Monday, November 28, 2011

Missing The Ball

“Once upon a time”, declaimed Izzy, “there was a little girl called Cinderella and she was very very sad.” She paused, thought hard, and then remembered: “So the fairy godmother said ‘You shall go to the football’.”

The three of us were sitting in a candlelit sitting room, Jo and I dressed rather ludicrously in black tie and finery. We should have been at a glamorous ball ourselves, but the wicked wind had other ideas. We’d been invited to a friend’s 40th birthday party, but an hour before we had been due to leave the storm, even wilder than predicted, had blown away all our power. I was in the bath when the lights went out.

I lay soaking in the darkness until I realised it was no short term outage, then stumbled out, stubbed my toe on the dresser and slowly dripped to the bedroom door. Outside in the corridor I heard Izzy’s voice, then saw a glimmer of candle. “We’re coming to rescue you, Daddy”, she squeaked with excitement.

We couldn’t have left the new babysitter alone with Izzy: the house is a barn of a place even in daylight, but in the pitch black, with just a few candles and a torch for company, she’d have been petrified. Anyway the baby monitor wasn’t working, so we paid the girl off, opened a bottle of good wine, and decided to live as they did in the olden days. No lights, central heating or telephones; and certainly no television.

“I want Peppa Pig”, said Izzy. Clearly it was time for her first science lesson. I don’t know if you’ve tried to teach the concept of electricity to a two-year-old: it’s well nigh impossible.

“Electricity makes the television and lights go on, and the wind has blown down the wire that brings it from the…” My voice trailed as her eyes glazed over. “It died”, suggested Jo. Still no response.

So I tried: “the TV and lights need new batteries” and Izzy’s face it up. “Silly Daddy, put some more in straight away”, she commanded, and pulled me towards the battery drawer. I love the simplicity of a child’s logic. “We haven’t any: the wind blew them all away” seemed to satisfy her. That and a chocolate biscuit.

For a short while Jo and I sipped wine and stared at the blank TV. In some distant land a group of wannabes were trying to win the X-Factor. Later on, there’d be Match of the Day, which I’d set to record on Sky Plus. But the room, shimmering with a dozen candles, looked enchanting. Our house is 350 years old, and for most of its life, this was how its residents must have spent every evening. I threw another log on the fire.

“Let’s sing,” suggested Jo. So we did. And we told stories. Cinderella went to the football more than a dozen times and we acted all the parts in Goldilocks. Finally Izzy put her dolly to bed, gently explaining why it was dark: “Silly old Daddy ran out of batteries, so you have to go to sleep with a torch”. Meanwhile Jo and I cracked open the Boggle.

We have never enjoyed an evening as much. We picnicked on sandwiches, wine and chocolate milk and laughed together as a family. After two hours the 21st century pinged back. “Hurray,” shouted Izzy, “new batteries”.

Jo and I looked at each other. Some vacuous fake blonde was screaching on the X-Factor and the bright light exposed the crumbs on the sofa. So I switched everything off again. “Much better”, said Jo.

There are times when it’s good to step back. We spend so much of our harassed lives rushing along with whatever new technology brings us; sometimes it’s calming to escape to the past with just our loved ones for company. I hope we have more storms this winter.

Mind you, I confess I did eventually go to the football. Well, I saw the highlights on Match of the Day, anyway. After all, it’s not every day Newcastle draws with Manchester United. I’m sure it was a fairy godmother dressed as a linesman who gifted us that penalty, but we all love a happy ending, don’t we?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Royal Windbag and the White Elephants

[The Duke of Edinburgh has made a fierce attack on wind farms, describing them as “absolutely useless” - Sunday Telegraph 20th November 2011]

I never thought I’d see the day. They say that you get more reactionary when you get older. But agreeing with Prince Philip? Everyone knows he has the views of a 140-year-old. I thought I’d be safe for at least another decade.

Yesterday we all found out that he’s been sounding off about the iniquity of onshore wind farms to a man that’s trying to build them all over the UK, Esbjorn Wilmar, of Infinergy. Apparently the Duke told Mr Wilmar that wind turbines were “absolutely useless”. Spot on, your royal brain. From now on I’ll take what you say more seriously.

Mr Wilmar is Dutch, of course. Two thirds of the country’s windfarm manufacturers are based overseas. You and I are paying them to put these white elephants into our prettiest landscapes. Last year about £90 of your annual electricity bill went off in big cheques to these and other generators of renewable energy.

Nobody asked us: we just watch our electricity bills rise because we’re giving people like Mr Wilmar our £90 cheques, and they don’t even say thank you. Instead they build these monstrous objects across our most serene scenery.

Mr Wilmar doesn’t have any hills in his own country – it’s flat and dull as a Dutch pancake. You could cover the place with turbines and no one would mind. Instead he’s doing it here. His company is Infinergy, which is owned by KDE Energy, whose holding company is called Koop Group, whose owner is a man called Henk Koop, who, together with his pal Mr Boonstra, is retiring this year. These two old Dutchmen are cashing in and have put their windfarm empire up for sale. Personally, I think we should all claim a stake, we’re investing so much into it.

In 2009 Infinergy applied for planning permission for 17 turbines in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland (“the windiest country in Europe”, their website says; “a unique and unspoilt destination” says the landowner, the Cawdor Estate). Except that, lured by the huge windfall generated by our subsidies, the Cawdor Estate has conspired with Mr Wilmar’s company to bespoil a chunk of its own unspoilt destination.

The Highland Council quite sensibly turned them down flat. So, of course, they are appealing, and, as these things go, what with the government ultimately making the decision, it’ll probably go ahead. Europe says we have to build thousands of these things, so yet another bit of national heritage will be ruined forever.

Prince Philip is right: wind farms are “absolutely useless”. They contribute a pathetically tiny amount of power, they don’t work in winter (as we found out in 2010), they’re noisy, intrusive and worse than useless when the wind stops blowing (which in Northumberland is far more often than my Californian wife claims).

He also said that they’re a bad idea because they rely on subsidies. He’s right: without our cheques, Mr Wilmar would be out of a job. His machines wouldn’t make economic sense, for they’re expensive to build, costly to run, and don’t work at all for much of the year. In short, they’re useless and not a good idea at all.

The Duke could have added that they’re dangerous. There are some remarkable pieces of research coming to light about blades flying off and ending up in nearby walls and buildings. Ice throw is also a problem: great chunks of it flying hundreds of feet. Then there are the birds: in Germany 32 protected white tailed eagles were killed by turbines: our poor old golden eagles may as well give up.

Let’s be frank, we’re only doing this because the EEC is telling us to. Because we’re too timid to admit that the 2000 or so of these wind turbines we’ve already built at a cost of billions hasn’t matched a single Chinese coal-fired station. Too na├»ve to spot that the benefits aren’t remotely worth the outrageous subsidy. Too blind to see we could satisfy our energy needs by using other much more efficient green technology. Technology that would generate cleaner power, not royal rage.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Big Girl Bed

I have never seen my daughter’s face light up as it did on Saturday night. “I’ve a big girl bed,” she screamed, as she skipped round the house. She hugged the dogs till they winced, then wanted to ring Nana in America to tell her the news.

It’s a milestone. After two and a half years of imprisonment behind the bars of her cot, she is free. Izzy has grown up.

I reckoned the job would take half an hour. “You can quickly convert this cotbed at a later stage into a junior bed” it said in the brochure. I’m sure you can, if, during the two and a half years it has been a cot, you haven’t lost the junior bed bits.

Just after breakfast on Saturday, with Izzy excitedly telling the dogs, the postman and anyone who phoned us “Daddy’s making me a big girl bed”, I’d emptied every cupboard in the house until I finally found the side panels, which had been hiding beneath a mountain of heavy boxes. At least the assembly would be easy.

I had a cup of tea, then gingerly disassembled the bars. When Izzy saw the pieces on the floor she burst into tears. “Daddy’s broke my bed”, she wailed.

“Don’t worry, Iz, I just have to screw the new side panels on and you’ll have a new bed.” She went off happily to tell Truffle and Mabel. The three of them sat and waited.

It was then that I found the holes: just one in each corner and a little over a quarter of an inch wide. Unfortunately all the other holes had been exactly one quarter of an inch: the "little over" meant these holes needed different screws. And these ones needed to come in at right angles: no screwdriver on earth would be able to cope with that. So I did what I always do in moments of crisis: I rang my neighbour.

By coincidence, at that very moment he was freeing his own two-year-olds. They’d been waiting for this day for seven long months. The gate of the field was unlocked and my neighbour’s tupps were now free to enjoy their ewes. They were literally having a field day.

Why today? “It’s so we can have all our lambs born on precisely Saturday April 8th”, he explained.

I mused that this was probably the only certainty left in life, despite the world enjoying all sorts of new freedoms. With Italy clear of Berlusconi, and Libya released from Gaddafi’s tyranny, who knows what state we’ll all be in by Christmas, let alone April? At least this release has a certain outcome: in exactly 147 days’ time there’ll be the sound of baby lambs outside our house. I wondered if I’d get Izzy’s bed sorted by then.

My neighbour scratched his head. “You need a special screw thingy”, he said helpfully, anxious to get back to supervising his flock’s carnal activities. So out came toolboxes, top and bottom drawers, old biscuit tins, filing cabinets. But after two hours, no thingy appeared.

Three abortive trips to the hardware stores later, I decided to improvise. I purchased a shiny new wood chisel and a huge wooden mallet, and set about attacking the side panels. Vainly trying to remember a single woodwork lesson I’d been taught at school, soon there were shavings all over the floor.

“Daddy made a mess”, Izzy announced loudly. This was no overstatement. Her bedroom resembled a wood store. There were screws, drills, packets of new drill bits (another trip to the hardware store) and three tubes of wood glue. Eventually, with my generous neighbour’s resolicited help, I triumphed and, shortly after nightfall, I ceremoniously led Izzy upstairs to try out her new bed.

They say freedom comes at a price. In our case, that price is sleep. Without bars, Izzy now sees no reason to go to bed at all. She is convinced the full moon means it’s morning, and can run freely into our room at 3, 4 and 5am to tell us.

I’m tempted to put the bars back on. But I know there’s no going back on freedom. And anyway, life’s too short to try and find the bits.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Britain's Crazy Transport System: A Solution

[7 people died and over 50 injured in a 34 vehicle pile-up on the M5 on the 4th November.  A firework display was taking place nearby.]

On hearing news of Friday night’s terrible car crash in Somerset, I felt a shudder down my spine. Whatever the cause – the distraction of an over-charged firework, an “I can see through fog” maniac, an over-tired driver – the government is right to use this accident as an excuse for a proper look at our roads policy. Yet I guarantee that whatever hot air is spouted in the Commons this week, nothing will be done about the terrible state of our long-neglected transport infrastructure.

Now I know the following rant won’t be universally accepted, but I guarantee it’ll be popular. Indeed, if I were standing for parliament right now I’d be swept in on a landslide. For what I’m about to say makes common sense: and that’s one thing that successive governments have lacked for the last sixty years when it comes to Britain’s transport policy. That’s why we have the worst infrastructure in Europe, our trains the most expensive, our roads such an embarrassment. And that’s why crashes like Saturday’s will become ever more frequent.

I know that stretch of the M5 well: I used to own a cottage in South Devon. When I bought the house in 1983, the road was a smart new highway and I used it every weekend. It took less than four hours to get down from London on a Friday night. By the nineties, the journey time had reached seven hours or more, so I sold the house. It had become a journey from hell.

Our entire motorway network is far too small. Three lane motorways should have been abolished in the 90s, but they’re still considered a luxury – and far too grand for the North East. Up here in Newcastle, we’re supposed to make do with the pathetic two-lane A1(M) – no wonder the M is in brackets.

Driving to London is a lottery. It’s less than 300 miles, so you’d think at 70 miles an hour it should take just 4½ hours. Those who’ve done the journey recently will scoff: allow six or seven and you might just see the edge of Luton.

So what? say the soggy environmentalists. You should take the train. With what? An East Coast “Anytime” standard return now costs 48 pence a mile. By comparison, the diesel in my car costs me 13 pence a mile: it’s a no-brainer.

But I don’t take the car, because I have no idea how long the journey will take. Instead I search the internet for a cheaper advance purchase train ticket, which means the railway dictates my schedule, rather than the other way round. The train will likely be packed, because Britain’s passenger volume has rocketed by 41% in the last ten years, but capacity has increased by just 17%. Meanwhile this government has cancelled plans for sufficient new carriages to cope with demand.

There’s a simple solution. It’s so blindingly obvious, only a politician or a Department of Transport civil servant could fail to spot it. It’s tried and tested. And it works.

Scrap car duty. Yes, get rid of this pointless tax completely. Instead, make every motorway in the country a smart, wide toll road. It worked in France: it would work here. Where a motorway passes a city, make the outside lane a car-sharing lane, only for vehicles carrying passengers.

Start building right now, and watch our unemployment rate fall. Private finance will happily fund it, so it won’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Private operators will bid for the franchise to run them, thereby raising enough cash to fund an increase in train rolling stock capacity. At the same time, set a ceiling on all standard rail fares at 20 pence per mile. That will bring our prices in line with the rest of Europe, and the ongoing cost will be met by a levy on profits from the toll roads.

Overnight, gas-guzzling cars will be discouraged, people in rural communities who need their cars will have extra money in their pockets, the motorways will be wide, clear and safe, and train trips to London will be easy, quick, and cheap.

Job done. Can I count on your vote, then?