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Doublethink

Who’d’ve thought that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, was such a George Orwell fan. (Although strangely John Major was the prototype for Tory PMs when he plundered the socialist’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for many of the middle England images that peppered his Back to Basics speech in 1993.) Our current incumbent appears mightily influenced by the dystopian world of 1984 with its Big Brother, thoughtcrime, memory holes and newspeak.

We’ve watched the comedy of the European veto that didn’t stop anything. Cringed at the farce accompanying the Big Society which despite multiple relaunches is no longer mentioned even by its main protagonist. And now we are witnessing the unfolding tragedy behind the pledge to be ‘the greenest government ever’. This hubristic claim was made way back in the euphoric early days of the coalition government on 14 May 2010 to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on a trip round Whitehall to explain the new government.

It began with him telling us that he ‘cared passionately’ about the environment and saw real possibilities in boosting initiatives in the area. Then came the ill-fated forestry sell off proposals. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible – in its own words – “for the protection and expansion of Britain’s forests and woodlands”. In England it manages 250,000 hectares comprising approximately 1,500 forests, including the Forest of Dean, the New Forest and Kielder Forest which is about 18% of the total woodland. Back in January 2011 the government pledged to sell off 15% of this holding by 2015. Cue public outrage and scathing criticism from august organisations like the National Trust, Ramblers and RSPB. Not to forget the Daily Telegraph and the Today programme. It was the making of 38 Degrees and the virtual world of groups like mumsnet were awash with scornful comments on the proposal. All swiftly followed by a rapid u-turn by the government. So far so bad and not very green.

Then there’s the solar panel fiasco. The government is committed to increasing the amount of energy generated from renewable sources. Back in 2010 before a subsidy was introduced for those generating power from solar panels we created a derisory 30 megawatts. In October 2011 we had increased this to a much better figure of 321 megawatts (an impressive tenfold increase.) Over 90,000 homes, including me, had carried out installation. This not only sounds like a success but is a success. So what does DECC do – with effect from 12 December it slashes the tariff rate from 43p per kilowatt hour to 21p a full 5 months ahead of schedule and 2 weeks before it’s own consultation period considering the issue was due to close. This prompted successful legal action by Friends of the Earth challenging the legitimacy of this decision and a whole industry warning it was close to collapse meaning the possible loss of over 15,000 jobs. The courts ruled the government’s tariff change illegal and their whole policy is left in disarray – sound familiar?

What about the Green Investment Bank I hear you ask. Frequently trotted out by ministers wishing to establish their green credentials it will not be able to borrow money for years. Fuel duty was reduced in the budget and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suffered savage cuts. Local councils are laying off rights of way staff left, right and centre and Greg Clark, the Planning minister, proposed planning reforms that would have seen our current 1,000+ pages of policy reduced to just 52. One wonders what they’ve filled out the 52 with because the new policy appears to be ‘build where you bloody well like’ at the same time as completely scrapping the equally important environmental and social elements of the system. Conflating ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainable economic growth’ has meant, according to the Commons select committee responsible for reviewing the reforms, the strong possibility that there will be more legal actions challenging proposals not less.

But the final nail in the ‘greenest government ever’ coffin came in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. “We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs out of Britain” announced George Osborne in promising amongst other things an airport, at great environmental cost, in the Thames estuary that no one wants or needs.  Incidentally he seemed to be harking back to an industrial old Britain redolent of Orwell’s novels. In addition to this support for heavy industry, he spoke of the “ridiculous cost” that EU initiatives on the environment were imposing on firms, and emphasised the burden that green policies were placing on the economy. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Environment Secretary, is said to be furious, having not been consulted.

So the journey from the noble aspiration of being ‘the greenest government ever’ to becoming the most environmentally destructive government to hold power in this country since the modern environmental movement was born is complete. At the heart of the problem is not just austerity, but the perception in government that pursuing green policies is an inconvenient burden on the economy rather than a necessity and an opportunity.

After all that national gloom let’s take a quick look at some local disquiet. Those of you familiar with the Capital Ring will remember that the route takes you through the grounds of the unbelievably posh, public Harrow School as part of one stretch. Up until 8 years ago I understand it followed the route of a 19th century footpath. I am familiar with the route – known as Footpath 57 to the local authority – and have always enjoyed it for the marvellous vista of London as you walk down from Harrow on the Hill.

A few years ago the school wanted to further develop the grounds and 2 more all-weather pitches were proposed to be built on top of the right of way. I say more because if you visit this part of London it seems to have more pitches than Hackney Marshes. As I understand it the local Ramblers, being a co-operative bunch, agreed as long as an alternative route was created. The path you walk today is clearly signed as permissive and Harrow School swiftly built the pitches but as yet have not confirmed the other route as a path that would be available as a right for everyone to walk for ever.

Not only that but they are now threatening to shut the permissive path as a part of their ‘developing anti-trespass policy’. This policy seems to be ‘developing’ along standard class warfare lines. They’re rich and arrogant and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. They think that just because they charge £30,000 a year per student and a couple of their ex-pupils were Prime Minister they can do what they like. Their attitude has always been one of sufferance. Go along and walk this part of the Capital Ring and you’ll notice numerous large signs telling you where you can’t walk in contrast to the smaller fingerposts showing you the correct route. I found the atmosphere is unwelcoming and hostile, while for others I’ve spoken to the route is confusing which leads to a wandering about looking for the right path.

As I understand it the local council, are supporting North West London Ramblers in their struggle with Harrow School. As local councillor Sue Anderson (Labour, Greenhill) said: “I think the area should be open as it is a right of way and you can’t just fence that off”. And Gareth Thomas (Labour), Harrow West MP, has added: “The route has been here for decades and it’s not right to block the footpath. I hope the school will listen to the public who use the path.”  It is to be hoped that common sense prevails and this doesn’t end up in the courts because the school should not get away with their selfish decision to make this area even more exclusive. Why not add your weight to this argument and let the school know you want to use the path.

George Orwell described doublethink as the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Put into practice nationally and locally it’s enough to make this grown man cry.

Things to do instead of/as well as crying:

Join The Ramblers

Fit solar panels

Oppose the Thames Estuary airport

Contact Harrow Council about Rights of Way

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here:

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Walk Don’t Run

Pink Floyd – Run Like Hell

Listen to:

Stonestorm – Doublethink

British Sea Power – Who’s In Control

Ry Cooder – No Banker Left Behind

Eurythmics – Doubleplusgood

Build Buildings – A Solar Panel

Billy Bragg – We’re Following The Wrong Star

Steve Harley – Harrow On The Hill

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In the bleak midwinter (December 2010)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Very appropriate except it probably should say ‘just a while ago’ and they’re not kidding with the ‘snow on snow, snow on snow’ bit are they? On Saturday 18th trusting to the weather reports I popped out to the shops for the paper and a spot of panic buying early in the morning. The Met Office forecast snow at around noon. Almost as I shut my front door the few flakes fluttering lazily down from leaden skies turned into a howling blizzard. By the time I reached the main road the snow was crunching noisily under my boots and collecting on my eyelashes. The journey down by the river truly was magical.

The snow abated early afternoon leaving a crisp white even covering of about 6 cms. The birds seeing their chance descended on the feeding pole in our front garden with some relish. It’s a pretty grim time for garden birds; smaller birds like wrens lose the heat from their bodies pretty quickly, so they need to be eating all the time to survive. Trouble is they really need us to be putting food out for them because the berries on trees, the insects and fish in frozen ponds and rivers, small mammals, or the worms and insects in the frozen ground are all inaccessible. But they love grated cheese, porridge oats, fruit, cooked pasta and rice (before sauce), cooked potatoes, and unsalted bacon, cooked or raw. Festive things like pastry and cake crumbs are also welcome.

Sport was another big casualty of the weekend. I’d been looking forward to watching the mighty Chelsea get back on form by beating Manchester U but that game was called off a day early. Post has been severely interrupted as well – not great at this time of year. (Hope of everybody who Amazon’d their presents got their stuff delivered on time – aah the worries of modern life.) But talking about post my favourite Christmas card is without doubt the one that has an Edwyn Collins illustration of a robin on the front.

With the snow largely melted from London on Tuesday evening (winter solstice day) with images of Odin slaying the frost giant Ymir playing in my head I set off to lead a Metropolitan Walkers walk based around Dickens in London. I’m a big Dickens fan me – and Wilkins Micawber always seems appropriate but even more so these days: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short, you are for ever floored.” They don’t write ‘em like that anymore – well sadly not George Osborne’s speechwriters anyway. (You young readers might want to find an old person to explain the vagaries of pre-decimalized currency to you. And anybody who can explain to me whether ‘Oik’ Osborne has any economic theory, however misguided, underpinning his cost cutting programme would be more than welcome.)

After a very enjoyable walk I had a couple of beers in The Dickens Inn at St Katherine’s Dock. I couldn’t find any connection to Dickens himself but thinking it was just a ruse to drag in the tourists I was told that one of his great great grandchildren opened the pub here years ago when the re-development of Docklands began. The journey home was definitely messy. Held up for over 45 minutes at Earls Court while police attempted to clear revellers off the rails near West Kensington I was forced to re-route to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line and catch a 24 hour bus back home. Got in just before 2 am. Ah the problems of winter travel in the UK. So with the modern version of the Nativity apparently being no room at the airport terminal I hope you all had a great holiday break.

Listen to:

Annie Lennox – In The Bleak Midwinter

Edwyn Collins – Girl Like You

Dolly Parton – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Winter Makes You Want Me More

Charles Dickens – Christmas Ghosts

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Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m lucky enough to have Richmond Park on my doorstep. (Well obviously not literally on my doorstep or else I wouldn’t need to work for a living but it is about 10 minutes away.) This means with relatively little effort I can enjoy its pleasures at dawn and dusk – times when despite the 4 million+ visitors every year, I seem to have the 1000 hectares to myself to enjoy the abundant flora and fauna. In 1625 Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague in London and turned it into a park for red and fallow deer. His decision, in 1637, to enclose the land was not popular with the local residents, but he did allow pedestrians the right of way. To this day the rights of way along with walls remain, although the latter have been partially rebuilt and reinforced. Perhaps because of decisions like this Richmond Park has changed little over the centuries and although it is surrounded by human habitation, the varied landscape of hills, woodland gardens and grasslands set among ancient trees abound in wild life.

There are 2 separate herds of deer – about 300 Red deer along with 350 Fallow deer – who call the park home. The other evening, having entered using Sheen Gate I came across a huge herd almost immediately. They’re very used to gawping visitors but seem to take even less interest at dawn and dusk when they spend their time heads down relentlessly chewing the grass. Having finally settled down – it was more deluge and swollen river than ‘mist and mellow fruitfulness’ a couple of weeks ago – autumn is its normal dynamically changing self. (Isn’t it strange that many of the sayings that you used to scoff at when young turn out to be true – it really has been nice weather for ducks.) The trees here in the park are a glowingly rich tapestry of reds, yellows, browns and green. The ground is strewn with conkers, sweet chestnuts (these seem to be a bumper crop this year) and exotic funghi.

With the views of London sprawling out in the distance (St Paul’s cathedral is only 12 miles away) offering a constant reminder of the modern urban world I work my way towards Poets Corner. Here you can find the Ian Dury Bench. Take your iPod/mp3 headphones along, plug them into the sockets in the arms and you can listen to many of his most popular songs via the magic of solar power. Definitely a reason to be cheerful. The park is also one of the stars of this year’s BBC Autumnwatch – I wonder if they’ll find time amongst the birds, deer and badgers to visit the bench.

 

And right now everybody who loves the environment needs all the reasons to be cheerful we can find. Just before the Chancellor of the Excheqeur, delivered the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England said: “The next decade will not be nice”. As we listened to George ‘Oik’ Osborne slash and burn his way through modern life we had many hints of just how ‘not nice’ the near future is likely to be. Amongst other things half a million public sector jobs to be lost, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see a 24.1% budget cut over the next four years and planning and development slimmed down to remove burdens from the developer. I can’t help thinking that this isn’t being built on any sound economic foundation but based more on wishful thinking like the lyrics from the Deadwood Stage:

There’s a hill of gold just a-waiting for a shovel to ring.
When I strike it rich, going to sit in a hammock and swing,
twiddling my thumbs and rockin’ away.
So, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!

The devil is going to be in the detail and this review has certainly signposted a lot of detail. Speaking at the Nagoya conference in Japan, Environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced a government commitment of £100m for international forestry projectswhich is greatat the same time as stories began to surface back home that thousands of hectares of UK government owned forest land is likely to be for sale through the Forestry Commission – which ain’t so good. With the Environment Agency and Natural England behaving like Victorian children, cowering in the corner and definitely to be seen and not heard, it has proved incredibly difficult to discover much detail about how the environment cuts will affect us all. All this is very appropriate for Halloween weekend but to quote a well known country & western song this looks like it’s definitely going to be a hard row to hoe –   now how do I get to that bench again? 

It’s not all doom and gloom in the Hero household though. Of course there’s the mighty Chelsea 5 points clear at the top of the Premiership and 4 wins out of 4 in the Champions League. There’s Hitsville USA – a history of Tamla Motown currently airing on Radio 6 and these days I’m working for the RSPB as their London Groups Officer.

Listen to:

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

Smashing Pumpkins – Raindrops + Sunshowers

Bombay Bicycle Club – Autumn

The Kinks – Autumn Almanac

Doris Day – The Deadwood Stage (Whip Crack-Away)

Tommy Webb – Hard Row To Hoe

The Miracles – Got A Job – Single Version

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