Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: January, 2017

How to survive the courgette crisis

Did the wealthy and well fed eat courgettes with their silver spoons  in Davos? Only they could afford them.

George Soros didn’t mention courgettes in his after dinner speech at the Davos  Economic Forum. He predicted that  Donald Trump  will fail in his trade war and that Theresa May’s government will fall over Brexit but he overlooked one commodity making a lot of money at the moment. Courgettes have quadrupled in price. This has been the week of the courgette crisis.

It is Britain’s tenth most popular vegetable. It grows anywhere, mixes into any dish and can be spiralized by the fashion conscious. Courgettes are a key ingredient in the January health recovery plan  but you will struggle to  find one in your supermarket today. The price has rocketed and the shelves are bare.

Floods and then snow in southern Spain have ruined the courgette crop and the little baby marrows will not be back in the shops at a reasonable price  for months to come. To keep up to date, follow  #courgettecrisis .

My crisis strategy  has been to sign up for a supply of locally produced organic vegetables from The Paddock at High Spen.  The proprietor, young entrepreneur of the year  Laura Jayne Burlison, brings round a box with a smile every Thursday night.

Laura is scathing about the courgette crisis. Her grandparents never eat courgettes in January. They waited until the British season started in June. Instead Laura offers Jerusalem artichokes and purple sprouting broccoli and tells me to spiralize a purple carrot instead.

Courgettes are big in Denmark. The latest Scandinavian craze sweeping the country is ‘folkeligt’ which is the warm sense of pride that comes from eating courgettes and other organic vegetables. The  Danes celebrate Okodag or Organic Day every Spring when the cows are put back out to pasture.  They  spend £141 per head a year on organic food whereas  we weigh in at a measly £24. That is all about to change, thanks to what may be one the last scheme  funded in  Brussels,  as a £9m campaign persuades us to go folkeligt.  Hygge is old hat.

There are questions about whether organic produce is all that it seems and whether the price is payable but the arrival of odd shaped root vegetables and muddy potatoes on the doorstep  is so much more heartening and infinitely more tasty than picking up perfect produce flown into our supermarkets from all over the world.

Up the road in Finland, another crazy idea is being piloted. Out of work Finns will receive  a guaranteed  minimum income for two years even if they get a job. It will transform the demeaning way we treat people all too often regarded as scroungers. The Scots are interested and I hope it catches on here too.

Mr Woodreeve’s courgettes

Matthew the Woodreeve went folkeligt years ago . His secret round acre small holding somewhere in the Tyne Valley surely includes a courgette crop. Woodreeves are ancient keepers of the forest and Matthew’s  story is told in my friend Robert Bluck’s first  novel, Mr Woodreeve’s Reflection. The book  is launched tonight after  150 odd subscribers to Robert’s crowdfunding appeal allow Unbound to publish it.

The story is set west of Hexham in locations you almost recognise. I think I have tracked down Mathew’s cottage but I am not giving anything away. Mr Woodreeve  is an utterly absorbing romp of a read with a clever plot revealed in a succession of secret letters and only unravelled on the final page.

All too often books  promoted as dealing with family secrets are full of fear and foreboding but in this case the secrets are joyous and life enhancing. There is a mysterious, supernatural element in the story as well which challenges the reader to see the world differently. It has taken Robert five years to write and is a triumph.

Lew Feldstein’s zucchini festival

My old  friend and one time colleague, Lew Feldstein, also a courgette champion though, as an American, he calls them zucchini. The courgette seed originally came from the Americas but became popular in Italy in the late nineteenth century under its more appealing name of zucchini.  Lew once put a sleepy New Hampshire town on the map by starting an annual  zucchini festival showing that the courgette can lead to urban regeneration.

Lew spoke at a conference in Newcastle nine years ago alongside  the political scientist  Robert Putnam about how communities rich in courgettes will prosper. Over dinner afterwards, they told the story of how a young and unknown black politician had joined their prestigious civic leadership seminar at Harvard.  No one had heard of the junior senator from Illinois but within a year Obama had won everyone round and become the most respected person in the group.

Barack Obama had then just won the nomination. Feldstein and Puttnam feared for the future of their protégé and worried that expectations would be far  too high. I thought of Lew this weekend and wondered if, like me, he had smiled at George’s Soros’s prediction. In these extreme and frightening times, we have to hang on to the hope that the green sprouts of courginis will break through the ground again.

Published in Newcastle Journal 24th January 2017


Driverless cars will know exactly where to take us

So Carlos Ghosn has confirmed it. The autonomous car is revving up just around the corner.  I will be riding in a driverless car into the age of automation  in my lifetime. I may even rise into the sky on my final journey in an ambulance drone.

Uber is already  running cars by computer in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Driverless cars are on trial in California, Germany and even in Milton Keynes. Amazon is delivering parcels by drones in Cambridgeshire to a few customers with long gardens.

Yesterday, Carlos Ghosn announced that the Nissan alliance will have driverless cars on the roads by 2020. They will be built in Sunderland. Who would have thought it?

The change will be as fundamental to our economy and our lifestyle as the introduction of railways in the nineteenth century. The railway pioneers were madcap entrepreneurs. Trains were a product of free economy that lead to a mishmash of competing lines and little overall planning. The era of the driverless car will be much the same.

In his new social history of railways (one half of my non-fiction Christmas reading), Simon Bradley describes how our lives were transformed. Greenwich Mean Time was imposed everywhere, fresh fruit and vegetables arrived on our tables and W H Smith popped up with easy reading at up station bookstalls. We developed ways of coping with strangers across a cramped railway compartment.

Just think about the implications of the widespread adoption of driverless cars. Carlos Ghosn talks of giving us the choice to drive or not to drive. But the real benefits only occur only when the entire traffic system is given over to what Nissan dubs’ the autonomous drive car’.  The days of the conventional car are numbered. Eat your heart out Jeremy Clarkson.

In less than 20 years time, a computer controlled  pod will arrive at your door or your office exactly when you when want it and take you to your destination. It will chose the least congested route and may well drive on roads built over  redundant suburban railways lines. You will not need to park as the clever vehicle will head off to its next customer when you have completed your journey.

Will we welcome the benefits? There are 1 billion private motors cars in the world. They could be replaced with 50 million communal shared autonomous vehicles relieving congestion and transforming the road network. No more need for massive new roundabouts in Newcastle or extra lanes on the A1.

There are currently over 1 million deaths and 31million injuries from car accidents worldwide. As autonomous cars take over these numbers will plummet. The elderly and disabled will be able to travel more freely. The harassed commuter will relax and read. Thanks to electric power, air pollution from exhaust fumes, one of the great unchallenged health hazards of our time, will be history.

But there are downsides. There are 300,000 taxi drivers in the United Kingdom many of whom  have already been made redundant once. There are 600,000 lorry drivers who will also be looking for work. According to White Van Man website, there are 2.5 million delivery men who claim to be intelligent (50% are bookworms) and romantic (5% claim romantic entanglements in the van). Much more than the kissing will have to stop.

There were 2.7 million cars purchased in the United Kingdom last year and about 1 million people employed in the manufacture, distribution and servicing of petrol or diesel driven cars. The new generation of electric driverless cars may well put the traditional  manufacturers on the scrap heap so Nissan is wise to change gear now.

The driverless car is just one aspect of a fundamental mind shift that faces modern society. The economy will shortly reach “peak human” ahead of robots and artificial intelligence taking over. Up to 15 million people will lose their jobs because of automation swelling the ranks of the disaffected and alienated. We should seek to get the future in our bones IPPR tells us in its new report ‘Future Proof Britain in the 2020s’, but that’s a big ask. Will we willingly give up our little castle on four wheels or our cherished privacy? But beware, it is happening already.

Google can detect a flu epidemic in minutes by analysing emails and search requests a week before anyone with the flu goes to the doctor. If we click 300 likes, Facebook can predict our behaviour better than our husband or wife. Machines will know us better than ourselves, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his consummately written and  thought provoking book ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ ( the other half of my serious  Christmas reading). By 2021, the average desktop computer will have the processing capacity of the human brain. By 2050, one desk top will be have the processing power  of all humanity.

Harari raises a more troubling point about the sanctity of life and the primacy of Homo Sapiens. Are we really, he asks, only a collection of algorithms whose ability to manage data is about to be surpassed by much more sophisticated machines. Sooner or later, will we pass from the age of humanism to the age of dataism when Harari predicts “unenhanced humans will become completely useless”. We will  be conveyed in and by driverless cars which will know exactly where to take us.