Bloggers are responsible for the comments they attract

I feel a deep debt of gratitude to Harry’s Place for reasons I set out in my last, and in more depth here, but basically I agree with Marko – Harry’s Place’s commenters are Harry’s Place’s problem. I’ve raised this – too mildly – in the past here and in messages.

I missed most of the examples Marko points readers to, but the Laurie Penny stuff particularly disheartened me – as well as being personal, it was aimless. I meant to say something, couldn’t quite grasp the nub of it, and I’m glad that Marko did. Following his experiences by reading the comments trails he links to is pretty dispiriting, too.

What is going on beneath the Harry’s Place posts – particularly those on Islamists – worries me, because British Jews need Harry’s Place, which is so vigilant about antisemitism, to be serious about anti-racism in its own back yard. Anti-Islamists need Harry’s Place to be serious about anti-racism. Anti-racists need Harry’s Place to be a serious opponent of the BNP, but I know at least one person who favours both.

Commenter Zkharya is broadly right I think:

“I like HP. I like the freedom. I like, by and large, the company. There is a problem with Islamophobia.

But if you like Israel, there aren’t too many internet forums to hang out that are vaguely as sociable or linked up to other issues.”

I’d qualify that. I think the gender mix on Harry’s Place is poor, and the linking to other issues has large gaps (environmentalism, a critically important movement which continues to harbour misanthropic and anti-industrial tendencies, needs Harry’s Place’s attention, for example).


“One point I’d say she [Laurie Penny] does have is her focus on bullying on HP. Under the banner of free speech, HP is happy to have and sometimes encourage a degree of entirely personality-based vilification and abuse of individuals on the basis of their opinions (as opposed to any political actions) which has nothing to do with politics with either a small or a large p.

There’s no problem in my view with ridiculing and satirising of political positions, including inconsistencies and shifts therein. But it does seem to me that HP is complacent about personalised bullying on the basis of assertions about opponents’ insanity, encouraging others to bully, advocate violence towards and/or ostracise opponents on account of that or of opposition to a declared favourite or personal arbitrary preference of one collective member or another.”

I wish that Harry’s Place bloggers would look to their own back yard. Below the posts it’s like a frat party (yes I’ve been to a few during a year in the US – rarely felt so lonely).

The thing is, there’s a difference between attracting aggressive, obscene and bigoted commenters who pile in because you have interfered with their world view and they feel the need to disagree with you, and attracting the same who basically support your blog and feel at home there. The first is inevitable – when you are courageous and stick your neck out like Harry’s Place bloggers, your wages will include opprobrious comments. But if the people approving of you, defending you, or just hanging out, are aggressive bigots, and you don’t put an end to it, then, yes, it’s yours. You host it. You can’t disown it. You will be known for it. And it’s not feasible, as one HP author tried to do, to suggest a division of labour where you, the author, ask your moderate readers to take responsibility for the comments. You can’t rely on volunteers who haven’t volunteered – it’s your blog, it’s on your head.

Here is what Laurie Penny said:

‘you condone bigotry by allowing hateful, misogynist, racist, Islamophobic comments to be published on your site, and allowing bigoted, ignorant trolls to control the debate. I don’t apologise for that assessment: it’s you that needs to step up and look at what your site has become.’

I will limit my agreement with her to that.

Marko, defending this and told by Harry’s Place author Brownie to withdraw his “slurs” or “fuck off”:

“Here at HP, Brownie, you’ve provided a site in which pretty much anyone can make any slurs they want against anybody else. Slurs that should not see the light of day receive wide publicity, thanks to HP. When you provide a forum in which this sort of filth appears in print, and when you make a point about refusing to delete it, then you are condoning that filth as something legitimate; with a right to be heard. You are harrassing and victimising innocent people by allowing anonymous psychos to defame and abuse them in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

So I’m sorry, but you have no right to complain about being slurred, when you have provided a forum that enables the slurring of so many other people.

For the record, I don’t think that you, Marcus, David T, Brett or any of the other regular posters here are racists. I do, however, think that your comments moderation policy is an utter, utter disgrace, and that you should be ashamed of yourselves. And I say this as someone who likes you as people and who mostly agrees with your politics.

Right, now I’ll fuck off.”

Harry’s Place has a problem. Unlike HP blogger Neil, I don’t think Comment is F***** – plenty of blogs manage to attract conversations which are respectful of the person, even while trenchant in opposition of their views. See for example Bob From Brockley, a blog with interests that overlap with Harry’s Place.

I think a more purposeful approach is in order on the part of the authors to putting themselves on the opposite side of the Islamophobes and bullies. I think it’s generally true of campaigns and things like campaigns that to define your support you have to frame what you’re against in terms of what you’re for. If this could be embedded into every post I think that would probably be all that was required.

In the absence of that, a moderation policy backed up with time taken to moderate.
Otherwise, it may be time to turn off comments. But that would be an act of defeat.

Planting a tree in Israel and Palestine

It’s my mum’s birthday, and I didn’t know what to get her. I was wandering around on the web without much luck, so I took a break and had a look at some of my favourite blogs. My mum spends most of her time worrying about Israel’s ongoing existence and Jews’ place in Britain. The things my parents have stopped doing and started doing over the past few years because of people who share the views of Levi in this anti-Zionist and post-Zionist discussion on one of Bob’s threads are quite profound, I think. Leaving political parties. Stopping buying newspapers. Starting to blog. Parting with cash.

The mixture of my mum and the discussion mentioned above brought on an idea – I’d have a tree planted for her in Israel. I chose the Jewish National Fund.

I bought, then I thought about it, then I read some of Shaul Ephraim Cohen’s 1993 work ‘The Politics of Planting’ and I realised that Israelis and Palestinians have long used trees, and the killing of each others’ trees, as weapons. Leaflets calling for intifada demanded that Arab citizens kill Israeli trees. When they did, Israelis responded by setting fire to trees close to the Green Line. The Arab Revolt burnt down an entire forest. Israel’s occupation stipulated that Palestinians couldn’t plant anything without permission.

The Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to buy land in perpetuity for Jews. Historical persecution and expulsion of Jews indicates this was a reasonable idea. The land is leased, and you don’t have to be Jewish to lease it. Israel’s Arab citizens have equal entitlement to land in their country, but in practice Israeli Land Law has institutionalised discrimination. Israel is currently juggling state land and JNF land, and has swapped land in the north for land in the Negev, populated by 180,000 Bedouin and 365,000 Jews. The JNF is now engaged in reservoir building and tree planting on a large scale. The Bedouin make claims to the land; the Israel Land Administration assert to the contrary with law in their favour. They work on Bedouin quality of life and incentives; ultimately there is coercion, and sometimes containment. Israel is acknowledging some of the towns, but it’s not clear why there is this scale of displacement, particularly during judicial processes (Bedouin mounting legal claims to the land). Most Bedouin’s homes are ‘unrecognised‘ because they have no permits – this population has experienced a stratospheric increase from 1948, and so they build, often without any infrastructure or services.

There is a Negev Coexistence Forum, but its site is down right now [update – here it is: DUKIUM] I don’t see co-existence work – I do see advocacy for Bedouin that is clearly needed – but where is the co-existence? My gold standard for co-existence is The Abraham Fund, an organisation I trust deeply, unlike any of the other sources I have mentioned so far (Shaul Ephraim Cohen excepted). They have not yet translated their manual on Arab Society in Israel for Israeli policy makers into English, so let’s look at the precis: Bedouin are the most deplorably impoverished group in Israel. Bustan, another organisation I trust, has more on poverty and pollution among these invisible citizens of the Negev.

“Israel’s policies toward the Bedouin have been based around demographic concerns and land usage policies. The state has consistently tried to increase Jewish settlement of the Negev at the expense of Bedouin people. For example, Israel continues to hold the provision of basic services such as water, sewage, and electricity, which are their rights as citizens, as a trade off for Bedouin giving up their land rights.”

So the JNF, like the ILA, have not been nearly sensitive enough to the position of the Bedouin – either completely ghosting them out or alternatively incentivising and menacing. It must be horrible – like the East End of London after the war ended, when the population was moved out to the suburbs and back into new high rises. Some found the move positive, others never overcame their sense of loss and dislocation. The point is that they were poor; they had no choice. The premises of the Bedouin displacement are not well spelt out (though I only read English).

Co-existence here is a matter of balancing an environmental need for a population, and respect for individuals and groups and the places where they live. The JNF have a big questionmark over them – but why doesn’t the Negev Coexistence Forum acknowledge the need for de-desertification and cultivation along with the real and pressing needs of the Bedouin? Is this negotiating a compromise, or is it just taking a position against the JNF and the state, whatever? And why is it that the idea of land ownership is so uncomplicated to the people opposing each other over it? Might the Bedouin somehow become involved with the de-desertification activity, bringing much-needed work, and an economy based on cultivation and state-of-the-art building and infrastructure for minimising ecological impact (not that people that poor have much ecological impact). Is that too much to hope for? This is where Bustan come in. Bustan are planting trees too.

But I was in no frame of mind to give any of this consideration, and this is the type of reaction that anti-Zionists bring out in many Jews: a protective urge towards a Jewish future there as well as elsewhere, sometimes expressed impulsively. I think anti-Zionists should be mindful of that, as should the said many Jews. If I could turn back time a bit, I’d have chosen an environmental tree planting programme – there doesn’t seem to be a huge choice, maybe this. Or maybe the JNF is as good as it gets. Is there a chance that the JNF could plant without this being at the expense of non-Jewish minorities, for the benefit of all? Surely there’s a way. The thing to do now is write and ask.

Trees keep soil in place and halt the advance of deserts. They are vital for life in that part of the world.

Then I though – right, I’ll also have a tree planted in the occupied Palestinian territories for my mum. Perhaps even two – an olive tree to replace one ripped out by settlers. And a tree which can just be a tree somewhere, something to stop desertification. So I searched.

I pounced on a result for the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature. But on their front page, after a reference to the “Zionist enemy”, is an article whose title refers tot he Holocaust. They have put the word in inverted commas. Turns out they are only interested in anti-Zionist tree-planting. I moved on.

Although I was prepared to go ahead, I tried to find an alternative to Zaytoun because they are participating in the total boycott of Israel (Zaytoun are run from London).

I eventually settled on Muslim Hands.

Update: a BBC Radio 4 Today Programme piece on tree warfare waged by Israeli settlers on nearby Palestinians, and Palestinians on settlers. The police (Israeli, part of Israel’s occupation) have a reputation for failing to arrest, charge and prosecute vandal settlers.

Machiavellians at meetings

When I go for a meeting, it’s usually in a cooperative, facilitative, sympathetic and principled frame of mind, and I have had good experiences at meetings on the whole (with some notable exceptions associated with certain colleagues’ vanity or thirst for power).

Read Venkatesh Rao’s nasty, insightful piece on the 15 laws of meeting power, and from the bottom of that, a link to Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. This kind of thing:

“A meeting is a partly adversarial setting, and pure “active listening” is not enough. By the power of listening, I mean the power that lies in consciously keeping track of what was said and using it to make the points you want to make. The average short-term memory of a group stretches just to the very last thing that was said. Most people react only to this last thing, and don’t consciously attempt to remember anything before that. The canny listener tries his best to remember the highlights of everything he has heard and seen, for later use.

I learned this when I served on an interview panel interviewing high school students for a summer scholarship. A more experienced interviewer remarked that one of the signs of sophistication she looked for in a candidate was an instance of referring back to something that was said more than 10 minutes ago.

A corollary to the power of listening is the power of citation. Using what was said before gives you a lot of control. It is even more powerful if you remember who said it and what the exact words were, and can quote. Why? Because you automatically demonstrate that you were paying attention, making you more credible than others. Plus, you can temporarily borrow the “usual” supporters of the people you quote, because you did them the honor of remembering what their side said.”

It gets much more manipulative and ruthless than this. This is seductive stuff, but it’s also rotten. I mean, if a group has a poor collective memory then find a way to compensate for this which keeps concepts and arguments alive in its consciousness. Don’t exploit people’s weaknesses when those weaknesses may be serious handicaps for reaching the optimal decision for your organisation. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume that you’re not the bad apple. Don’t toy the deficits of meeting participants for your own amusement. Don’t be contemptuous of people with smaller intellects than you.


Nigel Slater’s collective guilt

Let me begin rancorously, progress mildy, introduced a bitter note about competing agendas against the eating of animal, then end with optimism in the face of Jay Rayner. First the rancour.

I took in Nigel Slater accusing his readers of collective guilt in today’s Observer Food Monthly. Many cows eat better than many people do. I frequently wonder what urbane animal-eaters will say when the penny drops and they realise that their barely-disguised primal, mind-blowingly violent, table habit is to stop.

And I take myself by the scruff of my neck and order myself, be nice, encouraging, welcome the positives, ignore the lateness, the herd-following, the whiff of modishness, be tolerant of bad reasons. Whatever the reason, Nigel Slater’s proposal means the death, agony and environmental wreckage lessens, even only partially. Of course a celebrity meat, fish and dairy eater is not going to abandon these things overnight. Welcome the positives.

In just that ill-fitting but determined frame of mind I read Nigel Slater’s piece.

It commences with a panegyric to vegetables. In it he lays the groundwork for what is to come, an opposition between vegetables and meat. “Vegetables beckon and intrigue in a way no fish or piece of meat possibly could” is a statement that diverted me for quite some time, and which is followed by what might aptly be described as veg porn (though not of the sexist PETA variety) replete with references to “beauty and tactile qualities” and “even greater sensual pleasure”, a “deeper connection”. So far, so good – Nigel Slater doesn’t want to fuck bits of flesh. More interestingly, he wants us to know he is sidling away from eating them too. Let us tread carefully though – he is not renouncing meat – he’s just more interested in his own (though not animals’) “well-being”. And then comes the crunch:

“…those implications that go beyond me and those for whom I cook.

Every little helps

We have damaged this planet. We have plundered its natural resources, emptied its seas, scorched its earth, turned its beating heart into a toxic rubbish tip. There have been decades, if not centuries, of take rather than give. I do not wish to relinquish entirely the deep sense of fulfilment I get from eating meat and fish, but I now place less importance on them in my diet than I did. It is the meat and the crackling rather than the vegetables that are now on the side. When you lift the lid of my casseroles, peer into my pots or read my plate, it is the veggies that play the starring role.

And yes, it is worth “reading” our plate before we tuck in. Where did that food come from? Does it sit comfortably with our conscience and what we believe good food to be? What, other than our immediate appetite, does it benefit, and crucially, what damage is that plate of food doing?”

Food as sensual pleasure; food as “damage”. (But not damage in the form of an animal life violently ended – who are the brutes, again?)

Possibly the strangest part is this:

“If digging up our gardens, getting an allotment, shopping at farmers’ markets, growing organically and eating sustainably is seen as a sign of our collective guilt for what we have done to the planet, then so be it.”

I don’t understand this defiance. Was he browbeaten and nobbled by the environmentalists, rather than reaching this conclusion off his own bat? If so, good for them.

Anyway, Nigel Slater is right. Not wholly right – growing our own is not the pinnacle of ethical eating, and ethical eating is not the pinnacle of ethical living. He’s right, with some more right stuff omitted. But basically right. Eat more greens. I am going to grow more, as part of my commitment to 10:10 (which is only a brandname for an earlier commitment to reducing waste / emissions). But it’s going to take a lot of my time. Definitely not for everybody. Economies of scale shouldn’t be sniffed at.

And on a final optimistic note, a quick sketch of vegan London today. This afternoon I met a woman from overseas, an acquaintance of a friend who thought we should meet (isn’t it lovely when people do this for each other?). We lunched at Tidbits in Heddon St off Regents Street, a vegetarian, largely vegan buffet where you pay by weight I’d not heard of but highly recommend, before chatting our way through a few errands. In Soho there was a street market and Manna had a stall. Vegan cupcakes? But Manna’s a vegetarian restaurant, not a vegan restaurant. Well, now it’s vegan, give or take some butter and cheese in the kitchen in case of diner requests. You don’t know how odd and welcome it was to hear that – dairy eaters accommodated rather than assumed. Manna doesn’t make too big a deal of it though because, like the fantastically creative ShoHo restaurant Saf, they probably realise it currently doesn’t pay to big up being vegan. There’s a lot of prejudice out there inspired, among others, by Jay Rayner, The Observer’s meat champion. But times are changing. And then to Lush for new shampoo. Not only is the shampoo I buy from Lush solid and unpackaged, it is also vegan and made in this country – even, one sales assistant told me, down to the shelling and processing of the coconuts. Then I went and got some of that filthy Cheatin’ pepperoni by Redwood. Man, it is good. My new acquaintance said the afternoon was turning into the secret life of a vegan. We parted and I made a rogue purchase of some sunflower margarine from the last M&S before Chancery Lane tube. For some reason my phone’s barcode scanner couldn’t make sense of the QR code, but I couldn’t see any problem ingredients. It is lovely.

I think London is moving veganwards.

I said final, but one last thing – I wonder what Jay Rayner will say when he gives up meat? I think he’ll say he did it at the very earliest opportunity without doing violence to his palate, his wallet or his health, and I predict he’ll attribute his foot-dragging to the tardiness of restaurateurs, farmers, buyers and wholesalers to get their shit together. He’ll stand firm on behalf of ordinary people without as much time for thinking or money in their pocket as I have. And just as he has grudging respect for vegans while despising our food, I have more respect for him and his talk of flavour, cost and nutrition than I have for Slater’s collective guilt and leisured DIY.

Jay Rayner’s position looks like it will lead to a settled commitment. Nigel Slater’s is particular, modish, and superficial.

My neighbours are banishing the local birds and filling our gardens with excrement

There has been a huge explosion of kittens in the neighbourhood. While utterly charmed by cats, the fact is I haven’t seen a bird in the garden for months. They have been replaced by catshit.

In all senses, I’d like to lay this at my neighbours’ door.

For some weeks now I’ve been starting to consider ways to keep them out (while simultaneously yearning to cuddle and pet them). Until now, the strategy has been to launch myself out of the back door and run at them hissing. This is a hurtful thing to be reduced to.

The final straw happened the other morning when I jolted awake with a sharp cry as a kitten, not light on its feet, leapt from the sill of the window at the turn of our stairs onto the landing outside our bedroom door. Matt was gone, my spectacles were not on, and all I saw was a dark shape making its way towards the bed. An incubus, was my first panic-stricken thought.

At my shriek the kitten about-turned and leapt back on the windowsill. I’d had put my glasses on by then. The presumptuous little hooligan interpreted the croon I uttered as encouragement to come straight back and get on the bed! He was tortoiseshell and white and not shy. He put his front paws up on my thighs in an over-familiar way to see better as I stood at the sink cleaning my teeth. He sat on the dressing table as I dragged a comb through my hair.


(By the way, I was petting him not strangling him.)

And then when, doubtful that I could persuade him out the way he had come, I shut the stairway window, he went beserk, knocked pot plants over, tried to jump through the downstairs windowpane and only found the door I had opened for him through a series of painful-sounding trials and errors.

Who couldn’t love a kitten? The fact remains, though, that my neighbours are responsible for the mossy paw-prints all down my stairwell wall. I find it hard to swallow, given that we live in a society which recognises private property, that it is alright to buy a live creature and set it free to kill, foul and trespass in the environs. It isn’t neighbourly at all, in my book.

So, I went to the RSPB site and purchased, for a significant sum I had to stump up myself, an ultrasonic cat deterrent, Catwatch, which they say works exclusively on cats. When I told (leading green blogger) Barkingside 21, however, he literally hooted. Apparently they don’t work and his has been retired to the garage.

We will see. There’s always physical barriers.

Don’t put your papers on Tube train air vents

Free newspapers block the air conditioning on the Central Line

It’s that time of year again when air conditioning on underground trains begins to make its presence or absence felt. It’s the time of year when people start to pass out on a regular basis.

Further to this from InSpite, I’m standing on a Central Line train in the evening rush hour and it’s a cauldron of stale, steaming humanity. A careless, clueless, seated passenger reaches behind him and drops his finished-with free paper on top of the air conditioning. A few minutes later, the passenger next-door-but-one does the same. I observe this with feeling. I’m hot and my patience is evaporating. In crowded places, being unobservant and unthinking is inconsiderate. Sometimes it’s negligent. Sometimes it’s fatal. I have difficulty accepting that people who drop their papers on air conditioning vents aren’t, to some extent, tossers.

I get a seat at Liverpool Street. The woman next to me puts her paper on the airvent behind me. I reach round and take it off, along with three others. There are no racks, no shelves, no bins on the Central Line, so I put them on the floor in the middle of the aisle. Not at the end of the aisle where there is transit and shuffling and people may, if they are exceptionally unlucky, trip. Not in the spaces near the doors, for similar reasons. In the middle, where people may stand but rarely walk. And I really have difficulty figuring what else to do with this daily plague of pulped bark.

We get to Leytonstone. Another woman, another covered airvent. I take the paper and drop it on the floor.  And the man sitting to my right comes to life. He bends and starts fussing with the pile of papers near my feet. He picks them up and puts them on the seat next to him, turns to me and says, with a tight, slightly menacing smile, “We don’t throw things on the floor”.

“We?” I queried belligerently. He repeated like an automaton “We don’t throw things on the floor”.

I could have picked him up on the terrible hygiene of moving papers from a tube train floor (bathed in the filth of your London street) onto upholstery, but he struck me as a man who’d experienced a Pavlovian response and might not be amenable to reason. Perhaps when he used to drop things on the floor his mother rapped his knuckles. Perhaps this was an ongoing thing for him. So I returned to my book on social statistics and ignored the strange man.

Yeah, I’m a designer, of sorts, and I realise this is a design problem for Central Line trains which doesn’t affect, say, Victoria Line trains. But we are where we are, and I wish this stupid behaviour would stop.

InSpite is a Central Line user – maybe he has better ideas?

The wages of sin is a visionary speech

The other evening in the run-up to the Labour Party conference Matt and I were trying to review, of the tops of our heads, what Gordon Brown had actually done to deserve the recent assault on his leadership. We weren’t talking about the recession threat or the perceived lack of charisma – we were trying to think what he had actually done wrong during his time in office as Prime Minister.

We came up with next to nothing of substance. Wavering over the general election, screwing gurkhas who served before ’97, screwing Iraqi interpreters, failing to ensure we have a healthy balance of industries and services in our economy, possibly screwing Martin Bright, the winter fuel business and avoiding the windfall taxing the energy companies, deciding not to tax non doms and – of course – getting rid of the basic rate of income tax.

The gurkhas and interpreters I am fairly certain have been shoddily treated – but as far as ousting a premier is concerned they aren’t a deal breaker. Martin Bright isn’t a deal breaker either, though what (it would appear) he has experienced makes Brown seem ruthless. As for the windfall tax, I’d want to know more – is the home insulation deal he has negotiated with the energy companies going to save home-owners substantial amounts as well as keeping them more comfortable and reducing emissions (which would be a triple dividend on a single measure)? If so, maybe it’s for the best. I know that David Porter, head of the Association of Electricity Producers, said that the costs of the package would be passed on to customers, but as long as they’re not the customers who are on modest incomes, there’s a case for that. It’s hard to say. I don’t remember anybody setting out for us how the much-vilified energy company profits are actually being spent, or how the anticipated package would affect the pockets of people on modest incomes.

Getting rid of the basic rate of income tax was Brown’s biggest disgrace. It is something he apologised for today in the breathlessly anticipated speech he made to the Labour Party Conference. There is no reason to accept his apology until the million least affluent people who are out of pocket are no longer out of pocket. This is the only kind of apology required – for the people who lost out and also because this is the thing that most embarrassed his party in full view of their voters. This is why, in all probability, his party has been punishing him now, without a convincing reason, even though it interferes with Labour’s ability to respond to the economic crisis, and even though there is nobody else they want to see as Prime Minister instead. This is idle, self-indulgent and just slightly sadistic.

And that brings me to the evening’s headache – apparently this afternoon’s speech has turned around Brown’s fortunes. I find this incomprehensibly capricious. How is it plausible that such a vague and insubstantial speech could assuage a bunch of people who were casting aspersion on his leadership only moments before? According to Michael White, “the key connection was emotional”. Polly Toynbee observes that “few speeches ever change anything”. What changed as a result of the speech? Nothing at all. The non doms remain untaxed. The energy companies are raking it in. Taxpayers bail out Metronet and Northern Rock. The pre’97 Gurkhas and Iraqi interpreters languish abroad.

Populist behaviour from Labour members and MPs – it’s not their own minds they want changed, it’s rather that they have come to consider Gordon Brown a liability to their own constituencies, or in the case of the MPs, their seats – their reputations and their opportunity to practice their own politics. Brown’s audience listened to his speech with the ears of their constituents and, gauging it satisfactory by that yardstick, tentatively approved it themselves. Why would we derive any confidence from this spectacle of penitence, humility and soul? I don’t want him to resign or enter a leadership contest – I want him to sort out our social policy. Everybody knows there’s nobody else but him. But I happen to think that speech, which was made over to party’s head and aimed at people not unlike me, was a load of old flannel.

Maybe it’s me and my growing disillusionment with theorists, blurry big picture thinkers, and visionaries – or at least the irresponsible ones with ideas and no sense of practicalities. Personally I get terribly turned off by visionary speeches in the absence of definitions of terms (Brown was plenty vague), getting from a-to-b with costs, anticipated risks, and contingencies. If a political speech or text doesn’t commit to, and attempt to persuade us about, a course of action in sufficient detail that it can be grappled with by its critics, then I don’t see the use in making it. Sure, we want to see our leaders incarnate, but I’d personally rather they sung a song, maybe danced a routine, or performed a comic sketch.

But nevertheless a visionary speech is what we expected him to make. And I wonder how we came to have such a culture where we expect and allow our leaders – they all do it – to make these kinds of speeches where they try to make us feel something but nobody learns anything.


Lakeland holiday: highs, lows, vegan notes, public transport, bodily matters

Matt has The Long Way Round on in the background. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman have reached Mongolia. Charley Boorman recounts how they had to cross a mountain river five times in the rain and he was crying. He says “I was scared, I wasn’t enjoying myself, it was hard”.

From what I can see, Mongolia looks a bit like the Lake District. Over the past week we walked its outer edges between Penrith and Boot basing our route on Eric Robson’s After Wainright.

The memorable bits first, followed by vegan and transport notes, and bodily matters.

The Crown at Hesket Newmarket and the conviviality of Malcolm’s bar. The people there were so humorous and self-lampooning. There are plans to set up a web link with a pub in Bavaria and their main worry (they are that age) is how to avoid mentioning the war. One scenario is a sign over the camera to remind them – a bit like “Don’t think of an elephant” I’d imagine.

A shepherd about his business with a couple of dogs.

A vintage aeroplane flew up the valley after Melbreak and dipped its wings at us.

A whippet in a papoose.

Eating wild rasberries in the lane to Nether Wasdale.

The most beautiful view in the lakes – looking south-east from north of Crummock Water you see layers of mountains heaving themselves out of the coastal plain.

A bright red squirrel, the first I’ve seen.

Climbing Melbreak – from some angles the most evil-looking mountain in the lakes.

Being blown clean off my feet by a huge gust of wind near the summit of Great Borne.

Having my teeth actually bared by the force of the wind in the cloud near the summit of Haycock. It got in your mouth and blew out your cheeks – I have never felt that before. Having to walk on the lee side of the dry stone wall to walk at all. Feeling terrified that my contact lenses were going to be blown away. The reliance on the GPS with sheer drops into Ennerdale Water to our left. Scrambling over wet scree and decayed mountain to get back on a path. Losing the first path down in the thick cloud. The relief when I made out the cairn of the second path. The greater relief when we dropped below the cloud line and could see again. Soaked to the skin in a cutting wind, feeling scared to stop for long in case we got hypothermia. Making it down to the road next to Wastwater and shuddering at the decomposing screes that plunge into it.

Matt’s feet after that day; wondering if my camera would dry out.

The ominous warning of this memorial stone on the last day – “Be ye also ready”. Great. Enjoy your walk in the mountains, folks. It may be your last. You may never come down.

Burnmoor Tarn, the eeriest spot in the lakes, and the deserted and frankly ghoulish Burnmoor Lodge. This is the Coffin Route – the bereaved of Wasdale Head would take their dead over this moor to the nearest burial ground in the Eskdale Valley. I find this place really depressing. I listened to Silver Jews and Pavement to cheer myself up.

The last peak – Illgill Head, when the weather cleared from our backs and blew the cloud out of our way.

All the beautiful views – this is only one.

The train reeling us inexorably back to London.

Brings me to transport notes. We arrived in Penrith after an ordeal of a journey involving a rail replacement bus service which got lost in the south Cumbrian lanes. The journey back to London took 11 hours, including a tiny steam train, a £50-fucking-quid taxi ride (this was actually the best part of the journey – he took us over the fells) to Barrow-in-Furness and £78 each single tickets via Manchester Piccadilly, followed by the Tube. Everything was delayed, broken, failed – including the passengers (I’m getting a little appalled at how often it seems to fall to me to secure seats for people on crutches, pregnant, tottery etc – they invariably want them but they won’t ask the people in the priority seats for them).

Next, vegan notes. First, vegan satisfactions. Our Penrith B&B, Brandlehow Guest House, did an excellent breakfast with apricot compote, soya milk, dairy-free spread and even vegan sausages. They also look after people with allergies – very nice place indeed. At the Castle Inn in Bassenthwaite the chef produced a menu especially for me – I had 4 starters and 4 mains to choose from. I chose stew and dumplings (it had been cold and rainy). My dessert fruit salad was not boring – it contained beautifully-cooked rhubarb and caramelised pecans. I’m very grateful because I’m not used to this. I thought the Castle was a wonderful hotel (it also had a spa). The Screes in Nether Wasdale is an absolutely lovely place – the chickpea and spinach soup is probably the best bowl of soup I ever had, and the chilli was fantastic. Honorable mentions – at the Crown Inn in Hesket Newmarket (Britain’s first cooperative pub) there was a curry, ditto The Grange Country House Hotel. Howbeck Lodge got in houmous, soya milk and dairy-free spread for us – I particularly appreciated this because I’m used to little patience from farmers who rear animals to eat. At The Woolpack Inn near Boot there was a very exciting-sounding and imaginative dish called Asian Steps but its flavour was overpowered by either (according to Matt) lemongrass or (according to me) ginger.

Vegan disappointments. The Woolpack Inn was frankly sanctimonious about not having any margarine (this is the place whose menu includes the memorable sentence “We believe that good food is not enhanced by the addition of bought-in sauces such as KETCHUP”). But what does that have to do with my breakfast mushrooms being cooked in water? And why didn’t anybody offer to fry me some bread in oil? And, as Matt muttered as he poured the water from his uncooked poached egg and sodden mushrooms into the dish which had held a little pat of (unsalted) butter, it’s fine to lay down dictats about what goes with good food – as long as the food is in fact good. Some of it was (the beer, bread, black marmalade and coffee) and some of it was foul. The Shepherd’s Arms in Ennerdale Bridge was dire. The chef was totally unprepared and the waiter had to go back and forth between the kitchen and our table to ask whether I ate prawns, cheese etc. I ended up having chips and (undressed) salad. The manager tried to remind me that I had told him not to get in anything special, obliging me to remind him back that I would only have said that if he had told me that they could cater for me. For lunch (we ask for packed lunch if we are walking in remote places) I was offered a pasta salad (the worst I have ever had – dry unoiled pasta with a few bits of tomato and cucumber in among it) which was difficult to eat on a windy, wet mountainside. You can eat sandwiches on the move and still watch where you’re putting your feet. With pasta salad you have to stop. Matt had to curtail my lunch that day and get us moving again because he said I was turning blue.

Which brings me to bodily matters. I was prepared for a certain amount of pain because I’ve spent a year at this computer and I knew that I’d be breaking myself in for at least the first three days. So it was. But it’s amazing how quickly your body remembers what’s to be done. After the first mountain which was a 400m slog, the others were fine and by the end we were able to get up 800m no problem. We carry our stuff – what with the food, water, waterproofs, first aid and survival stuff, extra socks, cameras, mp3 players, GPS, batteries, maps we have to carry with us, there’s not much else we could palm off on a sherpa.

I wish I was one of these spring-heel jacks but I never will be. One concession to my unfitness and the prodigious weight of my pack, I used two poles. I think I’d use them anyway. Not only do they stop you wrecking your knees going down, they are also excellent for holding back brambles, nettles &tc, probing squidgy ground to see if it will take your weight, balancing on rocks when crossing rivers, holding you up when you slip, pushing you up hills, working your upper body, and leaning on when your feet hurt after 16 miles.

That’s about it. Work tomorrow. Oh.