Thursday, 26 July 2007

A lesson from King Canute

As various government members make promises about funding for flood defences, while wavelets lap gently against the interior walls of thousands of dwellings, my thoughts naturally turn to King Canute. I gather he was a real king (Cnut, Knutr, reign 1016-1035, Danelaw zone only). He seems to have been a very competent leader, so if it is true that he sat on his throne on the seashore and commanded the waves not to advance, I feel sure he did so to make a point to his courtiers about the futility of claiming power over nature, rather than because he actually expected the waves to take any notice.
Perhaps there is a lesson for us here. I would guess that a modern King Canute would not trust entirely on grand engineering projects in a costly and perhaps futile effort to cope with forces whose scale was simply too great.
I am no expert, but I have consulted people who are, and I am convinced that the key is prevention, or at least mitigation: to plant belts of trees on hilltops and slopes to absorb rainfall and anchor topsoil in place. King Canute would not recognize England today: in his time there were vast tracts of forest. I think he would be aghast. The terrible mudslides in the Philippines of late were a more extreme result of essentially the same human activity - cutting down trees.
As for the endless miles of built-up areas in modern Britain, while we wait for government measures to replace impermeable surfaces with permeable ones which allow rainwater to soak away slowly, we can help at the individual level by installing water-butts, not concreting over our yards and gardens, and if we have to make a roadway or hard standing, using gravel, or pavers laid on sand, as I noticed they do in Amsterdam.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

On not going by car

I volunteered to deliver a round of Lib Dem leaflets in Berechurch Ward, Colchester, calling for a by-election. So on Sunday morning the leaflets, the dog and I set out from the town centre to the ward.
It is a good thing that the dog and I like walking, because cycling being ruled out (the dog would not fit in), I had planned to go by bus, but none came, and later I found out there was only one per hour. So we walked there. It was quite a long way. We delivered the leaflets. We walked back. It took about four hours, all told. This is what Sundays are like for people without cars.
The majority of houses on my round were semi-detached with open plan front gardens, a garage, and one, two or three cars and vans parked on the front area, some with a motor bike or three. This meant walking up one garden path, then hopping across to the other semi, then back to the street. So I went round a fair number of vehicles. They were of all kinds, including big, new gas-guzzlers, expensive both to buy and run. Yet these houses were modest and many were poorly maintained. That is my main impression of the visit - cars, cars, cars.
What would life be like without cars here? How are households going to manage when having a car has become too costly (which I think will be quite soon)? Their lives will be more like those of teenagers, the elderly, the blind and others who for whatever reason cannot drive. They will have to co-operate a lot more. The bus and the bicycle are lifelines, but travel by those those methods takes time. I think they will demand local shops, cafes, entertainments.
We need to prepare for when lots more people are without cars. We have hardly begun. Cars are such a habit. We are constantly told that cars mean freedom and control over our lives. It is a myth. In only a few decades cars have made suburbia possible, ruined our towns, cities and countryside, consumed our wealth, made the streets lethal to our children, enabled others to demand that we commute ridiculous distances to make a living. What sort of freedom is that?

Monday, 23 July 2007

Unwise about water

Last Friday, as I walked through the new shopping mall at Cardinal Place, Victoria with its vast area of glass roof, I said to myself: "The runoff from this place must be phenomenal." Less than an hour later the exceptional rainstorm arrived. Later that day photos on the BBC news website showed Victoria Street, Westminster transformed into a lake. Which proves my point, I think.
During the deluge itself I was in Embankment Gardens East, below the Savoy Hotel. I took refuge at the cafe there (a London treasure, but that's another blog). The waterfall gushing off the balcony roof was as if someone was pouring from a limitless bucket. When the storm passed, the tarmac path through the gardens was flooded, so I had to go along the Embankment, half of which had turned into a lake as well.
A pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter, as the rhyme goes (I don't know a metric version but I expect there is one - it probably should be in French). A large volume of water is, therefore, amazingly heavy, and destructive. Glass, concrete and tarmac everywhere: no wonder the runoff of water we are getting is so violent. We know that impermeable surfaces make it worse, yet we go on adding more. Practical wisdom, not. Truly we are a crazy species.
Another barmy thing we people do is deforestation. I first started worrying about this when I learned at school about the tragic flooding of Lynmouth in the 1950's in Devon, generally thought to have been caused by earlier deforestation. Yet loss of woodlands has carried on apace and still is. Crazy.
I'd vote for an urgent national policy of replanting deciduous woodland on all our high ground, to help soak up rain and prevent topsoil being washed away. I support the Woodland Trust, but a charity doesn't have the powers or resources to do much when private landowners won't and government is failing to act.
And I would never, ever buy a home on a flood plain, or advise anyone else to. No way. Gordo and property developers please note.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

In the long run

I was a mere spectator of the kerfuffle in Ealing Southall, what with having had far too much to do in my own patch, plus a hectic time with the day job, plus a strained Achilles tendon, plus a belief that winning Haverstock Ward, Camden (where inspired Lib Dem environmental policies are going down extremely well with local people) mattered more in the long run than not winning in Southall.
Was the blizzard of paper whizzing through those Ealing letterboxes really a good idea? I got reports that electors were fed up with the quantity of it, and obviously they were not enthused by it, because the turnout was low. And I empathised with them: I was not enthused, either, by the large number of texts and emails I received, urging various reasons why I should go and help. I fear it is counterproductive. And was it really a good idea for our MPs to cancel masses of other engagements for the duration? They have so much important work to do.
Not much media time was spent on what the issues in the contest were. And now it's all over, the abrupt halt to the effort leaving the population of Southall to their own devices again is bound to encourage them to feel cynical.
The failure of the Tory campaign in Southall seems untypical to me, because Southall itself seems untypical - at any rate, it seems that politicians changed parties for odd reasons there - at the drop of a hat, even. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I think it is the done thing, when leaving one political party and joining another, to give some sensible reason of principle or policy for it. If that happened in Southall, the publicity has not reached me. I can't keep up with the game of musical chairs that was being played there. But I don't think it teaches us much about the bigger picture.
Even if we had won the seat, its effect on the distribution of power in the House of Commons would have been insignificant.
So I don't think the huge amounts of resources expended by us - paper delivered, shoe leather worn out and so on - on the streets of Southall were worthwhile. It was wasteful, and it was not environmentally friendly.
The satisfaction of coming second is temporary. A week is not a long time in politics: it is a short time, very short. I don't think we will get anywhere by short-term positioning. And in the long run this level of effort cannot be maintained even by the two main parties, and especially by us. In the long run, the two main parties are uncertain about their direction for big reasons: big changes in the country and the world. Maybe those changes mean our values and beliefs are due for a breakthrough, but we will not make it happen this way. It just won't, until big reasons exist for people to look to our party and when they do they see in it the statesmanship to lead.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Regent's Park rubber crumb menace

City of Westminster Lib Dems are campaigning to stop current proposals to permit a company to install five-a-side football pitches for private hire in Regent's Park, sacrificing trees, wildlife habitat and the popular tennis school for something that I have never heard anyone say they want. So we are having a picnic this Sunday afternoon (weather permitting, and bring your own refreshments) at the tennis school site to enjoy it while we still can. It's the thought of the rubber crumb surface and wire netting where scores of established trees and acres of wildlife habitat used to be that motivates me. To me, without the precious green space that remains, life in this city would be intolerable.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Thoughts on the Glasgow jeep bombers

Any doubts about whether the Glasgow Airport attack was by Islamist ideologues or not were dispelled by the witness who reported that he heard one of the terrorists, his clothes on fire, shouting "Allah! Allah!" as he fought off the ambulance man who was trying to help him.
This reminds me of something that happened to my father in World War Two. As he was an outstanding pilot, he served with Air Sea Rescue. One night he went out and rescued from the sea a Nazi who had been shot down. The Nazi then tried to shoot him.
Islamists and Nazis seem to have a lot of things in common: loathing of Jews, baseless belief in their own superiority, a degree of reckless hate of which Tolkien's orcs would have been proud, are just three of them. It is not insanity because they are not delusional, in the sense of out of touch with reality. But it is something like insanity.
I don't know what Gordo means by evil, but it seems to me that those who choose to destroy and harm instead of to build and help, are, in some profound sense, defective. (Which is the opposite of what people who have been ruled by dictators seem to think: that kindness is weakness. A big mistake.) Is it that they have failed to develop the ability to empathise? Is that what was wrong with Saddam Hussein and his horrible sons?
It must be terrible for families who have to try to comprehend how their children have turned into fanatics.