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

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Now Is The Time To Live Our Values

Totnes sustainability town • Naked Wild And Free

Ready or not, Covid 19 is here. Despite trying gamely to live up to his political hero, the Mayor in Jaws, our Prime Minister has now, reluctantly, agreed to start the process of shutting down modern, post-industrial life. What lies ahead is grim, but, as the old saying goes, a crisis is also an opportunity.

Environmentalists in the whole like to talk about how to replace the 'essentials' of modern life with greener alternatives; renewable energy, electric cars, ethical jobs and low-impact products. Fair enough, as this is the language people listen to. What we tend to do in our own lives though is actually ditch these trappings of modern life: turn off the TV, leave the car behind, ditch the high-pressure job and buy less. We walk the walk, but we tend not to talk the talk. Now that needs to stop. Coronavirus is forcing the whole country to live like us, and we need to use this chance to promote our way of life. 

Stalled relief efforts raise anger and confusion in Sandy ...

We've been here before. In the wake of natural, and unnatural disasters in the USA the government has fled town, and the private sector has not stepped in. People have had to step in and fend for themselves and their neighbours. Transition Towns became survival towns. This is going to happen here. Social care will collapse, hospitals will be overrun and your vulnerable neighbours will be left stranded. They will need you. We need to step in.

But as well as making ourselves useful, and visible, we also need to make ourselves relevant. We need to use every online forum, and every human contact, to show that a life less pressured, less mobile and less dependent on technology is a life very much worth living. We have demonstrated this to ourselves, now we need to show the world.


The future starts here. 


Sunday, 5 January 2020

Review of the Year 2019

January

First campaign of the year: single use plastic. Perhaps not the most important issue in the world right now, nor the most urgent, but the one that it's currently easiest to make progress on. Greenpeace made a list of the worst offenders and Sainsbury's came last, as usual, so that's where we pitched up on the third Saturday of the year.

The manager of Salford branch didn't take very kindly to us, and we were asked to leave. We went off to campaign somewhere friendlier, but marked the place down for a return visit.

February

Weird weather arrived in February and Glossop looked like it was supposed to do in the Peak District tourist brochure, or at least what it would look like if Glossop had replied to the email and was actually in the brochure.

A few days later though I was sat in the sunshine by the river in Ashford-on-the-Water in a t-shirt with my feet in snow. Global Weirding indeed.Te chnically it's an unstable polar vortex caused by climate change, but 'weirding' is a much better description.

Our plastic campaign continued, and got a bit more 'secret squirrel', which was fun. The supermarket managers we met varied from the angry to the actually supportive. We made a point of marking the nasty ones for a return visit and leaving the nice ones alone in the future.

Also in February I found myself custodian of the Greenwire Social Media Activists Group, a bit of a shock to a neo-Luddite like me. Basically I just posted up stuff from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex on how to use Twitter. She knew her stuff at least.

March

The High Peak Green Party organised a showing of the Bruce Parry film Tawai, and then didn't mind not being mentioned in the publicity, which was nice of them. The film was interesting, but Bruce Parry's spiritual take on the loss of the rainforest didn't really cut it with me: no, we are not all responsible, some people are very, very guilty indeed.

Our next campaign was climate change. To start things off we took Sami, our climate change fighting polar bear, for a night out in Manchester. People in Manchester are usually friendly, but when you have a large, cuddly bear with you they are even friendlier. The Hen Party were particularly welcoming to him.

March was also Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham's second Green Summit. This time we got some details on what he was actually planning, and it was both startlingly radical and also considerably less than what's needed. Chris Boardman was a revelation in his commitment to making Manchester a cycling city. I also learnt a lot about electric cars.

April

Our plastic campaign continued, and the 'secret squirrels' of Manchester Greenpeace decided to visit the Salford Sainbury's store in the early hours.

Also in April I finally got to see Kate Rowarth, the author of Doughnut Economics, speak. She was addressing a bunch of geography teachers, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening was hearing them introduce her by saying the "current economic system is not fit for purpose", which is not the way geography teachers used to speak. We also had drinks afterwards amongst the dinosaurs in the Manchester Museum, which was fun.

In April 2019 it was 87 years since grandad Porter went on the Kinder Scout Mass trespass. The previous year Jordan Carroll of WellRedFilms made a short documentary about the trespass, and included me in it. Thanks to a student nurse from Sheffield, the Manchester Greenpeace group was persuaded to organise another walk to commemorate it. The weather was absolutely atrocious, with non-stop heavy rain. However, people turned out including a pregnant Social Worker and the Derbyshire badger cull saboteurs, so it was worth it.

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza came to London in April, possibly for almost the last time, as she's getting on a bit and has been a Greenpeace ship for 19 years. I volunteered my services as a tour guide for a day and had fun showing people around the former Soviet naval tug boat. She was about to set off on an epic journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic as part of Greenpeace's next campaign, which is to make 30% of the world's oceans marine protected areas by 2030.

Once the public have had their look we got a peak about, and then went off for a drink with some of the crew. I headed back to Glossop, and work, just as Extinction Rebellion were arriving in town. They were to have a lot of fun.

May

In May I went to my first Youth Strike for Climate. I travelled into Manchester in an environmentally friendly way, and ended up staying longer than I planned as Northern Rail had messed up their trains again. It was wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic young people, even if it did make me feel old, not only because I was three times the age of the organisers, but that this was a new movement I had no connection with at all. Even XR I felt slightly attached to, as many people I've know from Earth First! and Climate Camp were part of it, but this was properly a new generation. Sami came with me, and got to meet Andy Burnham. 

The next day it was Envirolution, Manchester's best free day out. Once again we had sunshine and a great day out. Extinction Rebellion were the stars of the show, but Sami also had his fans. We were now pushing the Ocean Treaty campaign, which was a fairly easy ask in the circumstances. The food, music and general ambiance were again excellent, and for a day we all felt like we really could change the world.


June

In June it was Download Festival. Greenpeave was once again running the eco-field, and I was on the team again. Whereas last year had been fun in the sun, 2019 was a bit more of a challenge. On day two my new tent had sprung a leak and my bed was afloat. That evening Jeff and I were at the bar, standing with the mud up to the top of our wellies, looking at the empty field and wondering when it would start to be fun.

Well, it did become fun. The sun came out, the mud turned to a sort of sticky glue, and Def Leppard were on stage on the Friday evening. They were the top British band of the late eighties, and whilst the others of that era: Thunder, Almighty, Little Angels, all played Leicester University whilst I was there, Def Leppard were too famous so I didn't see them live. Anthrax, Smashing Pumpkins, Slipknot and Slayer, playing their last ever UK gig, were all great, but stars of the show for me were prog metal act Tool. Listening to their song individually just does not prepare you for a Tool set. Being part of the Greenpeace crew was also fun and, come Monday morning, the eco-field was once again the cleanest part of the site.

In June I also got to visit the Houses of Parliament. The occasion was a Greenpeace lobbying day on the issue of microplastics in rivers, but my local MP, Ruth George, invited me down to make a day of it. I took Number One Son, as a reward for surviving his GCSEs, and he enjoyed being whisked past security and allowed to watch Prime Ministers Questions from in front of the security screen. There is a ban on clothing with political messages in the Palace of Westminster, but I got round it by wearing a t-shirt with a message in Russian as I watched the Teresa and Jeremy show.

July


For July it was back to the Oceans Campaign. We needed a picture of ourselves painted blue at a suitable Manchester location. The Manchester weather made this difficult, but we ended up in the Science and Industry Museum in front of Stevenson's Rocket, which had just arrived.

July was also the month of the New Mills One World Festival, which I hadn't been to for a few years. Greenpeace had a stall and I was a speaker. The weather was excellent and I popped off to camp in the woods afterwards.

August

The Climate Emergency came a little closer to home in August. I was on holiday in Wiltshire, enjoying the sunshine, when I was phoned by the Derbyshire Emergency Planning Team to say I was needed. Rain of Biblical proportions had fallen back home in High Peak and the 188 Toddbrook Dam, above the little town of Whaley Bridge, was about to collapse.

In the end it held, thanks to hundreds of volunteers and council staff and an RAF helicopter, but it was a close run thing. Although the locals were a little put out by being given fifteen minutes to leave their homes, nobody died.

September

September was Wigan Diggers festival. Last year we nearly drowned, but this year the weather was very reasonable. It was a gathering of lefties, so an easy audience, but most of the other stalls appeared to be Lexit people, which was not a good sign. When the far left is campaigning for the main policy of the far right things are not looking good.

In September there was another Global Youth Strike for Climate. I predicted in the Morning Star that it would be a big one, and fortunately I was right.

Sami the polar bear had a fun day photo bombing. He ended up everywhere from The Sun to RTE in Ireland. The stars of the show though were the young people, who once again swarmed by in their thousands. Andy Burnham, always game for these sort of gigs, allowed himself to be grilled on stage by twelve year old Lalia, who gave him a bit of a hard time.

The next day a few of these youngsters joined us for our World Cleanup Day litter pick on the canal.
This ended up being Manchester Greenpeace's best attended event of the year with about eighty people collecting on land, and a couple of canoes in the water. We bagged and tagged the rubbish, and chief culprit turned out to be McDonalds. Surprise, surprise.

You don't change the world by picking up multinational company's crap for them, but litter picks, or community cleans as Greenpeace calls them, are a great way into real activism. Also, unlike a lot of campaigning, there is some tangible evidence you have made a difference afterwards.

October


In October Manchester hosted the Greenpeace Local Groups Northwest Area conference. We were in Bridge 5 Mill in Ancoats, so the delegates were able to see an authentic bit of Industrial Manchester. As we walked to the venue we passed injecting drug users by the canal, so they saw some authentic post-Industrial Manchester too.

We were briefed on what was coming next, shared a few skills, and hopefully inspired the volunteers to get more involved. We also did a quick Burger King protest afterwards, and then drank until some of us were ill.

I had recovered enough by the following Saturday to get up very early in the morning to go on a coach to London with the Manchester People's Vote people. It's one of the biggest rallies in UK history. As a result I don't bother going on the march and just hang around in Parliament Square with Tony from XR. Talking of which I bump into the living legend that is Broccoli Man. There is a vote in parliament on Johnson's deal so we watch Parliament TV on the big screens. I've never done live politics before. The People's Vote people are very nic, but mostly they seem to be LibDem voters who hate Corbyn more than Johnson, and just wish everything was like it was before the Brexit Vote, if not the Credit Crunch. I can't see any of their arguments going down at all well north of Watford.



Monday though as I was back in Lancashire for a visit to Cuadrilla Resource's Preston New Road fracking site. I was the 101st, and hopefully last, Green Monday speaker. Sami came along for moral support. In the past speakers have included Kate Raworth and George Monbiot, but fracking in Lancashire was now in such dire straights that noone famous can even be bothered to go up there to oppose it, so they had to have me. This is what I said.

With fracking once again suspended due to earth tremors, and no sign the government was willing to spend any more political capital on fracking, the fat lady was clearing her throat in Blackpool. It's been a long, hard struggle, and Manchester played its part with the Barton Moss campaign. These things rarely have neat resolutions, unfortunately, but things looked a lot better for us than for the frackers.

Also in October came the welcome news that Sainsbury's had thrown in the towel on plastics, just like they always do when we campaign against them. As well as a fairly reasonable commitment to reduce single use plastic, they were also polite about Greenpeace in a documentary that was made about them.

November

Meanwhile the Amazon rainforest has been being burnt by Brazilian president Bolsonaro and his rancher chums. The world's voracious appetite for meat is to blame and so Greenpeace UK embarked on its first campaign to encourage people to eat less of the stuff.

Burger King in are target in England. They're a pretty tough target, and our campaign gets off to a rather damp start in Manchester. Well done to the team for continuing through a torrential downpour, and to the people of Manchester for stopping to talk to some soggy activists on the streets.

Just as we're getting going on the campaign though some idiot calls a general election election. Not great timing for a number of reasons, but I volunteer my services to local Labour Party anyway. Unfortunately, the High Peak Green Party don't take the hint and still stand a candidate.

December


General election campaigning continued. Basically this involved knocking on doors whilst old people said racist things to me.

Ruth George put a good team together. The picture on the left, which was taken on election day, shows less than half the volunteers who were in Glossop alone that day.

In the end though it was all for nothing. Real people and real issues didn't really count and Labour lost the country and the High Peak, the latter by half the Green vote.

As I prefer to get even rather than get mad, we plunge back into the Amazon campaign, and the Manchester 'secret squirrel' club pay Burger King an early morning visit.

Burger King though were stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that they were even being campaigned again, let alone that they were benefiting from rainforest destruction. Meanwhile, the Amazon fires were forgotten as the Australian fires took hold.

So that was 2019. Another win on plastics and commercial fracking was looking a very iffy prospect, but it would be very hard to argue the world ended the year, or the decade, in a better condition than it began either.

We'll just have to do better in 2020 then.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

No, you've never seen Star Wars


Star Wars - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
So after 42 years the saga finally ends. With more of a whimper than a bang, but ended it has. "Never seen Star Wars" has become a bit of a cliche, and indeed a Radio 4 program. The problem is it's actually true: most people have never seen Star Wars. What they have seen is Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Not a bad film by any means, but not Star Wars, at least not the Star Wars little seven year old me watched in 1977. It exists as a low resolution extra on one of the pre-digital boxed set releases, but apart from that it only ever existed in the cinema back in the seventies. The thing is, I think Star Wars is a better film.

Watchng Star Wars now one of the main questions people ask is "Why didn't George Lucas screw it all up", as he has done with basically everything he's touched since. In 1977 though that was not the question anyone was asking. Lucas's previous film offering was American Grafitti, one of my favourite films. It inpired the TV series Happy Days, which was pretty good until it literally Jumped the Shark. However, it's relationship to the small screen offering is a bit like that between MASH the film and MASH the TV series: the former is just so much deeper and darker. If you haven't seen it, do so.

So fresh from that Lucas gave us Star Wars. An old fashioned Flash Gordon style space opera, witht
special effects that were as realistic as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but which actually moved in real time. Plot wise it was a delicious post-modernist rehash of Western, Kurosawa Samurai film (themselves inspired by Westerns) and classic Brit war films such as 633 Squadron, with the Norwegian fiord replaced by the Death Star's trench, and the Dambusters, of which the Battle of Yavin is almost a scene-for-scene remake. 

However, back to 1997 when Lucas, fresh from such 'hits' as Willow and Howard the Duck, decides to re-edit his masterpiece, and it all turns to Bantha poo. It's not just the naff CGI, the stupid scene with Jabba and the infamous 'Han shot first' edits. I really do hate this tinkering, but the problem is deeper than that.

In the original, the Jedi are an ancient legends, like the Knights of King Arthur. In the sequels, we discover that, rather than being lost in the mists of time, the Jedi were running the galaxy only thirty years earlier, but did so so ineptly that the bad guys took over. Not so much Ancient Mystics as New Labour.

Then there's Alec Guinness. In Star Wars, Obi Won Kenobi is a crazy old man who's so bad ass he wanders round the Wild West with only an old sword, because in Star Wars that's all the lightsaber is. Obi Wan chops off a chaps arm in a bar fight, and has a duel with Darth Vader, because he's Old Skool too and likes that sort of thing, but therwise the lightsaber seems pretty useless. He also has The Force, but that just appears to just be a bit of Derren Brown mental trickery, such as "These are not the droids you're looking for" and "Use the Force Luke". It's all in the head. True, Darth Vader 'force chokes' an underling, but maybe the victim just thinks he can't breath?

By the third film Lightsabers are a sort of ultimate weapon and we should really feel sorry for the stormtroopers who get minced by them. (Curious fact about stormtroopers: when they shoot at an ordinary hero they miss, but if they shoot at a Jedi they are dead on target so the Jedi can deflect the blast straight back at them.) In Star Wars Obi Wan sneaks about on the Death Star, not letting anyone see, or shoot, at him. Come the Prequel Trilogy he just flies in through the front door of the droid ship and takes them all on at once. I think the original is better.

Then there are the Stormtroopers. In the opening scene of the film they dispose of the crew of the Tantive IV in seconds. They then exterminate the Jawas and for good measure torch old uncle Owen. When the heroes get to the Death Star they allow themselves to be shot at without relatiating just to allow them to escape. These guys are a serious, professional and ruthless fighting force. In the second film they have a more limited role, and by the last one they couldn't hit a barn door at ten paces.

Finally there's the Anakin/Darth Vader thing. In Star Wars Darth Vader and Luke's dad are clearly different people. Now combining them did give us one of the great coup de cinema twists with "I am your father". However, that was followed by the cringe worthy end to Return of the Jedi. Apparently, we're supposed to regard Anakin/Vader as a good guy in the end because he loved his son. Sorry, but no: he's tortured most of the major characters, purged his own generals and committed genocide. To let him off would be like trying to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin on the grounds he was quite fond of Vassily.

So to sum up there are lots of reasons to wish we were back in 1977, from punk to progressive politics, but mainly it would be th echance to see the best Star Wars film ever in the cinema again, an experience my children may never have.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Speech to 101st Green Monday at Preston New Road

I was priviledged to be invited to speak to the 101st, and possibly last, Green Monday at the Cuadrilla fracking site on Prestn New Road, just outside Blackpool, Lancashire, on 21st October 2019. I ad libbed a bit, but this is what I meant to say.

Tina Louise filmed and you can watch her footage here.

Hello Blackpool. We bring you greetings from Manchester, and apologies for Morrissey.

I’m Martin, one of the coordinators of the Manchester Greenpeace Group. We have some other Greenpeace local groups here, as well as Frack Free Greater Manchester. I used to help them too, so I’m not sure exactly which hat I’m speaking through today.

Well, here we are in Blackpool again, where it all began. There are two annual traditions that bring us up here. One is the Illuminations, and the other is Cuadrilla removing it’s equipment from Preston New Road. And, like the playing of Christmas music in the shops, it gets earlier every year.

So we’re here for a sort of ‘almost victory’ celebration. Fracking clearing isn’t going anywhere, but it’s not gone yet. Instead we have a zombie industry that’s not doing anything, just hanging around. As a result, this could be the last Green Monday at Preston New Road. In the past you’ve had George Monbiot and Kate Rowarth, and today you’ve got me, which I think just shows how fracking has just fizzled out and died up here. Cuadrilla now can’t even get anyone famous to oppose them.

It’s been quite a story how we got to here, but you already know it so I’m not going to tell it you again. Instead I’m going to tell you the story of what happened when the frackers came to Manchester.

Barton Moss really is the edge of town. On one side is the great Manchester, Salford and Stockport urban conglomeration. On the other it is countryside as far as Warrington. Historically, Stephenson’s Rocket once ran along the nearby railway. It has the first canal in Britain, the Bridgewater, and also the last, the Manchester Ship Canal. In 2013 it became the site of test drilling by IGas.

Earlier in the year direct action against fracking had started at Balcombe in Sussex. The media lapped it up. The weather was good and the journalists could be back in London for gin and tonics by sundown. Barton Moss was different matter. The weather was, well, Manchester, and as far as the press were concerned, we were off the edge of the Known World. Even the Guardian, who were sympathetic, didn’t cover us as their only journalist north of Watford Gap was covering the Ken Loach trial.

There was a camp, there were protectors, and every working day for five months they stood in front of the daily convoy and walked them in and out of the site, with the occasional lock-on. And, of course, there were arrests, about two hundred of them in all. Usually five people were arrested every day. No more, no less, giving a new meaning to getting your ‘Five a Day’.  

At first these were for Obstruction of the Public Highway, until a judge ruled that Barton Moss Road was a private road, and not a public highway. 

After that people were usually arrested for Aggravated Trespass. It’s a pretty catch-all offense, but it does require people to be actually trespassing, and we were all fairly sure that Barton Moss Road was a Public Footpath. There was a little bit of doubt though, as about half way through the campaign someone nicked the Public Footpath sign from the top of the road. We did get a look at the suspects through. They were wearing dark blue trousers, high-viz jackets and they loaded the sign into a white van with blue lights on the roof. If you see anyone matching this description, please let me know.

But we were not completely forgotten. The anti-fracking campaigners of Lancashire came to support us. I think I met most of you down there before I met you up here. Thanks to your support we organised what where the biggest environmental protests Manchester had ever seen.

My role was media coordinator. IGas were claiming the Protectors were disrupting local people whilst the media was clearly showing local people disrupting Igas. After a few weeks IGas pretty much gave up on that front and Greater Manchester Police took over the PR campaign. By Christmas we were starting to get noticed in the press, mainly thanks to Reclaim the Power, who had Father Christmas drop a wind turbine blade at the gates. Greater Manchester Police then gave us another huge publicity boost with Flaregate.

The flare allegedly fired at a police helicopter. It missed the helicopter, it was also missed by everyone in the camp, everyone at the airport, the cameras on the M62, the cameras on the secure unit and the entire population of Irlam and Cadishead. However, it wasn’t missed by the press, and after that a lot more of my press releases got published.

I don’t know what effect this had on the campaign here in Lancashire. You were all busy lobbying your local counsellors to oppose this development here, but as you were doing that inglorious work the politicians were see us on TV, listening to us on the radio and reading about us in their papers. I don’t know what effect it had on them, but it changed public opinion in Manchester from 43% of Mancunians supported fracking, to 73% now opposing the process four months later. When we voted for our first Greater Manchester Mayor in 2017 all four of the main candidates: Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Conservative, opposed fracking.

Well, the Barton Moss campaign ended, we had a party, cleaned up the site and left. The focus of opposition to fracking moved north. A year after IGAs left Manchester, Lancashire became the first county council to reject a fracking application. It wasn’t the end, unfortunately, but it was significant. It meant that Cuadrilla, when they arrived, did not have a social license for what they were doing, and they still don’t.

Opposition to fracking always existed on two levels, the local and the global. It causes localised pollution and globalise warming. Stopping fracking is about both local democracy and global responsibility. Here in Lancashire it must seem that every day is the same, but in the wider word things have changed. Since we drove IGas out of Barton Moss, Greenpeace have driven Shell out of the Arctic. We’ve had the Paris Conference and Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the School Strike for Climate. Fracking was always a toxic industry, but fossil fuels in general are now a toxic brand. No New Oil has been a campaign slogan for a while, but maybe, after the abject failure of fracking in Lancashire, there really will be no new oil.

Fracking was always the last gasp of the fossil fuel dinosaurs. Now extinction is a very real possibility, and they know it. Few people in this country had heard of fracking before the earthquakes in Lancashire in 2011, and after this year I imagine very few people will hear about it again. Cuadrilla will be forgotten, as they should be. But you people, the campaigners from Manchester, and Lancashire, as well as those in Yorkshire, and Sussex and everywhere else, will not be forgotten. Barton Moss was the ‘rise of the resistance’. Here was where is reached its peak. Here is where you won. Here is where we said the final ‘frack off’. Well done.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Top Five Songs inspired by the Space Race

It's fifty years since the Space Race ended. America had won, and that was all that counted. Nobody was interested in what happened next. As if to prove the point, the original series of Star Trek was canned a full month before Apollo 11 touched down.

The Space Race was only ever really a proxy for the Cold War. Rockets that could carry people into space could also, obviously, carry atomic bombs back down to earth. The main reason the Russians held their early lead in the race was because their nuclear warheads were bigger and heavier and so their rockets needed to be more powerful.

However, whilst the technical legacy of space race is mixed - and before anyone says it Teflon was patented in 1945 and was not developed by NASA - it's musical legacy is much richer. Picking just five songs to represent it was difficult, but here I go.

Click on the heading to listen to the song.

5. Telestar by The Tornados 

Dylan aside, not many songs from the early sixties, the era of the Clean Cut Crooner, have stood the test of time, and it's arguable really if this one has. However, people remember it fondly and it turns up on various compilation albums.

The song is now more famous than the satellite, which is a bit of a pity as the original Telstar 1, launched in July 1962, was the world's first communication satellite. It wasn't in geostationary orbit, so it didn't exactly fulfil the roll that Arthur C Clarke had predicted back in 1945, but it was able to provide the first live trans-Atlantic link.

Communication satellites have changed the world far more than walking on the moon ever did, so it's only fair to remember the original.

4. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

This piece of music was not written for the space race.It was in fact written in 1896 by Strauss, a composer with unfortunate Nazi connections, inspired by a book by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher with unfortunate Nazi connections. However, the only part of the hour long piece that most people know is the opening section called Sunrise, and that's because of it's use in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Until pictures of the real thing came back a year later, this film was what people thought exploring the moon looked like. In fact, there's a strong argument for saying that Kubrick's film is better than the real thing; it's both more poetic, but also a lot more troubling. Utterly incomprehensible to most people who first see it, a re-watching shows 2001 to be a fascinating and complex critique of the culture that put man-on-the-moon. From the scene above which links the ape creatures to the near future (as 2001 was in 1968), when the leader's bone weapon thrown in the air turns into an orbiting nuclear missile, to the complete lack of emotion in the space station scenes, to the murderous-but-honest computer HAL, to the acid-trip ending; Stanley Kubrick took Arthur C Clarke's hard sci-fi tale of First Contact and subtlety turned it on its head.

Real astronauts watched the film too, and the crew of Apollo 13, who named their command module Odyssey, were listening to this piece of music just before the explosion that suddenly made the space race interesting again.

3. Whitey On The Moon by Gil Scott-Heron

Armstrong and Aldrin's successful trip to the moon and back inspired a number of pop songs, most fairly trivial offerings. Scott-Heron's spoken word piece though is not. A jazz poet from Chicago, he was very much aware that billions of dollars had been spent on putting two white guys on the moon, whilst millions of his fellow people of colour still lived in poverty.

One particular beef of his, as you can tell from the lyrics, was the lack of affordable healthcare. Still a live issue today, but in 1969, when most working class men would be in the type of job that still came with health insurance, one that was even more racially divisive than today.

Other songs on a similar vein were to be made in the years to come, with Hawkwind's Uncle Sam's On Mars, which compares the destruction of the environment here on earth with the delusions of space exploration, being one of my favourites. This song was the original though, and Hawkwind's knowing riff on the same theme. For it's power and relevance Scott-Heron is the perfect response to Apollo 11.

2. Go! by Public Service Broadcasting


The Apollo moon landings, of course, came with their own soundtrack, and musicians have been sampling the recordings of the astronauts speaking to mission control ever since they were made, but nobody has made such good use of them as Public Sector Broadcasting.

Part of their album The Race For Space, which is made up entirely of sample audio set to music, Go! tells the story of Apollo 11 from the point of view of the folks at Mission Control. As the tension builds we are intruded to the people who will ultimately decide is the eagle lands or not, the Mission Controllers. Under the super-cool direction of Flight Director Gene Kranz, we are introduced to the laconic FIDO (which stands for Flight Dynamics Officer), the excitable Guidance and the rest of the chorus.

The original recordings are out there to be listened to if you want to, although it's not terribly exciting. "The eagle has landed", for example, was said for the press and the actual moment of reaching the moon was marked by Aldrin simply saying "Contact light". Even the very real drama of that did occur during the landing is underplayed.

In the song you can Armstrong call "1202 alarm" as the Eagle descends. This indicated that the spaceships navigation computer, which probably had less processing power than your washing machine, was overloaded with data and was rebooting itself. Kranz turned to 25 year old NASA engineer Jack Garman to make the decision. Abort the mission and America may not achieve Kennedy's dream of landing on the moon before the decade was out. Fail to abort and Armstrong and Aldrin's trip could be one way. In the end Garman called "Go", trusting his programming to keep the computer prioritising the landing. It was the right call.

The young people at Mission Control may not have taken the same risks as the astronauts, but it was their cool that got the fly-boys to the moon.

1. Space Oddity by David Bowie

Well, obviously Bowie was going to be Number One.

Coming out nine days before that 'giant leap for mankind', Bowie has been the soundtrack for the moon landings for almost fifty years. I say 'almost' because the track only reached number 5 in the UK charts in 1969, and most people didn't hear of Bowie again until he reappeared as Ziggy Stardust three years later. Space Oddity was re-released in 1975 and finally became the number one it should have been in '69.

There's nothing I can say about this song that's not already been said. What's interesting to me though, firstly, is how the lyrics owe more to Dan Dare than Neil Armstrong. We have 'countdown' rather than 'launch sequence', 'ground control' rather than 'mission control', 'capsule' rather than 'command module' and so on.

It's also a very maudlin song, a eulogy to the Space Race. The space fantasies of the comic book of the fifties had finally come to pass, and they were frankly a bit disappointing. All this comes across in the character of Major Tom. A remarkably English type of astronaut, he seems to take a jaundiced view of the fame that comes with space travel. And this, don't forget, was a song that came out a week before Apollo 11 took off. Genius.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

BRIXMIS: The best untold story of the Cold War?

Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who’s ever heard of BRIXMIS. Often I talk to people who think they know a lot about covert operations and secret missions of the Cold War, but find they’ve never heard of it. It’s nice to know there is someone else, at least, out there who knows about it.
I suppose at this point I should explain, for the benefit of readers other than the one who posted the question, what BRIXMIS was and why it is one of the best stories of the Cold War that (almost) nobody knows.
As everybody does know, Germany was carved up between the Britain, France , the USA and the Soviet Union after the Second World. Whilst relationships between the western allies and the Soviet block were still relatively friendly, an agreement was reached whereby each party would be allowed a small military mission in the others territory. These missions would have quasi-diplomatic status, meaning they could move around unhindered by the military or civilian police.
The British mission, BRIXMIS, was set up first and was the largest. The other three were considerably smaller. The Soviet Union used their mission, SOXMIS, to run secret agents. The western allies also used their to spy, but did so very differently.
Being bigger, BRIXMIS ran three-man teams. The French and Americans used two man teams, which were less effective. They wore military uniforms and drove western cars, but were able to move freely around East Germany. There were, officially, some restrictions on where they could go, but they were usually ignored.
As a result BRIXMIS teams were able to see first hand the Warsaw Pact in action. When Soviet armoured divisions mobilised in radio silence and deployed on the West German border, BRIXMIS watched. When four Russian divisions were mobilised in four days to surround West Berlin, BRIXMIS was there.
They also did a lot more than just observe. By the 1980s a stand MO had been worked out for BRIXMIS. An Intelligence Corps Officer was in command, a Royal Corps of Transport driver was at the wheel, and the third person on the team was usually seconded from the SAS. Tours would last several days, with the teams sleeping in the woods, often in the middle of huge formations of Soviet troops.
(You see why this is such a great story? Everyone remembers the SAS in Malaya and Borneo and Oman and the Falklands, but who lists East Germany as one of their Cold War deployments?)
At the start of the eighties the teams drove Range Rovers or special four wheel drive Opel Senators, but by the end they were given Mercedes G Wagons. This was important because, as each BRIXMIS team deployed, it would be given a Stasi escort. However, the poor old secret police in their Trabants or Wartburgs had no chance against a RCT driver at the wheel of a high powered 4x4. Once free of their chaperone, the BRIXMIS teams could start their work. Usually this would mean getting out of the vehicle and having a scout around on foot to see what could be found.
The intelligence coups of BRXMIS were quite significant. Rooting around in a dustbin after a Warsaw Pact exercise one team uncovered a guide to all the Soviet weapon systems, with special mention of all their defects. On another occasion a key to the top hatch of a T-64 tank was fashioned from a photograph, and so when one of these brand new tanks was found parked up and unguarded the team were able to unlock it, pop inside and take some photos of a vehicle many Soviet officers didn’t even know existed.
Sometimes the team would take some trophies home with them. These included empty shell casing from the new AK-74 assault rifle, a sample of reactive armour, and even the radar and engines from a crashed Yak-28.
The BRIXMIS teams also got to observe the Soviet military in operation at close hand. If the Cold War turned hot the SAS would operate as stay-behind parties, sabotaging the Soviet logistics. The SAS who deployed with BRIXMIS were therefore interested to find that very few Warsaw Pact officers were ever given maps, and that the movement of Russian units depended on teams going out to put up road signs beforehand. The SAS were therefore briefed that these people would be a priority target in wartime.
Save to say the Soviet and East German authorities didn’t take too kindly to this sort of snooping. They couldn’t actually stop BRIXMIS without also losing SOXMIS, and that was too valuable for them to do this. Instead, they could make life as hard as possible, whilst arranging the occasional little ‘accident’.
Teams found where they shouldn’t be could be detained for a few hours. Anyone who went too far, like the American team which refused to stop at a checkpoint and ran over a Soviet guard, could be declared persona non grata and sent home.
The ‘accidents’ though, were another matter. These usually involved lorries which swerved across the road to take out a BRIXMIS vehicle. The photo on the right shows what happened to a French team. One photo taken by BRIXMIS shows a heavy Soviet tractor unit, hastily detached from the pontoon it had been towing, charging like a raging bull towards them across a dusty plain, still training wires and other bits of bridge. Several missions vehicles were lost in this way, and others in more ordinary accidents.

Other ways of dealing with the missions were even more direct. BRIXMIS teams were sometimes shot at, but never hit. However, on 24 March 1985 Major Arthur ‘Nick’ Nicholson of American USMLM was shot by a guard at a Russian tank storage facility. Major Nicholson died several hours later after being refused medical attention. The resulting diplomatic freeze saw the US boycott a planned joint celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War.
But back to the original question, why doesn’t BRIXMIS get the recognition it deserves? I really have no idea. There is a good book on them, and it’s by Tony Geraghty whose Who Dares Wins was required reading for teenage boys when I was growing up. I’m surprised more people haven’t read his BRIXMIS.
I’m also surprised it doesn’t appear in more books about the SAS. I first learnt about BRIXMIS in Ken Connor’s book about the Regiment. However, Connor’s book is a factual account of the history of the SAS, whereas most books on the subject are mostly fiction. You can add imaginary firefights in Iraq quite easily, but I guess you couldn’t really get away with making up shootouts in Cold War East Germany.
This is all a pity because it’s a great story. This is Major General P G Williams CMG OBE, a BRIXMIS tour commander in the 1980s:
“It is already impossible to recreate a true impression of the fantastic atmosphere of professionalism, enthusiasm and camaraderie that characterised life in BRIXMIS. The job itself was exhilarating, not infrequently dangerous and undoubtedly addictive; it really was the ‘Great Game’ of the Cold War, played out in the forests and farmland of regions with evocative names like Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Saxony.”
I suspect BRIXMIS will remain a secret until such a time as someone makes a film or a TV series about it. The story is there to be told, we just need someone to tell it.
Sources:
Tony Geraghty (1996). Brixmis: The Untold Exploits of Britain's Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission
Major General P G Williams BRIXMIS in the 1980s: The Cold War's Great Game
Museums:
There is a BRIXMIS Opel Senator in the Cold War Museum at RAF Cosford.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

The San Juan Pig War: the silliest war in history?


The San Juan Pig War of 1859 was pretty ridiculous. The only casualty was the pig, which I suppose in some ways makes it less silly than the numerous wars where people got killed, but the fact that the late porker almost caused the USA to go to war with the British Empire is very, very silly.

The issue was the island of San Juan, which lies between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Nobody was sure if it was in the USA or Canada. In 1859 it was home to nineteen Americans and sixteen Brits. Sovereignty was an academic issue until 15 June that year when American farmer Lyman Cutlar shot a pig belonging to an Irishman who worked for the Hudson Bay Company. The British authorities tried to arrest Cutlar, who demanded protection from the US government. America sent in the army and Britain sent in the marines. By the middle of August 450 US troops with 14 cannon faced 5 British warships with 70 cannon and over 2000 crew.

The Americans were under the command of one General William S Harvey, a famous Indian fighter with a notoriously short fuse. This man had previously been court marshalled for invading Mexico without orders. Some said he had political ambitions, others that he was insane. Either way he was hardly the ideal commander for such a sensitive mission.

Sabres were rattled, threats were made, but fortunately no more than insults were exchanged. The situation eventually settled down to a cold war that lasted for thirteen years. The Civil War came and went, Canada gained it’s independence, but the standoff continued. The Americans built themselves a nice stockade, whilst the British constructed something a little more Imperial, with tennis courts and, for the commanding officer, a grand house with a ballroom and a billiard room.


During this time the two sides got quite friendly. There were race meetings and picnics for the officers. In the end the King of Germany was asked to arbitrate, and he decided the island was American. The Royal Navy hauled down the flag and sailed away. The Americans chopped up the flagpole and used it for firewood.
Historically the war is significant only in that the British Empire backed down without a fight and voluntarily gave up territory. That didn’t happen again until the flag was lowered in India in 1947.
Source: Heaven’s Command by Jan Morris