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

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Death Of Rock?

So who is the biggest rock band in the world?

Come on, it shouldn't be a hard question.

Any guesses? The White Stripes? Radiohead? Muse? Coldplay? The Rolling Stones - sorry, don't count. Did someone say Elbow? Now you're being silly.

Well, I don't doubt that one of them is the biggest rock band in the world, but I doubt you could call any of them The Biggest Rock Band In The World.

This is a coveted title that has been handed down from the The Beatles to The Stones to Led Zeppelin to Queen to AC/DC to Guns 'n' Roses to U2 to Nirvana to REM and so on since the early sixties. We can argue just when the baton was handed on, in which order and to whom, but you get the idea.

But who has it now? That is the question.

If you are the Greatest Rock Band In The World you need, along with the guitars, the groupies and gratuitous drug us; a few smash hits. And which rock band has those today?

"It is the end of the rock era. It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over," said Professor of Pop Paul Gambaccini two years ago. That was after only three rock songs appeared in the top 100 singles of 2010. Things have rallied a little since, but a quick look at the US charts right now shows rock songs in the US Hot 100 Billboard charts at number 5 (Imagine Dragons), 8 (Capital Cities), 12 (Lorde), 24 (Philip Phillips), 25 (AWOLNATION) and 49 (Paramore). A mere 6%. That's less the Liberal Democrats.

A brief history of rock is that it's first incarnation began at about the same time as the space age, arrived in Britain in the bizarre form of a middle aged man with a quiff singing "Rock around the clock" and then died a natural death when Elvis joined the army.

For a while it really did seem that "guitar groups are on their way out" and the charts were dominated by the Clean Cut Crooner, but then came the Beatles and we had rock music as we know it. From then it was straight on to musical pretentiousness and extended drum solos, flared trousers and silver lamé, a brief moment of sanity in the form of Punk, then more musical pretentiousness with synthesisers, more daft clothes from the New Romantics and so on through to the world of rock as it now is.

But what actually is rock?

It's a pretty tough genre to define. Apart from 4/4 time, every rule you wish to make is broken by one of the greats. But apart from bands who write and perform their own material, play live, don't use backing musicians and weren't put together by a talent show, what defines rock is a sort
of perpetual adolescence. Rock stars are expected to pretend to live a teenager's life characterised by hedonistic self indulgence, naively optimistic politics and an utter terror of never getting laid.

But where are the actual kids? Hanging around on street corners with their track suits tucked into their socks listening to grime, mainly. It would be easy to get into a bit of chav bashing here, but let's take a slightly broader sociological view by looking at the views of that late, great historian of social change, Fred Dibnar.

There is an episode of his program where he came upon a graveyard that had been vandalised. There was much mutter about lack of discipline today and a suggestion that we start chopping off limbs or bring back National Service  But why was old Fred on TV in the first place? Because he went around knocking down factories.

Rock music likes to pretend it isn't about money. We don't seem to care too much if our Rock Gods get stinking rich, even if they do so whilst singing songs about the evil of filthy lucre (see Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, 10CC etc) but at the same time we hate anyone who makes more than the minimum wage out of the music business.

But in reality to believe that you can change the world with peace, love and a massive Marshal stack requires both optimism and at least enough dosh to get by. It means growing up in a world where going to university means ten years of recreational drug use and self discovery and where the worst that will happen afterwards is you get a boring job.

In fact most rock fans in the sixties already had boring jobs. Jimi Hendrix's performance at the 1969
Woodstock festival is sometimes hailed as the greatest moment in the history rock, but if this was the case most of his fans missed it as he played at 8AM on Monday morning and they were already in their cars and heading back to work.

However, if you've been born into a world where the only source of proper employment has just been demolished by a reactionary Lancastrian, where university means debt you'll never pay off and even a job at Poundland is a distant dream, you are rather more likely to get your kicks listening to the somewhat less Utopian lyrics of rap.

So who actually listens to rock music?

In fiction it's Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead and Jack Black's character in School of Rock.

In reality it's Jeremy Clarkson.

The generation which missed World War Two, dropped out and plugged in the sixties, bought houses with cheap mortgages in the seventies, voted for Thatcher in the eighties, got a twinge of conscience and elected New Labour in the nineties, and which is now jealously defending its pensions against a rising tide of disenfranchised youth, is the main audience for rock.

So should we ditch rock and get down with the real kids.


Like decent housing, pensions, job security and football, the fact that rock has been stolen by the reverse Robin Hood generation does not make it not worth having.

They might laugh at the clothes, the drum solos, the Marxist hectoring of multi-millionaires and the pensioners pretending to be teenagers. They might want us to be happy with the Prolefeed that Simon Cowell gives us.

But we won't have it!




Thank you and goodnight.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Top Five Eco-ships

Why do environmentalists keep taking to the water?

Probably it's because we are a water planet, and that what happens to the seas is important for the fate of the planet. The oceans are where most of the extra heat generated by Climate Change goes, where the effluent and waste of humanity ends up, and where the effects of our littering of the planet is most obvious.

But I also suspect it's psychological.

Maybe, as the late Douglas Adams suggested, we are just such reactionaries that we don't just regard coming down from the trees as our greatest evolutionary mistake, but actually leaving the oceans?

Or maybe also it's that with human civilisation out of sight over the horizon the ocean represents the primordial wilderness to which we long to return.

Just possibly it's because for certain (usually male) environmentalists taking to the water allows us to play with the sort of machinery denied to us in our Jeremy Clarkson baiting land-based existence. Having had the fun of piloting a Greenpeace rigid inflatable at high speed past the Millennium Dome a la James Bond I probably qualify here.

5. Sea Shepherd I

Copywrite Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is to many just a a second rate Greenpeace. An organisation run by an egotist who's idea of leadership style has been described as "anarchy ruled by God".

However if this is true, his Captain Ahab persona certainly seems to vanish when he sets foot on land, and he's been perfectly pleasant when I've met him - back in the days when he dared set foot on land.

His much repeated story of coming eye to eye with a harpooned whale really does seem to be a moment of personal catharsis, even if it has become a cliché in the retelling.

The original Sea Shepherd  was the ex-trawler that Watson bought after he was kicked out of Greenpeace for rampant egotism in 1977. It's bows reinforced with concrete, Captain Watson took the ship to sea to hunt down pirates.

A bit of history is needed to set the scene. As the seventies drew to a close the International Whaling
Commission was starting to acknowledge that unrestricted hunting was driving the great mammals towards extinction and the organisation was edging towards a moratorium. However this would only apply to vessels flying the flags of it's members, and not the significant number of whalers that acknowledged no country of origin.

The most notorious of these was the Sierra. It flew whatever flag it chose, it ignored IWC quotas and it killed - or more frequently didn't kill - with cold harpoons. It dumped most of the dead whale back into the sea and sold the choice bits to Japan. By 1979 it had been operating, under various names, for over a decade and had exterminated an estimated 25,000 whales.

Watson set out to find the Sierra, and after an unscheduled stop to swim with turtles, found her and chased her into the Portuguese harbour of Leixoes, where the authorities offered protection. When it looked like the Portuguese were going hold the Sea Shepherd back, but let the Sierra get away, Watson and a skeleton crew rammed the Sierra and sank her just outside the port and then escaped out to sea.

The Portuguese Navy came after them and eventually Sea Shepherd was impounded. After an (allegedly) bribed Judge ordered her to be handed over to the Sierra's owners, Watson scuttled her in harbour in December 1979. The Sierra meanwhile underwent a million dollars worth of repairs only to suddenly be sunk by a limpet mine planted by persons unknown (it says here...).

So the Sea Shepherd's duel with Sierra ended, with both vessels at the bottom of the sea, but for better or worse Watson continues to lead his personal navy in pursuit of the whalers.

4. Calypso

So what was your first wildlife program? Marlin Perkins and Wild Kingdom? Steve Irwin's The Crocodile Hunter, David Attenborough's Life on Earth?

For me it was Johnny Morris's Animal Magic, which possibly explains my lack of gravitas on the subject. Morris was an amiable Welshman, who once blamed the decline of Western civilisation on all the sex and violence in wildlife programs, and who campaigned against the Newbury Bypass when in his eighties. Alas he didn't have a boat so he can't appear in this list.

Instead let's talk about Jacques Cousteau, who with his various film and television appearances from the fifties onwards introduced a generation to an amazing world of adventure.

Having spent the Second World War inventing the aqualung and fighting a covert war against the fascists, he then spent a few years in the navy before renting a old British mine sweeper called the Calypso, from a reclusive Irish millionaire, for the princely sum of one franc a year.

Along with his red beret, the ship became Cousteau's trademark. He wasn't particularly Green at first. He dynamited a coral reef and massacred a school of sharks whilst making his first film The Silent World. But he got better, and in 1960 was successful in stopping the dumping of radioactive waste in Mediterranean.

Thanks to the Calypso, Cousteau's adventures took him to up the Amazon and down the Nile. He explored the Antarctic and hunted for Atlantis and basically had the sort of adventures you can only have with a ship.

The vessel was apparently very French, with dodgy plumbing, but Michelin star quality food. In hot weather it was almost intolerable, but discomfort was alleviated by copious quantities of vintage wine.

I can't say I watched too many of his programs myself, being a little young when he was popular, but I remember really wanting the Revell model kit of this ship.  

Cousteau's adventurers continued until his death in 1997. His beloved ship though had been dealt a near terminal blow the year before when it was accidentally sunk by barge in Singapore harbour. She has subsequently been raised and restored, although this appears to be one of those restorations where they basically build another ship that looks like the original.

3. Arctic Sunrise

Once upon a time Greenpeace set sail on the ocean blue in a collection of barely seaworthy old rust buckets. However at some point in the 1990s they got themselves organised and assembled a decent little flotilla including a small ice breaker formerly used to hunt seals.

The vessel had also been used by the French government to construct an airstrip in Antarctica, which Greenpeace had opposed.

From 1995 the ship had a series of adventures around the world in support of Greenpeace's campaigns. It was rammed by Japanese whalers twice and was impounded by Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane nuclear base.

Then in September 2013 it went north of the Arctic Circle to oppose drilling by the Russian oil company Gazprom, which had teamed up with Shell to drill for oil off the coast of the melting Arctic ice cap. 

Greenpeace had already boarded a Gazprom rig twice, but when the Arctic Sunrise circled for a third attempt Russian coastguards wielding guns and knives seized the vessel and its and arrested the crew for piracy.

Maybe the Russian authorities thought they were selling bootleg DVDs of the back of the boat or something, because by the definition of piracy, an act of robbery or violence at sea, Greenpeace were not pirates.

The Russian authorities even seemed to agree. But then, on the same day the latest IPCC report told us exactly why we shouldn't be drilling for oil anywhere, they remanded the international crew for two months whilst they decided if they could get away with charging them with piracy.

A massive international campaign finally saw the crew released just after Christmas, but the Sunrise itself remains in custody.

2. Rainbow Warrior

The Warrior wasn't the original Greenpeace ship.

That was a vessel called the Phyllis Cormack that was renamed Greenpeace for a trip to the Aleutian islands to 'bear witness' to nuclear tests for a group called The Don't Make A Wave Committee.

How a pretty disorganised bunch of hippies then went on to become an international campaigning organisation is a long story, but basically in the early years Greenpeace was more of a banner than an organisation and anyone who had the means and motivation could get a group together and use the name.

The second Greenpeace ship was a yacht called Vega used by former international badminton player David McTaggart to protest against French nuclear testing. McTaggart ran into a French truncheon, but after film of the French beating him up was smuggled out in an activists knickers the world took the side of the hippies.

By 1978 there were 20 odd Greenpeace groups and very little to bind them together except a set of ideals. However none of them had anything that floated and so what passed for the international part of the organisation (officially to become Greenpeace International the next year) bought an old Scottish fishing boat and renamed her the Rainbow Warrior.

The ship participated in various campaigns and evacuated the population of the radioactive Marshall islands before heading to Auckland harbour ready for a new campaigns against French nuclear testing.

It was there that she was sunk by two limpet mines, the second of which went off whilst there were eleven people still on board. Ten jumped clear or were thrown into the water, but photographer Fernano Perreira was drowned.

The attack was the work of the Action unit of the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service. Known as the 'Barbouzes', which loosely translates as 'bearded ones', on account of their dodgy disguises, they were originally formed to track down OAS terrorists opposing the French decision to give up its Algerian colony. The OASs got the better of the Barbouzes then, tracking them down and attacking them in their secret base. The Barbouzes didn't fare much better with the Kiwis. Whilst bombing a bunch of hippies proved easy enough, evading the New Zealand police didn't.

The yacht that brought in the explosives was apprehended Australia, with (allegedly) the two divers on board,
but had to be released as Australia had no anti-terrorism law that could hold them. A French nuclear sub then spirited them away. A spy who had infiltrated Greenpeace New Zealand was tracked down in Israel but fled before being arrested, whilst two agents who helped with the logistics were caught and given ten years for manslaughter, but were free two years later after being transferred to a French gaol.

New Zealand never really forgave it's ally the United States for not condemning the bombing, and instead pursued a far more lucrative line of building a non-aligned, anti-nuclear alliance amongst Pacific nations.

The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was subsequently raised, but as the ship was beyond repair she was sunk as an artificial reef. Greenpeace subsequently acquired another Rainbow Warrior which, after twenty two years service was retired in 2011 to be replaced by Rainbow Warrior III, a state-of-the-art electric and sail powered purpose built ship.

1. The Beagle 

Prior to the Theory of Evolution, biology was basically just stamp collecting with a specimen jar.

Of course Darwin didn't do it all single handedly. But whilst we can't ignore the work of Alfred Russell Wallace who spurred on Darwin and had figured out Natural Selection independently, and Gregor Mendel who gave us genetics, neither of them ever went on a voyage anything like that of The Beagle.

The circumstances of how Darwin ended up on ship are ironic, to say the least. The ship's Captain was Robert Fitzroy, one of the foremost sailors of his day and the aristocratic nephew of Viscount Castlereagh, the Home Secretary responsible for the
Peterloo Massacre.

Castlereagh ended his life by slitting his own throat. The previous Captain of the Beagle had also committed suicide so Fitzroy was worried topping yourself was either hereditary or an occupational hazard, and so wanted someone along with more conversation than the average Jack Tar to keep him sane.

Darwin though was the wrong choice. A zealously religious Tory, Fitzroy was aghast when Darwin presented his Godless theory to the world and turned up at the 1860 waving his bible and ranting against the heresy. When he eventually realised he'd lost the argument and that he had inadvertently helped to give birth to this monstrous theory he became depressed and......well, you can guess how it ends.

The Beagle herself ended up being used first to chase smugglers around the coast of Essex before being moored in the River Roach as a coast guard ship. She may even still be there, with various bits
of her having been removed to be used for nearby buildings.

Not that the physical remains really matter. The Beagle is now immortal thanks to Darwin's book of her voyages. There is nothing like The Voyage of the Beagle. If Newton had written of his laws of motion after crossing Africa in a canoe, or if Einstein had described discovering Relativity whilst trekking across the Antarctic then we may have something comparable, but as it the tale of exploration, adventure and the research that led to possibly the most important scientific discovery of all time makes it a unique read.

After Darwin, biology became the most exciting branch of science. Physics then had a good century, but now, with a planet on the edge of an environmental Apocalypse, we need another Darwin.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Here's One We Bombed Earlier

As the international community beats the war drums over the probable use of nerve gas by Syria's army analogies are being made with the 2003 Iraq War.

The similarities are obvious; a Middle Eastern country, Weapons of Mass Destruction, a reluctant UN Security Council and even Tony Blair popping up to put the moral case.

However there are also crucial differences. In 2003 Iraq had no WMDs but plenty of oil, whilst Syria has very real WMDs but no oil, and to me it seems we don't so much have a rush to war but a distinct dragging of feet.

A better comparison would be with the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

Then you had a dictator in conflict with his own people crossing a 'red line' in the form of mass ethnic cleansing and being threatened with a punitive bombing campaign. Then as now the Russia stood in defiance of the West, there was a background of regional conflict and, then as now, some the victims of the atrocities were fairly dodgy terrorist types. The US and its allies must hope though that Assad proves more compliant now than Milosevic proved then.

In 1999 Slobbo refused to take his medicine and behave himself, and instead responded to the attacks by driving out even more Kosovans. This left NATO in a dilemma. The bombing hadn't achieved its objective and so couldn't stop, but neither did it appear to be doing any good. Indeed, only later did NATO discover exactly how badly they had in fact done.

The Responsibility to Protect, known as R2P, is a tenet of that nebulous branch of philosophy, ethics and guesswork that passes as international law. The idea is that if someone is doing something bad you have a duty to take proportionate means to stop them. 'Proportionate means' being the term that sets military heads spinning.

In attempting to be proportion NATO pilots had been hunting down Milosevic's military tank by tank. Unfortunately they were hidden by dense Balkan terrain underneath grotty Balkans weather, whilst the jets were 10000 feet above them trying to avoid the Serbian air defences. Not surprisingly they hit very little, and it was to turn out much of what they did hit they shouldn't have done, including numerous dummy guns and a refugee convoy. Even worse the Serbs had used the low frequency radar on an old Soviet air defence system to overcome the stealth abilities of the USAFs best plane and shot down a Stealth Fighter, the bits being sent to Russia.

NATO then gave up on 'proportionate means' and went back to what it knew best; bombing the Serbs back to the stone age. Instead of going for individual tanks they took out bridges, power stations, factories and the national television station. It wasn't pretty - and when a cruise missile hit the Chinese embassy it looked like it could get even uglier - but it was effective and once he realised the Russians weren't going to save him, Milosevic gave in.

The Serbs withdrew and in moved a 30,000 strong force containing the cream of NATOs military might; French infantry, German panzers, American helicopters and James Blunt (yes, him). Everything seemed to be going like clockwork until a unit of British light tanks arrived at Pristina airport and found the Russians waiting for them.

Leading the NATO force was the young Captain Blunt, his guitar was strapped to the outside of his tank. You'd think the Kosovans had suffered enough, but he brought it anyway. NATO commander General Wesley Clark ordered him to attack, but his British number two General Mike Jackson didn't pass the order on, saying "I'm not going to start a Third World War for you." Jackson may have had in mind the 1978 book of that name by John Hackett in which what eventually becomes a nuclear conflict starts with a clash between NATO and the USSR in Yugoslavia. Either way, Captain Blunt was quite sure he wasn't going to be shooting anyone and let the Russians be.

Instead the Russians were diplomatically isolated and their little force in Pristina became an object of fascination for the NATO soldiers, not least when they were observed flogging some of their own men.

In due course they were integrated into the peacekeeping force and the KLA disarmed. Kosovo eventually recovered - sort of - and Milosevic ended up in the dock at the Hague, where he died of old age waiting for the prosecutors to sort out their case against him.

So it all ended more or less for the better. My own tiny role in the conflict was being part of a Social Services team that stayed up all night (unpaid) to sort out refugees arriving at Leeds airport in what was possibly the last occasion Britain actually welcomed asylum seekers.

However it had taken considerably more effort than planned. The French army, for example, had used pretty much everything it had; initially it's helicopters and paratroopers to cover the UN observers, then all its engineers to build camps for the refugees, then it's armoured units as the backbone of the ground invasion.

So what are the lessons for Syria? Don't make threats unless you mean to carry them out, smart bombs can be pretty dumb, expect the Russians to do something daft and James Blunt may be a terrible musician but he did help prevent a Third World War.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

How To Hide From Uncle Sam

You know the problem.

One moment you're minding your own business and the next thing you click the wrong icon and find you're revealed the dirty secrets of the CIA, launched a terrorist attack or inadvertently gassed a major city. The Man is looking for you and suddenly it's a very small world. Where do you hide?

Here are the five most popular options.

5. A Cave

An old favourite and still a very reliable fall back.

What about Saddam Hussein you may ask? Well technically that wasn't a cave, but a hole in the ground. The only caves in Iraq are in Kurdistan, where they had been successfully used by the locals to hide from Saddam's forces for years. Light a fire in the entrance and you can even survive a nerve gas attack.

Which brings us to the first rule of hiding in caves; make sure the natives are friendly. There was a reason Saddam didn't make his way to the Kurds.

However if you are on reasonably good terms with the locals - and being hunted by the Americans can make you lots of new friends - you can do worse than your old cave. Osama bin Laden survived two close shaves whilst living in his. The first time was in December 2001 when he was spotted by Britain's Special Boat Squadron, but escaped as the Yanks had told the SBS that they had to be the ones to kill him. The second time was when the Northern Alliance surrounded the Tora Bora complex and he escaped by bribing the tribemen to let him go.

Which brings us to the second rule of hiding in caves. You may think all you need is a roll mat, the complete works of Mohammed and a sack of the finest Afghan hashish, but in reality you'll need your credit card, gold bullion, a large supply of porn or something else that you can trade with the indigene.

That said old Osama survived his years in the mountains and only died when he traded in his trusty cave in for the comfort of home. Very dangerous places homes.

4. The Ecuadorian Embassy

Those who, like Osama, prefer more creature comforts, or who put more faith in legal systems, may prefer to try their luck in one of the world's numerous embassies.

You need to choose carefully. Pick a country too friendly, or too scared, of Uncle Sam and you could find yourself on your way back to him in the diplomatic bag.

However get the right one and you could find yourself drinking Pimms in comfort whilst the agents of your enemies guard you.

The advantages are obvious. Your friends and supporters can drop by, you can read the papers and you get as many Ferroro Roche jokes as you can stand.

That said it's not totally safe. Countries can change their politics, and cruise missiles have been known to go off course and hit embassies.

3. Moscow

Once upon a time a very popular destination.

In days not long gone there were enough former Cambridge and MI6 spooks in Moscow that they could have had their own club.

However they had to earn their keep by working for Soviet intelligence, so if your particular thing is exposing the wrong doings of unaccountable spy agencies, you have to either ignore the suppression of dissent and occasional assassination carried out by those of your hosts and accept being called a bloody hypocrite, or find they've served you Polonium 210 in your vodka.

That said Russia isn't as grim as it uses to be and as long as you don't criticise the government, drink yourself to death or fall in love with someone of the same gender you should do all right.


Possibly not the first choice, but going to jail does have its advantages. 

Navy SEALS probably aren't going to drop in a fill you full of lead, you get the sort of free health care most working Americans would die for (or will die without) and you may well get out sometime - which is not guaranteed with any of the above options.

On the down side they'll probably put you in solitary confinement, which means if you weren't nuts before you went in you will be when you come out. And if they don't, then taking a shower becomes a potentially life changing activity.

On the plus side it's not impossible that you'll win you win your case and get out sooner rather than later. That happened to Daniel Ellsberg, the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers in seventies. That said it was rumored that G Gordon Liddy and some of the Watergate "plumbers" planned to bump him off at a rally shortly afterwards, which just goes to show how much safer it is to be behind bars.

1. Hampton Country Club

Again, not an obvious choice. The conversation is lousy and the drinks are overpriced, but you have to admit, it's better than the others on this list.

That's probably why it was chosen by Warren Anderson, a man wanted by the Indian government for 14,000 cases of manslaughter after his company, Union Carbide, was found responsible for the Bhopal disaster.

India had asked the USA to help find him, but they'd told New Delhi they couldn't.

However Greenpeace tracked him down - to a Country Club on Long Island, New York where he had been cunningly hiding out for 20 years.

Now cynics will say that Uncle Sam wasn't seriously looking for Anderson, even though the Indian courts had issued an arrest warrant. However that would be to suggest that releasing 32 tons of toxic gas in a built up area through cost cutting and gross negligence is a less serious crime than releasing classified data to the press through a desire to reveal an unconstitutional surveillance program, and that surely cannot be true of the Land of the Free.

Can it?