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.

This book tells her story but also the story of many of the servicemen who met her and heard her sing. They were in many cases highly charged, emotional moments, as troops came away from ferocious fighting in the malaria-ridden jungle to hear a beautiful female voice from home sing messages that felt to them had been sent directly from their wives, sweethearts and mothers. Vera not only sang, but chatted to the soldiers and toured makeshift hospital wards, speaking to men who were very badly wounded and in a lot of pain. It is no exaggeration to say that in many cases they regarded her as an angel.

As well as the personal stories, the book also gives a lot of background to the wider campaign in Burma and tells the story of how the fortunes of the Fourteenth army were transformed under the legendary, straight-talking, square-jawed, soldier’s soldier, General ‘Bill’ Slim.

At the time of writing, Vera is the best-selling female artist of 2017 in terms of album sales; wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if she could top the charts for both music and books in her centenary year?

 

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.

I love spending time amongst trees and I am lucky enough to live on the edge of the New Forest, which has some beautiful woodland (though less than you might think). In the Telegraph article I cited above, Boudicca Fox-Leonard mentions the Japanese word ‘shinrin-yoku’, which literally means forest-bathing, and I find there is something immeasurably restorative about being immersed in the dappled light and many-hued greens and browns of forests.

A number of studies have been done which show that trees do exert a positive psychological impact not just on me, but on people in general. A study published in the journal Nature combined satellite imagery, individual tree data, and health surveys from 31,109 residents of the greater Toronto, Canada area. It found that people who live in areas with higher street tree density report better health perception compared with their peers living in areas with lower street tree density.

Trees also provide more tangible benefits:

  • They capture carbon and store it, which means that mass tree-planting can be an effective part of helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
  • Tree-planting can help to reduce flooding by increasing water penetration and retention.
  • They offer habitats for many different types of wildlife.
  • Urban trees can play a key role in reducing urban heat island effect and regulating temperature in cities.

It is nothing less than a national tragedy that we do not have more trees, more protection for woodland and a culture that more meaningfully celebrates trees and the amazing benefits that they can give us. Many of the reasons for this are given in this superbly argued piece by George Monbiot, which specifically looks at what might happen after Brexit and the death of the current EU subsidies regime.

It is clear to me that something needed to be done and the launch of the tree charter seems like a positive first step.

The Woodland Trust first started the call for a tree charter 2015 by in response to the crisis facing trees and woods in the UK. Up until this point there has been no clear, unifying statement about the rights of people in the UK to the benefits of trees, woods and forests. The UK’s trees and woods face:

  • low planting rates;
  • lack of legal protection;
  • inconsistent management;
  • declining interest in forestry and arboriculture careers;
  • threats from housing and infrastructure development, pests, diseases and climate change.

Each one of these issues was being addressed in isolation by a small number of concerned organisations and tree lovers.

The Woodland Trust reached out to all sections of UK society to define the new charter, and to build a people-powered movement for trees. More than 70 organisations and 300 local community groups answered the call and helped to collect over 60,000 tree stories from people, demonstrating the important role that trees play in their lives. These stories were read and shared, and helped to define the 10 Principles of the Tree Charter, ensuring that it stands for every tree and every person in the UK.

On 6 November 2017, on the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest, the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People was launched at Lincoln Castle – home to one of the two remaining copies of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. It now rests in the Lincolnshire Archives.

I think that the launch of the new charter is an important step in not only achieving the much-needed increase in planting rates, but also in terms of making trees a more crucial, better-understood and better-appreciated part of our wider culture. As Boudicca Fox-Leaonard wrote, ‘It only takes a minute to plant a tree, but the effects last more than our lifetime.’

Sign up to the tree charter and a tree will be planted for you.

 

My strange role in the death of neonicotinoids in the UK

My very first blog on my new website was an open letter to Michael Gove about neonicotinoids – the controversial family of pesticides that many scientists believe has been one of the primary causes of major reductions in insect and bird populations over the past fifteen years. I suggested that Mr Gove make a move to ban the use of neoniciotinoids.

I first published my blog on 6 November but didn’t get around to actually sending the letter to Michael Gove until 8 November. On 9 November there was a surprise announcement: Michael Gove backed a total ban on neonicotinoids.

I cannot take all the credit for this decision – after all many groups have been lobbying for the ban for some time and Greenpeace has collected more than 130,000 signature in the UK calling for it. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that the timing very neatly coincided with my intervention.

The reaction from the environmental lobby has been almost universally positive. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wrote:

Greenpeace UK tweeted:

But at the school gates that same afternoon I was talking to a friend of mine who suggested to me that the news might not be quite as positive as it at first seemed. If farmers are not using neonicotinoids, she said, then they would have to use something else and many of the alternatives are pretty horrendous as well. She also said that because the alternatives have lower efficacy then they will be used in greater quantities.

There was a similar theme in Hannah Lownsbrough’s piece in the Guardian, in which she called for Michael Gove to adopt ‘a bold stance when confronted with similar evidence about other dangerous pesticides.’

And this brilliantly demystifying document on the subject of pesticide use from the Soil Association makes the much more general point that ‘Regulation on pesticides is slowly improving but is still inadequate to fully protect the environment and human health.’

Nonetheless, I was encouraged not just by Michael Gove’s decision but for his justification in making it. He wrote that:

Environmental change on such a scale is profoundly worrying. Not least because of the critical role played by bees and other pollinators. These particular flying insects are absolutely critical to the health of the natural world. Without a healthy pollinator population we put the whole ecological balance of our world in danger.

It strikes me that someone who accepts this premiss is  not only going to make a good decision on neonicotinoids but should also support more adequate legislative regulation on pesticides in general. I hope I’m right.

 

American Pastoral and the need for a new American Dream

 

 

I am reading the novel American Pastoral by Philip Roth at the moment (a really thought-provoking novel) and I was struck by this passage in the book – a speech that the narrator imagines himself giving to his fiftieth anniversary high school reunion, but never does.

Let’s remember the energy. Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion, auto workers, coal workers, transit workers, maritime workers, steel workers – laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball on the Chancellor Avenue field and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI Bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined possible before the war. Our class started high school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

The same day as I read this summary of American post-war enthusiasm and power, I read Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian: My travels in white America – a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain.

The article paints virtually the flip-side of Roth’s narrator’s analysis of just over seventy years ago. It is a picture – in working class white America in particular – of failing health,  a national opioid epidemic, a lack of jobs and prospects, and a loss of belief in the idea of social mobility – that crucial myth at the heart of the American dream that no matter who you are and where you come from, you can make it in America. It’s a startling picture of how far America has fallen, especially when you contrast these two pieces together.

Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, or ‘MAGA’, is an admission of this slump in fortunes; it essentially says: ‘we lost’ – the implicit premiss is that America is no longer great. So how do you appeal to a set of people (white Americans) who, accustomed to at least feeling like victors and having the sense that opportunity is at their fingertips, suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of history? With an emotive call to bring back the glory years, of course, however wrong and misguided that may be. And before you start thinking that this is the thesis of a snooty Brit, a similar thing is happening this side of the Atlantic as well, though here the slogan is: ‘Taking back control’.

The death of the American dream is a theme that has been around for as long as the American dream has been a thing and in Roth’s novel, written in 1995, the dream turns sour for its hero ‘Swede’ Levov, just as it does in The Great Gatsby, written before the Second World War. Yet for an outsider, as I am, it strikes me that America has lost its way now – and the American dream has become so problematic to so many – because, in a number of crucial areas, America is spectacularly ill-adapted to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Of these, America’s interlinked love of fossil fuels and its egregious per capita consumption,  stand out in particular as being utterly unsustainable in a world in which resource shortages are likely to become more and more acute. This article in Scientific American gives an overview of just how insane this level of consumption is when compared to almost every other nation on earth. For instance, with less than five per cent of world population, the US uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 per cent of the coal, 27 per cent of the aluminum, and 19 per cent of the copper. The average American use as many resources as 35 average citizens of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than the average person in China. And it’s not only developing nations that America outstrips, but developed ones as well: American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half times that of the average citizen of Japan.

It strikes me that rampant consumerism does not have to be an essential part of the American dream, yet it has come to be synonymous with it. Nowhere in the American constitution does it guarantee the freedom to consume. And surely the expectation of needing to consume enormous amounts of raw materials is part of the problem of setting expectations about what life can offer for Americans. The opioid crisis is more than a drug crisis – it’s a spiritual band aid for diminished material aspirations and the slow, dawning realization that the post-war idea of the American dream is properly dead.

Trump’s big theme (other than himself) is freedom, a theme at the heart of the American dream and a theme which he embodies with a careless abandon – constantly demonstrating his own freedom to offend, to be inconsistent, to do what he wants, when he wants. He represents a kind of unashamed philistine  grossness – that it’s okay to be offensive, that greed is good, and that violence is not only necessary but to be encouraged. Since being in office, he has defended the freedom of companies to pollute and contribute to climate change, and the freedom of American citizens to carry deadly assault rifles, amongst others.

George Monbiot has convincingly shown how the excuse of ‘freedom’ is used to justify all manner of terrible things. He writes:

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

This kind of destructive freedom is the same kind of freedom that is at the heart of America’s unbridled consumerism and Trump is its enthusiastic ambassador. The trouble is that a freedom for one group can often mean the restriction or deprivation of other people’s freedoms; and, increasingly, America’s indulgence in its freedoms is not just a problem for the wider world, but a problem for itself as well.  The scientific consensus is that man-made climate change is making events like destructive hurricanes and flooding, drought and wildfires more common – and these are wreaking terrible damage in America. Not only that, but the lifestyle expectations that accompany these levels of consumption are no longer realistic and will become even less so as the fossil fuel age begins its inexorable decline. Trump is a throwback and what America needs is a way of working out how the idea of the American dream can survive in an era of diminishing material aspiration.

 

An open letter to Michael Gove MP

Dear Mr Gove,

Two worrying reports about insects have come to my attention in the past couple of weeks – the first a widely reported study from Germany that has seen a 75 per cent drop in insect numbers over the past 25 years; the second a report about the steady decline in honey crop from the British Beekeepers Association.

In a survey of members of the British Beekeepers Association, 62 per cent said that they believed neonicotinoids are to blame, a belief which seems to be supported by the fact that suburban beekeepers (away from agricultural land) are returning better yields that rural beekeepers.

The first of these reports is frankly terrifying to me – a 40 year-old with two young children. I had hoped that my children might get to see as much of the beauty of the natural world as I have managed to do in my life. Now I spend more time worrying about whether they will live for as long as me, as mass extinctions of wild animals gain in speed. I think that it is our generation’s responsibility to reverse this trend. I know that you have expressed the commitment to try and leave the environment in a better state at the end of your term than at the beginning. I am dubious of your ability to do this, not least because the juggernaut of environmental destruction seems to have a scary amount of momentum that is going to be difficult to stop.

But, hey, one thing at a time – and this letter is all about insects.

It has been said many times, but it seems to need saying again: bees and other pollinating insects are vital for agriculture and a healthy ecosystem. I believe that the government has a responsibility to do their best to protect bees and it seems that a ban on neonicotinoids seems like a sensible starting point.

Do you support this move and, if you do not, how can you defend keeping neonicotinoids?

Let’s not wait until it’s too late to take decisive action – I think you can do something to make the world a slightly better place right now. Please use that power well.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin Telfer