Cut to the Chase!

What do you suppose is the biggest threat to planet Earth? It’s a tricky question. Perhaps it can be answered by calculating the relative proportions of news coverage devoted to various global menaces.
Many would say terrorism, and it would be a fair answer, judging by newspaper headlines and daily bulletins. Who couldn’t fail to be frightened by the actions of those who hold life so cheaply? We identify with those who are held hostage and look on in horror as they are shown kneeling at the mercy of their captors and aware of the appalling fate that awaits them. Just when everyone is reeling from suicide bombings some new ghastly and shocking strategy is developed to horrify the infidels.
Then there is disease. Ebola is racing like a bushfire in West Africa, threatening to spread into the wider world. Even if it is to be contained some other, terrifying disease will take over and need to be subdued.
And what about resistance to antibiotics? This could constitute the biggest scare humanity has known since the wonder drug that is penicillin was invented.
Wars? Famine? Financial meltdowns? There are plenty of world disasters to choose from. But to me the single most compelling, the most threatening and insidious peril is climate change-overwhelming all other dangers like an eclipse.
Take Australia. The country is suffering from ever hotter and drier summers, rendering increasingly more of the land uninhabitable as fires and soaring temperatures become the norm. A similar picture is painted in parts of Africa. In other areas of the world flooding and torrential rains have made life untenable as people seek ever more inventive ways to survive. In the future populations will need to move into the parts of the planet that can be lived in comfortably [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/28/climate-change-has-arrived-global-warming-icecaps-deserts].
This summer, whilst on our travels we met several couples who had travelled north from their southern Spanish retirement idylls to seek cooler conditions further north [in the South of France]. One couple explained that around their hilltop villa near Cadiz the temperature was too hot [in the 50s] to go outside and uncomfortable inside with the air conditioning unit going full throttle. It must be prohibitive to fuel such air conditioning-what of those who cannot afford the cost?
And what of those who cannot afford to move, make alterations or adapt? They are the unlucky ones; those who had the misfortune to be born in countries bearing the brunt of the climate changes.
Meanwhile we are all sleepwalking into an uncertain future as we bomb each other to smithereens and wring our hands over financial recession. What idiots humans are!

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Weather or not?

                So here in the South of the UK we have been deluged by storms, wild winds and relentless rain since early December. Yet curiously, the press continues to feature the stories of fallen trees, collapsed roads and rail networks, homes without power , flooded buildings and drownings as if they were news. How many people are left who are surprised by the endless flood of stories and the deluge of videos on the subject?

                Elsewhere in the world, large tracts of land are drought and fire ridden or have been locked into a standstill by statistic-busting snowfalls and gigantic freeze-ups. Presumably their journos and pursuing a similar line of ceaseless weather reportage. Is anyone else suffering from weather news fatigue, as I am?

                Here on England’s South coast we have been battered and buffeted enough to have sprung some leaks and lost some roof tiles, a nuisance and an expense if nothing else, but of course you can only feel sympathy for those whose properties have been flooded and ruined for the second, third or even fourth time in one winter. This weather, they all agree, is unprecedented. I feel sure that the Australian home owners who have lost everything in bush fires must feel the same. Is there anyone left who is still a climate change sceptic? Whether you believe it is man-made or not, that it is happening cannot be denied.

                We in the so called democratic countries elect our ruling parties on the strength of their policies, do we not? But can there be an issue in the world that is more pressing, more urgent than climate change? I don’t think so. Yes, terrorism is a frightening prospect, economic depressions affect everyone and the world’s dwindling resources provoke anxiety-but all of these issues, I believe are connected to the increasing gap between rich and poor [yes-even terrorism] which is a direct result of climate conditions. The poorest peoples live in the places that struggle most with inhospitable weather, most in Africa. These are the places where extremist, terrorist groups are most likely to get a toehold and then a stranglehold, where a population is starved and impoverished and unable to respond or retaliate.

                And so what have the developed nations done? Have they got together to implement policies for world good? Have they agreed to share resources, work out ways to minimise damage, acknowledge that fossil fuels are not going to last forever, that sustainable energy sources are vital and that the needs of the starving, desperate peoples on the planet must be addressed by all of us? No. Some lip service has been paid. The UN has been meeting since 1992 and has still not reached any binding agreement. Have an expensive, lavishly serviced meeting of world leaders [all arriving in expensive, heavily guarded private aircraft], wring their hands a bit and go away again.

                The world’s populations will just have to shift. The peoples of the more advantaged nations will have to accommodate those whose environments have become uninhabitable. This will leave vast areas of the planet devoid of humans. What wonderful places they will be!

Elvis and the Egyptian Odyssey

                In the 1970s I undertook some independent, backpacker type travel to Egypt. This meant heaving round a large rucksack and using local transport, in the main, although when you are young this kind of travel seems adventurous rather than daunting. The trip involved flights to Athens, ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria [two days on a vehicle ferry, nights on deck in a sleeping bag], finding a hotel on arrival, moving on by bus to Cairo, finding a hotel, travelling to Luxor down along the Nile on a sleeper train and on to Aswan by minibus; five weeks in all. It was my first sojourn outside of Europe.

                Arriving to the port of Alexandria was a culture shock, since I had not expected Africa’s north coast to feel so alien, so exotic or unnerving. After a long, slow entry through early morning mist to the quayside past skeletal wrecks of long sunken vessels we docked, to be met by a teeming array of jostling, robed porters, hawkers and tourist fleecers. Alighting from the ferry there followed a brief, unseemly struggle to retain control of my rucksack but apart from this there was little to cause alarm or suspicion during the entirety of the trip.

                Everyone we met was eager to help, and not necessarily for remuneration. An enquiry re whereabouts of hotels would be met by offers to accompany us, carry luggage etc. On bus journeys, where the vehicle would resemble a termite nest we would invariably stand, but seated passengers would take items we were carrying on their laps. Conversations were struck wherever we went, with the local population keen to find out about us. There was no suspicion, threat or mistrust.

                The festival of Ramadan took place towards the end of our stay. We’d returned to Alexandria with a few days free to visit the beach and relax. Waiting for a bus to take us back from the beach to the town a couple in a car stopped and offered us a lift. “Did we know”, they asked us, “that Elvis Presley died today?”

                They were keen to chat, needing to pass the time until they could break their fast and eat. I fell ill with food poisoning two days before we left for Piraeous and was compelled to run the gauntlet of the doorless holes in the ground that amounted to the ferry terminal ‘facilities’. Despite this I retained memories of Egypt as a fascinating, beautiful country; packed with history, enigma and mystique.

                I have made one more visit to Egypt since that time-to the tourist Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, for one week-and one week too many!

                I feel no more desire to return to Egypt now than to stick my hand into a hornets’ nest. Nor do I wish to visit any troubled Moslem countries. In the forty or so years that have passed since that innocent piece of travel those parts of the world have changed, become edgy, uneasy places at best-war torn hell holes at worst. Are we ever to move on from historic grievances, bury hatchets and let the by’s be gone? Or are we to be forever the ‘infidel’ and they, forever the ‘heathen’, locked into a spiral of hate and mistrust?

                Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. I will always know what year it was that Elvis died…it was 1977.

The Rock and the Hard Place

                Gibraltar is an absorbing place. If you are driving there, as we did, you must first negotiate one of the most unattractive parts of the Mediterranean coast of Spain, consisting mainly of a gigantic oil refinery at Algeciras, then deal with crossing the ‘border’-a matter of sitting in a vehicle queue for an extremely long time [even more so at present] and often in very high temperatures, followed by having to drive across an airport runway, which is at best an unnerving experience.

                Most people know Gibraltar to consist of one enormous great rock sitting on a peninsula which protrudes into the Mediterranean just before the rounded corner of Spanish coastline where the East meets the South. For some complicated, historic reason dating back to 1704 when it was captured by the Dutch and the British it actually belongs to the UK. Its area is only about two and a half square miles, but the population, which inhabits a crowded area at the foot of the rock, is 30,000.

                This population is remarkably mixed, for a UK territory, but consists of a vast number of Spanish, among others. Despite this Gibraltar retains a strong colonial flavour, sticking strongly to what used to be British traditions, cuisine and customs-more ‘British’ than the British. As you stroll along the shopping streets you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been teleported to Exeter High Street or Swindon town centre-with a few flourishes of Whitehall from the odd palace or mansion house flanked by plumed guards and a forest of flags, plus red telephone and post boxes.  All this is peppered with Ye Olde British pubs plugging pints, Sunday roast with all the trimmings and fish and chips whatever the weather.

                There is a cable car to get you up to the top of the rock, where you will have to dodge the marauding Barbary apes in order to catch what is a breathtaking view- the distant African shores and the sparkling Med dotted with myriad oil tankers. While you are taking it all in the bandit monkey gang will be mugging you for everything you have whilst spitting, baring their teeth and even biting in a most delinquent manner should you dare to remonstrate.

                All this renders Gibraltar a small gold mine in terms of tourism, but still more, it is the online gambling hub of the world and offers cheap fags, booze and petrol as well as being the gateway to Africa. So little wonder the Spanish would like it to belong to them.

                I fail to understand why countries should continue to own small bits of other countries far away, when the reasons for their ownership are so entrenched in the distant past. Spain itself owns Ceuta, a small bit of land sticking on the end of Morocco. The UK insists on hanging on to The Falklands. Yes, we all know it’s all about resources, and the inhabitants don’t want the change, but the handover can be over a period of time, as with Hong Kong, to give everyone a chance to adjust.

                Colonialism should be firmly set in the past. These days we ought to know better, oughtn’t we?

Relieved it’s over…but where was the comedy?

                It is a poignant demonstration of advancing years to be able to remember ‘Liveaid’ in vivid detail. It happened in 1985. As far as I can tell it was the first of the big, blockbusting, heart-wrenching, celebrity-wridden charity-thons that have now become as much embedded in the fabric of our TV viewing as the weather forecast.

                Liveaid was a thrilling event for me at the time. Incarcerated as I was, with two tiny tots and no prospect of a night out, it was the closest I was likely to get to a rock, or pop concert or indeed any kind of live entertainment [with the exception of ‘Postman Pat’ on stage at our local provincial theatre]. It was an iconic, riveting, humdinger of a concert, gluing us all to our screens so that we were hardly able to leave the room to put the kettle on, let alone make dinner or put children to bed, lest we miss Freddy Mercury strutting and cavorting or U2 belting out ‘In the Name….’ or The Who [whose set was disrupted by a few technical hitches, I seem to remember].

                Nowadays charity fundraising events are part of the calendar, like Halloween or Mothers Day. Of course they are commendable, valuable exercises in drumming up cash for worthy causes, but am I alone in feeling fatigued by them? Yes, the likes of Lenny Henry, Dawn French etc have worked hard and no doubt selflessly every year to top previous the year’s total and are to be admired and thanked, and I am in no way criticising the ethic behind charity and the giving, but isn’t it time we approached national and world poverty in a different way?

                A cynic would say that the ‘slebs’ are not all wholly in it for altruistic reasons. I’m sure it does nothing to harm Claudia Winkelman’s career to be out there, yet again, ‘presenting’. [Why is she on almost every TV programme?]. But you have to wonder what the poor, sick people of Africa have done to deserve to be visited by the likes of ‘One Direction’. Isn’t their predicament desperate enough already? And these ‘slebs’ are not short of a bob or two themselves. They are asking recession-hit Brits to dig deep into almost empty pockets. Why not simply forget about the dodgy comedy and donate a big wodge themselves?

                Watching Jessie Jay have her head shaved, or Simon Cowell pretending to be a comedian does not provoke me into getting my cheque book out. What does affect me though, is to see and hear stories about struggling peoples’ lives. Back in 1985 it was Michael Burke’s tragic and moving account of the starvation and dying children in Ethiopia that brought tears to the eyes. Surely some sympathetic journalism, together with taxation and a consistent, philanthropic approach by governments in wealthier nations makes more sense than this tired circus that comes round with relentless regularity?

…or am I too much of a party pooper?