Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Fracking indignant of Newcastle!

I have to break my silence! I'm a Geordie - no really, I am. Born in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then brought up in Durham for the first formative couple of years of life. As far as I can see, Lord Howell has been in politics and journalism all his working life, and is a Home Counties' man through and through. His title is Baron Howell of Guildford of Penton Mewsey (a picturesque village in a sparsely populated bit of Hampshire). I discover that "the village is home to approximately 400 people and has about 110 houses. The name Penton derives from the word Penitone, which is a word for a farm held at penny rent. Until the 1920's the Pentons (Mewsey and contiguous Grafton) were mainly agricultural communities supporting sheep and corn, typical of northern Hampshire at the time. The Pentons are still surrounded by farmland which is currently completely arable" (Jody Cletus). 
Yesterday I put a rather knee-jerk reaction to a comment the noble lord made in Parliament yesterday on Facebook, which has provoked an interesting discussion. According to The Daily Telegraph “There are obviously in beautiful rural areas, worries not just about the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, the delivery and the roads and the disturbance,” Lord Howell said. “And those are quite justified worries.”
“But there are large uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly up in the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking well away from anyone’s residence where it can be conducted without any kind of threat to the rural environment.”  And I must say I wasn't too impressed by the widespread mirth with which his remarks were greeted by his colleagues. I commented on my status, "As Geordie, what can I say - except I'm desolated!"

Someone pointed out to me that desolate means "devoid of inhabitants, deserted", which is true; but it also has the sense of "bleak and unwelcoming" - which is not true. As Justin Welby, who was Bishop of Durham before being moved to Canterbury, tweated: "North east England very beautiful, rugged, welcoming, inspiring, historic, advancing, not 'desolate' as was said in House of Lords today." I'd suggest the three pictures confirm this perspective.

My real beef with the noble peer is his presumption to know what the North-easterners would like done with their back yard. What he calls large "uninhabited and desolate areas" are the lungs and recreational facilities for the millions living in the large conurbations of the area. It may be that they would like the employment that fracking would generate. But he should first ask himself whether he'd welcome the industry, with its associated infrastructure, to the Test Valley, or wherever his favourite place of unspoiled beauty is. One of my interlocutors argued stoutly in Lord Howell's defence on the grounds of our need for cleaner energy sources and of the North east's need for employment. I tend to agree that the evidence for associated seismic activity and pollution of watercourses is dubious, though not disproved. On the other hand another uncertainty is whether our reserves would prove sufficient to contribute significantly to our energy security. It's very doubtful. Sadly because of our and Europe's inaction we have almost lost one of the renewable energy industries in which we were world leaders, the production of top-grade silicon wafers, essential ingredients of solar panels, to a hugely subsidised Chinese industry. 

As a heavily populated small island, the scope for producing sustainable energy without adverse environmental impact is indeed taxing. Every scheme that's proposed should be weighed against what will be lost. Lord Howell's defender lives on the West Sussex coast. I asked him, "I agree about energy supplies, and that our rather feeble efforts at renewables aren't enough. But the question remains: would YOU be happy to see the infrastructure accompanying fracking on the South Downs?" To give him his due, he replied, "I would accept it, if somewhat reluctantly." I wonder if Baron Howell of Guildford, Penton Mewsey, would be so noble... There are tracts of uninhabited desolate arable land and copses just north of the village, I see from Google Earth. I'm sure gas would be much more profitable than wheat and pheasants. And there's lots of it in Hampshire, we're told... 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Hot Cripple

This is dedicated to Jeannie Jones.

You might be forgiven for thinking that "hot cripple" is a description of me at the moment. Well, it's true. It could well be! I'm hot (in the literal sense); and I'm a cripple, also literally. However - it's not. It's the title of the book I've just finished reading. I was recommended it by my New York friend, Jeannie, who also has PLS.

I must say it's great read. One reviewer called it "hilarious and harrowing" - which is pretty accurate. If you'd like a short (1 minute) trailer for it you could watch this. For a longer taste of its (strong) content you could watch this 15-minute version of Hogan Gorman's stage show which gave rise to the book. The book should be compulsory reading for MPs and anyone inclined to privatise the National Health Service, and for those who reckon that benefit claimants are shirkers and fraudsters.

It's ex-model and aspiring actress, Hogan Gorman's true account of being hit by a car reversing at 40 mph down a one-way street in New York and sustaining life-threatening injuries. As the paramedic comments, "I can't believe you're alive. When I saw the car I was sure you were a DOA" (dead on arrival). The snag is that, being a waitress, Hogan does not have health insurance - it doesn't go with the job. And so she falls prey to the also-ran medical provision for the unlucky millions of Americans who can have no private cover. The saving grace of her story of progressive degradation and repeated humiliation at the hands of an inhuman (with one or two exceptions) bureaucracy is the humour with which she recounts it. But there is no escaping the suffering she endures along with others she meets in the social security offices and the disability assessment centres and finally in the courts. She has to face the stigma of living on food stamps ($4.7 a day - that's just over £3). She undergoes sub-standard medical treatment, because the "best" doctors are doing the insurance cases, and as a result she has to resort to a 100% loan to cover the cost of putting it right. And so the catalogue of horror continues. I'm not going to tell the whole story, because I'd like you to read it (I'm hoping you won't be offended by the street language - not stronger than we're used to on TV). And in case you're concerned, I have to say it is not at all a dark book. Indeed I would say it's intensely life-affirming - almost joyous - and certainly remarkable. 

However the burning point of this post and the book is how catastrophic it would be if we ever allowed our NHS (imperfect as it may be) to be in the slightest eroded. It's also a strong warning-call, from someone who really knows, of the perils of the American system of social security to which we seem so curiously attracted. I challenge you not to be challenged and made indignant by all that Hogan is forced, through no fault of hers, to endure. From all inhuman systems, good Lord deliver us.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

More heat than light in Iraq

I sometimes think that our Western tendency to intervene in other nations' affairs is like children finding a big firework and lighting the blue touch paper and standing back to see what happens. We mean it for the best - but the resulting explosion, though creating extensive copy and great pictures for our media, has tragic consequences for those in the vicinity, those who can't stand well back.

I'm provoked once again to think of this by a report in Reuters by Samia Nakhoul returning to Baghdad ten years after the American/British invasion of Iraq. He starts "The last time I left Baghdad was on a stretcher." He had been covering the "liberation" for Reuters from the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel when it was hit by a shell of an advancing American tank. He gives an extensive personal account of what he found on his return. The survey does not make a comforting read. He concludes:
"I cannot make up my mind which is worse: Damascus at war or Baghdad under democracy. As a friend once told me: In the Middle East wars don't bring peace, they bring bigger wars."

Nakhoul particularly highlights the Shia-Sunni division that is such a cause of tension. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni; the current Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is a Shi'ite as are 60% of the population. As far as I know the only man working with leaders of the two religious sects is Andrew White, vicar of Baghdad, that tireless worker for peace, who regularly sits down with both together. From his accounts, the leaders share a desire for an end to the violence and for reconciliation. One wonders where the fuel for conflict comes from and who stokes it.

Traffic lights in Baghdad, supplied by the British Army, but not
up to the heat (60ºC) of Iraq [Photo: Andrew White]