Thursday, 20 February 2020


Cars. Yes, cars. Couldn't be without 'em, I know. But God, could we do without a lungful of their exhaust gases!

The The Royal College of Physicians estimate that in the UK alone 40,000 deaths a year are directly linked to air pollution, with engine idling as a major contributing factor. The Head of the World Health Organisation has identified air pollution as one of the most pernicious threats facing the planet, a threat linked to the deaths of 600,000 children annually worldwide. More than 90% of our children breathe poor-quality air, apparently.

And if it doesn't choke you, it can choke off your brain power. Studies linking the negative effects of car exhaust fumes on the cognitive abilities of children are well known. And yet, outside schools up and down the county, this is happening.

These cars aren't parked. They're queuing for a place to park outside their children's school. But as they queue, their engines belch out toxic gas on those of us walking on the pavement. But worse! Once they get there, to the school, and park then this is what can happen:

A car, parked (badly) and unoccupied, with the engine left running.

It's enough to make you want to travel in the safety of your own car, except...

The detrimental effect this must have on air-quality around the school is obvious. There are statutory powers to stop this sort of thing although you've got to overcome the inertia of the local borough council (whose statutory duty it is under Part IV of the Environment Act 1995 to monitor and control air quality) in order to get anywhere.

Oh, and don't try writing to your local councillor(s) either. I did. Last April, to both the ward rep and the leader and I've yet to hear a dickie-bird back. Mind you, the poor dickie-birds are as badly off in all this as pedestrians and cyclists. I did mention the fact that I'd heard nothing to my local MP. And I heard nothing, until very recently when an apologetic email arrived saying my letter had got overlooked in the fight for votes.

And there are clearly no votes in getting motorists to cut their engines.

Thankfully someone IS doing something, although it'll cost your child's school £60 out of their ever-diminishing budget. The RAC has commissioned this banner as part of its campaign for cleaner air.

You can get one by clicking this link:

Or you could just invest in a stock of face masks and underwater breathing apparatus...

Friday, 7 February 2020

Reading matter

As my New Year's Resolution has (again) involved reading more books I thought I'd share my thoughts about those (few) that I've so far completed.

First was a wonderful return visit to a truly wonderful book, Modern Nature, by Derek Jarman. I think what appealed to me most about this book when I first read it was that it was so unexpected. I knew Jarman as a somewhat iconoclastic film director and gay rights campaigner. I remember catching a glimpse of Prospect Cottage, the famous fisherman's hut he lived in, when we visited Dungeness a couple of year's ago. There's now a campaign to save it, preserve it, open it up to the public. British costume designer Sandy Powell even wore a plain white suit to the BAFTAs last weekend in order to collect autographs on her clothing which she hopes to auction in aid of the campaign. The book itself is wonderfully lyrical - part peaen to the beauty of otherwise unloved places and part memoir of a remarkable artistic life cut tragically short.

Prospect Cottage, July 2016

Another untimely death - that of Elizabeth Wurtzel in January this year - led me to my next book, another memoir though about as different from Jarman's as it's possible to imagine. In Prozac Nation Wurtzel describes the long, lonely struggle against depression and the isolation of suffering something so misunderstood in forensic detail. If occasionally bordering on self-pity, the writing usually crackles with electricity. Although the book is relentless in its misery it's not a miserable read, although occasionally a bit of judicious editing would have been useful.

Finally, I thought I'd go the whole drug-addled, self-obsessed hog by reading Self's book on himself, Will, by Will. Self. I like Self's fiction, really loved his Zack Busner trilogy and thought his creative power would make even the most sickening autobiographical anecdotes of addiction interesting. But like Wurtzel's pain, the whole thing is never so interesting to the reader as it is to the sufferer. Philip Larkin once wrote to a correspondent: 'Other people's illnesses aren't interesting. I mention mine only to excuse the probable dullness of what I shall write.' To illnesses, add addiction.

Three books down, 49 to go. My Goodreads challenge is to average one book per week. And I'm already behind. But, in related news, I've now signed up to PigeonHole and currently enjoying the daily 'staves' of A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister. A daily, online serialisation might be just the thing I need. And a good book, of course, which this is!

To be continued...

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

On the brink

So, that's that.

For people like me who didn't really buy the 'will of the people' schtick when a mere 37% of eligible voters who voted in 2016 to leave the EU, when that small minority of the population was woefully ill-informed about how we should leave, when we should leave, and how much say MPs should have in deciding the answers to those questions, it was a final throw of the dice.

I voted remain in 2016 but I've no great love for the bloated, over-bureaucratic and self-satisfied and self-serving EU. It's just that our economy's roots are too deeply entangled after forty years to free ourselves without doing untold damage. To our tree.

So I'd have been quite happy for Labour's plan to have another go at it, now we know the facts. It would have been awful. But it would have been informed.

I was also quite hoping in my own sweet and politically naive way that we might just get a result that did something - anything - for the millions suffering real, daily poverty. For the NHS. For schools. For all those things we need to be the nation we are.

But, of course, it was not to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot since Thursday night about this. I live in an area that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016, and that last week returned a Tory with an even bigger majority (it was already huge).

Why do the Turkeys keep voting for Christmas? Putting aside the obvious and overwhelming antipathy to Corbyn nationally, my constituency has historically, consistently and - in my view rather foolishly - returned a Tory forever. They’d have voted Tory even if God himself or the Pope or Kelvin and Oti had been standing.

Then there’s Brexit.

As well as rural poverty, a local hospital about to break under its many burdens and with key departments threatened with closure,  an almost complete lack of other public services, a shortage of housing, and a local (Tory) council (county and local) so cash-strapped and so crippled with inertia that they don't seem to be able even to acknowledge emails (sent by yours truly twice - the first time back in May!) there's the issue of getting GP appointments and accessing all the other services creaking under the crippling strain of a large migrant influx.

I can see why people voted to leave. What I can't understand, nearly four years on, is how they continue to believe that leaving the EU will solve anything.

Because the problems were there long before the migrants arrived: problems of underfunding, problems of micro-managing public sector workers to extinction, problems of a severe shortage of nurses, teachers, doctors and... money.

'Not my problem,' people seem to say. And they’re right. It isn’t. When you’re struggling to feed your own family how can you possibly put your mind to helping others? (Leave aside for a moment the fact that it’s precisely this kind of person who DOES most often help.)  How can you do x and y and z for you and yours and make a difference to someone else's life?

Which is where the politician comes in: of course you can’t, this message, runs. Of course it’s not your problem. It's the system. It's the migrants. It's the homeless. It's the poor. It's the sick. It's the thick. It's the disabled and the needy and the hungry and the lonely.

Just don't ask us who created a society which leads to all this.

Just vote for us and we'll sweep it all under the carpet/sweep them all away back to their own country/sweep them off the waiting lists/sweep them to the food banks/sweep them to the grave...

I don't know what the solution is. All I know is that I haven't much confidence in Brexit or Boris to solve it. Maybe Corbyn couldn't have done it either.

But someone needs to do something.


Before it's too late.

This poem comes from the collection 'Knick-Knack, Union Jack' by Nicholas Fitton, out now and available on Amazon:

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Radio Active

How ironic that the BBC should phone to ask me to contribute to a slot on BBC Radio Five Live about children... just when I have to pick said children up from school.

I used to be asked to do this kind of thing a lot. Back in the days of that rare breed the stay-at-home dad and his online manifestation as that even rarer breed the dad blogger (I was the only one once, can you believe it?) I was often phoned and asked to contribute in some way or other to discussions, debates, analyses and other such media jollies. Heck, I even got asked to go on telly!

It was a lot easier when the kids were younger. Easier, though not without its hazards. Both Charlie and his little sister have accompanied me live to local radio studios (for want of childcare) and been extremely well behaved, by and large. Ironically, it was while doing a FaceTime interview on BBC News that it all so nearly went pear-shaped, when Charlie - watching me on telly in the other room - got up excitedly to find me and tell me I was... on the telly. You know that viral video of the little kid being hustled out of the room by the au pair while a be-suited American gives an interview down the line? That was so nearly me, a home-grown version.

Now they're older it should get easier. But it doesn't. For a start, they're busy and that usually means I'm running from one activity to another or getting them fed before band or scouts or something similar. That's another reason I've been out-of-the loop media-wise for a while. But as it happens, my eldest daughter was around today and so I could skip the school run to do the School Running slot with Nihal Arthanayake on BBC Radio 5Live this afternoon.

You can have a listen if you like on BBC Sounds. It starts at 2:27.30 and includes, among other things, Billy Connolly,  bad grandparents, and fishing...

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