Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Review of the Year 2018


Another year on planet Earth, and it really does appear that the lunatics are now running the asylum. 

Greenpeace's big campaign this year was trying to create the world's largest ocean sanctuary in the Weddell Sea. The grand plan is for a third of the world's oceans to eventually be protected, starting in the Antarctic. This will help the fight against Climate Change, but equally importantly it may help species survive Climate Change. Given what's going on in the world that might be very necesary.  

Greenpeace sent us some paper penguin masks, which Paul in Ashton assembled for us. Their first action was a photo shoot. We decided to use Castlefields, and so we assemble in the Science Museum cafe. Steve did a fantastic job on the photography and Nuria lent some genuine modelling skills to proceedings.

The combination of rain and industrial architecture gave the pictures an authentic 'Manchester' vibe.  The photo above ended up getting used a lot by Greenpeace in their own publicity, which was great. Greenpeace certainly came up trumps on the design, but unfortunately they didn't make them waterproof. RIP four penguin masks. 

Also in January the Manchester Metropolitan University Geography and Environment Society showed the Bruce Parry film Tawai. We took the penguins there too. For my money there was too much musing that 'we are all to blame' and not enough blaming of corporations for my money, but it was still a good film.

Finally we were out and about as once again London managed to breach it's air pollution limit for the year whilst it was still January. The metrics in Manchester are slightly different, but the problem is still the same, as are the main culprits: diesel cars and vans. Greenpeace Actions Team people had been around putting up coughing people on billboards during the week, but the torrential Manchester rain washed them all away. As a result it was up to Steve and I to go and put some back up again for the photos.


Being an old fashioned sort I count February as the start of spring, so every year the family goes to see the snowdrops at Hopton Hall, near Matlock. February, when the first flowers appear, was always the start of spring in pagan time, and why not?

It was cold, but there was no snow yet. However somewhere where there was snow, and where it was even colder, was Antarctica, where the Arctic Sunrise was exploring the Weddell Sea. Greenpeace sent Bond villain Javier Bardem down in a minisub to explore, making him one of only a handful of people to see the unique underwater eco-system. I'm not jealous. Honest. 

It's a long way from Manchester to the Antarctic, but it turns out there is a connection. I got in touch with Dr Max Jones of Manchester Univeristy and he told me about Manchester's role in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. It was such a good story I decided to book him for a talk. 


Our own snow arrived in March, and almost put paid to any serious organising for the month. However we did eventually manage a meeting, in our new venue of the Lass O'Gowrie pub on Charles Street. 

We were back to saving the Antarctic again, and this time the target was Antarctic krill, which is increasingly appearing on the shelves of our health food shops as Omega III supplements.  

Greenpeace's first target was Holland and Barrett, but they threw in the towel after only four days. By the time Manchester got involved we were onto target number two: Boots. A team of secret squirrels visited four branches of Boots in Manchester city centre, adding warning labels to the Antarctic krill on the shelves. All the local groups were doing this, be we were the first groups to get a reply from the company on their Twitter feed. Some poor PR person clearly had a difficult weekend thanks to us. 

March was also Andy Burnham's Green Summit. The Greater Manchester Mayor had promised this when he was elected last year. The event was at Manchester Central, and was very well organised and presented. Burnham's talent is bringing people together and this is what he did, with speakers such as
Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre and Steve Mogford of United Utilities more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. We also had ex-Manchester United player Gary Neville to add a bit of celebrity glamour to proceedings. 

There were some eye opening stalls around and about though. Manchester Airport were there, and claiming they were carbon neutral. Apparently they don't count the planes.

Burnham himself made time to meet us at lunchtime. Restating his opposition to fracking was a bit of easy publicity for him as he doesn't really have much actual power or budget.

In the evening Frack Free Greater Manchester organised a fracking fringe event, and we had Maureen Mills come down from Lancashire and Eddie Thornton come over from Yorkshire to speak, along with our own Helena Coates. The battle goes on in Lancashire, but Eddie was able to tell us how it was won in Ryedale. An extremely well organised campaign caused the government to pause, and then the perilous state of Third Energy's finances gave them the excuse to pull the plug without looking like they were doing a U-turn. Protests work, but you've always got to give the opposition a way out. 


April started with the opening of the inquiry into Lancashire County Council's decision to stop Cuadrilla Resources from fracking in the village of Roseacre. When the government overturned the Preston New Road decision, Roseacre was left on the shelf. We had a rally outside and I gave a little speech. We still don't know the outcome of this, but my thoughts are still that it will be the test of whether the government is prepared to spend any more political capital on fracking. Hopefully they aren't, but we'll see.

We were back in the Antarctic again in April. Dr Max Jones' talk took us back to the end of the heroic age of exploration. Manchester, it turned out, both welcomed polar explorer Fridjtof Nansen as a both a hero and a bit of all right ("all the women swooned, and so did some men" the papers reported) and helped fund Scott's ill fated mission. It was an interesting evening.

As far as our own Antarctic campaigning went, we were once again targeting Boots, this time with our 'krill-o-meter'. Funnily enough nobody really thought it was a good idea wipe out whales and penguins for a few vitamins. Boots staff were pleasant enough, but their HQ was reportedly having kittens.

April also marked the start of campaigning on palm oil. This was to be our major local group campaign at the end of the year, but for the moment it was only taking place online. If deforestation was a country it would be the third largest contributor to climate change after the USA and China, and palm oil is one of the big four contributors, along with animal grazing, soya for animal feed and paper. 

Greenpeace had run a petition asking PZ Cussons to stop using destructive palm oil, and as their HQ was near Manchester airport Canonbury Villas gave the task of handing it in to them to the local group.

It was nice to be trusted with this. The company wasn't expecting us, but on hearing that Greenpeace were in the foyer they immediately sent down their sustainability guy to speak to us. He seemed a reasonable sort of fellow, and suitably contrite about what they had been doing, so we agreed to pose for a 'smiley' photo with him. All good fun, but you have to be careful not to be drawn into the 'sustainable company' myth. At the end of the day they are wiping out orang-utans, displacing indigenous people and causing climate change just to make shampoo, and making decent amounts of money doing so, and that's not right


In May we were visited by the anti-fracking Nanas from Lancashire. Aliki at Thoughtworks, an ethical tech firm, puts on occasional films for us and we were showing of the new Undercurrents film Power Trip. We'd invited one of the Nanas to speak, but an entire coach load actually turned up, plus honorary Nana Anne Power from Chorlton. It was a good evening.

Also in town, but not as welcome, were the people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil company BP. Greenpeace were gearing up for a big action on Total's AGM, and all the serious shareholder activists were in Holland for Shell's AGM, which was being held the day after to stop people who don't fly doing both. As a result it was down to Manchester activists - very much the B Team - to hold the company to account.

I asked a question about the Amazon Reef. This deep water reef, located below where the Amazon
River empties out in the Atlantic - which is exactly where you not expect to find one - was only announced to the world six years ago. A more recent scientific study, carried on the Greenpeace ship Esperanto, found the reef was much more extensive than first thought, and extended well into the area where BP planned to drill for oil. I had the scientific report in my bag, but despite this the BP board decided to lie to my face and claim that they were a long way from the reef, which they also said they'd known about for ages.

Speaking to the board afterwards they were clearly chuffed with themselves. They clearly weren't afraid of such well behaved protesters as us. However they did appear to be afraid of class action suits based around their climate change denial. It was frustrating, but at least I got to call them liars in the press release. 

Also in May I took part in something a bit different organised by Mend Our Mountains, a
conservation effort run by the British Mountaineering Federation that aims to, well, mend our mountains. The idea was to get 1000 people with head torches to stand on the Great Ridge, which runs from Mam Tor to Lose Hill, and lies just south of Kinder Scout. Mam clearly means mother, and Lose is almost certainly a local version of Lugh, a Celtic god of light, so the two hills are named after a goddess and a god. If the natural ridge running between them wasn't an ancient processional way, then I'm not a druid.

I'm not quite sure if they got a thousand, but there were certainly several hundred people up there. It got cold when the sun set, but the resulting pictures were amazing.

Out this month on the internet was a little video by WellRedFilms about the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932. Partly filmed during the Manchester Greenpeace Group's 85th anniversary walk last year, I got to say a few words too. We didn't manage a Kinder Scout walk this year, but we will for 2019.


The festival season begins and still the sun shines.

Envirolution once again proved it was Manchester's best free day out. Matt's small people helped us out and we had such a good response to our stall we ran out of petitions for people to sign.

The festival is also a bit of an AGM of all the Green and social justice groups in Manchester, so it was a chance to meet some familiar people and try to get one over on Friends of the Earth.

Next it was a new venture for Greenpeace: running the an eco-camp field at Download, Heavy Metal's biggest party. The regular Greenpeace festival team are a little apprehensive, but Jeff and I are in our element.

Download is basically 70,000 people getting very, very drunk, with a bit of music on the side. Greenpeace were running a camp site on the edge of the main field. It was part of the Castle Donnington deer park and so can only be used if it was looked after. People who camped with us signed up to recycle and not litter, and they did. We also had a vegan cafe and a yurt for the obligatory yoga session. Doing yoga and then going to watch death metal is probably the equivalent of coming out of a sauna and jumping into a frozen lake, so I hope nobody was permanently injured by the experience.

Metal fans tend to be oddballs and loners, which is why Jeff and I fit into the scene, and the Greenpeace field attracted both types, some of which were at their first festival. Download is such a friendly place though they all fitted right in.

It wasn't all work though and I got to see some bands and do some serious drinking. The one and only Damh the Bard was there. Guns and Roses were the big name, a band I felt like I'd grown up with. Mara pointed out that Axel Rose now looks like Donald trump in a hat, and it seems he can sing other people's songs better than his own now. Slash though made it a really amazing show. Other highlights were Avenged Sevenfold who are now a true headline act, and Thunder, a band I saw at university but who've still got it. Highlight of the weekend though was watching 'Jesus' crowd-surfing to Cradle of Filth whilst an aeroplane flew over trailing a 'God Loves You' banner. Surreal.

Back home our campaigning consists of taking to task Barclays for their financing of a tar sands
pipeline in Canada. This means getting the train into Manchester whilst carrying a large cardboard ATM machine, which was interesting.

Tar sands make fracking look clean and safe and although it's a pretty obscure campaign for Manchester, but people are supportive and sign messages of support. We also had a really angry branch manager when we handed our ATM into the bank, which was reassuring. It always makes me suspicious when they're nice.


This month we received news that all our krill campaigning had paid off: a huge group of companies that control most of the krill fishing announce they were pulling out of the Antarctic and would not be opposing Greenpeace's plans for an ocean sanctuary. A big success for our campaign.

Climate Change also came a bit nearer to home, as Saddleworth Moor caught fire, with the flames visible from my bedroom window. Fortunately the wind was blowing away from Glossop, so it was Tameside Social Services rather than us that had to evacuate people. At night the peat continued to burn and the red glow could be seen after it was too dark to see the hills themselves. It was like looking out over Mordor. I decide to link this with our Barclays campaigning and write a blog for the Greenpeace UK website.

This also made me doubly determined to do something when arch Climate Change denier Donald Trump was in London. I went down on the Manchester coach with Rachel and Hannah from work. It was one of those huge demonstrations where you don't move for two hours, but the atmosphere was great. The banners and costumes are amazing too, if not very polite.

Even though it was a Friday, there were more people in London campaigning against Trump than there had been in Washington celebrating his inauguration the previous year. There were a lot of people around I knew, as I'd expect, but the only one I met up with was Mara who, being American, had even more reason to be there than I had.

We also did some plastic campaigning, and decided to pay a visit to Sainsbury's flagship store at Cheadle Royal. We never know what we're going to get when we go here. Last time the only person who spoke to us was parking warden, who was pleased to meet people who didn't look down their noses at him.

Plastic seemed to be an issue that the SUV driving mums of Wilmslow wanted to engage with though, and many of them take our replacement paper bags to salve their consciences as they drive home.


The start of August found me on holiday in the one part of the UK not suffering a drought. However the wildlife in Dumphries and Galloway didn't seem to mind, and a pair of friendly badgers visited our cottage ever evening.

Greenpeace renewed its campaign to ban diesel cars, and went after old enemy VW again. As a result the pixies were out in Manchester, Altrincham and Stockport decorating VW diesels in the night. As usual, Canonbury Villas don't tell us why we're doing this, but it turns out to be the prelude to a re-branding of the VW offices in Milton Keynes.

I managed a bit more plastic campaigning in August too, firstly in Manchester itself, and then at my second festival of the year. This was RiZe in Chelmsford, which is what has replaced V. We were running the deposit return scheme, where we give people 10p back on their plastic skiffs and bottles.

The Greenpeace team were a fun bunch, and mostly half my age. As we didn't have our own field we were in crew catering, which meant three course meals twice a day. I also found the back stage artists toilets - which actually flushed - and once I'm on friendly terms with the security man I also don't get searched as I came and went, meaning I could bring in my own beer. This was good as they only sold lager on site, this being Essex and all that. The main act was Liam Gallagher, who was excellent when doing Oasis numbers. I saw Oasis before they were famous at a free festival in Preston. This felt like seeing them after they're famous. However the find of the festival for me were Brighton indie outfit Black Honey.

At the end of the month though came the sad news that Lord Peter Melchett, former director of Greenpeace UK, and the only peer of the realm I've ever shared a police cell with, had died. I first met him on the 'Lyng job' of 1999. He had led a fascinating life that took him from his father's farm in Norfolk, through politics in Jim Callaghan's government, to activism with Greenpeace, the Soil Association and other organisations. He was arrested twice, but only ever in Norfolk. My memories of him are here.

There was better news too, as we found out that our tar sands campaign had been successful. A Canadian court squashed the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Canada had planned three pipelines to get the tar sands oil for Alberta to the USA. They were all controversial, but this was the first one to be stopped. Two to go.


After baking in the sunshine at Envirolution, we were looking forward to the Wigan Diggers Festival, and thought it would be a good idea to sell water bottles to raise money for Greenpeace. However come the day we all got a drenching. Fortunately we had our own gazebo, and even more fortunately the people next to us didn't turn up so we could use theirs as well. Preston Greenpeace joined us, but their face painting wasn't too popular due to the weather. Evey and Helen had made cakes and wraps though and these sold well, even though the water bottles didn't. Once we'd finished we got to enjoy the music. Merry Hell were great. Alice had driven there in her new car, and we made it safely there and back again, despite my navigating.

Fortunately it's a bit drier when we return to plastic campaigning. Greenpeace promised a shoppers
revolt against pointless plastic and I was a bit cynical, thinking we'd be lucky to get one mildly dis-chuffed shopper. However they were right and I was wrong.

We had more volunteers than we could actually use - I don't know how many but it was double figures - and a really great response from the public. Even the manager of Chorlton Morrison's seemed pleased to see us. Getting shoppers in Manchester to use less plastic bags is a very long way from cleaning up the world's oceans, but it's a start. Hopefully next year we'll be setting people some more challenging targets.


We were back in the Antarctic in October, with one final push before the Antarctic Commission met in Hobart, Tasmania to decide if the Antarctic ocean sanctuary was going to happen. We showed some film of the Arctic Sunrise expedition and I talked about Greenpeace's 'Million Dollar Missions' in the 1980s. But best of all we had River talk about what it was like to actually be there. He'd served two tours with the British Antarctic Survey at a time when British Antarctica was all white and all male. Things have changed a bit since then thankfully.

Whilst all of the above was going on, the campaign against fracking in Blackpool had been going on.

Scores of people had been arrested for blockading the gates, locking-on and lorry surfing. Three people who'd done the latter last year had found out that Lancashire police had no way of getting them down, and so had ended up on the trucks for several days. The Crown Prosecution service hadn't liked that and so Simon, Richard and Rich had found themselves convicted of Public Nuisance and sent to prison. They weren't the first peaceful eco-warriors to end up behind bars, but they were probably the first since the Mass Trespass in 1932 to go straight to jail without first breaching bail or refusing to pay a fine.

They were released on appeal, and by coincidence a big rally was planned at Preston New Road the week after. Attending meant missing the big anti-Brexit demo in London, but it was worth it. This was the largest gathering there'd been at PNR. Former LibDem leader Tim Farron was there, along with John Ashton, Tina Louise and others, but there was no doubt who the stars of the show were: Simon, Richard and Rich.

Also October I invited the one and only Anne Power to Glossop for another showing of the film Power Trip. The 2014 Observer Ethical Award winner was the film's cover girl, so we had to invite her along.

Glossop isn't an area licensed to frack, which is why Frack Free Glossop is just Rod and I, but it was good too see that even here there is strong opposition to shale gas.

Anne told us about watching the Blitz on Liverpool in the Second World War, and the campaigns against fracking at Barton Moss and Lancashire. She is still going strong as a campaigner at 87, so she has a way of making us all feel inadequate.


Barclays was visited again in November. The Trans Mountain Pipeline may be history, but they still had plenty of money invested in dirty fossil fuels, so using the contacts we'd made earlier in the year we encouraged people to get in touch with them and tell them to stop. Ben from Hebden Bridge was one who did.

November was also the month of Rang Tan. This short film, narrated by Emma Thompson, was originally produced by Greenpeace to use with schoolchildren. Iceland supermarket tried to use it as their Christmas TV advert, but fell foul of an obscure clause in the regulator's rules. However the result was an internet sensation that led to 60 million people watching the film, and a good number of Mumsnet shoppers ditching Waitrose for the frozen food retailer.

Our own contribution to the battle against destructive palm oil was to take to the streets of Manchester to get people to be photographed sending a message to Oreo. Once again we had a good turnout of volunteers, including new photographer Moe, and a lot of support from Manchester folk.

At the end of the month Matt, Helen and I are down in Canonbury Villas for the annual Greenpeace Local Groups Conference. Our privatised railways did their bit to try to stop me, with both my trains out and back being very late. However when I got there it was great to meet old friends again. Greenpeace appeared to have learnt their lesson from last year and just ordered bottles of beer, rather than a whole barrel, and so I still felt vaguely human on Sunday morning. Before I went down though I'd quickly edited a first rush of a 'Best of 2018' video. I got it on Greenwire and it was noticed by the ED, which was a Brownie point for Manchester.

I had to sing for my supper though by giving a presentation on how we ran the Manchester Group, which caused a little bit of a problem as we weren't entirely sure ourselves how we did run it. At the start of the month we'd got the bad news that Russia, China and Norway had all vetoed the Antarctic sanctuary, but we got the hint that there would be some good news on our other campaigns soon.


Greenpeace local group campaigning pretty much came to an end in December. However that didn't stop it being our most successful month of the year.

Firstly, VW appeared to have shifted their position significantly. After refusing to meet Greenpeace all year they relented after the action in Milton Keynes. The main news their ED wanted to pass on to ours was that he was resigning! However shortly afterwards came a more important announcement: VW were ditching the internal combustion engine and going electric. Not quick enough for us, but still significant news.

Then came the news that our Oreo campaigning had been effective. Mondelez International, the parent company that owns Oreo, as well as a load of familiar British brand names like Cadbury's, Terry's and Fry's, had got together with other palm oil users and put pressure on Wilmar International, their palm oil supplier in Indonesia. This pressure led to Wilmar announcing a raft of measures, including satellite surveillance of their suppliers, to try to stop deforestation. They will need to be kept an eye on to ensure they keep their promises, but it was a great victory.

The next bit of good news came from Brazil, where a court stopped Total's effort to drill off the Amazon Reef. This wasn't necessarily the end of BPs bid, but it made it extremely unlikely to succeed.

The final bit of good news had very little to do with either myself or Greenpeace, but was still very welcome. Fracking at Preston New Road had been repeatedly halted over the previous few weeks due to minor earthquakes. Cuadrilla had previously agreed a low threshold for stopping operations, but now they were asking the government to raise the limit. We don't know what the government's reply was, but just before Yule Cuadrilla took away all their compressors and started to dismantle the rig. We don't know if this really is it, but it was certainly not part of the plan.

So that was 2018. We failed in the Antarctic and the tangerine fascist is still in the White House. However on VW, on palm oil, on the Amazon Reef and finally on fracking in the UK we were making progress. Minor victories, in the grand scheme of things, but it's minor victories that keep us going.

And so it's on to 2019. This year we change the world, as I said last year.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Toys I Never Owned

It's nearly Christmas and it's time to start thinking about presents for the kids. These days it's all electronic, and some they don't even unwrap, they just download.

How different it was when I was a lad in the seventies. This was the era when cheap plastic made toys and games affordable for the first time in quantities that could fill an average domestic house  in just a few birthdays.

How we looked at toys was also different. First we'd go to an actual toy shops, where we'd get some catalogues to take home. For a generation that's grown up with the internet it's hard to explain the mystical nature of the catalogue. Here were all the toys you'd dreamt of, usually displayed in wonderful dioramas, being played with by children who were deliriously happy because they were playing with best toy that had ever been made.

I think I probably spent more time reading catalogues, either at home, in school, than I ever did playing with my own toys. Probably because of this when I think back to my wonderful, care-free, self-indulgent seventies childhood it's the toys I didn't own that I remember most. They were the toys that always did what they said on the tin, that never broke and never got boring.

These offering from the gods will now only ever exist in my imagination. Sure, I could buy the lot on ebay. But I'm not eight any more, I just wouldn't enjoy them in the same way.

Hornby Operating Breakdown Crane

I must admit I never got train sets. My dad was a bit of a train buff, and he built me a model railway, but I wasn't really impressed. The train went one way, then it went the other, and that was that. There was no skill involved and you couldn't race them. Boring. Making the scenery was fun, but best of all once you'd finished you had a battlefield where my little toy soldiers could fight. But the trains didn't really impress me. They just didn't do anything.

However that didn't stop me reading the catalogue and wanting one of these, the Hornby Operating Breakdown Train. The really neat thing about it is that it did actually do something. The crane went up and down. That was pretty neat in the seventies.

Of course, the reality was somewhat different.This was, by modern standards, a pretty cheap piece of kit. The wheels were plastic, and so would barely go round, the crane's mechanism was plastic too, so operation was hardly smooth, and the whole thing was so light that if it did try to pick up an actual locomotive the whole thing would just fall over, even if you had managed to get the plastic legs in place, which was not guaranteed.

If you were really, really clever you could fit little electric motors into the thing and actually make it work. Now that really would be cool. Anyone who doubts how cool should look at this video of a couple of the things in action. Is that not amazing?

Well, in my head the one I never owned was just as amazing. And it will now stay that way forever.

Lego Space Galaxy Explorer

I grew up with Lego. I played with it at home, I played with it at school. I even took it with me when I went camping.

However for anyone who is only familiar with all the fancy themed stuff that Lego produces today, it must be difficult to imagine that when I was little it pretty much was just little square bricks of different sizes. Even the Lego people didn't have real arms and legs when I was born.

Then in 1978 came Lego Space.

This was the year after Star Wars. Space was big, and now here was Lego ... in space. Suddenly we had yellow see-through bricks, rocket engines, space suits - without visors unfortunately - and massively over-sized radios. It was Lego, but not as we know it.

I had a number of the smaller sets: a Space Scooter, a Mobile Rocket Launcher, a Mobile Control
Centre - which was amazing because one of the bricks had a control panel on it - and a One-Man Space Ship. Like all my Lego kits I took them home, made them once following the instructions, then took them apart and mixed the bits in with everything else. That was how normal people played with Lego. For most of my collection the next time the pieces were all back together again was when I sold them in the eighties.

However the real prize, that I never had, was the USS Enterprise of Lego kits - the Galaxy Explorer. This could clearly boldly go to galaxies far, far away. This model would never be dismantled, it's parts never cannibalised for anything else. But I never owned one, nor did any of my friends, not anyone else I knew.

Nor have I ever seen one since. A Lego Space guy made a cameo in the Lego movie, but apart from that Lego Space has gone. The Danes have instead sold their soul to any franchise that will have them. Great adventures are had by small people playing with all of those things, I'm sure, but not as great as the ones I'd have had with my Lego Galaxy Explorer. If only.

Thomas Salter Adventure Kit

Please don't think that I spent my entire childhood indoors playing with my Lego. My parents were teachers, which mean they had long holidays, and were friends with a farmer who would let them park their caravan on his farm for free. So, for several weeks each year, I was free range on a 500 acre farm in north Norfolk. That meant adventures.

For an adventure you don't really need anything except an imagination. However, capitalism being what it is,  there were plenty of people willing to sell you stuff which they claimed would make your adventure so much better. The people I believed at the time were Thomas Salter.

They made a number of different kits. The one most people wanted was the spy kit, as it had invisible ink. But I wanted the Adventure Kit. Binoculars, a camera, a water bottle, a compass, a whistle: well, yes, nothing too exciting there for sure. However, it had the name: Adventure Kit. A kit for making

adventures. Wow!

Being an enterprising sort of lad, I made one myself. What's more, the one I made was probably better as the stuff in it actually worked and wasn't made of cheap plastic. But it wasn't the same.

Thomas Salter went out of business years ago, but other companies of moved into the 'adventure kit' market. Look at this one for example: camo cream, para cord, a tarp. I could have done with this during my road protesting days.

However, this now and that was then. I still have adventures, really good ones, but not as good as the ones little me would have had in Norfolk, if only I'd had an Adventure Kit.

Airfix Fort Sahara

When I was born the Second World War was still being fought. Nazi Germany may have surrendered a quarter of a century earlier, but all across the country little boys were still fighting using little Airfix soldiers. We all had hundreds of these things.

However constantly fighting the Germans, and occasionally the Japanese, was all very well, but World War Two just wasn't as exciting as the colonial conflicts of the century before. On TV I could watch Zulu, or Khartoum, or Northwest Frontier or Carry On Up The Khyber (possibly the most realistic of the four) and this is where my imagination went. Why would anyone want to be freezing to death on the Eastern Front, or slogging through the mud of France or Holland, when you could be on the veldt of South Africa or the sands of the Sudan or in the foothills of the Himalayas?

The problem was the figures. There weren't any. Like many Victorian schoolboys, HG Wells had

played with 2 inch high Boer War figures when he was young. However by the seventies Britain was no longer so proud of her Imperial past. It wasn't until I was in Secondary School that an Italian company brought out some 1/72 scale plastic figures for the Zulu War and I could fight the battles I had been watching on TV since I was little.

Airfix made Arabs and Foreign Legion - foreign wars being less controversial - but they were rubbish. Most of the Arabs wouldn't even stand up. What's more there were no decent films in colour about the Foreign Legion. Beau Geste and Morocco were black and white, and no kid wanted to watch a black and white film in the seventies.

However what they did have was a fort. The WWII people had some stuff you could buy as well: a derelict house that was a command post, a bailey bridge and some Atlantic Wall style fortification, but whilst they were practical they were hardly romantic. Fort Sahara though was something else, and with a bit of modelling skills you can make it into something fantastic.

Yes, fantastic is the word. You can get really good 1/72 Foreign Legion and Arab figures now by other companies too. So please Airfix, please re-issue this model. Please. Pretty please.

Action Man Secret Mission to Dragon Island

Airfix were great, but of all the toys I has as a child the one I was closest too was my Action Man. Indeed, many people tell me that I seem to have got my dress sense from Action Man.

My Action Men were hardly badly equipped. They had guns, a small tank and more uniforms than they could wear, many knitted by my grandmother (I wasn't the only one in the family who'd get a Christmas jumper). However there was one set I never had, one that always intrigued me: The Secret Mission to Dragon Island.

The set itself was the usual Action Man mish-mash of historical items. There was a modern British sub machine gun, a World War Two American helmet and some dynamite apparently from the Wild West.

The mission itself seems to be set in the contemporary Cold War, with Action Man signed up for "a highly dangerous mission. To find and destroy the hidden rocket site on enemy held Dragon Island. It is a solo mission. Action Man can expect no help." The enemy were apparently Chinese, and I presume it was due to the cuts the characterised the seventies that the poor chap had to go on his own.  

I have, I must confess, always been so intrigued by this set I never had that I have sought one out to find out what it was actually all about. And you know what? It doesn't tell you! There's a map with some generic names ("Orient Sea", "Eagle Mountains", "Lion Forest", "Lava Bay") and some vague orders, but that's it. It turns out the great secret mission only ever existed in my head.

Action Man is alas no more. Action Figures continue, and for serious money you can buy seriously detailed historical figures from Dragon, or for a slightly more reasonable cost there is the HM Forces range. However these are not Action Men. These are serious soldiers, who probably always obey orders and turn out for parade on time. Boring toys for boring adventures. Action Man, by contrast, was clearly a bit of a rebel. He did his own thing. 

So what did he really get up to on Dragon Island? Well, the only way to find out would be to go back there. And, guess what, somebody has!

To find out more, click here.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Six myths of the First World War

And so it ended a hundred years ago today. 60 million Europeans had died, and many more in other theatres. It was a horrible, ghastly experience.

But had who had actually started it, what had it all been about, why was it fought in such a stupid manner, and what, if anything, was gained by victory?

These are not easy questions to answer, but some myths - many of which have passed into acceptance as 'facts' - can be quashed.

1. It was nobody's fault

That the First World War was a horrendous mistake is obvious enough. However that's not the same as saying it was nobody's fault. The trigger for the war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian terrorists. In retaliation Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia. Now the Serbian military was connected with the terrorists, but the Serbian government wasn't, and Austro-Hungary had no evidence either way. In response Russia came to the aid of Serbia and in response to that Germany launched an invasion in France via Belgium.

In other words it was Austro-Hungary and Germany that started the war. Neither country was democratic. Both were absolute monarchies. Germany did have a parliament, but it was essentially powerless in matters of war. The German military meanwhile answered to nobody but the Kaiser. A small group of aristocrats and a few Generals then were responsible for the war. These were the guilty men.

And what about the guilt of the Triple Alliance? Russia didn't need to support Serbia, but why should they not have come to the aid of an ally that had been invaded illegally? Similarly, Britain did not need to come to the aid of Belgium. But again, why would she not? Both these invasions were also accompanied by the mass execution of civilians. To have not intervened would have been to accept injustice as the price of peace. Maybe that would have been a better deal, but we can't really blame the politicians of 1914 for not accepting it.

2. It was a war for capitalism

The industrial revolution made the weapons of war more terrifying and destructive than ever before. It also made armies larger and - when they were not being killed or injured by enemy weapons - healthier than before. Bigger armies using more deadly weapons led to slaughter on a scale never before seen, but that is not the same as saying capitalism caused the war.

In neither of the empires that started the war did the bourgeoisie have any real political power. If they did they would almost certainly have stopped the war. Even before the fighting started the call up of so may men to arms nearly crippled the economies of all concerned. In the City of London the collapse of credit caused a financial crash that required a multi-billion pound (in today's money) bailout from the government.

Once war economies got going the capitalists made plenty of money from the war, but they did not cause it.

3. It was a war for empire

At least it wasn't a war for an empire outside of Europe. It's true imperial rivalries had led to tensions in the years before 1914, but these were mainly between Britain and first Russia and then France. However come the outbreak of hostilities these three nations went into battle as allies.

It's also true that Britain appeared to spend more time in the early years of the war trying to steal territory off Germany and Turkey than it did trying to win on the Western Front, but as Britain was only a reluctant participant in the conflict in the first place it's hard to see this as a motive. Of the counties that started the war, Austro-Hungary had no overseas empire and didn't want one, and what little of Africa Germany had it was more than willing to lose to secure domination in Europe. What's more there was no expectation that if Germany had beaten France they would have acquired any overseas French colonies. This didn't happen in 1870 and wouldn't happen in 1940. The French navy, operating from Algeria, would still have controlled the Mediterranean and the Royal Navy controlled everywhere else.

The existence of the European global empires is what made the Great War a World War, but empire did not cause the war.

4. Attacks on trenches always failed

Service on the Western Front was a terrible experience for all concerned, but of all the myths of the
war perhaps the most prevalent is that the fighting itself was pointless. However the reality was not two armies flinging themselves pointlessly at machine guns and barbed wire for four years.

In fact most attacks on trenches were actually successful. Bloody, but usually successful. The problem was capturing the trench in front of you did not end the battle. Not only was there more than one trench line, but the main problem with the Western Front was that it involved huge armies fighting in a relatively small space. Wherever the enemy broke through, there were always reinforcement to counterattack, and defenders could arrive by train and get their faster than their attackers.

The result was a game of attack and counter attack that kept the front in almost the same spot for four years, but it wasn't quite as static as some people believe.

5. The fighting was pointless

But what was the point of actually fighting? The first British casualty of the war, John Parr, and the
last, George Ellison, died within a few miles of each near Mons in Belgium, suggesting that the British army had spent four years fighting just to get back to where they had started. It was also clear, when the Great Power met to discuss the peace, that the world was in no way a better place in 1919 than it had been in 1914. So what was the point of fighting.

The point of fighting the war, rather bizarrely, was to end it. Once Germany's attempt to deliver a knock out blow to France failed on the Marne in September 1914 there was no way that the Central Powers could win the war. Unfortunately it took the four years, and a military defeat on the Western Front, to make them realise this.

Whilst any sensible leader would have seen the writing on the wall a lot sooner, the leadership in Berlin and Vienna were hardly sensible. As I said above, they are the guilty men.

6. It didn't matter who won

But if the only point of fighting the war was to end it, would it not have been simpler for one side to simply surrender so as to shorten the war. And if the other side wouldn't, then maybe we should have?

From the point of view of a Tommy in a trench this argument had a lot going for it. However in broader terms it falls down. Austro-Hungarian imperialism and German militarism started the war, and it is unlikely they would have been appeased by winning it. The Austrian empire was dying apart, but its leaders were determined to use force to keep it alive. The price of an Austro-Hungarian victory over Serbia would have been more conflict in the Balkans.

It's difficult to predict what a militaristic Germany would have done after victory. Some, mainly right wing, commentators imagine something rather like the EU. More realistic historians suggest further warfare would be more likely, as a victorious Kaiser would not have been satisfied just with Europe when the defeated power of France and Britain ruled most of the rest of the world. Perhaps he'd have fought them for their empires. Maybe he would have invaded China, as in a previous war he had boasted German troops would behave towards the Chinese as Attila the Hun had behaved towards the Roman Empire. Either way universal peace and brotherhood would not have been on the cards.

In the end the victorious allied powers squandered their victory. Their own unjust empires continued, with promises of greater independence broken. Germany was punished, but not reformed, and militarism was replaced by nationalism, which was hardly an improvement. But it was not all bad. The League of Nations was formed. The former European subjects of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires gained their freedom.

The deaths of so many deserved much, much more, but their sacrifice was not pointless.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Electric Car. It's Simple.

The electric car is the future. Mainly this is because it can run on renewable energy, doesn't pollute the air and doesn't require an increasingly scarce natural resource.

However here's another reason: it's simple. Here's how the reasoning goes.

Technology doesn't just become more complex over time. Instead it progresses to a certain point, then there is a quantum shift as something newer, simpler and more effective comes along. This then gets more and more complex until the cycle starts again. If you don't believe me consider these two technologies: steam engines and computers.

From superheaters to superconductors

The first steam engines were so simple you could make a model of one yourself with a tin can and a
few pipes. However by the time the golden age of steam was reached, a hundred odd years later, they were incredibly complex, with superheaters, turbopumps and complex chimneys (called 'ejectors') and so on. They were magnificent creations, but very expensive to maintain and getting them ready first thing in the morning took hours.

Then along came the diesel engine, which you just switched on when you wanted it, and they were history. Complex had given way to simple.

Computers took a similar trajectory. It's just about possible to understand Alan Turing's Colossus, but vacuum-tube computers then swiftly reached mind-boggling levels of complexity. By 1956 ENIAC had 20,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed in at over 30 tons. When one of those tubes went pop, which happened several times a day, it could take a quarter of an hour to find the fault. Then along came the transistor and simplicity was restored. They didn't stay simple for long, but that's another story.

Horse power

So what about personal transport? Well lets rewind a century and a bit to to the age of the horse. Now I like horses, but as a means of getting about they have their limitations. They need to to bred and reared and trained. They need to be fed and watered and stabled, even when not being used. They get sick and they get lame.

Then came the car. A rich man's toy at first, but by the time the Model T Ford came out in 1908 it was a viable alternative to the horse. Compared to the gee gee, the Model T came off the production line ready to roll, needed nothing when it wasn't being used, and was simple enough to be maintained by the local blacksmith-come-mechanic. It also ran on the simplest of roads.

Now fast forward 90 years to the present day, and take a look at what is now rolling off the production line. Under the bonnet you will find an array of overhead cam shafts, electronic ignitions, turbo chargers and so on. It's a machine that needs regular servicing by a trained mechanic and smooth roads. Like the steam trains of the 1930s, it's magnificent, but complicated.

By contrast, look at the engine on an electric car. It has about half a dozen moving parts. That's it. Simple.

Of course, there's the huge elephant in the room of the battery, a marvel of chemical engineering, but overall you can see the pattern. Like the steam train and the vacuum-tube computer, internal combustion engines have grown too complex.

It is time for simplicity again.