Saturday, 10 November 2007

Tidal waves and eco-towns

Like many of Suffolk’s native-born sons I was secretly hoping that the apocalyptic tidal wave approaching Norfolk’s east coast last week would perform the same function as the biblical flood, sweeping our rivals to the north into the icy waters of the North Sea as punishment for their many vices. The tsunami approaching the East Anglian coastline we were told, would be a ‘deadly tidal wave’, ‘bring the worst flooding in 50 years’ and cause ‘extreme damage to life and property’. In the event all we were left with were a few small puddles on the landward side of our flood defences, not to mention a chorus of angry voices in the media, demanding to know why East Anglia had not been annihilated as advertised. Perhaps they should adhere to the ‘Michael Fish’ rule, which is that when the media predicts a disaster, it rarely happens. It is only in cases where the onset of disaster is overlooked, such as before hurricane Katrina and the 1987 hurricane that events seem to unfold to their worst potential. Instead of doing this, the worlds press and the public at large adopt the scattergun approach, so that a new disaster is predicted daily in practically every newspaper column and water cooler conversation. The explosion of Yellowstone park, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, the submergence of most of England due to sea level rise and, most chilling of all for the general public, the prediction that house prices might actually fall to fair and realistic levels. Possibly the most entertaining of these predictions was contained in Gary Blevin’s book ‘666 the final warning’ in which he claims that Ronald Reagan was the Anti-Christ and will return to cast us all into the lake of fire, aided in this task by the Aliens, super computers, free masons, and barcodes. Implausible perhaps, but far more entertaining than ‘The Stern Review’ and less self-righteous than the ‘IPCC report on climate change’. At least he got the Ronald Reagan bit right. The scientist’s reaction to last weeks non-catastrophe was to proclaim that we had been extremely lucky and that more of these types of events to come over the next century. If by ‘these types of events’ they mean massive media hype followed by a less than damp quib, then I’m inclined to agree. I won’t be shelling out for a wetsuit just yet, unless of course it’s to protect myself from all the psuedo-scientific dribble in the media.

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that it was a sad day for humanity when we swapped the horse and cart for the motor car. I can’t help thinking that western civilisation suffered a similar blow when we stopped building things in factories and switched to an economy, which, when you break it down, is based on typing utter gibberish to each one another in the form of memos, meeting minutes, sales proposals and tenders. Certainly we are better off, more prosperous and happier than we were during the days of the industrial revolution, but whilst there was honour and nobility in chipping away at a coalface or spinning cotton, there is little or no nobility in trying to discuss your organisations attitude to ‘change management’ or outlining your ‘Prince 2’ influenced approach to project management in a series of confused and long winded sentences.

So who to blame for the fact that linguistic atrocities are now not only acceptable but crucial if you want to get ahead?. For my part I blame modern philosophy, in particular existentialism, for if you attack the whole concept of meaning you rehabilitate the meaningless and allow it to become acceptable, in fact the very boundaries of acceptability are stretched to breaking point. An ill-conceived Olympic logo that looks like Lisa Simpson performing oral sex on a hoodie becomes “unexpectedly bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London's qualities as a modern, diverse and vibrant city….inclusive ... for everyone, regardless of age, culture and language". A repellently ugly disused brutallist car park in Gateshead becomes ‘an incredible sustainable structure…an iconic cultural and architectural landmark’. And then, in one of the 21st centuries great ironies, the previously discredited new town movement returns as ‘eco towns’; ‘family friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’ dwellings, ‘built using timber, solar thermal panels, double glazing, insulation and biomass boilers that do not use fossil fuels’. Of course, reading all this you might have thought that these new settlements the government are planning would be designed to recreate the old settlements of England such as Cavendish, the village I grew up in. Timber framed houses, close knit buildings, shops within walking distance and all designed using the wonderful and varied vernacular architecture of Britain. Wrong. A cursory glance at the website of the firm which is building ‘Northstowe’, the first ‘eco town’ in Cambridgeshire, reveals that these new settlements will have more in common with the dreadfully designed new towns and London overspill estates of the 1960s and 70s than any vision of olde Albion. To add insult to injury, this town will be built in the middle of rolling countryside, since disused airfields seem to count as brownfield sites. What’s more disturbing its that by the looks of the architectural renderings you will have to be a lobotomised cardboard cut-out to actually live there. A look at the planned Cranbrook settlement in Devon reveals similar architectural folly, with the public buildings looking as if they have been designed by an artistically challenged toddler. So if I do have an apocalyptic vision for the future it is this. Future settlements in the UK will look like they came straight out of an Ikea catalogue, they are unlikely to be carbon neutral as people will still have to drive to get into work and the whole thing will be one expensive disaster, a deformed and hideous sacrifice to the New Labour god of ‘eco-sustainability’. Our one hope is that the predicted East Anglian tidal wave finally makes an appearance and washes the whole ghastly mess into the ocean.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The wonderous animal kingdom

One of the worst features of the modern age, and something I have touched upon in some of my most recent posts, is the relentless rise of scientism. This is the process whereby scientists wearing white coats, and with a long list of impressive sounding letters after their names, periodically emerge from their academic institutions in an attempt to quash the superstitious notions we hold about this world of ours. Of course this is understandable. Spending the majority of your life staring at the reproductive activities of microbes is apt to produce a cynical and materialist attitude in most people, but what gets my blood boiling is the sheer arrogance with which these self-proclaimed know-it-alls come to their conclusions and then issue an incredibly patronising press release. This in turn is treated as gospel by an uncritical media and splattered all over my early morning copy of the Metro.

In 2005, for example, a Mr Steve Morris of the university of Bristol decided to try and quash all rumours that elephants are fond of getting drunk. In the March/April 2005 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, Morris wrote that there was nothing in the biology of the elephant to support the stories from both Asia and Africa of elephants getting tanked in the wild. "People just want to believe in drunken elephants," Morris concluded. Oh really!. In October 1999 the BBC reported that elephants had run amok in the Indian province of Assan drinking a villages entire store of rice beer and killing four people in the process. A one off perhaps, or perhaps not. Last month, according to officials, a group of delinquent elephants entered a village in Meghalaya, uprooted several huts and drank the locals rice beer. Having got well and truly steaming on the stolen booze, they then electrocuted themselves to death during an inebriated attempt to topple an electricity pylon. One can’t help thinking that perhaps the cause of preventing the Asiatic elephant’s extinction would be better off if they were exposed to the BBC’s new hard-hitting "Alcohol makes you feel invincible when you are most vulnerable" campaign which is currently polluting my television set and disturbing highly-strung individuals the length and breadth of the country. Another inescapable conclusion is that when considering the drinking habits of elephants it is probably better to ask one of the locals in the remote parts of the subcontinent than a stuffy academic from Bristol with a chip on his shoulder.

Of course it is all to easy to anthropromorphise our cousins in the animal kingdom, but its hard to ignore the fact that in a series of bizarre incidents which I intend to document, animals have proved themselves akin to, and even superior to humans. In 2004 a black bear was found in a drunken stupor near a campsite in Washington State surrounded by empty beer cans. He had apparently broken into the camper’s cooler boxes and used his teeth and claws to pry open the beer cans. This in itself is not unusual, what was remarkable about the incident was that the bear had only drunk the local Rainer brand of beer and had rejected the mass market Busch beer, which is, I am reliably informed by my American spouse, a beverage barely fit for consumption, akin to Carling or Fosters. Interesting then that, whilst much of the general population of this country prefers to drink mass produced rubbish than good honest bitter, a bear’s tastes are significantly more refined and they would doubtless be more at home at a Campaign for Real Ale gathering than a piss up on cheap lager at the students union.

Cause for comfort then when observing the bears of the Pacific Northwest. Less so, I’m afraid when considering the recent activities of monkeys, which seem to be more keen on emulating the activities of Liverpudlian yobs than sticking to their normal habits of grooming and tree climbing. "Can the [tourism] minister deploy game rangers ... to deal with the monkey menace?" pleaded local representative Paul Muite in Kenya's national parliament last month, "These creatures have clearly shown that they have no respect for women". In Kenya the harassment of women by Monkeys is becoming so bad that they have been forced to dress like men. Upon seeing women or children the monkeys will habitually approach them and make obscene gestures, pointing at them lewdly and touching their private parts. Thing are no better in Delhi where encroaching development has disturbed the local monkey population to such an extent that they ‘assassinated’ the deputy mayor. In other incidents over the past few years the monkey have run riot in government departments, ripping open files and attacking bureaucrats, even killing people with flowerpots. One can understand their anger, a monkey’s views are rarely taken into account during planning applications. I believe it was Jean Paul Sartre who reprehensively said after Black September that “terrorism is a terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." Presumably then the same principles apply to monkeys as the poor blighters have no weapons besides the occasional hurled stone, the odd flowerpot and the ability to gesticulate offensively at their own member.

In some ways then, animals act better than humans, in some instances worse and in others their experience mirrors ours to an uncanny degree. In early 1999, the combination of a television set and the late arrival of a series of wildlife tapes caused a family breakdown amongst a group of Orang Utangs. The TV was installed in the Leningrad Zoo in Russia so that the apes could learn their native skills. Sadly the tape arrived late, and in the interim the father of the group became addicted to dubbed American soap operas and pop videos. "Before the TV appeared, Rabu never took his eyes off his lady," explained Lena Goroshenkova, a zoologist at the ape house "But then they put up the TV and he's been glued to the screen ever since." The normally raucous feeding time was been transformed into a quiet television dinner and even the frantic swinging around of Rabu's mate Monika did not distract him from the set. It just goes to show, sadly, that with the impressive attributes of intelligence, deep emotions, linguistic ability, and self-awareness also comes the ability to waste the aforementioned attributes in mindless pursuits such as watching reruns of ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘The Fabulous Life of Celebrities’ on TMF. Somewhere in the distance, creation weeps.