Friday, September 26, 2008

'ave some of that-a!

When Ian Dury found out he was dying, he didn't go down easily. He recorded a new album and toured and toured, belting it out.

He also got to do this short film. Yes, it's an ad for a newspaper, but they gave him the space to say anything he wanted. And as he was dying and wanted the cash to take care of his young kids, you can't begrudge him it at all.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

green party hydrogen response 2: darren johnson

The stuff about hydrogen vehicles is especially important to flag up in London. Not only did the city take part in the CUTE hydrogen bus trial, but Transport for London are testing a fleet of 70 hydrogen-powered vehicles starting next year.

TfL’s vehicles will be a mixture of buses, vans, cars and motorcycles that will be used by TfL staff, the police and the fire brigade... The five-year trial of both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines will cost around £22 million.

I sent my analysis to the Green members of the Greater London Authority, Darren Johnson (key issues include climate change) and Jenny Jones (sustainable transport).

After a month I did a reminder email prod, and shortly after received this

Many thanks for your letter, which you sent to both myself and my colleague Jenny Jones.

We agree with the emphasis on traffic reduction as the first priority. As the Green Transport Advisor to the previous mayor Jenny was pleased that London achieved zero growth in traffic, but was determined that we could actually reduce traffic and build on our reputation as the only major city in the world to switch people out of their cars and onto public transport. The planned expenditure of £500m on walking and cycling was due to be the next big step in making traffic reduction a reality.

We believe that London should use all the tools available in switching people to lower carbon transport. The programme of all new buses being hybrids by 2012 is something that we are pushing the new mayor to stick to. We continue to push for strict criteria to be applied to biofuels, so as to restrict their use in London.

We have supported the hydrogen partnership, despite being aware of the misgivings you raise and will state our reasons for doing so.
Hydrogen is a technology which is still in development. We are not convinced by the optimists within the green movement who see the switch to hydrogen as the big transition which will take place in the next five to ten years (it has been five to ten years away for the last twenty years).

However, we do accept that progress has been made and the technology has taken significant steps towards mainstream production. We are aware of the well to wheels analysis of the current hydrogen vehicles and are pushing for the London contracts to include the sourcing of hydrogen to come from renewable energy within the capital.

In the meantime the technology needs supporting through the transition period when it is being piloted and trialled. There are significant potential gains for the environment and whilst the current generation of vehicles are not the most environmentally friendly, that is more to do with our lack of renewable energy infrastructure, rather than the buses themselves.

Finally, we think that air pollution is one of the major problems facing Londoners and hydrogen vehicles have an immediate impact because they are non-polluting at the point of use. Given that London is going to fail its 2008 target for PM10 and its 2010 target for NO2, anything which reduces these emissions has to be seriously considered.

CC: Jenny Jones

To which I replied:

Thankyou for your letter of 19 July replying to my letter regarding hydrogen buses. Please forgive the academic overtones of using footnotes in this letter but, as I’ve no doubt you personally know, in the area of green ideas you hear many surprising assertions and often they are without basis.

Hydrogen as a vehicle fuel has indeed ‘taken significant steps toward mainstream production’. Mainstream production is not a reason to support it if it can’t deliver sustainability. When a new idea is advancing and about to expand, that is precisely the time to consider it most carefully. Any earlier and it may never happen, any later it’ll be trying to get the genie back in the bottle.

You, personally, are in a position to influence this one way or the other. So there is a great responsibility to be sure of what you’re advocating. As CUTE’s own studies show it’s a massive increase in carbon emissions(1), you have every reason to oppose it.

Making hydrogen from a green electricity tariff causes the same emissions as if it were made from grid electricity. If we start powering our vehicles from the electricity grid, it adds to overall demand for electricity; taking the renewable electricity for hydrogen production means the same amount of electricity being generated from fossils generation elsewhere, so the extra emissions should be attributed to the new demand from hydrogen.

As an analogy, imagine if you went home tonight to find there were a hundred new cars parked on your street. The drivers of the new cars got there first and took the spaces, making the usual cars have to overcrowd other places and park illegally. The new drivers could claim that they were taking the sensible legal spaces, but we would all know it is they who are creating the problem.

Hydrogen only becomes effectively renewable if the whole grid is powered by renewables. Until then, it causes more fossils to be burned and should be counted as such. Not to do so is as disingenuous as the hydrogen manufacturers who claim it has no climate impact because the CO2 was released at the production plant.
Making hydrogen from electrolysis from the grid, as the analysis I previously sent to you showed, has around ten times the carbon emissions of a diesel bus. If someone came to the GLA with a proposal for a low exhaust-emission, tenfold carbon-emission bus that has twice the resource impact to manufacture than a normal bus, what would you say?

It could, as you suggest, be made by electrolysis using new dedicated renewable infrastructure. Even then, hydrogen makes no sense. We take electricity, convert it to hydrogen, then convert that back into electricity to power the bus. The hydrogen is, in effect, just a very inefficient battery. Making hydrogen by electrolysis takes colossal amounts of electricity. It’s only 30% efficient, less than half the rating of any other method(2).There are far more efficient batteries available.

Fuel cell vehicles that operate on hydrogen made with electrolysis consume four times as much electricity per mile as similarly-sized battery electric vehicles(3).
Using electric vehicles would mean a quarter of that dedicated renewable generation infrastructure would be required. That would mean it would be 100% renewable a lot sooner, and a lot less money and resources to invest in the meantime, and it could not be used as an excuse for the fossil fuel companies to promote high-carbon hydrogen.

It’s hard to see how it could ever be cost effective to make hydrogen from electrolysis. It’s such a wasteful process that powering the UK’s vehicles with electrolysis hydrogen would take more electricity than we presently use for everything else combined(4). The concept is being dangled as a reason to push on with hydrogen by the companies selling fossil-derived high carbon hydrogen, such as BP and Shell.

Not only would you need a lot more renewable electricity capacity for hydrogen, but the fuel cells themselves have relatively short lives. The average for a bus in the CUTE trial was 2,300 hours, which is around the limit of a fuel-cell’s life(5). These expensive bits of kit will need replacing on every bus about once a year.

Beyond this, I stress again that the upcoming TfL trial’s use of hydrogen as a combustion fuel is even worse; a lot more hydrogen used, and as it’s usually stored as a liquid there’s far greater energy use in manufacture (liquefying it and keeping it liquid until the point of use takes about half the energy it contains(6)).
As far as I know, there’s not a single study that says liquefied hydrogen is more efficient than fuel-cells; everything I can find says it’s far worse.

Additionally, the reports of BMW’s hydrogen combustion car said that whilst it does have greatly reduced exhaust emissions compared to a petrol or diesel, nonetheless it does emit some nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, so it was not actually zero-emission(7). I presume that also applies to other hydrogen combustion vehicles.
I share your concern for local air quality. However, surely reducing such emissions shouldn’t take precedence over concern for the climate impact, especially if that impact is many times worse than diesel, and much lower carbon zero-emission options are available.

Climate science demands that carbon emissions start to decline within the next decade or so. Instigating a plan that will actually increase emissions at this crucial time, that will require far more energy consumption and infrastructure than lower-carbon options on the table - how can that be the best use of financial resources, let alone be considered sustainable or green?

London should be looking for sustainable and effective solutions. The hydrogen bus could only eventually meet that by costing a huge amount of money and profligate waste of electricity.

Surely, among the real solutions, London should be looking for the cheapest and most efficient. That can never be hydrogen.

CC: Jenny Jones AM

1- CUTE, Project No.NNE5-2000-00113 Deliverable No.8 Final Report, 30 May 2006, p60, Fig 5-17.

2- US National Academy of Engineering, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs (2004), p39

3- Alec Brooks, CARB's Fuel Cell Detour on the Road to Zero Emission Vehicles, Electric Vehicle World, 7 May 2004
4- Decarbonising the UK – Energy for a Climate Conscious Future, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 2005, p74
5- Dr Sukhvinder Badwal, Fuel cells, Science on the way to the hydrogen economy, Australian Academy of Science, 5 May 2006
6- US National Academy of Engineering, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs (2004), p38 30-40% for liquefaction, around another 10% maintaining refrigeration until point of use.
7- Bruce Gain, Road Testing BMW's Hydrogen 7, Wired, 13 Nov 2006

That snail mail letter crossed in the post with an email from Darren Johnson:

Many thanks for this. We will be doing more work in this area in the

Cllr. Darren Johnson AM

There's been no response to my letter. I'm guessing that's it.

I want to be optimistic about what 'work in this area' means.

I want to believe it means that he's not just taking my word for it but is checking his sources, and if his investigations show my analysis to be broadly correct the Greens will reverse their position and speak out against hydrogen vehicles.

I want to believe it means he's seen through the great hydrogen decoy, namely that although it's a huge emitter now it could one day be made from water using renewable electricity.

That idea is like the 'capture ready' promise that's making people swallow new coal-fired power stations. It means higher emissions now on the promise of the possibility (without any binding obligation) that there could be lower emissions later.

Hydrogen from water has the advantage of actually existing, but the idea still swiftly falls apart. It would be just a way of storing electricity; a grossly inefficient way that can't compete with batteries that already exist, so why are we considering it?

The answer lies in the dividends for those who dangle the dazzling decoy, those who make the fossil hydrogen we use today and will continue to use for as long as it's more profitable than electrolysis. Which, factoring in manufacture from coal, is likely to be centuries to come.

I want to believe Darren Johnson's followed the logic and that, moving as slowly as a party's policy must do, is stirring something of a turnaround in the Greens' position on hydrogen.

Like agrofuels, hydrogen is the wrong answer because it asks the wrong question. It's saying 'how do we keep our vehicles on the road whilst maintaining the profits of the established oil companies?' rather than 'how do we live within sustainable emissions limits?'.

As with agrofuels, it's a climate 'solution' that actually causes greater emissions than burning oil. There can be no credible Green position other than opposition to hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

we deserve no mercy

New Kids On The Block started their reunion tour today.

Homo sapiens has earned its extinction.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

muppet music

Over on my MP3 blog I recently posted a Stevie Wonder track, and embedded the Youtube video of a mindblowing 6 minute version of Superstition that Stevie did on Sesame Street.

That sent me off on a bit of a Youtube trawl. I mean, if they can have straightforward funk heaven, what else did Sesame Street and the Muppets have? Not in terms of celebrity guests, but in terms of really good music.

The glowing gem is REM doing Shiny Happy People, with the lyrics altered to Furry Happy Monsters, sung by Stipe as he grins and bounces in simplistic kindergarten fashion.

Here's Alice Cooper doing - somewhat confusingly for a show with an explicitly educational brief - School's Out.

How about Scarborough Fair being done by that talented duo Simon and, er, Piggy?

Then Simon was back, serenading some muppets with a straight rendition of Long Long Day from One Trick Pony.

The muppets also played the man's material without him, doing a 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Which is nowhere as unlikely as their straight covers of For What It's Worth or While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Miss Piggy had other singing partners. Here she is doing Jackson with Johnny Cash!

Cash seems to have taken up residence on Sesame Street. He was there again in 1992, with - kinnell! - Big Bird and The Count miming to his vocal.

Cooler still, in this one there's not only Johnny doing duets with a muppets, and there's a cartoon of Johnny too.

There's surely a proper DVD to be done.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

not my favourite albums

There's a game that's good for passing long journeys called oojah-ratha. You name two people and say which one you'd rather have sex with.

It works best at extremes, which of the sexiest you'd turn down or which of the most repulsive you'd least like to shag. You can retain the discounted option for the next round, and you eventually end up with someone's least fanciable person on earth. For nearly everyone, it's Margaret Thatcher.

I mean, Paul Daniels or Margaret Thatcher? See?

Anyway, the real enjoyment of the game isn't to see the choices but to hear the explanations and argue the toss about it (so to speak).

So it was really really boring to find myself on a coach journey sat in front of some lads playing oojah-ratha just naming girls they knew and only choosing a name. No explanation, no inquiries, nothing.

It seems to me that blog memes operate on the same sort of principle as oojah-ratha. When you're asked to name seven tunes that are really doing it for you right now, you want to be told a little bit about what and why.

There was one going round recently where you name a favourite album for every year of your life (here's one or two people who did it).

Thing is, nobody's going to write 20 or 40 or whatever little explanations, so it comes out as little more than a list, and as such is kind of like those lads on the coach.

Like every other blogger, I love chestbeating about my opinions and have the requisite quasi-autism that makes me order it into words and write it down even though nobody might read it.

That's what's great about blogging, the pinballing around someone else's mind. A straight list of album titles doesn't really let you in very far. So I'm not going to do that meme.

Also, I'm not sure I'm that qualified anyway. I’ve bought less and less new music in the last ten years so my choices after about 2000 would be somewhat forced and ill-informed.

Not that I’m being one of those nostalgia tossers who thinks all modern music is crap compared to when they were young. If anything, I’d guess the opposite is true; it’s got easier and cheaper to make music, so in all likelihood there’s more great music being made now than ever before. But I no longer find myself frequently spending hours on end sitting listening to music as a sole activity in itself.

More of an issue is the fact that most of what I do get is old stuff. Way the majority of music I’ve discovered in the last couple of years is older than I am. I strongly suspect we could go the rest of our lives discovering great black American music of the 60s and 70s and still not properly scratch the surface.

And it's not just the lack of explanation in the meme either, it's the way it only picks a top album for each year. Oh look, everyone loves OK Computer. Again.

I think it'd be more interesting to, say, pick your favourite four-star albums. Something flawed but that's nonetheless really got something to it. You'd get told about something that's gone under your radar, you'd learn something new.

For instance, for 1992 I, like most people with ears, would go for Automatic For The People as my top album. But ask me for a four-star and we'd be on to Leonard Cohen's The Future, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy's Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury, Julian Cope's occult epic Jehovahkill or All About Eve's Ultraviolet.

That last one scares people cos they think it'll be whimsical goth folk like the other All About Eve stuff, but it's not. It's a huge textural brooding eerie beast, great washes of guitars, sometimes bright sometimes glowering, always ethereal.

They toured it with 60s style blobby oil projections and encored with a cover of See Emily Play! It sold fuck all (too different for the fans, nobody else taking any notice cos it was All About Eve) so their record label dropped them immediately and it hasn't been reissued to this day.

My big album for 1985 would be Psychocandy, but the four star would probably be Strawberry Switchblade's eponymous album. Often dismissed as frothy one-hit wonders, there's a strong darkness in their mix, a delicate angelic richly morbid undertow that counterpoints the harmonies and shiny pop perfectly. The luscious melancholy sweep of Being Cold is just gorgeous.

Or maybe I'd go for The Style Council's Our Favourite Shop. They get written off as faux-jazz, but there was actually a lot of guts and diversity in the early Style Council stuff. But more importantly, on this album Paul Weller hit a lyrical clarity that he never matched before or since. It's powerfully and unashamedly political (it was, after all, written during the miners strike). Try the chilling A Stones Throw Away and tell me it's all jazzy affectation.

See, I'm already off. The 'one per year for your whole life' thing is too much to ask to someone to write or read, but still, I think there's the germ of a good idea there. Perhaps it's to pick a year and reel off, say, five albums for it. Hmmm.

Thinking about it, loads of these memes come as lists of five or seven, and I think there's wisdom in that. It's enough to really get stuck into a topic without over-running, and with that many there's bound to be summat that you weren't expecting and/or haven't heard of before.

I note that the year I picked at random is the year I left school. I suppose it's not surprising that, in a teenage intensity of focus, I've got some albums that the sharper, more knowledgable and more dismissive music lovers of the time would've passed on.

Yes, after all that meander, I think that's it. Give us five albums from the year you left school. Not necessarily the five 'greatest', but five that really do it for you.

I've already done Our Favourite Shop and Strawberry Switchblade.

Psychocandy - The Jesus & Mary Chain
Out of nowhere, this canyon of noise, big pop chords and oceans of feedback, like playing a Ronettes single on 33rpm over a PA turned up to 11 in a church hall with you listening to it from three streets away. Amid the upsurge of 80s big hair, teeth whitener and attendant superficiality, having the Mary Chain's slouchy miserable ragged noise, clearly coming from a deep passion for music not stardom, was the antidote. The one proper go I had at being in a band began with me playing You Trip Me Up to the man who'd become our singer and saying 'there needs to be more records like this'.

Heyday - The Church
As long as I can hear music I will listen to the Church. The gift of finely crafted intelligent guitar tunes is a great thing to exercise, but they're so much more. On this album a deep lusciousness comes into their sound, Steve Kilbey's voice matures into the aching opiate marvel it has continued to be. Such pace, grace, and mystery, yet so clear and accessible.

Prince - Around The World In A Day
Less than a year after the release of Purple Rain, as that album was still calving hit singles, this album came out. No singles in advance, no adverts of any kind, it was just there. Recorded as recreation from the rehearsals for the Purple Rain tour it's playful, experimental, wide-eyed and yet also very intimate and confessional, being simultaneously the poppiest stuff he'd ever done up to that point yet also the weirdest. The Purple Rain stuff was catchy and rolled over musical boundaries like so much thin air. This album, though, was not only unlike what you expected to come next but unlike anything you'd ever heard. It is a great tingly pretty swirl, and a real declaration of genius.

I've surprised myself by picking quite a mainstream and poppy list there. that's another problem with doing favourites lists, you can't help but disagree with yourself pretty much immediately. I certainly wouldn't want to assert that all five of those 1985ers are objectively better than First And Last And Always or Head On The Door.

Tag time:
Five blogs I'm asking: five albums you love dearly from the year you left school, please.
Alice In Blogland
Panadola Diction
The Quiet Road
and one who's usually just politics but is clearly too interesting not to branch out into other areas, A Daisy Through Concrete.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

mixed abilities

The paralympics includes numerous sports at which it would be unfair to pit non-disabled athletes against paralympians. Running's a lot harder without legs.

But if the olympic movement really believes in all that 'uniting the people of the world' stuff then why don't they have a mixed paralympic/olympic games?

Wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair racing; all these would be equally good for able-bodied people. Even blind football, given that the players wear eyemasks, could be open to sighted people.

Target shooting, as I've already made clear, isn't a sport. But if it were then why couldn't it also be a mixed sport? In what way does being in a wheelchair make any odds to your performance? That's not a paralympian achievement, that's just the same shooting but sitting down.

Sure, it'd be unfair to pit blind footballers against the sighted ones, but then the olympics already distinguishes between people on grounds on grounds of physical ability in having separate versions of the same event for men and women.

Athletes with disabilites could be included in the olympics, but aren't. That being so, an argument could be made that the discrete paralympics actually encourages an attitude of separating people with disabilities from the rest of society.

Rather than have two games for paralympians and olympians, let's have just one games, all performance-enhancing substances allowed and even encouraged, then we'd get to the purpose of the Games: see all the world focused as one on what human athleticism can really be.

[NOTE: I can't tell to what degree I'm serious about any of this.]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

threat prioritisation

Tom Toles cartoon

[Cartoon by Tom Toles, then of Buffalo News, now with the Washington Post]

Sunday, September 07, 2008

green party hydrogen response 1: caroline lucas

Given that my analysis of hydrogen buses concerned London and EU policy, I sent copies to the UK's Green MEPs (Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas), and to the Green members of the London Assembly (Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones).

The thing about dealing with politicians is that you rarely get to have a proper debate. On TV or radio news - as the politician well knows - there's only a short time given and no matter what's said, once time's up they'll not be questioned any further. So, if they repeat themselves or say something that doesn't answer the question, there's often no opportunity to point that out and elicit a real answer, let alone move the debate beyond that one point.

By the same token, you know when you are writing to a politician that after a couple of exchanges they'll stop writing. So, again, all they have to do is ignore a part of what's put to them and they're never held to account, let alone forced to face the consequences of holding an opinion that can be proven wrong.

You'd hope with the Greens that they are motivated from genuine concern and so would respond differently. Let's see.

If I were a Green politician and someone came to me claiming that a technology I supported actually led to a vast increase in carbon emissions at excessive financial cost, my first thought would be to check their sources. In green politics people make all kind of wild claims and counterclaims about saviour technologies. But were the claims found to have basis, I'd speak out.

Carline Lucas' office replied to me:

Thank you for your email, which Caroline has asked me to respond to on her behalf. I am sure that Jean Lambert's team and the London Assembly Members will look closely at your findings and those of CUTE.

Caroline supports Green Party policy, which is cautious about hydrogen fuel and notes that CO2 emissions from production need to be considered. See

At European level, the Greens have also adopted an approach that stresses the need to take production into account – see

A Green sponsored written declaration is now Parliamentary policy and this advocates the use of hydrogen to store renewable energy – see - as part of a coherent programme that prioritises demand reduction and energy efficiency.

Once these objectives have genuinely been given centre stage, there is still a need to replace fossil fuels in our transport system with sustainable alternatives. Caroline agrees that this will require full life cycle analysis of hydrogen, in all its manifestations, alongside biodiesel, agrofuels, electricity and other options, to ensure that we do favour those fuels that can best deliver low carbon emissions and other benefits. The European Commission’s policy on agrofuel targets, for example, as well as on hydrogen fails to take proper account of this need, so Caroline and her Green colleagues are working hard to amend the relevant legislative proposals.

Thank you for taking the time to write to Caroline and you will appreciate, I am sure, that she is not in a position to influence whether or not the next phase of the hydrogen bus trials in London go ahead.

To which I said

I'm grateful for the links to Greens position on hydrogen, but worried by elements of that position.

Caroline supports Green Party policy, which is cautious about hydrogen fuel and notes that CO2 emissions from production need to be considered. See

That document says using hydrogen 'is sustainable as long as the electricity generation itself is sustainable'.

This, as the document I originally sent says, isn't strictly true. We power our vehicles from oil. If we start powering them from electricity, we add to the overall electricity demand. If our renewables are used to make hydrogen, then the shortfall will be made up elsewhere by the burning of fossils.

Hydrogen only becomes genuinely renewable once the whole grid is renewable.

Worse, hydrogen from electricity is tremendously inefficient; why not use a straightforward battery? The answer is that hydrogen is being hyped by people who are pushing for its primary power source to be coal or gas.

At European level, the Greens have also adopted an approach that stresses the need to take production into account - see

It's perceptive of the Greens to realise that hydrogen is being pushed by the coal and nuclear lobby. However, that document says;

"Research and development in the hydrogen sector is important but should be concentrated on comparative system analysis, renewable energy based technology development and a clear prioritising of steam reforming systems that promise the highest overall efficiency."

'Steam reforming' means making it from natural gas which, as the figures I sent you show, has around *four times* the emissions of a diesel bus. Why are the Greens favouring such a massive emissions increase?

And, as I said earlier, the demand for using renewable electricity is merely displacing emissions and effectively leads to the same emissions as if it were taken from grid electricity.

Green sponsored written declaration is now Parliamentary policy and this advocates the use of hydrogen to store renewable energy - see

What that proposes is using electricity to make hydrogen which is later used to generate electricity in a fuel-cell. The hydrogen is therefore just a battery.

For the stationary uses such as powering a building, there may well be some benefit as the heat generated in a fuel cell can be used. But for transport, this heat is wasted and as such means it is enormously inefficient. There are far more efficient batteries available.

Presuming that the grid will not be powered from 100% renewable sources, advocating inefficient devices is advocating the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels. As hydrogen is grossly inefficient, it can only be seen as an increaser of emissions.

I'd be interested to hear any defence of the Green statements I've discussed, or else what new statement might be made to retract them.
To which Caroline Lucas' office said:

Thank you for your further comments. Green Party policy is determined by members at conference and European policy in a similar way by the European Green Party and MEPs. Caroline is far from an expert on energy issues - she tends to work on trade, environment, climate, animal rights and peace as her main priorities - so is not best placed to respond to your questions/points in detail.

If you would like to bring your comments to the attention of Policy Committee, who coordinate the policy making process nationally, you can contact Brian Heatley.

At European level, the lead MEP on the Industry, Research and Energy Committee is from Luxembourg and his name is Claude Turmes.

I trust that one or both of these contacts will be able to answer your enquiry in greater detail.

There we have it; no response to the points in my replies which were, in themselves, restatements of points made in my original analysis.

If I'm not fobbed off with 'yes we're concerned' then they tell me it's all too technical for a mere amateur like Caroline to understand. As if I'm some global expert, as if the nice little coloured graphs in CUTE's own brochures are too difficult to understand.

It's an energy issue and so not really to do with Caroline, nothing that is of concern to an MEP who claims to have, 'challenged policymakers to put environmental sustainability at the heart of legislation' and that her work as an MP includes, 'tackling climate change', and also transport.

I wrote back
thanks for your further advice, I'll certainly write to the people you suggest.

One thing, though; you say Caroline's main work includes climate. As you surely appreciate, climate and energy are very much overlapping issues. My interest in the hydrogen thing comes from a climate change perspective.

The CUTE trial's own report spells out in simple graphics that they have a far worse climate impact than diesel buses. This really isn't an expert thing, and anyone interested in the European Union's response to climate change should have a strong feeling against hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.

I'm no expert either, so I'm sure my analysis is easily comprehensible to Caroline or anyone else.

There has been no reply and I presume that's it.

I'll publish the exchanges with the other Greens here. I want to give these people the opportunity to consider everything in their own time, so (as I've done with Caroline Lucas) I'll only publish exchanges of correspondence once they're finished.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

new offset opportunities

When Miroslav Ouzky MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament's Environment Committee, admitted he hadn't offset his flight to the climate change talks in Bali, it caused a flutter of minor outrage at his hypocrisy, as if offsetting was self-evidently right.

As I've said elsewhere

Imagine if I ran a factory tipping loads of toxic waste into the river out the back.

Instead of stopping it, I just carry on selling my products and charge you a premium which I then pay to someone else on the other side of the world to stop them tipping a little toxic sludge into their local river.

I would not do anything to abate the poisoning of my river. In fact, as more people bought from me because of my wonderful offsetting practices, my factory’s production and the resulting dumping of toxic waste would increase.

Would such offsetting salve your conscience? Or should you stop buying from me and try to have me imprisoned?

But even as the decoy industries like biofuels and offsetting try to take hold, they are being knocked down. A UK government survey finds that a majority of people agree that carbon offsetting encourages people to carry on doing things that harm the environment.

As they get disillusioned with carbon offsets, perhaps people might want to try other projects instead. The good people at Cheat Neutral explain

When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere.

Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.

Coca-Cola have a well documented record for killing trade union activists at their plants in Colombia.

To remedy this situation, they're offering customers the chance to pay an optional 1p on a can of Coke. They'll keep on killing Colombian trade unionists, but the funds will be donated to trade union projects in countries where encouraging trade union activity isn't so important, so you can drink Coke and have a clear conscience.

Monday, September 01, 2008

literary valium

There's a blog meme been going round recently, listing the all-time top 100 books from some fucking poll or other, and you put whether you've read them or not.

Over at The Quiet Road, Jim's response to the meme kicked off a good lively exchange about what constitutes worthwhile literature, and it ties in with something I'd been thinking about for a while.

When you’re ill and have to take some time off, people think it must be great because they imagine what they would do with some time off. Ooh, you could plough through that big pile of unread books and CDs.

This perspective fails to take into account the fact that, being ill, you’re dimmed and deflated. You can’t concentrate enough on the depths of great music, can’t handle the challenge of great literature.

So when I was ill recently I read Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle (preceded by re-reading the book it’s a sequel to, The Rotters' Club), and Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good. There was something very similar about them, not so much in their styles or subjects, but in what they’re about, their essential purpose.

There is certainly a place for Nick Hornby novels. Physically, that place is police cell. An engaging enough story humanely told, but not too deep or difficult, an unthreatening affirmation of an intelligent tender heart.

It’s more than being a device for the suppression of time, mind. With most of Hornby and Jonathan Coe, they write warmly, their books don't often have much stylistic flair but they are an honest window into an articulate and genuinely good person. There’s a bolstering sense of kinship, a sort of solidarity of the humane, that comes from reading them. Which is just what you need in adversity, be it the sick bed or the police cell.

It serves a good and necessary function, it's just nobody should confuse it with great writing. And that’s the danger, that it lowers the standards of its readers.

William Burroughs once said that good books tend to make bad movies, and vice versa. So with Nick Hornby you get OK books making OK movies.

Hugh Grant plays the lead in the movie of Hornby’s About A Boy, and it’s so fitting. His novels are the print equivalent of a Hugh Grant movie. And whilst they’re alright if you surf into them when you can’t sleep, nobody should be thinking Hugh Grant movies are great, or ever buying copies of them.

If it’s the job of the artist to get to great truth, then by far the best of Hornby’s writing I know of is in 31 Songs. Like Louis de Bernières it's clear that for all he loves writing, music is Hornby's greater love.

In 31 Songs he’s not chewing his pencil trying to come up with a story but articulating what makes music work. His focus seems less about the writing and more about the music - a medium he freely admits to not just loving but being in awe of - so there’s no hint of clever-cleverness. Anyone who loves popular music should read it. By a very big margin, it’s the best music writing I’ve ever read.

For Coe, the great truth I've found in his work is from something even more humiliating than a non-fiction piece, it’s something he wrote about someone else’s book. In his Sunday Times review of The Acid House by Irvine Welsh he said

The Acid House reminded me, among other things, that what we often put down to brilliance in the work of some writers is, in fact, nothing more than the pleasant shock of our own recognition. It’s only when a book foregoes that easy option, choosing instead to stake out a territory that most of its readers will find alien and unwelcoming, that it really puts itself to the test: and this is where Welsh emerges triumphant.

I can’t help seeing some self-criticism in that. He can certainly write good stuff - the masterful gnashing satire of What A Carve Up! is just magnificent - but when Coe's outside of the whodunnit or political bits of his books he feels laboured and forced. He so transparently writes about his own life in Rotters' Club and Closed Circle, and really overreaches himself in trying to blend his personal history with a good story and political rant.

Not that he shouldn’t include these things – you’ve got to draw on what you know, he writes a very clever whodunnit, and I especially love the real passion you can feel underlying his political elements that bursts through at the slightest opportunity. (One time when How To Get Ahead In Advertising was on TV a listings mag gave it a two-star review saying it was ‘a relentless political rant against advertising dressed up as a fictional plot’. I’d give it four stars for precisely the same reason).

There’s certainly a need to retain our political memory, in these globalisation times it’s crucial to remember that we’re not alone in our certainty that the freemarket regime makes the majority suffer and takes us in the wrong direction, and that it really wasn’t like this until recently. His evocative setting of the late 70s does good work, and as more people read novels than non-fiction, there’s a need to do the work there to weave these things into the fabric of the cultural memory.

But fuck me, there’s no need to take two long books about it. You can feel his desperation, that he’s bitten off massively more than is chewable and doesn’t know where to go, when all but admits it in the text. He has the main character complain that his 20 year magnum opus to redefine the novel by combining the personal and the political is stalled and won't work.

He - as he surely knows - is basically just creating something that will give the modern compassionate person that sense of recognition that he slighted in his review of The Acid House. As with Hornby, his writing feels comforting by virtue of what is familiar in it, it's a sort of literary equivalent of Noel Gallagher's songwriting.

I mentioned all this to someone who worked in a big bookshop and she said

I think Coe is vastly superior to Hornby, but yes I agree. It used to irritate the fuck out of me how well Hornby sold. I used to want to baa at each slackjawed idiot that came up to the desk with one of his books. Literary valium. I can’t understand why people don’t want books to take them to the stars. Lazy and complacent and unforgivable in the long term. Oops, am I being a bit militant?

I don’t think she is, no. For me to say 'a sense of kinship in troubled times' or her to say 'literary valium' is pretty much a you-say-potato thing. (By the way, nobody does actually say pot-ar-to, do they?).

Mark Knopfler once said that if Brothers In Arms had sold 50,000 copies then we’d think of it as an intelligent and thoughtful guitar album, but instead it sold squillions and became like cornflakes, something you see everywhere but are not emotionally provoked by.

He’s right, but more than that is the fact that because of those megasales Dire Straits came to symbolise something, a smugness of mind of people listening to safe music thinking it was deep, and/or people having a then newly invented CD player as a status symbol. Our rightful opprobrium was reflected back on to Dire Straits themselves and their work.

Similar things happened with U2. The advent of their overhype – Rattle and Hum carrier bags, people – made people want to underhype in response.

Don McLean's American Pie is a wry and beautiful album, but its ubiquity has made it have some other meaning, and no matter what a ubiquitous artist intends we will tend to regard their work as something akin to McDonalds.

Plus, in pop music above all other art forms, we're overwhelmed by hyped unworthies, and this makes us think anything that ever makes a big splash is just another Bros.

The balance is different with literature. Hype can readily sell bad music and movies whereas word of mouth is by far the strongest seller of books. This isn't a monetary consideration on the part of the punters - CDs often cost more than books, after all - it's a time thing. If you're going to spend so long reading a book you want to be confident it'll be worth the effort. Thus the 'hyped' writers are more likely to be something genuinely popular and so more likely to be of some genuine worth.

So I think there's a little popularity backlash in my bookseller rating Hornby so far below Coe, and that if the two authors reversed their sales figures they would, in the process, reverse her prejudices, as she conceded.

There’s definitely truth in the Dire Straits theory. I’m exasperated by what Hornby represents to me, more than by his writing. But honest to god, if you’d spent the best part of ten years trying to champion cool and amazing books and instead having people stare past you to the bestseller bay so they can read what everyone else is reading, well…

There's something that makes me more forgiving with Hornby novelists than Gallagher songwriters or equivalent movie makers, though.

It's easier to do something more challenging (and thereby come up with something mind expanding and that takes people to the stars) in music or movies. Therefore there's less of an excuse for an artist not doing so.

Messing with the formula is easier to swallow in music or a movie, primarily because reading a book takes so long. You're ready to be challenged by art for a few minutes or even a couple of hours. But not only does it take many hours to read a book, you do it over a period of days or weeks; so you're in its mental space from when you start reading the book when you've finished it. To be fully engaged and profoundly open for so long is a lot to ask of people.

And being radically challenged in many common reading environments - on a train or in bed as you're winding down - is going to be unsettling in all the wrong ways. Of course we reach for the literary valium in circumstances where many would reach for the real pharmaceutical thing.

I remember reading James Joyce's A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man and being utterly astonished at how he used adult vocabulary to articulate the thought processes of a child's mind and make it feel like it was the child speaking. Utterly magical, real genius. But still, a bit of a slog as a book. And that's one of his 'earlier funnier' books. As for Ulysses, it must be the only book above Catch 22 in the 'people start it but don't finish it' list.

But being taken to the stars doesn't necessarily have to be challenging in the wincing, arduous, wading through treacle sense. Kurt Vonnegut could do big grand ideas, peculiar structures and a window on a humane spirit, yet with such readability that a fairly intelligent 12 year old could dig it.

Jonathan Coe is conscious of a duty to say something socially meaningful, and that's all to the good. Also, he has a consistently elegant style. Opening The Rotters' Club at random right now, try this for use of language - 'she was referring to Mr Fletcher's crushingly lacklustre production of The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson, which had reduced successive audiences of doting parents to a state of glassy-eyed catatonia for three nights in a row shortly before Christmas'.

Plus, he can push the boat out with a stylistic trick or two (the last 45 pages are a single sentence, and it works).

But still, there's something not here - something that burns, something that overpowers and immerses. At the end of the day, despite the benevolence the recognition factor makes me feel for them as people, what he and Hornby do still somehow shortchanges us. Again, think Noel Gallagher.

What they might put a drop of on your tongue, Jon McGregor firehoses you to the wall with. Jeanette Winterson gives you gills and drops you into an endless ocean of it.

We all need a valium or a nightcap every now and again, but they shouldn't be staple foods. Once in a while we all find ourselves in a cell or a sickbed and want comfort, but you can't live your whole life there.