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

Monday, 23 December 2013


When I am older I will cast aside this crusty persona and the new me will emerge, the suave super-spy who lives a life of car chases, fine wine, fast women and opera. Okay, I may pass on the killing people bit and my wife might object to the fast women, I'm up for everything else, including the opera.

Opera. Yes. That's a bit of a funny one, isn't it?

I mean, there are only about twenty operas that are regularly performed. Imagine if rock music was like that. What if there were just 20 rock albums that were regarded as classics and anything less famous than Black Sabbath's Paranoid was completely ignored?

There's also almost no hierarchy in opera. Rock fans can pay £300 to see the Rolling Stones (if they're mad), a more reasonable amount for a band that didn't sell out before the sixties ended, or watch a local band doing cover versions down the pub for nought. But for opera lovers there isn't much between your local am-dram doing Gilbert & Sullivan and flying to Milan to see Turandot. We're lucky here in Derbyshire we have Buxton Opera House entertaining touring companies, but that's fairly rare.

That's why it was absolutely fantastic on Saturday night to go to Glossopera's inaugural concert at the Partington Theatre. The Partington is one of Glossop's wonderful little secrets, a genuine small theatre with an intimate atmosphere, and to see professional opera stars perform there is an almost unique experience. It's a real pity this is so, because although my tastes in music are fairly broad, there really is nothing that sends shivers down your spine in quite the same way as opera when it's done properly.

As I haven't yet dedicated myself to a study of the finer points of opera I can't attempt a critical exploration of the performance, save to say it sounded amazing.

I saw Katherine Jenkins in Buxton before she was megafamous (she was the support act!) and whilst her version of Carmen's Habanera was beautifully sung, you could tell she was a nice girl from the Valleys and not a seductive vamp. Charlotte Stephenson though certainly seemed to play the part, but then she has played Carmen in a real opera, something Ms Jenkins has never done.

Charlotte Stephenson
The rest of the performers were top notch too. Tenor Alexander Anderson-Hall opened the show with Brindisi from La Traviata, which has been the end of lesser performers. Baritone Mark Saberton made a decent Toreador and a first rate Don Giovanni, whilst the sopranos Catriona Clark and organiser Claire Surman worked their way through a battery of classic opera numbers.

However, after Carmen, the highlight for me was the duets and ensemble pieces (if that's the word, I haven't learnt operaspeak yet); the one from The Pearl Fishers (question for a real opera buffs: name another song from the opera), the British Airways ad. one, the batty Mozart one from The Magic Flute and then when the encore was Time To Say Goodbye it was shivers down the spine time again.

And bets of all it was all performed live and right in front of you. Very intimate in the case of Habanera. It's one thing to see Carmen with the cream of immediate post-Communist Budapest society at the Hungarian State Opera as I did 20 years ago, but it's quite another to have her within arms reach and giving you a rose afterwards. (Had a spot of bother explaining that to my wife, I don't usually come home from a night out with flora).

So a wonderful and unique event. And the best bit? Well you can probably guess!.

So hopefully there'll be Glossopera II, or whatever they call it, next year. But could anything beat Habanera? Well, Casta Diva might.

Meanwhile, it's Breton folk dancing tonight.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Albion Fracked?

Convoy on Barton Moss Road 13/12/13
There’s a war going on in Albion. You may not have noticed it yet, but it might be coming your way soon. The enemy is fracking, an unconventional fossil fuel bad for the planet as a whole and whichever corner of it they drilling in particular.

The government is broadly in favour, the media broadly ignorant and the City cautiously supportive. But a grass roots movement of eco-warriors and concerned locals threatens to upset their plans.

Camps are springing up across the land. It started in Lancashire in May, with 300 people at Camp Frack. Sussex then did it in the balmy days of July. Damh the Bard was there, and so where thousands of others, having fun in the sun. But us hard northern types in Greater Manchester doing it in December.

As I write their camp in Barton Moss is awaiting the arrival of the drilling rig. They are currently sorted for baked beans and pasta sauce but running low on fresh coffee and beer. So, situation critical.

It’s Oil Jim, But Not As We Know It

Shale gas, the stuff they’re looking for in Lancashire; shale oil, the stuff they were trying to get at
Boris and I at Barton Moss
Balcombe; and coal seam gas, which is what they currently claim to be looking for in Manchester, all come under the category of ‘unconventional oil’.

The processes are slightly different, but basically it’s about getting oil that is not stored in porous rock. Instead of just sticking in a pipe and sucking it out, fracking involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground to force the rock apart to free the hydrocarbons trapped within.

There is air pollution, noise, gas flaring and lots of lorries. It requires large amounts of water being brought in and large amounts of waste being taken out. Under the ground bore holes can crack and previously impermeable rock can shatter. Methane can end up where it’s not wanted; in the atmosphere, in the ground water and in people.

The Rebel Alliance

Well there had to be drummers
People opposed to fracking generally get there from two different directions.

For environmentalists fracking is another unwanted fossil fuel. Possibly it is one of the worst, as leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the fracking sites may mean it causes more Climate Change than coal.

For people with a fracking well in their back garden, the concerns are the noise, air pollution, vehicle traffic and the possibility of methane contamination of the water table.

At times it can seem like the people who go round supporting wind turbines and those who oppose them have got together and decided the one thing they both don’t like is fracking. Best of all it’s a grass roots movement. Some big NGOs have almost given up, as everything they would have wanted to do has already been done by self organising local groups.

That makes a powerful movement, and one that is global. In Australia fracking in Queensland was resisted so strongly the other states either banned it outright or inflicted a punitive regulatory regime. In France and Bulgaria campaigns have led to indefinite bans.

But the real question is, can we win here?

I think the answer is a great big yes. 

Here’s why.

Jittery Markets

On the fence over fracking
People don't frack for the fun of it. This is about making money.

The thing to remember is these aren't big companies by the standards we're used to. They hope to get big, but they're not there yet. Centrica's £60 million deal with John Browne’s Cuadrill  would barely have been enough to pay the board its bonus in the days he was head of BP.

They are hoping to make megabucks, but first they need other people's money.

Industry consultants KPMG, who don’t usually see eye-to-eye with environmentalists, are sceptical. They talk about "tremendous reputational and regulatory hurdles", "high costs", "financial risk", and "extended development periods". This is all industry code for “careful you don’t lose your shirt”.

Governments, as we know to our cost, can be incredibly pig headed and can stick with bad decisions forever rather than appear weak. The City though can change its mind in an instant. It wasn't John Major's government that gave in to Greenpeace over the Brent Spar - they were getting ready to send in the SBS - but Shell which threw in the towel.

Worried MPs

The risk management company Control Risks wrote a report on fracking in which they note "activist groups are well-organised (I guess they’ve never been to one of our meetings) and actively network internationally” (they must have heard of Boris) and a government which is "is cautious or divided in its approach towards unconventional gas development".

Put together they worry:
Convoy enters Igas site on Barton Moss 13/12/13
"Protest activity in the UK can be expected to persist as new sites are targeted for exploration, although the composition of issues and concerns will vary by locality. While these demonstrations may only be marginally successful at physically disrupting drilling – Cuadrilla was delayed by just a week at Balcombe – their real impact will be felt in the politics of shale. Tory backbenchers viewing fracking as an electoral liability is a greater success for the anti-fracking movement than blockading a project site."

So they see us pesky protesters as a big threat and the Countryside Alliance supporting Conservative MPs of the Stockbroker belt as the weakest link.

Happy Campers

Guinevere Rose Ditchburn
So here's the challenge for us. Taking a group of rowdy, anti-capitalist anarchists, design a campaign to appeal to both a shrewd stockbroker and a Tory backwoodsman.

Should be easy.

However, in case you’re stuck for ideas, Control Risks has some for you.
Direct action is intended to draw media attention to the anti-fracking movement, motivate the anti-fracking opposition, and physically disrupt operations. Project site blockades, in particular, have emerged as a favoured low-cost, high-impact tactic, especially in the UK.

So there you go.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Top Five Cinema Sci-Fi Heroines

Oops, nearly typed 'babes' there not heroines.

But in my defence it can be hard to tell the two apart in a genre devised for, and by, geeky males. Even Princess Leia, who started off less vacuous and more clothed than the average, ended up in the slave girl costume (cue gratuitous picture of Carrie Fisher).

However I've tried hard to pick babes women, who were a bit more than decorative monster bait.

Sandra Bullock doesn't make the list as I haven't seen Gravity yet, and I'm only counting actual movies, not TV crossovers, so there's no Wilma Dearing (Buck Rogers), Deana Troy (Star Trek: The Next Generation) or Dana Scully (X Files).

So here we are, in chronological order, as I can't possibly rank them any other way, my top five sci-fi babes heroines.

Barbarella (Jane Fonda) in Barbarella (1968)


How do you judge Barbarella? A bit of sixties fluff? Sexist soft porn? Or a cult classic?

Staring the third Mrs Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, it looked utterly bizarre and the plot is totally bonkers.

Having an actress strip off during the opening credits, and then proceed to sleep with every man she meets, doesn't perhaps sound the most liberating plot ever. But the world was still a pretty boring and straight place in 1968, and along with films like Blowup (1966) this was the sexual revolution as it happened.

Miss Fonda, of course, was also Hanoi Jane, smooching around North Vietnam even as the US Air Force wasted the Mekong Delta, so there is a bit of authentic radicalism here too.

Plus, after you've seen it, you'll never think of the band Duran Duran in the same way again.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien Quadrillogy (1979-1997)

Sigourney Weaver became the iconic post-feminist woman when she appeared in Aliens with a blaster in one hand and a child the other.

She had also been a fairly sassy space fairer in the original film, and had held things together as the male members of the cast were devoured, but it was in the second film that she really kicked ass.

Aliens was the film that set the standard for sci-fi actioners. After that all future guns had to go chunk-chunk before they fired, and sci-fi heroines couldn't just scream and pout any more.

Rachael (Sean Young) in Blade Runner (1982)

So what would you make of Rachael for a girlfriend?

Attractive, well dressed, susceptible to the charms of an older man and after four years she 'retires' and you're single again. Sounds good.

But she isn't just eye candy. What sets Rachael apart from the others on this list is that her struggle is an internal one, as she has to work out who she is, which of her memories are real and come to terms with her, possibly very short, lifespan.

To be honest, you wouldn't really expect Sean Young to pull a performance like that off, but I think she does just fine, as well as looking incredibly stylish.

The only question is, what does she see in Harrison Ford's rather wooden Decard? Rutger Hauer's Batty is the fella she should have ended up with.

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 1(1984) and 2 (1991)

The Terminator franchise has been around long enough to become both familiar and contemptible, so I have to think back to the days when I wasn't old enough to officially watch films like this, to remind myself how good the first two films were.

Casting is everything in cinema, and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a robot was classic casting.

But Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor was pretty inspired too. The mum who becomes a feral street fighter when her son is threatened is a bit of a cliche, but she manages to pull it off. In the second film she also has to wrestle with her feelings towards the titular cyborg, an emotionless killing machine who her son never-the-less regards as a father.

Well, I guess a few other mums have had to wrestle with that one too.

Dr Elleanor "Sparks" Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact (1997)

I guess you can't really call a multiple Oscar winner 'underrated'. However I really think Jodie Foster should be considered one of the great actors of our time, not just a great actress. Her Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs was a far, far more subtle bit of acting than Anthony Hopkins' scenery chewing performance as Hannibal Lector, but was mostly overlooked.

Her Dr Arroway is a serious scientist on a very serious quest. Women blasting aliens to pieces were old hat by 1997, but women scientists were rather rarer on screen. 

They fiddled around with Carl Sagan's plot a bit, toning down the atheism and suggesting religion isn't all bad, but they also added twist that at the end, and Arroway ends up believes in aliens thanks to something close to Divine Revelation, which is a nice joke on rationalists like Sagan.

So that's my list; a sex kitten, a pair of heavily armed maternal types, some Art Deco totty and a brilliant scientist. So what does that say about me?

Don't answer.