Monday, October 29, 2007

fear III

This time it’s personal…

A different station, Saturday morning. Many police about, as it’s a match day. About half of them have the blue square panel in their yellow jackets - Forward Intelligence Team colours. Spotters and snoops. Cameras. Photo albums.Trouble. The lowest, poorest trained and least respected rung of the architecture of a police state in waiting. Full of adrenaline, speed and an inferiority complex resulting from their place at the bottom of the food chain in the wonderfully oxymoronic world of ‘intelligence led policing’.

My hackles rise, my awareness ramps up a few notches. I scan the station to fix their locations, and those of their quarry as well as the exits. There’s only a few home shirts about as yet, one group of pudgy short-hairs with bulging carrier-bags straining to contain the stella cans are keeping their distance and have formed loose circle round a mate at the cashpoint, while another is busy on his phone. Move along. Nothing to see.

But I’m also on a low level adrenal rush now, so I get out of the station by the most direct route, keeping to the pace of the general flow. They check me out, I check them out. We both decide no further action is required. I head to my usual cafe bar for a quick belt and some free wifi, but it’s a film set for the morning. No, really. it's full of cameras and earnest student types with clipboards and sheaves of paper. it takes them five miuntes to realise i'm there, after which they politely ask me to piss off. So, it’s back to the station for chain caffeine and more twitching.

I assume everyone has the same, or at least similar, reaction to the cops. The fact I can id their roles and rank probably has little effect on that. Thing is, the last 15 years of my life probably has. Is my reaction more so, of maybe even different? And can they tell? Or, is this paranoia? And, do I / should I actually care?

Things improve greatly once the surprisingly good coffee hits my system and I get onto the platform. At least the twitching is now related to a reasonable cause. But, along with the bitter aftertaste of the coffee, another lurks, just below the surface, down in the place were I keep the fear, right next to the anger.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

fear II

Same station, last train, late night. I’m on the way back from a fairly ridiculous round trip that ate most of my afternoon and evening. And, I’ve had no tea. There’s a woman a few seats down, facing me. Makes a fair bit of eye contact, but nothing full on. She’s probably about my age, is well dressed, hair very well maintained, well but fairly heavily made up. She has a nose stud, and a big luggage trolley. As we approach my stop, she gets up too.
she gets off, I follow her, she moves slower than me, on account of the trolley, but takes up all the space on the overbridge, so I have to think back to my womens self defence awareness training thing at college to remember which is the least threatening position to take. So I hang back and walk slowly, but stay in the light.

However, the light at the far end of the bridge is out, and its dark, and frosty, and the white lining on the step edges is worn off. She has some trouble with the bag, I offer to help, she says thanks, but she’s got it just about sorted. We briefly chat about the state of the bridge on the way to the car park.

In the car park, she has a taxi pre booked - you have to round here. Very organised, i think. I walk on, the cab takes a while to load and get going, and passes me half way down the station road. Then, in a way that takes me back to my hitching days, the twin flare of brake then reversing lights. The driver drops the window, and asks if I want a lift anywhere. She is leaning forward in the passenger seat, looking directly at me. Eye contact, a quickly flashed smile.

I ask where they are going, turns out they are off to the second next village the other side of mine, i.e. the wrong way, but will be passing the turn where I leave the next village, and take my new more scenic route home. I tell him where I’m going, and we agree it’s not on his way. I thank them, they pull away, she is still looking at me, then looks to the the road ahead.

I walk home through a crisp autumn night of bright hard stars and a waxing gibbous moon, through the quietly busy woods, passed the mist hung lakes. And I think about the encounter. It contrasts so much with the guarding mum from the previous day, and to be honest with general experience, that I regret not taking the lift as far as my turn. You should always accept hospitality. Especially if it serves to reduce the fear we are constantly provoked to by the stream of media messages and images we are fed. In the brief time the ride would have taken, an equally brief but powerful little connection between three strangers could have been made. Who knows, it could have ended in a pint in her hotel, and a lifelong friendship. Or wherever.

I round the summit on the lane home, and the moon is lined up right down the road, picking out my path in silver between the trees and their falling leaves. I remember I'm hungry.

Monday, October 22, 2007


It’s half seven in the morning, at the station for the early train to work. At the station, again. It’s chill, but not cold, the dawn is just gilding the hilltops and the ash have all dropped, but the sycamores are clinging on to summer. I arrive at the station just as a big car disgorges a young woman with a big portfolio. She is well dressed, and the big car is new and clean. Inside mum, I assume, waves her off and as she settles into the drivers seat, notices me.

Now, I’m not scruffy - could do with a shave, but not rough by any means. However, and again I assume, mum stays in the car and the car stays where it is as I walk onto the platform, where the daughter greets me with a cheery ‘hi!’

I go down to the end of the platform where I know the end of the train I want to be on will stop. This puts me about a carriage length distant from the daughter and in full view of mum. Who is sat tight with the engine running. After about 5 or 6 minutes of this, the train is a bit late, daughter pointedly waves bye bye to mum again, obviously embarrassed by the chaperone. She looks early twenties, college rather than school. Mum waves back, but the car stays as is. A few minutes pass, as does the airport train ours is stuck behind. Another commuter, one of the regulars, turns up, as does a lass for the later train off the opposite platform. Mum and car are still in place, engine running. Daughter is now pointedly ignoring her.

It occurs to me at this point that this is a useful illustration of how we deal with risk, and fear. Mum is staking out the car park on account of her daughter. I assume, once again, that she judges her to be at risk in some way from the rest of us. She fears what could happen if she where to go home and tuck into her Waitrose orange juice and fresh baked croissant. She didn’t look a muesli type. It has not, however, occurred to her to switch off her engine. She is not afraid of the effects those emissions will have on her daughters future.

OK, I admit that the impact of her emissions is minimal to the point of incalculability, and that the risk of random attack on a rural railway station is actually real, and completely appalling for those it happens to. I have no issue with mum if she wants to sit in a car park for 10 minutes of her life to protect against a real, but very unlikely, possibility. But why leave the engine running, and why stay in the car? Comfort? Convenience? More fear? I can only conclude that mum just isn’t even considering the impact of the engine, a real and actual effect, it’s just not on her radar. She’s a happy frog in her pan of water.

Far too happy to consider actually getting out into the cold and talking to the daughter she is willing to spend 10 minutes af her life mutely guarding, it seems.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Middle of the Observer, a few weeks back, round at a friends parents house. Splash page on the top technofixes to stop climate change. Basically, terraforming our own planet. Stuff like chucking sulphur into the atmosphere, mirrors in space and iron filings into the ocean. Carbon sucking fake trees. Oceanic heat pumps. That kind of shit.

Now, some of this stuff may even, in a very narrow, engineering sense, work. It is possible that we could suck enough carbon out of the cycle or heat out of the process to avoid catastrophic climate change. I doubt it, though, as the energy required to actually make this stuff happen is colossal - I mean, space mirrors? But that’s not the real problem with these Bond Villain plans, it’s the side effects. Trashing the oceans with geological scale algal blooms or spraying the whole planet with acid rain will have massive consequences, especially as we’ve already degraded most of the earths habitats to the point of near collapse.

Worse, it proves we just aren’t learning. We’re willing to contemplate highly risky, completely experimental and ecologically catastrophic plans that we don’t even know will work, rather than turning a few plugs off, not flying to Paris for the weekend and getting to like the taste of warm beer again, etc. Our greed and comfort come first. Like some toxic toddler, spoiled beyond recovery, stamping our feet and screaming in the supermarket untlil our parents buy us more chocolate so we can bolt it down and throw it up. We want it all, we want it now, and then we want more. Because we’re worth it, because we want to, because we can. And fuck the hindmost, the future and the reckoning.

Well, tough. The trip ends here and it ends soon. Either way. Enjoy, you’ve earned it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


This gem today from the BBC, you can read the whole thing if you like. But here’s the, ehem, meat.

‘Obesity 'as bad as climate risk'
Alan Johnson said a "cultural and societal shift" was needed
The public health threat posed by obesity in the UK is a "potential crisis on the scale of climate change", the health secretary has warned.’

Well, that’s a worry. A plague of fat people is as bad as a mass extinction event. Then I suppose he has a point - all that extra weight could sink land-masses, and their uncontrolled appetites could consume whole species. Which, in some ways of course they are and, in just about every way I suspect is not what Alan Johnson is actually worried about. Just a guess, but, I won’t flog this one. It is it’s own satire after all.

However, there is a solution which could just deal with both of these pressing threats to our continued viability as a nation. Get all the fat, and potentially fat, people out of their cars and give them bikes. Impound their televisions and play stations. Get them on rationed food, turn down their heating, get them walking everywhere and working in the garden or allotment to grow their own healthy food.

And, of course, lest any of you smug thinnies out there are cackling at the thought of enjoying this spectacle, this actually means all of us.

Which, on second thoughts, may actually be exactly what he had in mind all along. Body image as a driver for saving the planet (sic). Loose a stone, or the polar bear gets it. Less cellulite for more icecap. RDA vs PPM. Hmm.

Excuse me, i think i'm just going to be sick...

Saturday, October 13, 2007


in the form of a few words from Philip Larkin.


Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


As a rider to the last two posts in the ‘Future has six legs ‘ trilogy, a postscript. From a scientist. Just picked it up going through the backlog of In Our Time Radio 4 podcasts from the summer. This quote comes from a really good one on the Permian Triassic boundary, the biggest mass extinction event the world has yet seen clocking in at an awesome 96% species loss. Now, that’s mass.

Basically, my roach thing is now peer reviewed.

"The one character, or range of characters, that does ensure survival at all times is to have a broad diet and a broad distribution, so cockroaches will do well in normal times and in mass extinctions. But, other than that, being large is also not a good thing".

Mike Benton, Professor of vertebrate palaeontology, Dept. of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.

All together now -

Six legs
The future has….

Monday, October 08, 2007


To expand on the last post, whilst simultaneously diminishing it for a few cheap jokes, it’s probably going to be a straight fight. Us, the rats and the cockroaches. We’re everywhere, clever, ruthless and adaptable. The rats are everywhere, clever, ruthless and resilient. The roaches are everywhere, turn over a generation a month, eat anything and are driven by a single-mindeded, unsentimental survival instinct that your average tyrant can only envy.

My money’s on the roaches.

The high turnover rate allows fast roach evolution, thus they can respond quickly to selection pressure with change, even if millions of them don’t make it through the field testing. There’s plenty more where they came from. We tend to respond through engineering. It’s the opposable thumbs, I suppose. We don’t like somewhere, we knock it through, fit some fire and start making tools. The rats just move house. And they’ll live anywhere. Especially our houses, if they can get one.

Roaches will find and eat every scrap of food, including each other when comes to it. We’ve become fussy, and deskilled. How many of us would eat rat, even if we knew how to kill and prepare it? The rats have done well on our wastefulness, and will have to find new food sources when all our squander and store has gone, probably by eating us initially. But they’ll get by on soap if needs be.

Roaches are hard to kill. We’ll kill each other for a loaf of stale bread in the right circumstances. Which is about a week after the supermarkets run out, I reckon. The rats are pretty tough too, what with those plague carrying fleas and the ability to live in sewers and landfills.

So, when push comes to shove in the recently flooded, burned and looted cities of the world, back the arthropods, the future has six legs, not fur or those opposable thumbs. I’m still taking outside bets on the rats, though, at an attractive 100:1. Then, you won’t be around to collect, and I won’t be around to pay out.

And the roaches will have eaten the money anyway.


There is an ecological theory that ecosystems have what is called a climax state. Stop sniggering at the back. Climax is, to grossly oversimplify, that state at which an ecosystem will arrive if left to it’s own devices. Setting aside issues of if and when human activity is to be regarded as part of an ecosystem, and whether climax is a static or a dynamic equilibrium (it’s dynamic, to my mind, by the way), the idea is that there is a path, or series of identifiable and categorisable states, that any system, all other things being equal, will follow on the way to climax. The process of moving through these states is known as succession. I did say it was a gross oversimplification.

Now, the key phrase here is all other things being equal. They aren’t. And never where. Go back far enough, and where I am now was a warm shallow sea. A bit nearer our time, and it was under a bloody great ice sheet. That’s why the place I live is made of gritstone hills with the tops shaved off, exposing the limestone made from the reefs that grew in the warm shallow sea.

It’s been a fashion in conservation to try and achieve and conserve climax vegetation, and thus the fauna it suports, as it is regarded as the best and most stable habitat. This leads to things like the pumps that have to run to keep Wicken Fen wet, and the removal of sycamores from woods. Bottom line is, Cairngorm possibly but very debatably aside, there is not one habitat in the UK that is in any way as it is without human activity. We have no wilderness. Even cairngorm is less than wild, due to the lack of wolves, and all the other stuff we exterminated to make this island more comfortable. Even the deep dark lakes that hide the relict populations of arctic chard are changed, chemically and now thermally by our influence.

Our environment is based on arrested, or manipulated succession. This is where we live. However, the rules are about to change. The other, non equal things are going to get even less equal. Climate change is already pushing species further north, some faster than others, and the subtle webs of interdependence that keep the whole shebang together will warp and deform, some strands will snap, and some new threads will emerge. Holm oaks in Kew Gardens, a mediteranian species that actually does quite well in the south west, are taking a kicking from a moth, because it has migrated north faster than it’s predators. And before you start banging on about survival of the fittest, that moth is going to last about a week if all the oaks die. I won’t labour the metaphorical potential of that point.

We’ve made a good living out of a fairly stable system we have amended, controlled and fostered for about 4000 years, in some shape or form. And all the while we have been increasing the level of control, making life easier. I’m not so sure we can remeber how to be flexible enough to deal with what comes next, we’ve had too long a ride. When we have to get along with left overs, and each other, I don’t see us cutting it. The process of succession will kick in, but with a changed substrate, and a new set of variables, the climax will be different to those we’re used to.

It’ll take a bunch of critters with more flexibility, short generational turnover, big populations made of small individuals and a wide ranging appetite to succeed us. Things that are hard to kill, and willing to do what it takes to get by. You can probably see where I’m taking this by now. Think very small swarms of Daleks. But without the individuality. Think Insects. Arthropods. Roaches.

Under the fridge, the future!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Hm, seems it’s starting bite, eh?

The news, all the stuff that’s fit to broadscat, has turned up a few gems of late. Here's a few from memory. Drought in Australia has trashed the wine harvest. Greece is devastated by forest fires following a heat-wave. The price of chips is set to soar as the UK spud harvest rotted in the summer floods. Bread prices are predicted to follow suit. And, pasta prices in Italy have been hiked following a record poor harvest. You know where I’m going to take this, so I’ll sidestep the obvious, and muse off leftfield.

Now, just because we have supermarkets rammed full of stuff our Grans had never even heard of, let alone regarded as food, and that the stuff turns up at the end of a very clever just in time distribution chain that limits our food waste to a mere quarter of what hits the shelves, doesn’t mean it didn’t come from the same place it always did. The ground. Ultimately. OK, the ground may be 1000s of miles away rather that a cart ride, but it’s still basically grown somewhere, or fed on something that was grown somewhere. Unless you eat processed cheese.

And, as stuff goes haywire, there will be less of it and at the wrong times. It’ll get less predictable, and predictable is what very clever just in time systems demand. All this has consequences. As the cliché goes, any society is three meals from a revolution. It’s amazing where a bread riot can take you. And not all of the destinations are utopian. In fact, I doubt many of them are even close.

When shit hits fan, and the streets are full of hungry folk who are used to four different flavours of bagel but have no idea which way up a spade goes, I’m willing to bet the majority of them will fall in behind the first half way credible guy in a tank who chucks loaves at them. And, well, we never really got on with the old neighbours anyway.

How’s that line form Pans Labyrinth go? ‘This is our daily bread in Franco’s Spain, kept safe in this mill! The Reds lie because in a united Spain there’s not a single home without fire or bread.’ If the fear or, more potently, the actuality of the loss of fodder and fire drives people to assail the state, the provision - or control of provision - of the same in times of crisis is a potent tool for it’s consolidation. People will trade freedom for food, shelter and warmth, at least in the short term. And by then it’s to late. Pasta price peaks today, tomorrow the tapas of tyranny.

So, you’d best stock up on your Hunter Valley Chardonnay and your artisanale pappardelle, and get ready for your ration book. And, remember, hoarding is next to looting - share you stocks, Friend Citizen, or the Millitia may have something to say….