we can make them without a single penny being taken away from public spending or a single person being any less well off than they were last year.

Fanciful? Only if you believe that the ever-accumulating wealth of the few hundred people who have most in our society must forever remain untouchable, even as the modest incomes and spending of the many millions who have least are pared to the bone.

In fact, we can balance the books of Britain’s public finances in a way that would affect no more than 1,000 or so people at most – and even they could be left massively better off than they were in 2009. Just do the sums.

George Osborne’s avowed objective is to reduce the budget deficit from £149 billion in 2010/11 to £116 billion in 2011/12. That’s a lot of money taken from you and me. But £33 billion is barely two fifths of the increase in personal wealth enjoyed by the 1,000 richest people in the UK last year.

According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, the top 1,000 saw their fortunes rise by £77 billion on 2009. Half of that would pay for all of Osborne’s budget measures, with a few billion to spare – and it would still leave the super-rich £38.5 million apiece better off on average than in 2009.

If we’re really ‘all in this together’, as David Cameron likes to insist, that’s the sort of pain I’ll be prepared to share.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

Bog hopping across Britain

Back in London after successfully completing the six-day, 156-mile TransBritain ultra, amazingly feeling stronger and getting faster as the race went on. I even managed to come joint first in each of the final two stages, so I'm delighted with that.

I also discovered on getting back home that I got third place in my age group in the Regent's Park 10k summer series, for which I win £15, free entry to the next series (worth £60) and a medal! So there must be life in the old bones yet.

Lee Chamberlain, who won the TransBritain and is going for the John O'Groats to Land's End running record at the beginning of November, has done a report of the event. That's his photo (above) of me and Steve Keywood, who came second, lost in a bog on the last day.

I'm still raising sponsorship for Teach Africa and Cystic Fibrosis Trust. Thanks to everyone who has donated already - and you can do so here if you want:

Teach Africa and Cystic Fibrosis Trust

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Blair's apologies

Tony Blair’s unwillingness to say ‘sorry’ over Iraq is now so firmly entrenched that it has become part of his character armour. But he does use the word – 38 times – in A Journey.

He says he is ‘sorry about what happened’ to John Prescott over his fist fight with a fox hunter during the 2001 election campaign. He is ‘desperately sorry’ about the death of Roy Jenkins. He is ‘very sorry’ to lose Alan Milburn as a minister. He is ‘really sorry’ for David Blunkett over the affair with his secretary that sees him turfed out of office. He even says he ‘felt genuinely sorry – no, I really did’ for Jacques Chirac when London won the 2012 Olympics bid over Paris.

My favourite TB ‘sorry’, though, is the one he feels for junior defence minister Tom Watson after Watson signs a round-robin calling for Blair’s resignation in September 2006. ‘I have heard from the media that Tom Watson has resigned,’ Blair declares in a gloriously petulant official statement before announcing that he ‘had been intending to dismiss him’ anyway. ‘Actually, later I felt sorry for him and regretted I had done it,’ Blair writes in A Journey. You can almost see where his tears have left their mark on the page.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Me, myself, I

There are, according to a crude count done on my bootleg ebook, 5,843 uses of the word ‘I’ in Tony Blair’s account of his years in office, A Journey. If you include his 1,172 uses of the word ‘my’, 992 uses of ‘me’ and the many hundreds more instances when he refers to himself in the third person, it works out at about one mention of the author in every other sentence. And that’s not counting the 2,478 times he talks about ‘we’, often royally.

That’s some going, even for an inevitably self-serving political memoir – or, as Blair himself cringeworthily prefers, ‘letter (extended!) to the country I love’. (His use of exclamation marks, incidentally, isn’t quite as extensive as some reviewers, such as Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, have suggested: a mere 50 all told, well short of 21st-century textspeak standards.)

Three of Blair’s first-person references appear in one telling sentence – the one you fancy he would pick as his epitaph if forced to make a choice. ‘All I know is that I did what I thought was right.’

Blair’s repeated return to this simple refrain suggests that Labour’s most successful ever leader (‘I won three general elections. Up to then, Labour had never even won two successive full terms’ – note who did the winning) still doesn’t understand what most of us learn at primary school: that doing what you think is right is not actually good enough if you happen to be wrong. ‘Please miss, I really did think it was right to set fire to the classroom when that nasty bully wouldn’t go outside.’

I don’t suppose there is a leader in history who consciously did what he thought was wrong. There’s invariably some form of philosophical contortionism that will provide apologias for the gravest of crimes. Tony Blair’s – and the world’s – tragedy is that a little less emphasis on the ‘I’ and a little more listening to others could have led to him doing what was right and not just what he thought was right.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The state Will's in

I’m getting increasingly irritated by the recent self flagellation of the baby boomer middle classes. Francis Beckett (65 in May) started it with his What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us – How the Children of the Sixties Lived the Dream and Failed the Future, published in July. Since then a shedload more of them have been jumping on the bandwagon, with ex-Observer editor Will Hutton (60 in May) one of the latest leading the charge.

Hutton’s mea culpa has him plead ‘guilty as charged’ in a self-indulgent Observer piece toying with his angst at turning 60. ‘Having enjoyed a life of free love, free school meals, free universities, defined benefit pensions, mainly full employment and a 40-year-long housing boom, [the boomers] are bequeathing their children sky-high house prices, debts and shrivelled pensions,’ he writes. ‘A 60-year-old in 2010 is a very privileged and lucky human being – an object of resentment as much as admiration.’

Speak for yourself, Will.

Depending on where you draw the line, I might just qualify as a boomer, though I came of age in the 1970s rather than 1960s, just after the Labour government had told us ‘the party’s over’ and just before punk and the winter of discontent gave way to Thatcher. But apart from the free school meals, I don’t recognise too many of the privileges that Will seems to think we all shared. Precarious employment, a rented flat and no pension is how my share of the spoils stacks up.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m forever conscious of the fact that those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in the west, in the latter half of the 20th century, got a damn good deal historically.

What I object to is this idea of generational privilege. At most 10 per cent benefited from free university education. And only those who were able to buy at the right time in the right places benefited from the property boom. As for full employment, try telling that to anyone who had the experience of looking for work in the old industrial areas at any time from about 1974 onwards.

It’s not a generational thing but, as ever, a class one. So, please, just because you’re one of the minority of baby boomers who went to university, made a fortune from property inflation and got gold-plated pensions, don’t keep talking about everyone else of the same age group as if they shared in the same privileges. Or as if they did nothing to try to make things fairer.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Not much faster than walking

I've done a flat 50-mile run before (along the Thames) and I've done a fair few hilly 50-mile and over walks. But I've never attempted a hilly 50-mile run. So this weekend, as part of training for the TransBritain Ultra in September, I did the Lakeland 50, which is the little brother of the Lakeland 100 event, which boasts (if that is the right word) a 75% drop out rate among enrants.

The 50 misses out the highest Lakeland peaks but it still manages 12,000-plus feet of ascent, or 'four Sca Fells' as a fellow competitor put it. And every bone in my body can now confirm it.

Still, I managed to finish in 13 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds, despite falling badly before the first checkpoint and going badly astray on the the fells after the last one. 'Not much faster than your walking pace,' according to my daughter. Yeah, thanks Rachel. Next time I'm taking you along.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Just like watching Brazil

I've just got back from China where, among other things, I took part in a World Cup 7-a-side knockout tournament as an honorary Brazilian. It will almost certainly be the only time in my life that I wear a Brazil football shirt in a competitive match. But although I got in a few tackles against the Spanish team who beat us 4-1 in the group stage, I'm afraid it was more John Terry than Plattinho.

The journey home included a drugs search at the airport (something to do with the human growth hormones for my grandson - try explaining that to a Chinese customs officer). And now I find I have a gaping hole in my diary where the weekend's World Cup quarter final used to be. I might end up having to go see Bob Dylan and Pete Doherty at Vince Power's Hop Farm Festival instead.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A run for your money

Okay Steve, you do a bit of running, they said. So how do you fancy running across Britain with us this September? Six marathons in six days - 156 miles, give or take the odd detour - starting at Robert the Bruce's cave in Scotland and finishing at Ruthin Castle in north Wales? We'll take in the Lake District and the highest peaks in England along the way to keep it interesting. We'll provide the meals, and we'll even carry your tent for you - as long as you carry the rest of your gear yourself

Tell me more, I said. Like can I retire if it gets too hard?

Of course you can, they said. As long as you don't mind letting down those schoolgirls in the biggest slum in Nairobi, the ones whose education you'll be running to raise money for. Kids who know the real meaning of words like 'tough' and 'challenge' - and half of whom, statistically, won't see their 25th birthday.

How could I say no? There's more about the charity here: http://www.teach-africa.org/

I'll post more about the TransBritain Six-Day Ultra and me as the event approaches. In the meantime, please help get my fundraising off to a flying start by donating now.

Thanks.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The only shirt for the World Cup


There's only one shirt to wear this World Cup.

A unique commemorative football shirt to honour the Makana FA. This extraordinary football association was formed by prisoners on the notorious Robben Island. Imprisoned because of their opposition to apartheid, they organised their own league and cup competitions as the Makana FA, as football became a symbol and tool of the prisoners' refusal to surrender their human dignity to the prison authorities.

Makana never had their own strip, until now. Specially designed, complete with Makana FA badge, by Philosophy Football, the shirts will be presented to former prisoners on 17 June when over 100 England fans will join them on Robben Island.

Limited edition, you can get yours from Philosophy Football

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Politics as usual

For an election that was supposed to mark the demise of the old two-party system, the outcome of 6 May 2010 has gone a long way to restoring it. Even if reformers win the promised referendum on a new alternative vote system, it’s nothing like proportional representation (indeed, it makes it even harder for minor parties to get elected). And it won’t stop the polarisation of votes towards the two main parties that is an almost inevitable consequence of the Lib Dems going into government with the Tories.

Without having to do a thing, Labour has re-established itself as the only meaningful alternative to voting Conservative across virtually the whole of the country. The three Plaid Cymru MPs and one Green may merit a left vote in 2015 but no one can now justify voting Lib Dem if they want to keep the Tories out. As for backing anyone else – well, there is no one else. In Scotland there may still be the Nationalists but even there, when it comes to the next Westminster election, everyone knows it will have to be Labour or bust.

There were reports in the weeks after the election of the Labour Party receiving up to 4,000 membership applications in a day. There is certainly little evidence of the demoralisation and despair among party activists that followed previous defeats. Some even spoke of a ‘liberation’ or the sense of euphoria that comes from surviving a car crash you’d expected to be far worse with only a broken leg. The affiliation of Cleggite liberal democracy with the centre-right rather than the centre-left of British politics, in combination with the passing of the New Labour old guard, seems to have opened up a fresh sense of possibility in Labour and reversed the steady stream of desertions. The party is beginning to look as though it could be immensely more invigorated in defeat in 2010 than it was by the post-Iraq war victory in 2005.

The same cannot be said of the various shades of left electoral alternatives that stood for election, locally or nationally, on 6 May. Here is to be found only unrequited effort and crushing, abject failure – unmitigated by the narrow, exceptional and quite possibly unrepeatable election of Caroline Lucas for the Greens in Brighton. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (if ever there was a title designed to limit potential electoral support, this might well have been it) proved an outstandingly successful mechanism for squandering activists’ time, money and aspirations. A desperate 12,275 votes garnered from 41 constituencies (299 votes apiece, or 0.0004 per cent of the national poll), works out so low that you’d have to wait for about 35 jam-packed double-decker buses to go past before you found a single TUSC voter, squeezed between the pushchairs and the shopping trolleys and invisible to everyone bar himself on the crowded lower deck.

Respect mustered 33,251 nationally in what will probably be its swansong; the Scottish Socialist Party potted a paltry 3,157 – a far cry from the 117,709 constituency votes (6.2 per cent) it won in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election; and even the Greens’ 285, 616 (fewer than one in every hundred voters) pales in comparison with the British National Party’s 563,743 (1.9 per cent) or UKIP’s 917,832 (3.1 per cent).

In electoral terms at least, there really is no left alternative to Labour.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Happy 65th birthday Christy Moore

A belated happy birthday to Christy Moore, who was 65 on 7 May. The grand auld man of Irish music (and much, muchmore besides) was performing at Sligo on the day, and had this to say in his occasional 'Chat from Christy':

Early on a man stood up and asked me "Would you like to go back to the beginning". I did not know whether he meant the beginning of the gig, the song or this very life itself. (It was that kind of night) I thought long and hard for all of 4 seconds and realised that I was perfectly content to live in that very moment. The room was full to the gunnels, Declan Sinnott to my right was poised to make music and we had a basket full of songs to sing. In relation to my working life, this is as good as it's ever been. Perhaps the question was spurred by today being my 65th birthday. For 45 of those years I have been singing for my supper. It has been, and continues to be, a most privileged existence.


The link is to Christy's 'Taking Tea With Pinochet', which seems apt with her party having just wormed its way back into power.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The BNP's black and white ministers' show

My favourite election headline appeared in the Croydon Guardian: ‘BNP “too racist” for black vicar.’ Reverend James Gitau, 63, from West Croydon, joined the BNP and went on the campaign trail on 10 April with Nick Griffin. A pastor with the United Holy Church, Gitau came to Britain in the late 1990s. He issued a press release at Misterseed.com, a website for diaspora Kenyans, in which he declared: ‘BNP is the only party which boldly speaks against sodomy in public . . . condemns use of contraceptives . . . abhors our children’s abortions etc etc . . .’

‘It is true that the old BNP policy was to send all black British citizens back to their original countries, Gitau continued. But he reckoned that ‘the new BNP embraces all races from the minorities’. To prove the point he went campaigning alongside Griffin and another BNP vicar, the party’s Lincoln candidate Reverend Robert West. Like Gitau, West has a thing about gays, branding them ‘dirty and disgusting’ during his election campaign and opposing ‘perv partnerships, which are an abomination in the sight of God and must be ended’.

The Daily Telegraph, reporting on the appearance of this black and white ministers show in Barking and Dagenham, described how West would shout ‘It is not racist to love your country!’ as Gitau stood next to him and ‘Every time the Rev Mr West shouts a slogan, Gitau shouts, “Hallelujah!”’

West’s brand of ‘Christian’ bigotry managed to bring out 1,367 people prepared to vote for him in Lincoln. But the BNP declined to allow Gitau to stand for it in Croydon Central, where it already had a perfectly acceptable white bigot in place in its candidate Cliff Le May. He wrote to London Mayor Boris Johnson telling him to ‘stop ruining our community by stuffing New Addington with violent immigrants who have no right to live among decent civilised white people’ and called the Conservative candidate Gavin Barwell a traitor to his ‘race and nation’ for his party’s immigration policy.

Faced with the likes of Le May, Gitau decided that the BNP was a bit too bigoted even for him. He stood as a Christian Party candidate instead, winning 264 votes – which was still more than 19 of the 41 Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates managed, by the way.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Bloodied but not beaten

Were you up for Nick Griffin? It wasn’t actually a ‘Portillo moment’, which has to be unexpected as well as pleasurable, but the chunderings of the Fat Fuehrer (‘It is going to be too late for Barking but it is not too late for Britain’) were a joy to behold. The BNP’s Barking battering, where it lost all 12 of its councillors as well as being beaten into third place in the parliamentary election, was the highlight of a good night for anti-racists, which saw the far-right party lose all bar two of the council seats it was defending.

We shouldn’t get carried away, though. The BNP may be doing a good impression of a party on the verge of implosion as elements turn on a leader who picked up 3,500 fewer votes than the BNP council candidates in the wards that make up Barking. But while its defeat in Barking was spectacular, as it was in its second major target area, Griffin’s former ‘jewel in the crown’ of Stoke-on-Trent, its overall performance was one that any socialist electoral alternative at the moment would die for.

Nationally, the BNP won 563,743 votes (1.9 per cent) in 338 seats. That compares with 192,746 (0.7 per cent) votes in 117 seats in 2005. In other words, the BNP averaged 1,663 votes per candidate in 2010, a slight increase on the 1,647 votes per candidate it achieved five years ago.

The party’s absolute vote has held up well, and it has established small bases for itself across wide swathes of the country. Away from the headlines, in 10 seats in Leicestershire, for example, it got between 3.2 and 6.5 per cent of the vote, saving three deposits saved and getting 18.1 per cent (745 votes) in a Leicester City Council by-election. In Bradford, its candidate Paul Cromie was elected with 2,212 (30.8 per cent), beating the Tory by 15 votes on a 66 per cent turnout.

The BNP’s large-scale loss of councillors on 6 May was due in large part to the higher turnout from holding council elections on the same day as local elections, rather than reduced BNP votes. Even in Barking, many of the party’s councillors would have been re-elected if the turnout had been the same as in 2006. All but one of the Green and Socialist Alternative councillors in Lewisham, and Green councillors elsewhere in London, were defeated for the same reason.

The BNP may be bloodied but it is far from beaten yet.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Londone

Twenty-five years after I first tried to get a place, finally running the London marathon was all that it is cracked up to be. I’ve done a few marathons before, including big-city ones (and running along the narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi Fountain in Rome takes some beating), but I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like this one. Even the backstreets were lined with people shouting, clapping, cheering, singing (a special appreciation to the guitarboy and girls belting out ‘I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden baby’ from Teenage Dirtbag somewhere around Deptford, and to the Greenwich Labour Party’s jazz band, who seem to have been going since almost as far back as the original marathon). And I saw Richard Branson dressed in his butterfly wings – though it was a big disappointment after the event to discover that the Virgin Unite runners weren’t anything to do with the cabin crews’ trade union.

There’s not much I can add that hasn’t been said elsewhere at enormous length on the subject except that it was definitely worth the wait and ‘doing London’ is something that everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Between the wars



Another from Billy Bragg in Germany in 1985 - as relevant, and I think good, today as it was then.

Take the A13 trunk road against the BNP





There are various versions of Billy Bragg's 'A13' around but I don't think you can beat this one from a youngish Billy on tour in Germany in 1985. I've long since lost count of the number of times I took the A13 in the 1980s and 1990s. My girlfriend's family lived in Barking and (no offence Barking, I'm sure you understand) we sometimes longed to do as the song suggests and:

It starts down in Wapping
There ain't no stopping
By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham
Down to Grays Thurrock
And rather near Basildon
Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea,
Chalkwell, Prittlewell
Southend's the end

Like my home town of Stoke, Barking has become better known than it should have because of the success of the far-right British National Party in gaining seats on the local council. As in Stoke, the BNP is pouring resources into its general election campaign there, as well as trying to build on its local council base. So I dare say I'll be driving down the A13 to support old friends and family in the borough who'll be doing their best to stop them.

The people at Philosophy Football have produced another of their fine shirts (above), inspired in part by Billy Bragg's 'A13', to support the anti-BNP campaign. You can buy it here.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Rome: one run is not enough

To Rome to run the marathon, mark the equinox and see some of those sights that I already know so well from the history, art and politics books. The city stinks of dog shit, there’s more graffiti than you can shake a can at and the Aventine, where the urban poor have congregated since antiquity, has a third world-like population of rough sleepers. The posters for the end-of-month regional elections here declare that ‘real communists don’t vote for the Partito Democratico’, the main, centre-left opposition to Berlusconi.

But Rome is everything you could ever want of the eternal city. It’s like walking around the stage set of European history, from the platform on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated 2,064 years and one week ago today to Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, where the marathon began and finished.

The whole 26.2-mile (or 46.165-kilometre) route is as much like a massive tourist trail as a competitive road race. We even take in the narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, as well as St Peter’s Square on the day that the Pope stands accused of turning a blind eye to child abuse. At one point a man running in front of me stops, looks around and starts taking photos. Another runner asks someone in the crowd to take a picture of her posing in front of a statue. It’s worth the entry fee just to experience the streets of Rome reclaimed by human feet from usually ever present motor car

This year’s Rome marathon was dedicated to Abebe Bikila, the two-time Olympic marathon gold medallist from Ethiopia who ran – and won – the 1960 race here barefoot. It was a deliberately strong anti-racist statement from the marathon organisers in a city where many of those rough sleepers on the Aventine are African refugees and asylum seekers who have been on the receiving end of a resurgence in far-right political sympathies over the past few years.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Realistic ambitions

It’s probably unwise to make predictions about the coming election, especially when you have form in this area. In 1992 I chose for the front cover splash of the election-week New Statesman, which I then edited, a story by Sarah Baxter headlined ‘Yesterday’s man’. ‘So long John, it was nice knowing you. With these words, the public is preparing to bid John Major farewell,’ her piece began. As we now know, it was five more years before we could finally say goodbye to him; the Tories won their fourth consecutive election victory with what is still the highest-ever election tally of 14.09 million votes.

I think I’m on safe ground, however, in saying that Labour will attract nothing like that level of support this time around, even if it does somehow contrive to pluck a fourth election win from the jaws of what has seemed for most of Gordon Brown’s premiership to be certain defeat. The party had already shed four million votes from its 1997 high water mark of 13.5 million by 2005, leaving it only 770,000 votes ahead of the Tories. Its 1992 losing tally of 11.56 million would be regarded as a stunning achievement in 2010.

All the talk, as I write this, is of a hung parliament. This is not just being wished for as a less-bad alternative to an outright Tory victory. It is seen as desirable in its own right by constitutional reformers who dream of a Lib-Lab pact ushering in a more proportional voting system, an elected second chamber and enhanced civil liberties.

Desirable though these reforms may be, we should beware the perils of such an outcome. The majority of the electorate, whatever its mistrust of the Tories, is none too keen on the continuance of this government. Nor does the Labour Party, on recent behaviour, deserve to remain in office. Divided and embittered, at war within its own ranks, its principal parliamentary actors have long since lost all sense of unity of purpose – or indeed much sense of any kind of purpose save that of power. To hold onto it with a minority of seats and in all probability the support of barely one in three voters and fewer than one in four of the electorate at large would be to invite disdain. It would diminish democracy, further undermine public faith in parliament and stoke up future support for a new populist politics of the far right – which is a much more frightening risk facing us over the coming decade than the Cameronite brand of Conservatism.

In the absence of an overall majority, the continuation of Labour in government – even, perhaps especially, a coalition government – would quite likely be merely the prelude to a more crushing defeat a little way down the line. For the left, it is hard to see how this election can be about anything but damage limitation. Backing the campaigns of good sitting MPs and individual candidates (most, though not all, of them Labour); working for the isolated breakthrough of left, Green or independent candidates in that handful of seats where they have a chance of better than derisory votes; preventing the far right from getting its first foothold at Westminster; trying to minimise the scale of the inevitable Tory advances; and above all preparing for the long, hard political slog ahead, both within and beyond the electoral arena – these should be the realistic limits of our ambitions, and the essential, rudimentary platform for any future recovery.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A council named sue

‘CRACKPOT councils are wasting thousands of pounds . . . by suing THEMSELVES over parking tickets,’ was how the Sun saw it. And it really is as barmy as it sounds. At least half a dozen councils are known to have issued tickets against their own vehicles – and then refused to pay them. My own local council, Islington, took one case to the parking appeals tribunal, won and then asked for costs to be awarded against itself. The adjudicator Gerald Styles refused on the ground that the council could not ‘act wholly unreasonably or vexatiously against itself’.

The Sun sees all this Alice in Wonderlandish absurdity (great film, by the way, but Tim Burton’s scriptwriters can’t match Carroll) as straightforward evidence of what it used to call ‘loony’ local authorities. Actually I think it has more to do with the madness of running public services as you would profit-maximising private enterprises. If you contract out parking ticketing to companies with more interest in making money than keeping the traffic moving, they will employ traffic wardens on pay structures that depend on them issuing as many tickets as possible. And if you insist on ‘internal market’ accounting procedures that force one council department to pay another if it so much as uses a paper clip that isn’t part of its inventory, the reductio ad absurdum of this neoliberal accounting arcadia is that they will end up suing each other to sort out any differences.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot: Labour's saviour

Two posts on the same day about people dying. And with spring definitely poking its nose up outside, it doesn't seem right.

He's not often given credit for it, but for better or for worse, Michael Foot saved the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Any other leader would have steered so far to the left or right as to have fractured that already fragile coalition for good. Foot held it together at a time when one false move could have lost it for good.

Whether or not that was a good thing in the long run depends on your view of the labour movement, all that it was and all it has become. Apart from that, I've nothing to add to what Neil Kinnock put so eloquently here.

‘Why ever have you come back here?’

My mum and dad’s neighbour died at the weekend. They’ve lived next door to Gerda and her husband, Fred, for 30 years, long enough for Gerda to remember my mother’s mum, who died in 1983, and for her to have known my daughter as a toddler. At 88, she was a crucial half-generation older than my parents. A young woman at the outbreak of the second world war, she became a part of that vast movement of people who were refugees by its conclusion.

In our last conversation, she told me again (we had spoken of it several times before) about the long trek through occupied Germany that took her back to her home village in Silesia when the war ended. Her mother’s reaction when, exhausted after a journey of more than 100 miles into the Soviet-occupied zone, Gerda finally knocked on her door was to say to her: ‘Why ever have you come back here?’

Gerda was one of the very few Germans I ever met who was an adult during the war and willing to talk freely about it. She told me once that Hitler had been ‘all right in the beginning’, saying that he had provided jobs and stability. We were never going to agree about that, but like many Germans she had paid a heavy price for her youthful acquiescence to the Nazis – including, though she never spoke about it directly, at the hands of the Soviet victors.

The transfer of most of Silesia to Polish sovereignty after the war meant that her family joined the eight million Germans who were uprooted in the east. That she was able to find a home and acceptance and to raise a family in England with an English husband always struck me as a fine example of reconciliation and tolerance.

She died of lung cancer, after an illness of just a few weeks, which adds poignancy to the fact that so many of our chats took place when she was having a fag outside at the back. I’ll miss her and the personal connection she provided to an important part of my own and our continent’s past.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Spring in the air

Thirty miles in two days, all of them run in cold, sleety, driving rain. I ran 17 yesterday in full fell running gear and still felt uncomfortably cold on the ridge above Berhamsted, where I was participating in one of the Gede Valley Harriers' London Marathon training runs (five quid to enter, tea and cake at the finish and some of the coldest, wettest, most seriously appreciated marshals in the country). I've rarely experienced lowland weather quite like that, and the stretch of the canal towpath where the puddles merged seemlessly with the canal itself was something else.

Today's a bright, sunny, blue-skied morning in London, though. The birds know that spring is about to burst upon us, and you get the feeling that as soon as the temperature rises a little it's going to arrive like a sprinter, not an old-boned, feeling-the-cold crock of a distance runner like me.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The nice guy comes first

If there's one capitalism-red-in-tooth-and-nail aphorism that I'd like to expunge from the English language, it's that ugly, untrue US apeshit about 'nice guys come last'. It's been wheeled out again over the John Terry/Wayne Bridge drama, where Bridge's withdrawal from the England team has been taken as an indication that, unlike Terry, he hasn't got it in him to succeed at the highest level and Terry's 'mates' have been letting it be known that he was always regarded as something of a 'bottler' in the dressing room.

Forgive me for just a little whooping and cheering yesterday, then, as bottler Bridge gave tough guy Terry a lesson in dignified, focused and disciplined football while the ex-England captain continued with the schoolboy calamities that increasingly characterise his current form. Nice one, nice guy.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

All we are saying ... is give us some cash

Sean Lennon has been getting his knickers in a Twitter over criticism of the use of his father's image in those Citroen car ads - the ones with the badly synched actor's voice purporting to be John. Sean's mum Yoko authorised the use of the clip of John, even though the only advertising campaign he ever endorsed in life was the one for world peace in 1969.

Sean reacted to being told that he and his mum were 'a talentless pair of leeches' who had 'sold out John's name' by approving the ads with a ferocious series of ripostes via Twitter:

'Lennon fans don't ATTACK his widowed family. His widow and her son. How offensive is it to REAL fans, to publicly attack his wife and child?'

'You are speaking to his flesh and blood. You're a "peasant as far as I can see".'

'When dad died, it was Lennon fans who saved me with their love and support. You are not them, you are just another asshole.'

The best response, I thought, was from the fan who posted the message to Yoko: 'Imagine, three years with 0% interest, isn’t that how the song goes?'

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Vertical rush


One man went past me wearing what looked like ski boots and I heard a rumour that the fastest finisher had got to the top in 3 mins 53 secs. If so, that's not far short of four steps or 30-odd inches a second.

Still I was pleased to get to the top of Tower 42, the former NatWest Building in the City, for Shelter's Vertical Rush event before breakfast this morning in 8 mins 52 secs. That meant I missed my friend Fiona's offer to double my sponsorship if I did it inside eight minutes, but she cheated by having me shift heavy boxes of magazines around north London to tire me out yesterday.

I've never been that high in London before, except in a plane, and the view from the 42nd-floor champagne bar (minus the champagne, alas) is certainly worth seeing. It's no longer the highest point in the City of London, however, as I discovered looking out of its windows. The adjacent Heron Tower (pictured), still under construction, has a few steel girders going higher still, and when it's finished it will be 100 or so feet taller than Tower 42.

You can sponsor me for doing Vertical Rush and the London Marathon in aid of Shelter here.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Football owes me

Forget about that £170 billion budget deficit that the banking crisis has lumbered us with. 'Premier League clubs owe a staggering 56% of Europe's debt,' says the headline on today's Guardian football pages. 'A Uefa report has revealed that 18 Premier League clubs owe £3.5bn in debt, more than the rest of Europe put together,' the story continues.

Get a grip, you football subs (as in editors, that is). The 'rest of Europe's debt' is an awful lot bigger than that.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Vanessa Redgrave, the prince and that curtsey

It was disconcerting to see Vanessa Redgrave's deep curtsey to Prince William at the Baftas. She didn't quite kiss the ground on which he stood but an inch lower and she would have got her nose dirty.

'Is she taking the piss?' asked the person with whom I was watching her receive this year's Academy Fellowship. 'I don't think so,' I replied as the woman who was once the most famous Trotskyist in Britain turned to young Billy and fawned: 'I would like to say, your Royal Highness, how much I admire your father for his intelligence, humility and kindness.'

Was this really the same woman who for years was one of the leading lights in the Workers Revolutionary Party, and who created an uproar at the 1978 Oscars with an acceptance speech (for best supporting actress in Julia) that laid into 'Zionist hoodlums'?

An interview with Redgrave in the Daily Telegraph before the Baftas suggested that 'like the Prince of Wales, her high-mindedness comes from her status as royalty – in this case theatrical'. That may explain her affinity with the royals, despite her reputation as a radical. So too might the pioneering example of Princess Diana in her support for AIDS charities, since Redgrave's first husband, Tony Richardson (the father of Natasha, Redgrave's beloved daughter, who died in a skiing accident last year), died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991.

But did she have to curtsey quite so low?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Out of the comfort zone

Every so often in life it's good to do things outside your comfort zone. Today I signed up for something that is so far outside mine that I'm announcing it here to make sure that I don't try to sneak out of it later.

I've decided to do this year's Trans-Britain Ultra event in September. It’s a six-day, six-stage ultra race starting near Gretna Green and finishing in Ruthin, Wales, via Cumbia and North Yorkshire, covering 156 miles and five (or is it six?) peaks along the way.

I feel exhausted just typing the details. Oh, and did I mention that you carry all your gear (apart from a tent) on your back?

I’ll be doing it to raise money for a charity, Teach Africa, which works with teenage girls from the slums of Nairobi. The race organiser, Steve Adams, set it up in 2005 and I have a personal interest in supporting it because I lived in east Africa for a time during 2002-2003.

I also have a personal interest in another charity that I’m doing a double challenge for over the next couple of months. I was homeless for a time when I was younger and became very actively involved in squatting and other housing campaigns. I went on to work in short-life housing for a few years and edited the housing charity Shelter’s magazine Roof for a short time at the beginning of my career as a journalist and writer.

This Thursday (25 February) I'm doing the first leg of a double sponsorship challenge for Shelter. Vertical Rush involves running up 42 floors, 900-odd stairs, to the top of the highest building in the City of London. Two months later I’m using my oh-so-precious London Marathon place, held over from last year when I had to pull out due to injury, as the second leg of the challenge.

You can support my Shelter fundraising here. More about Teach Africa later.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Size isn't everything

He was half my size and a quarter my age but he was a damn good pacemaker, even if it was only a 5k run in the park.

I beat him on the sprint finish, though - still got it in me, you see ...

Oh yes, and I came first (of three) in my age category.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Anarchist voices

The deaths of Colin Ward, aged 85, and John Rety, 79, within a week of each other at the beginning of February have deprived the British anarchist movement of two of its most original and influential thinkers. I first came across them through squatting campaigns in the 1970s, by which time they were already veterans of that pre-Sixties’ generation of political activists who kept a left libertarian flag flying before it became fashionable to do so.

Both men contributed to Squatting – the Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980), a book for which I was the main writer. Colin wrote a chapter on the post-war seizure of army camps, hotels and other buildings, when tens of thousands of ex-servicemen and their families laid down a challenge to the 1945 Labour government to deliver on its promise of decent homes for all. John, who was a key squatting activist in Camden Town, gave generously of his time, knowledge and activist energy in assembling the history of the later squatting movement that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s.

Indeed, the survival of Camden Town as we know it today owes much to the resistance initiated by John and his partner Susan Johns in 1973 to their eviction by a property developer from the shop they ran at 220 Camden High Street. At the time, companies associated with Cromdale Holdings owned a quarter of the properties in the area; 50 shops were empty pending redevelopment. John and Susan’s squatting of their old shop acted as a catalyst for the fight to save the high street, which was eventually won. Their daughter, Emily Johns, is today a co-editor of Peace News, continuing the radical tradition of her parents.

For me, Colin and John were key communicators of the message that there was life on the left beyond state socialism. From housing cooperatives to allotments, from holiday chalets to garden sheds, Colin’s approach to ‘anarchy in action’ (the title he chose for what is still the best – and certainly most readable – book on the subject around) was rooted in the practical and everyday in a manner that made his most utopian of visions seem no more than ordinary common sense.

John’s anarchism sparkled most fully in his love of poetry and commitment to live performance, notably at the Torriano Meeting House, first squatted as his home and subsequently becoming a community arts centre, which provided early platforms for artists as diverse as Emma Thompson and John Hegley. There was a delicious irony in his late flourish as poetry editor for the Morning Star, that one-time bastion of the British Communist Party.

I was too young to enjoy Colin’s editorship of the journal Anarchy and John’s of the paper Freedom at the time they were published. But the back issues I saw later helped to inspire in me a belief in the potential of small-circulation publications with often esoteric interests to have an influence way beyond their immediate readerships. That's one reason why I continue to be associated with such publications today.

Monday, 15 February 2010

No place for women in gynaecology

Wendy Savage, who managed to combine bringing up four children with a career as Britain's first female consultant obstetrician, has been nominated for a lifetime achievement award by the British Medical Journal. A lifelong campaigner for women's rights, her support for pregnant mothers being able to choose their method of delivery, including home births, led to a lengthy suspension from work and an accusation of incompetence in 1985. An inquiry cleared her of all charges.

Sexism, bordering on outright misogyny, was never far from the surface in the various criticisms levelled against her. Indeed, Savage told Tom Foot in the Islington Tribune this week, that when she first came to London to pursue her chosen profession, her senior consultant told her: 'There's no place for women in gynaecology and obstetrics.'

The results of voting for the award, which finishes today, will be announced in March.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

It was 20 years ago today

What were you doing, assuming you are old enough, 20 years ago today? For those of us of a certain age and political persuasion, 11 February 1990 was one of those days that will remain forever engraved on the memory. After 27 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela was finally freed from his apartheid prison cell and so began one of the most remarkable – and peaceful – overthrows of oppression in human history.

The newsreels from that time still have the power to bring tears to my eyes, as does the song that – more than any other – epitomised the worldwide campaign for his release: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by Special AKA (the Specials, who are now performing again, though sadly still without Jerry Dammers, the song’s composer and the band’s inspiration). You can revisit it in all its power and righteous glory, with dancing to die for, in this video.

It’s worth recalling that only three years previously the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher led a party that preferred apartheid to those fighting for equal rights. ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land,’ she said in 1987.


The shirt (pictured) is Philosophy Football’s anniversary celebration of the cause, available here in aid of Action for South Africa, the successor to the Anti-Apartheid Movement


This interview, with ITN's Brian Widlake on 21 May 1961, is also worth revisiting. It is believed to be the first filmed interview with Mandela.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Stop Uganda's gay death law


Uganda’s parliament is preparing to pass a brutal new law that would punish gay people with prison, even death.

Initial international criticism drove the president to call for a review. But after a well-funded and vicious lobbying effort by extremists, the bill looks set to be passed - threatening widespread persecution and bloodshed.

Opposition to the bill is rising, including from the Anglican church. Ugandan gay rights advocate Frank Mugisha writes: 'This law will put us in serious danger. Please sign the petition and tell others to stand with us – if there’s a huge global response, our government will see that Uganda will be internationally isolated by the proposed law, and strike it down.

With the decision expected in days, only an irresistible wave of worldwide pressure will be enough to save Frank's life and many others. At the very least we can all sign this petition, and then forward this appeal:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/uganda_rights/?vl

The petition will be delivered to Uganda's President Museveni, members of the review committee and Ugandan embassies worldwide this week, before it’s too late, as well as to key donor governments.

The bill proposes life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having same-sex relations and imposes the death penalty for 'serial offenders'. NGOs working to prevent the spread of HIV could see their employees imprisoned for up to seven years for 'promoting homosexuality'. Even members of the public face up to three years in jail if they fail to report homosexual activity to the police within 24 hours!

The bill’s advocates claim that it defends national culture, but some of its strongest critics come from within Uganda. The Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha is one of many. He says: 'It is violating our cultures, traditions and religious values that teach against intolerance, injustice, hatred and violence. We need laws to protect people -- not ones that will humiliate, ridicule, persecute and kill them en masse.'

http://www.avaaz.org/en/uganda_rights/?vl

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Avatar cowboys and Indians

I finally caught up with Avatar today - at the London IMAX and the biggest screen in Britain, so it was worth the wait. After all the hype I was ready to be disappointed but instead I was awestruck. My dad tells the story of seeing colour for the first time at the cinema at a wartime screening of the Wizard of Oz, which switches from monochrome Kansas to Technicolor Oz when a tornado blows Dorothy over the rainbow. We're too familiar with CGI and special effects, high definition television and psychedelic colour schemes for anything to have quite the same impact today. But it was still pretty damn impressive - and the baddies, who had all the characteristics of the brain-dead, money-grubbing, gun-toting, planet-wasting stereotypes that we lefties love to hate, got their come-uppance in the end. Cowboys and Indians for the 21st century - except that this time the Indians win.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Excessive research linked to depression

I'm depressed. 'Excessive internet use linked to depression, research shows,' says the headline in the Guardian. Well, blow me down with an email.

You could just as well write 'Excessive drinking linked to depression' or 'Excessive TV watching' or 'Excessive ironing' - or excessive just about anything (except football, of course, you can never be excessive about football). We all know that.

It's obvious, isn't it? You're depressed, you're more likely to spend more time than is good for you doing something that isn't necessarily the most balanced way to get pleasure out of life. QED.

So why does it take a Leeds University research project, detailed interviews with 1,319 people and a paper in the Psychopathology journal to tell us the bleedin' obvious? And why does the Guardian consider this to be newsworthy, particularly when the statistical analysis boils down to the responses of just 18 people (yes, eighteen) who are deemed to be 'internet addicts'?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Corrugated iron, corrugated iron, brand new corrugated iron

A couple of dozen poets and three and a half hours of poetry, even in aid of Haiti, stretched my love of the English language this afternoon. It was worth the attention span, though, not least to hear Carole Ann Duffy's closing rendition of Premonitions, dedicated to the memory of U A Fanthorpe but written with the memory of her mother's death in mind.

Gordon and Sarah Brown were the unadvertised openers of the event, with Gordon announcing that the government had today decided to buy up every piece of corrugated iron in the country and ship it to Haiti to provide shelters for the homeless. This prompted Duffy to remark later that they should send the lead off Tony Blair's roof as well.

It reminded me of an old squatters' song we used to sing in the Seventies to the tune of Any Old Iron. Composed by Tony Allen, veteran of the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Squatters Estate Agency and the godfather of alternative comedy, it went something like this:

Corrugated iron, corrugated iron, brand new corrugated iron,
Yer 'ouse looks neat, talk about a treat
Corrugated iron from the chimney to the street
No water, no gas and the mains all slashed
Can't even have a fire on
And the only thing you've got in yer window box is
Corrugated iron

Friday, 29 January 2010

Aidez Haiti

Philosophy Football's latest shirt 'Aidez Haiti' offers another way help raise much needed funds for Haiti, this time via the TUC Aid Eathquake Appeal. All profits from the shirt will go to the appeal for emergency relief and long-term rehabilitation of the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

Photographer Jes
s Hurd is someone Philosophy Football has worked with in the past year, collaborating on exhibitions. Recently returned from the earthquake zone, she warns that her photos should be viewed with caution; they are extremely harrowing, view them here.

For background on how a natural disaster is made much worse by avoidable human impoverishment, read Seumas Milne here;and for how the Haitian people have been cruelly misrepresented by the media, read Andy Kershaw's powerful antidote to the standard misrepresentations here.




Sign up for Haiti

Carole Ann Duffy, the first female poet laureate, is leading a 'Poetry Live Aid' for Haiti at Westminster Central Hall on Saturday at 2.30pm. She'll be joined by her predecessor Andrew Motion, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, John Agard, Dannie Abse and a dozen or more others. At £10 it's got to be the best value event in London this weekend as well as being in aid of one of themost important causes of the moment.

Meanwhile, I've just joined 300,000 other people in signing a petition for the cancellation of Haiti's US$1 billion debt. Haiti's people should not be made to pay back loans made to unelected dictators years ago even as they struggle to recover from the earthquake.

You can find out more or sign the petition here

http://www.avaaz.org/en/haiti_cancel_the_debt_12/98.php?CLICK_TF_TRACK

The petition below will be delivered to the IMF and G7 finance ministers at their crucial meetings in coming days.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The beautiful game

I'm boarding up the windows in anticipation of this afternoon's Algeria v Egypt African Nations Cup semi final in Angola. Arsenal v Tottenham has got nothing on this one, and after Algeria's explosive World Cup qualifier victory over the Egyptians in Sudan last November the north London Algerian community celebrated with a fireworks display to match the Beijing Olympics.

Chelsea and the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba is only one of many players and officials who have been complaining about the condition of the pitches in Angola, blaming it for a glut of injuries and poor quality play. Excuses, excuses. I saw one pitch with a road cutting it in two when I lived in east Africa for a while, and another with a tree growing near the centre circle. The quality of play was still higher than you get on our local astroturf.

As for bad conditions, Didier should try playing in Peru, where the the Estadio Daniel Alcides Carrion de Cerro de Pasco stadium is not only about 4,300 metres above sea level but has some, er, challenging weather conditions to boot:



Monday, 25 January 2010

Shanghaied: the missing bottle opener



Now where did they put that bottle opener?

I found Piers Morgan's ITV programme on Shanghai (called, with all the catchy headline-writing skills you'd associate with a former Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan on Shanghai) both entertaining and informative. One hundred and sixteen thousand multi-millionaires in the city? I'd have put it no higher than a hundred thousand.

But Shanghai is obviously growing too quickly for the print media to keep up. Morgan's article for the Mail on Sunday, basically a rehash of the TV commentary, was accompanied by a photo of the Shanghai skyline that was not only missing the smog that is a virtually permanent feature of the city. It also omitted the tallest building in China, the Shanghai World Financial Centre, aka the Bottle Opener. This now towers over the Jin Mao Tower (third building from the right in the MoS photo, above right) and will soon itself be surpassed by the Shanghai Tower, as shown in the model (above left).

Friday, 22 January 2010

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Brown wins election

Google ‘Brown wins election’ at the moment and you get 20.6 million results, which is rather more than most Brits would have expected to see in 2010, when our Gordon finally faces the voters. It’s also about 20 million more than you get for ‘And the lights all went out in Massachusetts’, incidentally, which is of course how most liberal Americans would view the Republican victory in Teddy Kennedy’s old seat.

Or is it? If you take a look at what Tom Jensen of the US pollsters Public Policy Polling has to say on the subject, it seems that Scott Brown only won because most voters thought he was a liberal. According to PPP’s research, ‘Among voters who thought that Scott Brown was either a liberal or a moderate, he won 79-18. Among voters who thought that he was a conservative [the Democratic candidate] won 63-32.’

The lesson there – that the right wing wins when it presents itself as moderate – hasn’t been lost on David Cameron’s Tories, who will continue to present a saccharine face to the rest of us until they’ve got their wellied feet through the door of No 10.

Meanwhile, the man with the biggest egg on his face over the Massachusetts result is the BBC’s Mark Mardell. He stood firm in the face of contrary polling evidence and the views of most commentators on the spot, with his opinion that ‘I don't actually think [the Democrats] will lose the seat’ in an article written in the very week that they did.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Where's my airbrush?













Many more (and make your own) here

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Capitalist roaders


Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower was the tallest structure in China, at 468 metres, until 2007, when it was topped by the city’s World Financial Centre (better known as the Bottle Opener because of the trapezoid opening in its upper floors). It’s a mere blade of grass now that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai has checked in at over 800 metres but its ‘space module’ viewing platform is still as good a place as any to watch the human race going to hell in a handcart.

Not so much a handcart, of course, as a motor vehicle. There are around three million of them now in Shanghai, clogging the city’s streets and expressways faster than China’s extraordinary engineering abilities can construct new ones to accommodate them. Looking down from the top of the Pearl Tower on the day that the Copenhagen climate talks crashed, I found it hard to imagine the world’s leaders ever getting to grips with the full enormity of the climate challenge. High above the car-choked metropolis that is in the vanguard of China’s economic miracle you can see only skyscrapers and smog and more skyscrapers and roads stretching out in an endless procession across the east China plain where the river Yangtse disgorges its polluted waters into the sea.

Spending a month in China at the end of last year, I was simultaneously torn between, on the one hand, an awestruck admiration at the sheer scale of the Chinese achievement in raising their cities, at least, to developed-world status in the blink of an historical eye; and, on the other hand, a deadening sense of impotence at the sheer scale of the environmental catastrophe that is following in its wake.

The air pollution in Shanghai, four-fifths of it caused by cars, is so bad that it’s been likened, in all seriousness, to smoking up to 70 cigarettes a day. For every one of the 3,000-plus skyscrapers that have gone up in the past two decades, there is an historic building or neighbourhood that has been flattened. And most of those skyscrapers, awe-inspiring and aesthetically-stunning though the best of them may be, are already showing signs of the design and maintenance flaws that blight high-rise developments worldwide. Cold in winter and blistering hot in summer, they consume energy like a panda gets through bamboo. And for all that the city planners boast that there are now nine square metres of open space per Shanghai resident for every four that existed 20 years ago, there is nowhere outdoors in the city that you can escape the constant drone of the traffic, see clear open sky or breath clean, fresh air.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who believes that the people of China (or India or Brazil or anywhere else, for that matter) should forgo the development that has already raised 190 million people out of poverty in order that the west doesn’t have to worry about global warming. But there is a real dilemma here.

For all the obligatory green noises that accompany every official statement (the line in the Chinese media after the failure in Copenhagen was that China would continue to try to save the planet on its own), the kind of rampant capitalism on display in Shanghai is about as far removed from sustainable development as you can get. In the absence of cheap energy, the whole shebang would come – probably literally – tumbling down.

The problems arising from China’s huge-scale, top-down rush to development are unlikely to be solved other than by huge-scale, top-down environmental initiatives of the kind that can make small-scale, local environmental actions seem all a bit pointless. If this sounds like a recipe for inaction and despair, it isn’t meant to be. If even a part of the technological genius and socio-political will that transformed the paddy fields and marshland around Shanghai can be turned to environmental objectives, there is no limit to what might be achieved. In the meantime, it is good to be back breathing the clean air of England once again.