columnibus

Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: November, 2015

Wise men head for Paris bearing gifts that are just not good enough

There was only one crisis in the Hepburn household last week. The central heating broke down. As I reached for a warmer woolie and huddled up to the one oil filled radiator, I thought of the desperate people fleeing across Europe bitterly cold in the night air. I wondered how my brave friend, Sarah Wilson, was spending the night in her bartered caravan at the camp in Calais. But mainly I worried about how quickly I could get a new boiler.

There was only one crisis in the Cameron household last week. The threat of jihadists on the doorstep led to recruitment of more spooks and a spending spree on new equipment for special forces that had the armaments industry rubbing its hands with glee.

Thanks to the crisis, the strategic military review was greeted with open arms. New airplanes will patrol the coastline searching for jihadist submarines and a further £6bn will be set aside for the next generation of nuclear submarines, taking the total estimated cost of retaliating against enemy  missiles to £31bn.

Huddled in my unheated bunker with the radio permanently tuned to the BBC, each broadcast  brought further bad news. In this crisis induced state of frenzied activity the Chancellor started throwing money at everything and the Shadow Chancellor threw a book back. Only Andy Murray can save the nation from complete disaster.

And next week British planes will probably bomb Raqqa in an attempt, as the Daily Express so aptly put it, to smash ISIS in a fortnight.  The town is already so devastated by American, French and Russians bombs that there are no targets left to hit. The BBC never reports how many civilians are killed by the bombings but the WHO estimates that civilian casualties in Syria run at 27,000 a month.

There may have been a crisis in the Corbyn household last week though I suspect Jeremy  may have had the good sense never to have had central heating installed.  The poor man looks permanently harassed but has admirably  kept his cool by opposing  military action. He marched down Whitehall yesterday  along with the Hepburn household in support of the 3.5 bn poorest people in far flung parts of the world who, according to Oxfam, are already facing unpredictable floods, drought and hunger as a result of the biggest crisis of all.

There is a beautiful irony that world leaders are linking arms  in Paris today  for a make or break conference to tackle climate change as opposed to Islamic extremism. The problems are even more intractable and cannot be solved by military means. You cannot send a gunboat to take out a coal powered power station.

The last conference in Copenhagen was ill prepared. Despite  a last minute intervention from  Barrack Obama, who five years ago did not have a single grey hair, it ended in chaos. And without any binding agreement.

This time delegates arrive  with pledges to cut carbon emissions like wise men bearing gifts. Only the gifts are not generous enough.  If all the plans were followed though, global warming would be limited to just under three degrees. It would still miss the two degree target which gives a reasonable chance of containing global warming.

George Bush Sr dismissed the first Earth Summit in 1992 by declaring that the “American way of life is not negotiable”. Since then carbon content in the atmosphere has risen from 365 parts per million to 398 ppm and is still rising towards the danger point of 450ppm.

The inconvenient truth is that  the carbon driven economic expansion of the advanced world  is the biggest obstacle to climate change. Our way of life has to be negotiable. A world that continues to expand by consuming more and using more natural resources will never find a sustainable way of living on the planet.

David Cameron admits that “climate change is one of the most serious threats facing our world” It is, he says  “not just a threat to the environment” but “ also a threat to our national security.” If so, why is the government cutting subsidies for solar power and onshore wind farms and planning to build new gas fuelled power stations. Prof Jim Watson of UK Energy Research Centre estimates these policy changes will increase U K emissions.

The next two weeks, according to Oxfam, “will determine whether the Paris deal reflects the power of the biggest fossil fuel emitters and elites, or is a turning point which starts to the address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.”

The climate change movement has come a long way from the early days of cycling and recycling. We cannot save the planet just by changing light bulbs.  Campaigners  now recognise that 80% of the current known oil, gas and coal reserves must be left in the ground as burning them would lead to disastrous climatic change.

This hits the pockets of King Coal and Big Oil who will buying the drinks in Paris for the next two weeks.  It also knocks the fortunes of our stock exchanges and the pension funds which pay for my new gas fired boiler and much else besides. There could be another crisis in the Hepburn household.

( written for Newcastle Journal and published on 30th November 2015)

 

 

 

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The soldiers on the front line do not glorify war and neither should we. It is not the answer

I am still recovering from the Napoleonic  wars . In his 800 page magisterial account of the French Emperor, which I read on holiday, Andrew Roberts concludes that Napoleon  is comparable to his own hero, Alexander The Great.  He, too, deserves the soubriquet ‘Great’.  I am not so sure.

Napoleon was an exemplary product of French military schooling. He defeated elderly generals with  brilliant tactics and laid the foundations for the modern French state. The Code Napoleon survives to this day. More statecraft might have followed had he not set off on the road to Moscow. But the image that has stayed in my mind is of the slaughter of three million soldiers in pursuit of his imperial ambitions. These were not pretty wars.

When the need to replenish the French army became urgent, the recruiting age was lowered and younger teenagers  were quickly enlisted and  marched into the enemy guns. These were the largest armies ever assembled in western warfare. Over the course of twenty years, artillery became the decisive factor and the cavalry became a thing of the past.

I was  only reading a book in the comfort of an armchair but the battle descriptions  still disturbed me. I was reminded of the carnage of war on Friday night listening to a former soldier read a letter written to his mother at the end of the Falklands war. He had spent the last day of the war pinned on the side of a mountain under shell fire. His comrades were  screaming in agony as they were killed by enemy shelling. On the front line, warfare has not moved on much since Napoleon’s day.

Although Gus Hales, a member of  Veterans for Peace, had written the letter after the Argentinian surrender, this was not the letter of a victorious hero. Thirty years later, the events are still in the forefront of his mind. 250 British soldiers died in the Falklands war and 312 veterans subsequently committed suicide because they could not live with their experiences.

Veterans for Peace placed a  wreath  of white poppies on the Cenotaph  at the end of the Remembrance parade. They live uneasily with the term of ‘hero’ which is now applied without a second thought to any former soldier. They find the pomp and ceremony of these rituals do not help them come to terms with their memories of war or do justice to obscenity of the battlefield.

Another veteran spoke of teenage boys he commanded patrolling the streets of Derry in what we call ‘The Troubles’ They trashed Catholic houses in the middle of the night looking for guns, and because, as he put it, “they could.” He began to doubt whether the IRA were as evil as they were made out to be when they fought back. Veterans for Peace has recently returned to Belfast to meet the former republican commanders in an extraordinary  act of reconciliation.

I wondered how many other soldiers had doubts. Doubt  clearly has no place in the military machine.  The Veterans described the way that army training  produces soldiers who will do what they are told without flinching. Anyone who deviates from the line is punished and ostracised.  As Frederick another Great said, “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army.”

The Veterans  derided the  Army recruitment adverts that make life in uniform  like an extreme version of Centre Parcs.  The latest and hugely entertaining James Bond film is still reverberating around my mind too. When asked to state his occupation, at least Bond admits he is a killer. There is no indication  that killing is the main skill required if you sign up.

The government has spent £45m over the past five years on a campaign to extoll the military ethos to school children. Former soldiers are encouraged to retrain as school teachers. A bit more discipline would apparently not go amiss in some of the nation’s failing schools. Veterans for Peace has collaborated in producing a video critical of the creeping militarisation aimed at young children. See unseenmarch.org.uk

For the first time in a hundred years, no British soldier has been killed in conflict. But the memories  of Iraq and Afghanistan are so fresh in our minds that Remembrance Day continues to  grow out of proportion. It may be part of a campaign to make us all aware of the importance of the armed forces  at a time of proposed defence cuts.

There must be another way, especially on a day when the West recoils from the horrors of the terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend. War brings horrors to both sides. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, according to Gandhi.

That is why Hexham Quakers are to be congratulated on mounting an exhibition about the choices that people in Hexham  faced during the first world war  displayed alongside those in their twin towns of Noyon, France and Metzingen, Germany.

The Quakers have  also organised a two week Festival of Remembrance which included the presentation from Veterans for Peace and which asks us to look more deeply at  the consequences of armed conflict. Details of events this coming week are at voicesandchoiceshexham.org

published in Newcastle Journal Monday 16th November

My lifelong love affair with the Kit Kat bar

My love affair with the Kit Kat bar began at the impressionable age of eleven. Every morning my father would buy a copy of the Daily Telegraph and a packet of Players Navy Cut for himself and a four finger Kit Kat for me.

The only questionable purchase in those days was the newspaper as my father was a lifelong trade unionist. The cigarettes did for him in the end and maybe the sugar soaked Kit Kats will have just as deleterious an effect on me.

My trophy was carefully placed in the breast pocket of my school blazer and eaten quietly in a corner of the playground. School boy etiquette did not requiring sharing. To this day, the Kit Kat is the default accompaniment to my mid morning cup of coffee.

I have flirted with Twirls, Twixes and Wispas, and all have their place in the somewhat obsessional larder of my mind, but none has surpassed the Kit Kat in my affections. There are a few bars in the basket tin as I write. The two finger version is the UK favourite biscuit consumed at 2 million bars a day.

The Kit Kat bar was dreamed up by a worker in the Rowntree factory, Willy Wonka would have been proud of him.  He suggested a snack that “ a man could take to work in his pack” and the red foiled bar, which celebrates its eightieth birthday this year, has always been promoted for the working break with the slogan “ Have a break – have a Kit Kat”. It is a blokes bar.

I was astounded when earlier this year the European High Court refused to let Nestles ( who inherited Kit Kat with the take over of Rowntree) copyright the distinctive four finger bar that snaps apart. Sometimes the law defies common sense. Of course, it is a Kit Kat!  Where was the judge brought up?

There have been clever variations on the basic bar. The limited edition orange or mint flavour for example; the oh so indulgent but temporary five finger bar and, of course, the chunky, which to my mind, has too much wafer and not enough chocolate.

Now my favourite snack is under attack from that shining knight of culinary correctness, Mr Jamie Oliver. As a nation we eat far too much sugar and schoolboys aged eleven are especially at risk. If there is to be a tax on sugary drinks as Jamie proposes, then a tax on Kit Kats will surely follow.

For the first time in my life, I have read the small print on the wrapper and can confirm that each bar is 48% fats and 26% sugar. The only consolation is that the sugar is fairly traded.

Hard on Jamie’s heels come an impressive report from Public Health England which ministers have sat on for several months. It calls for sugar tax, restrictions on advertising and supermarket promotions. ( Have you noticed how W H Smith always offer discounted chocolate at the till?) The report proposes a long term reduction in the sugar content of all our favourite drinks and snacks – a kind of slow detox to wean me off a Kit Kat.

Childhood obesity is a massive problem costing the NHS over £5 billion a year. One in 10 preschool children are overweight, one in 5 ten years olds and one in four adults, including this columnist.

Contrary to popular opinion, obesity is not easily treated. Diets only provide remission and bariatric surgery is the only sure solution. Our bodies and our brains crave for ever more sugar until eating becomes an addiction. Prevention is the only way forward.

A welcome but unlikely champion of the Kit Kat bar  emerges in the form of David Cameron who may not be aware that in laboratory tests rats prefer a shot of sugar to a sniff of cocaine. Sugar is more addictive.

A Number Ten spokesperson confirms that the Prime Minster has his heart set against the sugar tax. He believes there are more effective way of tackling childhood obesity.

This may be right wing libertarianism  or it may be a reluctance to take on the food industry. Either way the message is clear. Vote Conservative – have another Kit Kat.

Phone Crisis

I have been diagnosed by my wife as suffering with FOBO. This new condition stands for ‘fear of being offline’ and so the loss of my mobile phone one evening last week led to a sleepless and agitated night.

According to Seventeen, the authoritative source for FOBO sufferers, most young people are “totally addicted to their phones” and are convinced that having the world at their finger tips on a screen is “sugar awesome”. Losing your phone, according to Seventeen, equates to losing your bestie.

So thank you to the school girl quietly studying in Hexham Library who spotted that I left my phone behind and handed it in. And thank you to the librarians who returned it the following morning with a smile. There are good people in the world. Should I reward them each with a Kit Kat and post a message on Facebook?

published in Newcastle Journal on 2nd November