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

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.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Memories of Peter Melchett

c. Press Association
RIP Peter Mond, 4th Baron Melchett, and the only Peer of the Realm I’ve ever shared a police cell with.

The occasion was in July 1999. Peter, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, had led a dawn raid on a field trial of  Genetically Modified maize growing near Lyng, in Norfolk. We’d destroyed a portion of the herbicide-resistant crop, but the arrival of the two farmers hosting the test site, one atop a large mechanical loader, had reduced Greenpeace’s own mechanical mower to scrap metal and led to tactical retreat by the activists. The subsequent arrival of the Norfolk Constabulary then ended our fun and led to Peter, myself, and 26 other Greenpeace staff and volunteers spending a night in the cells.

Refused bail by the police, we were taken the next day to Norwich magistrates court, where myself, actions coordinator Tim Hewke, and Peter briefly ended up in the same cell. Peter was first one of us to appear before the bench. When he returned to the cell we found out the verdict: he was being sent to Norwich prison. Exit one dis-chuffed ED.

c. Greenpeace
In the end it all worked out well. Fourteen months and two trials later we were all outside Norwich
Crown Court having been found not guilty of criminal damage by a unanimous jury in a verdict that put the boot into the government’s already faltering plans for introducing GM crops to the UK. The field trials would continue for another four years, but no commercial planting would follow. There would be no ‘green concrete’ in this country.

Peter’s tenure at Greenpeace UK came after one of the most acrimonious episodes in the organisation’s history. Greenpeace UK had been formed in 1977, and had shortly afterwards acquired what was to become Greenpeace’s most famous ship, the Rainbow Warrior. Seven years of piratical adventures followed. But although the group was effective, it took risks. In 1984 a hard-hitting press campaign against the fur industry went down very badly with Greenpeace International, who had a lot of allies who were Indigenous fur trappers. What exactly happened next is disputed by those involved, but the outcome was that Peter and three other people, who could all be considered cooler heads, were drafted onto the Greenpeace UK board, and the all existing board members all resigned.

c. Greenpeace
By 1989 Peter was Executive Director, and under his regime some sort of order was established in the chaotic Greenpeace office. Campaigns now proceeded in a planned way, with direct action complementing other methods. Old timers complained and initially it seemed Greenpeace UK was receiving less publicity than it had in its buccaneering early days, but the payoff came in 1995 with the occupation of the Brent Spar. 

Although the action was planned in a bit of a hurry, and led at sea by Jon Castle, a veteran of the early days of the Rainbow Warrior, it was also the culmination of more than a decade of campaigning to end the dumping at sea of first nuclear, then toxic chemical waste. The UK government publicly called on Shell to continue with plans to sink the rig at sea, offering the use of the Special Boat Service to evict the Greenpeace campaigners. When they caved in Prime Minister John Major was left red faced. It was a major victory for Peter and the Greenpeace UK team. More campaigns against the oil industry followed, but it was another issue, nearer to home, that really captured Peter’s imagination.

Peter had grown up in Norfolk, on his father’s farm at Ringstead, near Hunstanton. He told me about
shoots that had happened when he was a child, when up to 5000 pairs of partridges would be shot in one day. However as time went by the numbers diminished, although nobody knew why. Peter remembered finding a nest of dead partridge chicks. He was told they had drowned in heavy rain, but this wasn’t the real reason they died. In 1966 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out, and was available in the UK the next year. The book alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides on wildlife. Once he had read it Peter knew what had killed the chicks, and why his father's shoots now yielded far fewer victims.

But before Peter could wager his war against industrial agriculture, he had a brief career in conventional politics with the Labour Party. He served in the Northern Ireland Office during the dark times of The Troubles, an experience which left him with an aversion to whiskey and a love of the Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers. His time in politics also showed him where the real power in government was. Whilst sitting on a committee discussing energy Jack Cunningham MP breezed into the room, announced that any talk about nuclear power was off limits, and breezed out again. Peter left politics shortly after Labour lost power, moving first to the Ramblers Association and then Greenpeace.

Peter's time with Greenpeace UK had many highlights, but it is ironic that whilst it was mainly characterised by giving the organisation order and stability, he is most likely to be remembered for one of its most reckless adventures, the raid on that field in Lyng.

c. Greenpeace
Greenpeace started campaigning against Genetically Modified crops shortly after the dust settled on the Brent Spar affair, but it was after New Labour's election that the campaign really hotted up. Greenpeace was up against giant biotech companies and their champions in government, led by none other than 'GM' Jack Cunningham MP. A successful campaign followed, much of it planned in collaboration with Friends of the Earth. One that wasn't though was the Lyng raid.

I don't know exactly what Friends of the Earth Executive Director Charles Secrett thought when he opened his papers on 28 July 1999 and found that Peter had been sent to prison for attempting to destroy 6 acres of GM maize. The gist of it I believe was that this was a reckless and unnecessary move in a campaign that they thought was, at that point, almost won.

Those of us who'd volunteered for the action had no doubts about it, although we were very surprised when we got to the field to see the Executive Director there fixing the Greenpeace mower to the tractor. However even within the organisation, which was renowned for more extreme actions than your average NGO, there were doubts about the destruction of private property as a tactic. 

The five weeks we spent in court gave Peter the platform he wanted to lay into the
c. Greenpeace
government's support for even more intensive farming. The jury that unanimously acquitted him - and me - dealt a critical blow to the biotech giants that they have still not recovered from. Even Friends of the Earth agreed it all worked out well in the end.

So why did he do it? Undoubtedly those poor, dead partridge chicks played their part. As did his father's farm at Ringstead, just a few miles from Lyng, which Peter had inherited and made organic. This was personal. 

As a lowly local groups volunteer I'd never met Peter before I unloaded from the van in that field in Norfolk. However during the time we spent in Norwich I got some idea of the type of person he was. Greenpeace people work hard and play hard. Whilst involuntary guests in Norwich we all drank plenty and engaged in increasingly silly pastimes to relieve the boredom. Except Peter. His contribution to the entertainment was a lecture on the history of his farm, plus a field trip out there meet his organic cows. 

To say he never switched off though would be completely wrong. His farm was clearly his escape from work at Canonbury Villas. There were no aristocratic pretensions about Peter. He was usually scruffy and his house was a mess, with books taking up almost every available space. In some of the pictures from the Lyng action you can see he's the only one of us who didn't put his boiler suit on properly before we started. However in his sense of duty he was the equal of any knight of the realm. At the office, on the farm or just with his fellow accused, he always had the gravitas of the one in charge. 

Or almost always. One night during the trial we had a quiz night which we called Have I Got Evidence For You. Peter's team won easily, and Peter himself proved unbeatable at the Greenpeace version of Just A Minute. Then there was his retirement party. To say the teetotal Peter was 'as giddy as a schoolboy' would be the understate of the year. It was a great evening.

Peter never wanted his peerage. Although he couldn't actually get rid of it, he made sure the title died with him. Instead he wanted to earn respect, and I think he did. After the Lyng trial was over he sent us all a postcard of Courtyard Farm with the words "Proud to stand with you".  We were all proud to stand with him too. He will be missed.


Pagan, Peer and Priest in GM Crops Raid!

Courtyard Farm

Friday, 25 May 2018

Shareholder Activism at BP AGM

Environmental campaigning can take you to interesting places, or it can take you to the grey, soulless barn that is Manchester Central. This is where I was last Monday, the occasion being the annual general meeting of the oil and gas multinational BP, formerly British Petroleum, briefly ‘Beyond Petroleum’, but mostly ‘beyond parody’: the people who had claimed to be saving the planet, but who actually destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.

Greenpeace has run a number of campaigns against BP in the past, and after one of them I found myself the holder of a single share in the company. This allows me to attend their AGM and, if I so desire, ask questions of the board. Greenpeace UK haven’t got in BP in their sights right now, so I was temporarily an activist for ShareAction, a group of people who do this sort of thing all the time.

Usually these gigs are in London, and even a free lunch doesn’t tempt me to go, but this year, for the first time in a century, they were in the north of England. Why was a good question. Possibly they were getting a few too many awkward questions down there. Scheduling the event for the day before Shell’s AGM in Holland was probably also a cunning ploy. The only way climate change activists could go to both would be to fly. Fortunately, they wouldn’t need to, as Manchester has activists of its own, and there was a decent group of us waiting to ask some questions of the board.

I’d been at the Conference Centre, a former mainline station in the middle of Manchester, earlier in the year for the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Green Summit. That had been a slickly organised affair too, but I didn’t remember seeing quite so many well-built, bald men with wires coming out of their ears when I attended that. 

Outside a group of scruffy people were holding up placards, whilst better dressed people shuffled past and made their way into the venue. I was dressed somewhere in between, having found a tie and a reasonably clean shirt at the back of the wardrobe, I followed them in. Beyond the first line of large men were airport-style security barriers. My credentials were accepted and I was allowed in, but my water bottle and re-usable coffee cup weren’t. This led to a dilemma as to whether I should accept the complimentary drink in a disposable cup.

Dilemma over, it was time for the main event. The AGM itself was part university lecture hall, part film studio. A bank of movie cameras occupied the middle of the auditorium, all pointed at the stage where the bank of rostrums looked like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Two wary ‘redshirts’ flanking the stage were the most obvious security features, but closer examination revealed that most of the front two rows, except for a pair of little old ladies in the middle, were equally bald and equally well built. They were clearly not taking any chances.

But we weren’t here to cause trouble, at least not that kind. They had a special area to put people like us, with its own security, and a woman with a headset who took down the outline of the question we were going to ask and radioed it to her controller, wherever they were.

When all was ready the big screen, which had been showing film of BP’s latest engineering marvels, faded out and the board made their appearance. A phalanx of older white men, led by CEO Bob Dudley, took up their positions in the front row, with a couple of token women sat behind them.
The curtain opener was Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of the Board, who made his speech about how BP was back, $65 billion dollars the poorer thanks to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but now wiser and, yes, greener than ever before. I dare say, had the value of my shares been more than the cost of train ticket, I may even have been convinced.

He was just the warm up act though, the stars of the show were the activists, with our questions. A few genuine shareholders had sneaked in amongst us, who issued such gushing praise for the board my toes curled, but mostly it was a barrage of what politicians call tough questions: why were they fracking in Argentina, will they cooperate with the investigation into human rights abuses in Columbia, do they accept that Climate Change is a human rights issue, will they act on fugitive methane emissions, and so on.

Their response was slick, polished, professional and craven. They had an answer prepared for each question, but only one. If the same question was asked in two different ways, it was ignored the second time. Some questions weren’t answered at all, sometimes with no explanation. The pattern though was clear. The answers were not being given for the benefit of the activists, but of the shareholders. ‘No, there is no problem here’, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t recognise those figures’, ‘we have never been found liable’, but mostly ‘that is nothing to do with us’. BP just take the oil out of the ground, what happens to it next is everybody’s responsibility except theirs.

Asking a question at a big AGM like this is both easy and difficult. You have a podium, you have a microphone, and everyone is silent, waiting to hear what you have to say. But on the other hand, when you stand up there, this is clearly their territory. The board sit like gods on their thrones, guarded by their hired muscle. It’s hard to remember that they are the ones with the explaining to do.

All told I was glad I was up second to last. I was there to ask a question on the Amazon Reef, the unique and amazing coral system found in deep water at the mouth of that great river just two years earlier, a place where all the text books said you should never find a reef. Someone from the Climate Change 100+ group, another organisation that has shareholder activism as its main modus operandi, had mentioned the reef earlier, allowing Carl-Henric to give his prepared answer: no, the reef was not a new discovery, and anyway, the question of whether you should drill there was not for them, but the Brazilian government.

Knowing their answer in advance meant I could tailor my question to it. I said that until the 2016 paper on the reef was published nobody, apart from the researchers involved, had known the reef was there. I said that until a 2017 expedition went out (on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, but I didn’t mention that) there had been no pictures of the reef. And I said that the paper scientific paper produced by the expedition, published only last month, showed it was six times bigger than previously believed, and extended into one of the blocks BP jointly owns.

Would they answer? The board had done their usual trick of hearing several questions at once, so they could choose which to answer, so I couldn’t be sure. Svanberg had a quick word with Dudley. He answered another question, then he spoke about the reef. In Brazil, he said, ‘everyone knew it was there’. But this wasn’t anything the shareholder should worry about, because it was ‘35km away from where they were’.

The answer was infuriating, because it was so obviously wrong, contradicted by the paper I had in my briefcase. It seems we were dealing with Schrodinger’s Reef: something that everyone knows is there, even though it isn’t.

And that was that. The board’s obscene pay award was waived through without a single objection, and when the votes on the resolutions came through they had all been approved with majorities that would have embarrassed the vainest of tinpot dictators.

After the meeting there was the free lunch, but also a chance to meet the board informally. Svanberg sought me out and seemed very pleased with himself. The retired US Admiral they’d recruited to try to get the organisation a safety culture told me some stories of his time in nuclear submarines, and then I got a chance to collar Bob Dudley himself. Here I got a dose of what must pass for polite conversation in Davos and other such circles. No, he did not deny climate change, on that he was clear, but we mustn’t forget the ‘natural cycles’ that also play a part, and which presumably can be used to explain away any evidence that does fit his fossil fuelled view of the world. The Deepwater Horizon was, obviously, a source of regret, but is was the only accident they’d had.  

I tried to correct his oil-tinted view of the world, gave him a little lesson in climate science and reminded him of BP's other mishaps, Texas City, Grangemouth, several Alaskan oil pipeline spills, a near miss in Azerbaijan and a minor prang with a rig called the Thunder Horse, but he wasn’t bothered by what I thought. This man earns more in a month than I have done in my life. I don’t scare him.

But something did. The board had refused to answer several questions, including one from a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, claiming they were traps. Class Actions, Bob Dudley told his shareholders, were a ‘business plan’ for some US lawyers. What he didn’t say was that Friendsof the Earth threatened Shell with just such a suit just a few weeks ago. Clearly, they were worried. Indeed, when a gushing shareholder came up to Dudley, told him he was wonderful and asked for his autograph on his AGM papers, I couldn’t help saying “Are you sure that’s not his Class Action suit?”, and Dudley really did stop and check.

So, what did I think of my days of being a shareholder activist? "An instructive exercise in corporate evasion and lying" was what I told DeSmogBlog. It was something that needed to be done, but not something that is going to change the world. There are other ways of doing that.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Does the government need a way out on fracking?

On 21st March 2018, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham held his first Green Summit, where he announced his intention to make Manchester one of the greenest cities on the planet. Many fine words were said, but it's far too early to judge what actions they will result in.

However, in the evening Frack Free Greater Manchester held an anti-fracking fringe event to review the four years that had passed since IGas ended their initial search for shale gas at Barton Moss, Salford. About thirty people packed into a room at Central Methodists hall to hear the story of the opposition to fracking in the UK, and to plan the next moves in the campaign.

Helena Coates - Frack Free Greater Manchester

Helena, who was part of the campaign against drilling at Barton Moss, said that when she first joined the protests, she did not think of herself as an environmentalist. But as she kept attending the slow walks, and saw how the protectors were policed, she started to make connections between the economics, the politics and the issues.

She said that she though out her campaigning against fracking, she has always been a mother and she ended her talk by reading from The Storm, by Kathy Henderson. A tale of a mother and son who survive a wild night on a barren coastline, it was a story of the power of nature, and about survival.

Eddie Thornton - Kirby Misperton Protection Camp 

Eddie was part of the campaign to stop Third Energy fracking at Kirby Misperton, near Pickering in North Yorkshire. The KM8 well looked like ot should have been the easiest place in the country for fracking to get going as it was on an existing industrial site, and a well had already been drilled for conventional gas in 2011 - although they had 'accidently' over-drilled by more than a kilometre. The gas would enter the grid by an existing pipeline and, despite 4000 letters of objection, against only 30 in support, the local authority had approved planning permission.

However things did not go smoothly for Third Energy. Frack Free Ryedale was set up round a kitchen table in 2014, and at the end of 2016 a protection camp was set up. Eddie described Christmas at the camp, which was still being built. As he and the other protectors huddled round candles in the cold, a procession of locals brought them Christmas dinner in stages, something which kept them going both "physically and spiritually".

Kirby Misperton is an area that is conservative with both a small and a large 'c'. However the campaign, led by the community and supported by the camp, soon started to attract support from people who did not usually embrace radical causes. Even the local bishop turned up. Third Energy and the police had a communication strategy that tried to divide the locals and the protectors, but the camp always had three people working with the press to counter this.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Development, could have
approved the fracking in October last year. However, as a result of the opposition, he got cold feet. This was to have catastrophic consequences for Third Energy.

In January 2018 the outsourcing giant Carillion collapsed. Third Energy's chairman, Keith Cochrane, was a former chief executive of Carillion, and this put the spotlight on the energy companies finances. Third Energy had filed their accounts four months late, but when they did it showed they had £52 million of debt, and only a few thousand pounds of assets.

Throughout the campaign in Ryedale, campaigners across the country had been targeting Barclays bank, Third Energy's main financial backers. faced with growing opposition, and Third Energy's collapsing business case, Barclays basically "pulled the plug on their finances". The government imposed a financial test on fracking companies, which Third Energy failed. They withdrew their rig and, despite promises to return in the autumn, it is almost certainly all over.

Eddie was clear what had happened: community resistance works. The companies, and their backers, know that opposition is growing. Even a large bank like Barclays cannot ignore this.

But Eddie also said he saw in their victory in North Yorkshire, a way that the national campaign can be won. The collapse of Third Energy's finances gave the government a "way out" of supporting fracking, without having to do a politically embarrassing U-turn, and Eddie hoped that the success at Kirby Misperton can be the model of how to defeat fracking in the rest of the country. INEOS, who plan to frack large parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, have a mountain of debt and their stock is effectively junk bonds. All it may take to end their threat is for the government to go over their books.

Maureen Mills - Frack Free Lancashire

"If you'd told me four years ago I'd be here with all of you now, I'd never have believed it," Maureen told the meeting.

The campaign in North Yorkshire may have been won, but in Lancashire it continues. Despite the planning inspector deciding it should not go ahead, the government is reopening the public enquiry into Cuadrilla Resources' application to frack at Roseacre Wood on 10 April. 

Of the different ways the campaign against fracking had developed, Maureen was particularly impressed by the contribution of the Trade Unions, especially the One Million Climate jobs pamphlet. "This is now a campaign for social justice." The way forward, she thought, was to "win the hearts and minds" of people.

Maureen said she can see the results of this tactic. "More people oppose fracking than support it". She said "I really feel the tide is turning," especially with people in Lancashire "now it's landing on their doorsteps." However she warned "the thing is sticking together, with a united resistance."

The success in North Yorkshire had left her "even more buoyed up". Like Third Energy, the companies that plan to frack Lancashire have "precious little money."

Maureen also said that Frack Free Lancashire would like to hold another rally in Manchester, like the United Against Fracking march in November 2016. The energy of that day had sustained campaigners through their year old protest at the gates of Cuadrilla's site.

"Let's do it again," she said.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Top 5 Brexit Movies

So we've voted to Take Back Control and Brexit Means Brexit, so us Remainers need to just sit back and respect the Will Of The People. But what should we watch whilst we're doing so? We're reassured that Brexit won't mean a 'Mad Max-style world from dystopian fiction', so that rules out that film then.

Instead, here are my top five other movies to Brexit to.

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

Grand Fenwick is an insignificant European country founded by a randy English knight on the way back from the Crusades, which is why the entire ruling class looks like Peter Sellers.

However, things aren't looking good for the country, as the entire economy is wiped out overnight by a cheap American version of their famous Pinot Grand Fenwick wine. The country is left with no choice but to go to war with the USA, and it's antiquated army sails off across the Atlantic armed with bows and arrows. Unfortunately, thanks to Grand Fenwick's acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction, they win, and then their problems really start.

Slightly dated, but still amusing, it shows the problems of a small country, led by inbreds, trying to punch above its weight on the world stage.

Passport to Pimplico (1949)

When the explosion of a Second World War bomb unearths a document that reveals that their London borough was ceded to the Duke of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, the newly independent citizens of Pimlico seize their new freedom with glee. The first thing they do is ditch is their British licensing laws, followed by their ration cards.

An gentle Ealing comedy that dreamed of an end to post-war austerity, the film is based on an incident during the war when Ottawa hospital was declared part of Holland for the birth of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. It also subtly references the situation of Berlin the previous year.

Unfortunately for the new Burgundians things don't go according to plan. Their deregulation leads to the borough being overrun with spivs and black marketeers, and an economic blockade cuts off all food and water. The new Burgundy finds itself diplomatically isolated and forced to rely on donations of food to survive.

In the end it is all sorted out amicably and everything works out for the best. Well, we can hope.

Carry On England (1976)

Of course in Brexit Britain there will be none of this political correctness nonsense. Men will be free to be sex pests and women will be free to do the dishes, just like it used to be.

Carry On films are a form of cinema marmite really. Shakespeare they are not, but in their time they were all right. Some were quite topical and some of the historicals; Carry on Henry, Carry on Clio and Carry On Up The Khyber, are actually all pretty good.

However by the time this film was made those glory days were long in the past. To watch Carry On England, which is something I've never manages to actually do, is to see the end of something that was never as good as it thought it was, and which was now totally unfunny and pointless. In fact the film was so bad it pretty much killed the entire franchise.

A perfect Brexit movie in other words.

V For Vendetta (2005) 

If it wasn't for the EU, of course, we wouldn't have nearly so many terrorists and other undesirables running around. Free from the shackles of the European Court of justice, the government will be free to deport, arrest, torture and spy on its citizens. Everyone will know their place and, if they don't you probably won't hear much more about them.

A few things happened to Alan Moore's eighties graphic novel in the twenty years it took to make it to the cinema, and not all of them were good. However, things also happened in the real world to make Moore's paranoid vision even more believable, and the two more-or-less balance out.

In the film Britain is liberated by an anarchist with a large bomb and a Guy Fawkes mask.

Only in the movies I suspect.

The World's End (2013) 

When alcoholic waster Gary King drives his clapped out old Ford Cortina back to the town he grew up in, he finds the place almost unrecognisable. All the pubs are now chains, all the cars are now hybrids, all the people are now nice, and there's a modern art sculpture in the town centre. 

For the third of their 'Cornetto trilogy', Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright took on that most British of activities, the pub crawl. A story of a group of men trying, and ultimately failing, to put their misspent youth behind them, it is a terrific end to one of the funniest film trilogies ever. It's also a decade ahead of its time.

This is because, in the course of their binge drinking, King and his mates learn of a fiendish plan by do-gooder alien immigrants to try and civilise our backward planet. In a drunken showdown with the controlling intelligence, King and co manage to piss of the aliens so much they decide to leave Earth to it. Unfortunately when they go they take all their technology with them, and in the end Britain is reduced to desolate wasteland patrolled by marauding gangs, rather similar to a certain Mel Gibson movie in fact. 

Well, at least we've been reassured THAT won't happen. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Top Five Films About Eighties Britain

After the swinging sixties and the sad seventies, the selfish eighties is a decade best forgotten. At home Margaret Thatcher, egged on by Rupert Murdoch's gutter press, deployed a militarised police force to crush the miners and the Travellers. She rewarded the bankers, devastated the post-Industrial north and privatised anything that wasn't nailed down. Britain was a divided, racist, homophobic place in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade socialism, indeed society, seemed to be a thing of the past.

Or so it seemed at the time. But that's not how the decade looks now. The Iron Lady still has her fans, but never have her ideas been so unpopular. Who now thinks we should reward the bankers or privatise the public sector? Culturally, the right may have won the battle, but it seems to have lost the war, and the way the decade is remembered in film reflects that.

Here is my top five list of films that characterise the decade.

5. Billy Elliott (2000)

Even though it contains a song hoping for the death of Margaret Thatcher, I think I probably better just admit that Billy Elliott just isn't my type of film, which is why it's only at number five. It's not that it isn't well written, well acted and well made. It certainly is. It's not just that Billy's dad is shown as the sort of wife-beating, son-beating, ignorant, male working class stereotype that The Sun spent its time trying to cultivate. The problem is something else.

The very gritty politics of the era is realistically shown, and makes a very poignant background to the story. It's also completely clear which side of the political fence the film sits on. But keeping a political event of the magnitude of the Miners Strike in the background just doesn't seem right. Okay, it's not as bad as slavery being the background to a cheesy love story in Gone With The Wind, but almost. The happy ending, when a grown up Billy is seen on stage, should have been followed by a look at what was happening in Durham at the time: the unemployment, the drugs and the utter despair of anyone who lacks the skills to move to London.

4. Hidden Agenda 

Perhaps the most important thing about Hidden Agenda is that it relaunched the film career of Ken Loach. He'd put himself on the cultural map in the sixties with Cathy Come Home and Kes, but had spent the next twenty years making acclaimed, but largely ignored, documentaries. Hidden Agenda though started a run of amazing films that continues with Riff Raff, through Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, to the best film of recent years, I, Daniel Blake.

If Billy Elliott shows the effect of Thatcherism at home, Hidden Agenda deals with the 'near abroad', the long running Troubles in Northern Ireland. We know now that the eighties were the time when the IRA was making the first moves towards peace, signals the British government either couldn't, or wouldn't, hear. Instead the Troubles in the eighties were a time of IRA insurgency and British government response, which allegedly included a policy of 'shoot to kill'.

Thatcher's Britain was always a secret state. From dirty tricks against real striking miners to the Chevaline and Zircon affairs, to Spycatcher and the Al Yamamah arms deal, there was a lot going on we didn't know about.  Hidden Agenda takes as its main inspiration John Stalker's investigation into the deaths of six Republican paramilitaries at the hands of the RUC Headquarters Mobile Support Unit, but then expands it into the area that is known collectively as the 'Colin Wallace affair'.

It's all very well done, very convincingly argued and, worryingly, very believable. 

3. Trainspotting (1996)

However most of the bad behaviour in the eighties didn't go on in secret, and most of the violence was not in  Northern Ireland. The real story of the decade is that of post-industrial decline and the retreat of the welfare state.

It's not completely clear if Trainspotting is a film about the eighties. The soundtrack certainly roots it in the dance and Britpop era of the nineties, but the book it was based on is very clearly set in the late eighties. The themes in the film, rising heroine use and fear of AIDS, against a background of unemployment and social decay, are also clearly those of the eighties. Indeed, the film is such a trawl though the decade's cliches, from skinheads with pit bulls in the park, to druggies nicking TVs off old people, that it's pretty close to being a parody.

However, just as it surfs the fine line between glamorising bad behaviour or making the main characters too obnoxious to be sympathetic, it gets away with it. We'd see a lot more of Danny Boyle over the next couple of decades, culminating in 2012 when, along with Trainspotting musical collaborators Underworld, he contrasted his nightmare vision of Britain in this film with a look at all that is best in out society in his London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

2. The Long Good Friday (1981)

Made in 1979, only a delay in release actually made this an eighties film at all. However when you look at what it is about, it's perhaps the most eighties film of all. Bob Hoskins is Harold Shand, a gangster who wants to turn his back on his Sweeney world of petty crime and go legit. His plans are a merger with bigger American outfit and, get this, rejuvenate London's docklands with a view to holding the Olympic Games there. Yes, this really was a 1979 film.

Of course the main reason to watch the film is to see Bob Hoskins spectacularly losing it, and the screen debut - in a non-speaking role - of Pierce Brosnan. He was playing an IRA assassin, which suggests a bit of a theme here.

1. Pride (2014)

So yes, the eighties were a very grim time indeed. Bigotry and intolerance, government malice and indifference, crime and social decay were all around. But there were also people doing something about it. And that's why this film is top of my list.

We'll forget about the fact that in real life the NUM  didn't actually refuse to accept Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners' donation. They couldn't accept it as their bank account had been frozen and so the group, like every other miners support group, was told to send their money straight to a mining community. There was also almost no prejudice from the miners when the activists eventually arrived in Dulais, but that wouldn't make such a great story so we'll forget about that too. Instead, let's just think how wonderful it is that a bunch of communists who wanted to overthrow the government had a mainstream film made about them, and that it was a stunning success.

They took a few liberties in making the film, but not very many. There is a documentary about the LGSM story, called Dancing in Dulais, and watching it after Pride you can tell exactly who is who, even if most of the actors don't look a bit like the people they were playing.

This is very much a film about activism and activists. The Miners Strike was a disaster for the Left, but as the amazing final scene shows, for activists what really matters is the solidarity. As the police officer says, the miners lost the battle, but as the end credits show the larger war was won: gay and lesbians won their civil rights. I didn't cry in Ghost or Titanic, and only a little bit in Notting Hill, but this scene always brings a tear to my eye: this scene and the one where Bronwen Lewis sings Bread and Roses. Yes, I'm blubbing just typing this. This is exactly what being an activist is all about.

And it's the activists who are now remembered. Looking back on the eighties, the Left lost the political battles, but in the long term we won the war. The man most people under 65 want to be the next Prime Minister spent the decade campaigning for the miners, for peace in Northern Ireland and gay rights. We may all live in the world Thatcher created, but nobody seems very keen on making a film to celebrate that.