Why living in the past is denying the UK a future

 

I’m as guilty as anyone of this; guiltier than most even. Apart from Max Hastings, Christopher Nolan and Gary Oldman, perhaps. I wrote The Summer of ’45 as a commemoration of the 70-year anniversary of D-Day. I worked with Dame Vera Lynn to tell her story of touring Burma and singing to the Forgotten Army in 1944. I wrote an award-winning, real-time, blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Britain on social media for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

But of course it’s not only me – we have recently had Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman won his Oscar. Dame Vera Lynn, at 100 hundred years old, was amongst the bestselling female musical artists of 2017. The British publishing industry continues to have an insatiable appetite for Second World War titles, which are eagerly consumed by wealthy Brexit-voting baby boomers who are about the only segment in society who still have the time and money to sit around actually reading a sizable quantity of books, while the rest of us work 60-plus-hour weeks just to stay afloat.

Writing about history has been a large part of my career and how the United Kingdom stood firm against Nazi Germany is a cornerstone of this country’s modern story and folklore. I think it’s important and I don’t want to knock it too much. But other countries are bemused by this obsession with the past – see for instance the German Ambassador to Britain. I share his sense of  puzzlement. I believe that as a country (and I would argue that the older generations are more to blame than the younger ones) our collective cultural obsession with the past is damaging to the UK – we are spending so much time creating and consuming cultural artefacts about the wars of the twentieth century, that there is very little space for visions of any kind about the future. It means that as a nation we are failing to adequately prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.

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The 25 year plan for the environment

So, the government – with a tap of a wand and a puff of smoke and Michael Gove’s mercurial year 10 prefect’s smirk and Theresa May’s sanctimonious ‘Caring Conservative’ face – launched their 25 year environmental plan in January. Reaction to it has been mixed. Professor Alastair Driver offered up a ‘cautiously optimistic’ verdict which chimed with my first thoughts. He writes that ‘we at Rewilding Britain feel that the content [of the plan] is promising. And we look forward to helping ensure that its delivery lives up to its aspirations for a “greener future”.’ The note of caution comes from the fact that the plan is really just a collection of well-meaning statements with no obvious plan to put any of it into action. Which made it, in the words of George Monbiot, ‘A Grand Plan to Do Nothing’.

He writes:

‘In terms of rhetoric, the 25 Year Environment Plan is in some respects the best government document I’ve ever read. In terms of policy, it ranges from the pallid to the pathetic.

‘Those who wrote it are aware of the multiple crises we face. But, having laid out the depth and breadth of our predicaments, they propose to do almost nothing about them. Reading the plan, I can almost hear the internal dialogue: “Yes, let’s change the world! Hang on a minute, what about our commitment to slashing regulations? What about maximising economic growth?”‘

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Knepp – an inspiring project

One of the problems with rewilding, as a friend knowledgeable in this area mentioned to me at the weekend, is that the people who are generally enthusiastic about it are not the ones who own the land that they want to see rewilded.

And their point was that this means the biggest proponents of rewilding can afford to be idealistic about what would they like to happen to land when they don’t rely on it to give them an income.

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Leo P – the Jimi Hendrix of the baritone sax?

To claim that anybody is the Jimi Hendrix of anything is a pretty bold and possibly silly claim and I realise that it’s one that may be open to ridicule, especially when I concede that I know almost nothing about the baritone sax and the only other player I can name off the top of my head is Harry Carney, who played so beautifully with Duke Ellington, as in this clip here:

But…

…Leo Pellegrino (or to use his stage name, Leo P – but I think he should stick with the Pellegrino name – if there’s one thing this guy has got, it’s plenty of fizz!) became a global star as millions watched the YouTube videos of him playing with the ‘brass house’ trioToo Many Zooz, busking on the New York subway.

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The problem with referendums

An often overlooked problem of the whole Brexit referendum is not the result, but the mechanism that was used to achieve it. The truth is that the United Kingdom is not used to referendums and that has meant that at least part of the crisis that has ensued from the 2016 vote has been how to interpret, contest and implement the result.

Only three referendums have ever been held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom, including the 2016 Brexit referendum. Not only that, but our first past the post electoral system means that the national result at general elections is actually only ever an aggregated result of all the separate constituency votes. In other words, the UK has a highly localised electoral system – and there is very little precedent for any sort of meaningful national vote unlike in many other countries where there are, for example, presidential elections and proportional representation on a national basis (parties are awarded seats on the basis of their percentage of the national vote) .

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The new northern forest

It looks at first glance like another environmental good story that follows in the wake of a number of other positive announcements in recent times – the government is to support the planting of 50 million trees in order to make a new northern forest that will spread across an entire swathe of the north, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. There’s a more detailed look at the project here, on the Woodland Trust website. I previously wrote on this blog about how we need more trees in this under-wooded country and so in this respect it seems like a great thing. But as Patrick Barkham points out in the Guardian, there is more than a suggestion of greenwash on the part of the government about the announcement of the new northern forest – at the same time, HS2 and fracking in northern England are destroying valuable existing habitats and trees that have stood for hundreds of years.

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Labour and a mandate for change

Journalist, activist and full-time Labour cheerleader Owen Jones (is there really only one of him?) thinks that socialism is on the way; Blairite Nick Cohen  fears a Corbyn government; Corbyn himself has hit a plateau of confidence and security as Labour leader; the Conservatives have presided over a disastrous year of British history during the shambolic Brexit negotiations; the essential creed of Conservatism that it is the defense of property rights and other vested interests is becoming increasingly exposed each day by the fact that the mythical carrot dangling out in front of voters that they too can become part of the prosperous, unmortgaged, property-owning club without having to sell their kidneys and/or their daughters has become less and less realistic to more and more people; the Conservatives are sitting on a demographic time bomb in terms of voting intention and party membership; Labour’s grass roots base has flourished with the rise of Momentum; younger voters have been emboldened  by the shit storm that is Brexit to come out and vote in greater numbers; the economy has stalled and household debt and homelessness has soared; and austerity is now hitting mainstream state provision (like primary schools, police, the NHS and firefighters) in a way that – from my own observations in a safe Conservative constituency in the south – is troubling even many traditional Conservative voters. The conclusion seems clear: Corbyn is going to be the next prime minister.

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Rafael Nadal as secular experience

 

I‘ve been a lover of tennis pretty much my whole life. For me it combines the excitement of direct confrontation – the psychological, individualistic and gladiatorial aspects of boxing – with the hand-eye co-ordination, whole-body athleticism, dexterity and skills of the best of any games involving a ball. My earliest defining tennis memory was listening on the radio to Boris Becker winning Wimbledon for the first time in 1985 when my family was on the way back from a camping trip in Dartmoor. I remember sitting on a rug amongst the dry, floral-smelling, sun-blasted heather as Becker defeated Kevin Curren in four sets. Since then I have followed the game almost constantly. Yet in terms of being a fan of a particular player, or being drawn into the (essentially silly) debate over who is the greatest male tennis player of all time (or – to use an acronym I have always hated – the GOAT), I have always stayed well clear. On the odd occasion that I do look at reader comments when I’m reading online articles, all I generally see is a lot of tedious, tendentious polemics about why Roger or Rafa or Nole or Andy is so great – the first sure sign of a tennis superfan is that they always call their idol by their first name or an affectionate nickname. Just to be clear: I will use the conventional system of writing out names in full on first mention, then surnames afterwards.

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Dame Vera Lynn’s new book

 

Dame Vera Lynn's new book Keep Smiling Through

 

Dame Vera Lynn’s new book Keep Smiling Through: My Wartime Story is published today by Century. Vera turned 100 earlier this year and I have been fortunate enough to work with her and her daughter Virginia Lewis-Jones in telling the remarkable story of her visit to entertain the troops in Burma in 1944.

Her visit coincided with the turning point in the war in the Far East and she was close to the front as the pivotal battles of Kohima and Imphal were being fought. Vera had just turned twenty-seven, and had only been out of the country once before, but she wanted to do ‘her bit’ to help.

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A new charter – and a new chance – for trees in the UK

 

 

I wanted to write something about the launch of the tree charter on 6 November, which hasn’t been widely covered in the media, but I did find this great piece by Boudicca Fox-Leonard (what a name!) in the Telegraph that seems to cover most of what I wanted to say, which either means I’m not nearly as original as I thought I was, or I’m in exalted company in thinking along the same lines as Ms Fox-Leonard!

Her piece begins with a wonderful sentence: ‘In slides the shovel, out comes a clod of earth; a delicate sapling is dropped into the neat hole and soil repacked around it.’ She mentions the fact that our percentage of tree cover in the UK is far below the European average. Across the UK it stands at around 13 per cent and in England it is just 10 per cent. Compare this to France (36.76%), Spain (36.7%), Italy (35%) and Germany (32%). Even allowing for the fact that Britain is an island with a high population density, the comparison is enormously unfavourable, yet 2016 was the worst year for planting on record. She also points out that the government pledged to plant 11 million trees by 2020 and that this pledge is unlikely to be kept. In other words, not enough is being done to improve the situation.

Why do I think it is important that more trees are planted? I have two main answers to that question – the first is personal; and the second is more about the benefits that I believe trees provide to our society as a whole.

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