Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Enough to drive you mad...


Ever get the feeling that there are too many cars on the roads?

I don't particularly like cars. I've always thought of them as being slightly right-wing; all that emphasis on personal space and containment from the outside world with all those other people in it. Nothing like the spirited camaraderie that we folk who muck in together on public transport have, none of that Blitz-era British pluck. And we're not polluting the planet or giving our kids asthma either. Well, at least not as much.

So when I got a bus home from town just a couple of hours ago - a distance of only two or three miles - I was less than amused to find it cost a grand total of £1.70. That's a full 20 pence more than the fare on the coach from London to Leeds I got at the beginning of the month, and even that included a 50 pence fee for the privilege of having the ticket sent to my mobile because I couldn't print the thing out.

Now I appreciate that the two are not a straightforward comparison - there would have been plenty of people on that coach who had paid more to be there - but that doesn't abate the irritation of having to cough up almost half an hour's worth of pay at the minimum wage level for a bus ride that barely left the city centre. It's enough to make one spill one's frothy mocaccino all over one's copy of The Guardian.

But my point is not merely some personal gripe. The steep hike in bus fares in West Yorkshire has seen a dramatic fall in passenger numbers over the past decade, and it's not difficult to see why. Local government consultations may point the way to extra bus lanes or a more comfortable ride as the way to prise people out of their cars and getting more bums on seats, but the truth is much more prosaic; just make it cheaper. Simples.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

The journey of a lifetime


I've just sent off my application for the Royal Geographical Society and Radio 4's Journey of a Lifetime. The scheme, in the words of the RGS, is a £4,000 grant "for an original and inspiring journey anywhere in the world, awarded to those with a curiosity about the world and the desire to communicate with a wider audience." In other words, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to any location on the planet and record the experience in a documentary for Radio 4. It would be an absolute dream to win, combining as it does my twin passions for travel and journalism. The competition, unsurprisingly, is fierce.

This is the fourth year in a row I've applied, and my latest proposal is fairly similar to the previous one; a trip to Tuva, in deepest Siberia, following in the footsteps of someone who never actually made it there. Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynmen, who died of cancer in the late 1980s, long dreamt of visiting this distant land and his efforts to do so are recorded in the classic book Tuva or Bust! The journey would not only be an exploration of this utterly remote and mystical place, but also of the spirit of a maverick who never faltered in his passion to discover new things.

The deadline isn't until September, so I've got a long wait to find out whether I've been successful or not. Here's to dreaming...

Friday, 24 April 2009

The death of Saint George


It was St George's Day yesterday. I suspect many people in the country weren't even aware that it was, let alone celebrate it in whatever way they deemed fit.

In fact, this anonymity has actually spawned an event in itself; a kind of annual handwringing over why St George's Day is not generally celebrated by the people of England, and why this contrasts so sharply with the day's counterparts in Scotland, Wales and in particular Ireland where nationalistic celebrations are far more in vogue. That the culturally Irish St Patrick's day is more widely celebrated in England than St George's has been widely noted by commentators.

The usual answers crop up year after year; that the English are just not very good at doing nationalism, that there is a sense of shame of a colonial past (even though the British Empire was, as the name suggests, a collaborative effort between all the peoples of the British Isles), or that the English have never really been oppressed in the same way as their Celtic brethren have. Or could it be that in multi-cultural England such overt displays of nationalism are associated with intolerance and the far right?

Or, just maybe, it could be something else entirely. Could it be that overt displays of nationalism are actually indicative of a kind of collective insecurity? That an excessive need to celebrate a cultural identity that one had no influence in choosing is, well, rather immature? After all, it's important to note that each particular patron's day is really a celebration of the cultural identity associated with that saint, rather than the saint himself.

I don't seem to be the only one who shares this point of view. Outspoken TV historian David Starkey managed to upset around half of Scotland in a recent discussion on the BBC's Question Time. Whilst it was perhaps rather unwise of Mr Starkey to disparage an entire nation, or at least let himself to be perceived as such, he did make a very valid point; that overt displays of nationalism are not only undesirable, but also rather narrow-minded.

And so maybe that's the real reason why St George's Day is not overtly celebrated in England. Perhaps the English are so comfortable with their identity that they don't feel the need to shout it out loud to excess once a year. Perhaps the English people realise that to take too much pride in something they didn't choose can only really be a bad thing; it would, after all, make much more sense to celebrate virtues such as integrity and honesty then some artificial and contrived cultural identity. Perhaps their silence is simply a sign of maturity.

Or perhaps we're all just racist bastards and are ashamed of it. Who knows...

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Sailing into stormy waters...


Earlier this week a court in Sweden jailed four men behind file-sharing website The Pirate Bay. They were also ordered to pay around £3 million in damages. Perhaps unsurprisingly they're set to appeal against the severity of the sentences in what's been described as a "landmark case". Whilst not actually hosting music and video files itself, the site allowed users to gain access to these files from other users.

Naturally, the film and music industries are delighted; they claim online piracy costs them millions of pounds a year in lost royalties and fees. John Kennedy, chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry - the global music industry body - says the case "will send out a message, even to kids, that what they thought was OK, isn't".

I've always queried the figures used by the music and film industries when it comes to illegal downloads; it is, after all, in their interest to inflate them as much as possible. But - and I have to careful what I say here - do they take into account those people who are willing to download something and watch it for free but wouldn't ever pay for it if the free option wasn't available in the first place?

The music industry seems to imply that every downloaded song is, in effect, a lost sale. Such an argument is completely disingenuous; most downloads are made because they are free and because the downloader simply wouldn't buy them at any price. It's always been free or nothing.

And doesn't downloading make accessible music and film to people who either cannot afford the prices demanded by record companies or who simply cannot access it in any other way?

The more cynical downloader might also argue that, in the case of the big names, there doesn't seem to be a particular shortage of cash flowing in their direction anyway. How much do big Hollywood stars get paid for a film's work?

One can understand why the industries want to clamp down on illegal downloading. The argument, back in the day of dodgy video cassettes and DVDs, was that it was funding organised crime and terrorist groups. Now that free downloading has rendered this argument obsolete they've turned directly onto the consumer. Their bullying tactics and manipulation of the truth won't win them many friends.

Monday, 20 April 2009

A necessary connection?


The news was positively gushing on today's edition of Look North, our daily dose of local goings-on from the BBC; Leeds-Bradford Airport is to resume direct connections to London, at apparently tremendous benefit to the Yorkshire region. Danny Carpenter's report served only to highlight the economic gains of the thrice-daily flights, with perhaps a brief mention of the difficulty of previous airlines in making this route financially viable as a warning not to get too excited too soon.

There was a complete lack of dissent. No voices questioning the necessity of duplicating a connection that already exists in the form of a frequent and fast train service that takes just over two hours to cover the 190 mile journey to the capital. No one asking if, at a time when the need for more environmentally friendly forms of transport is beginning to gain ground, more short-haul flights is what we really need. There wasn't even anyone making the rather obvious point that that the security checks and transfer times entailed by flying would render the train a far quicker option.

Now it might not be the fault of the reporter; these people may have simply been unavailable for comment. But I couldn't have been the only one wanting these questions asked and finding them distinctly lacking. Perhaps next time I'll have to volunteer my services.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Picture perfect


I love taking photographs, me. So much so in fact that I upload my holiday snaps onto Google Earth, the computer programme that affords the user a bird's eye view of the entire globe. If you haven't already tried it then you must; it's an absolutely fantastic resource, if on occasion controversial. It's latest function - the aptly named Streetview - allows the user to take a virtual tour around various global cities; critics have predictably made the usual accusations of conspiracy to create a Big Brother-style society. This despite the rather obvious fact that these images are not for the sole use of a totalitarian government à la 1984 but are actually in the public domain.

However, I stray off topic; if the fancy takes you then feel free to have a look at my photos here. Comments are, as usual, always welcome.

Oh, and a prize for the first person who can correctly identify where the photo on the right was taken.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The thrill of the hunt


I spent part of the Easter break at Selby Game Fair, held at Carlton Towers in North Yorkshire. As the name suggests it's an event dedicated to the pursuit of country sports, and activities and events ranged from horse riding to falconry to dog displays to shooting.

I had expected a heavy presence from the Countryside Alliance but was surprised that supporters kept their opinions relatively low key; whether that was because it was deemed unnecessary to preach to the converted or for some other reason I don't know.

One stand that made it's feelings pretty clear, however, was that of the Scottish Association of Country Sports; amongst the graphic pictures of dead foxes and pigeons were printed slogans that were not only openly dismissive of the anti-hunt lobby but also made it quite clear that those who disagreed with their philosophy were utterly contemptable. 'Bunny huggers' was one memorable phrase. It's an interesting aspect of the hunting debate; arguments are so entirely polarised that neither side can afford any respect to their opponents. I realised that, lest I desired a beating, it would be prudent to keep my views to myself.

Another interesting aspect of the hunting debate is that I've yet to come across any convincing reason why hunting should be permitted. Indeed, most arguments seem to be rather weak attempts to divert attention from the fact that hunters hunt for one reason and one reason only - for fun. And yet it's virtually unknown for a huntsman to admit that they pursue their hobby merely for leisure; it's almost as if they know that to enjoy a hobby centred on killing requires something more morally justifiable.

Take the aforementioned SACS, for example; a poster on their stand claimed that since dogs were 'naturally' hunters and hares 'naturally' prey, hare coursing should be regarded as a thoroughly natural activity. I found this 'nature' argument rather peculiar; what's natural about domesticating dogs and training them to partake in a particular activity for the enjoyment of their owner? And what dog's diet consists entirely of this 'natural' prey? And how often do we see dogs chasing hares in the wild anyway?

Other arguments are similarly unconvincing, the 'pest control' thesis providing a notorious example.

Many members of the pro-hunt lobby argue that foxes are vermin that need to be controlled, and that hunting does just that. Without hunting, so the argument goes, the countryside would be overrun with vermin that would bring British agriculture to its knees.

It doesn't take much to realise that this is complete and utter nonsense. Proportionally hunting kills relatively few members of the fox population and thus has little impact on overall predation levels. Hunting also, by its very nature, kills more foxes who are weak and thus are less able to kill livestock in the first place. And why do we see hunting in areas which are purely reserved for arable farming? And why do we not see an explosion in fox numbers in areas where hunting no longer takes place? And is it merely coincidence that the excuse of 'pest-control' happened to develop at around the same time as the animal rights movement began to question the legitimacy of hunting?

Of the numerous studies in this area many have concluded that far greater numbers of livestock die as a result of inefficient farming practices than by predation by foxes. If the pro-hunt lobby were truly concerned about the wellbeing of British agriculture they'd be spending far more time trying to call a halt to these practices rather then killing wild animals whose impact is minimal.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Not so plastic fantastic


I have the dubious honour of working part-time in a small chain grocery store at weekends; not exactly the most glamorous of roles, but one that does offer an intriguing insight into patterns of social behaviour among customers. The near invisibility afforded by being a contemptable 'Customer Service Assistant' - checkout boy, to you and me - is an undoubted help.

Not all that long ago the ubiquity of the plastic bag, unlikely as it sounds, became a hot news story. It turns out that in the UK alone some 13 billion of the things are given away free each year, and with each one taking some 1,000 years to decay they are proving something of an environmental nuisance in this modern, greener Britain.

Upmarket foodie store Marks and Spencers started charging five pence for their plastic bags last year, and subsequent demand appears to have fallen considerably. Re-use rates have soared. Such practice is commonplace on the European mainland.

And not that long ago newspapers reported that carrier bag single usage was falling considerably; The Times, for example, argued that this was mostly down to education; that of raising public awareness of environmental issues. Expanding charging appeared unnecessary.

Now I've always been wary of placing too much emphasis on anecdotal evidence - individual experience may not always be a reliable indication of general trends. But only this past weekend I've dealt with customers who've wanted plastic bags to carry a single newspaper, or demanded double bagging to carry a bottle of wine to the car. I've even had to bag single packets of sweets. And all whilst smiling warmly.

The question is; would any of these situations have arisen if each customer had faced an additional charge for their carrier bags?

Therein lies the problem; it's all very well trying to alter behaviour through education - a commendable practice which needs to be continued - but persuading people to give up something they've come to expect for free is not so easy. In order to capitalise on those changes in attitudes already taking place it's surely time for mandatory charging for plastic bags to to rolled out across the country. The short-lived shock of having to roll up a newspaper and carry it by hand rather than by bag is a small price to pay to safeguard our future environmental well-being.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Nice work, nice claims...


Everyone seems to be at it at the moment, if by everyone we mean those fortunate enough to sit in the House of Commons. That's right - I'm talking about the seemingly fashionable habit of our Members of Parliament to force the taxpayer to foot the bill for anything and everything they deem worthy to put on expenses. These expenses, need I remind you, are meant to be those accrued in the execution of work carried out in the capacity of an MP. Jacqui Smith, with all the controversy surrounding her husband's television viewing habits and second homes, is the current poster girl for the 'expenses generation'.

There's been a curious coda to the furore. Several politicians have been quick to condemn the claims culture - witness Conservative leader David Cameron jump aboard the backlash bandwagon by pledging 'transparency' - which, it must be said, smacks of opportunism given the relative lack of enthusiasm in making such announcements prior to 'Porngate'.

Now it turns out that the five MPs who decline to take their seats in Westminster - members of Irish Republican party Sinn Féin - have also joined the bandwagon. They've claimed some £437,000 in expenses including two London flats.

Now there's nothing wrong with Shinners refusing to take their seats in parliament - an expression of their ideological opposition to the oath of allegiance to the queen that all MPs have to take - as long as such an abstentationist position is clearly understood by the electorate, which it is. It should also be said that Sinn Féin MPs do not draw a salary. It's hard not to admire politicians actually sticking to principle.

But it does seem curious that Sinn Féin's stance against the British government seems to be more relaxed in the murky and less transparent world of expenses whilst happily taking advantage of the more politically rewarding and electorally friendly platform afforded by openly boycotting salaries.

And one wonders why a party, politically opposed to the current composition of the United Kingdom - and, one suspects, the very existence of the country as a political entity in any form - thinks it reasonable for the taxpayers of that state to fund expenses incurred in the line of duty which explicitly does not include working in London. Those flats need explaining.

Paid expenses whilst not actually fulfilling the job criteria? As the old saying goes, it's nice work if you can get it...

Friday, 3 April 2009

The scourge of war


A poem by front line First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. It still resonates ninety years on...

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.