A Conservative Prime Minister on breaking the banks

March 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Finance is a service. Its function is not, or ought not to be, to dictate or determine the condition under which industry and commerce have to be conducted… [it is] dominated by irrational and anti-social speculation… performing no useful social function.”

Not the words of a left-wing firebrand in 2011, but those of Conservative MP and future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, writing in 1938. Macmillan’s words – and his proposals for how to deal with anti-social finance – should be required reading for the current Conservative Prime Minister and his Chancellor.

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Jimi Hendrix’s Welsh experience

January 30, 2011 § 4 Comments

The world has been without Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitarist it has ever known, for forty years. When he died from a drug overdose on 18th September, 1970, some maintained he had just been ‘passing through’ – a man of supernatural talents en route to a higher plane. Hendrix’s travels took him from his hometown of Seattle to the heart of countercultural London and on to tours across the globe. And whilst on his journeys, he also stopped by in rural mid-Wales.

“Oh yes,” I was told by a friend living in Machynlleth, Powys; “I’ve heard he came to Borth, on the coast.” Hendrix is now so revered that, as with Christian saints, almost every town has a story claiming he visited the area, or played in the local joint, or brushed his teeth there. But mid-Wales? Jimi sang of being “set on an eagles wing… [taken] past to the outskirts of infinity”, but Borth – a tiny fishing village for which the phrase ‘one-horse town’ would be pushing it – was surely too far off the beaten track even for him.

I decided to investigate. If the greatest musician of all time (and my all-time hero) had visited a place just down the road from where I live, surely he would have left some trace. Google seemed at first to draw a blank. But then I found some buried references on internet chatrooms to pictures of Hendrix on Borth beach, and to a local man who drove him around the area, and started to think there might be more to the rumours.

I sent out an email on our local swap shop mailing list asking for any info. Half-expecting to be deluged with snarky messages poking fun at my naivety, I was amazed when several people got back with real leads. “Speak to the legendary Mike Pugh behind the bar at the Friendship Inn in Borth,” advised one. “He ran the coolest psychedelic dungeon on the coast during the Summer of Love.” Aha! As a regular at the Friendship for their monthly folk nights, I should have known; the landlord’s colourful jumpers often verged on the psychedelic. So I popped in that weekend, and between pints, asked casually if Hendrix had ever been seen in these parts. “Yes, that’s right,” replied Mike nonchalantly. “He stayed out the back here once, in the cabins.”

I was gobsmacked, but I wanted to know more. I was soon to find out, when another email pinged into my inbox. “The man you need to speak to is John Morris in the fishing tackle shop in Aberystwyth, near the station,” wrote my informant, who had the Sixties nickname of Gandalf. “John drove Jimi from club to club, purports to have some Super 8 film of our hero and his band, and to have entertained him in Borth.”

Fired up, I hopped on a train to Aber and made enquiries in the fishing tackle shop (thinking, this is either an elaborate hoax, or so incongruous as to be true). Sure enough, John lived in a bedsit on the floor above, and was happy to talk. He had known not only Hendrix personally but many other musical legends of the Sixties, working in the music industry at the time. Amongst his acquaintances he has counted John Lennon, PJ Proby, and Roger Daltrey – and as proof of the latter showed me a VIP pass to one of The Who’s recent gigs.

And Hendrix? The rumours were all true, it seemed. John had indeed driven Hendrix around Wales – when he’d offered to take Jimi to see Aberystwyth, following a gig in Cardiff. Jimi had said yeah, that’d be great, and the pair of them had set out on a road trip into the heart of Cymru. After seeing Aber, they’d gone via Borth, where Hendrix had asked to stop to look at the view. “Jimi went for a walk on Borth beach, barefoot, carrying his guitar,” recalled John; apparently he’d been taken aback by the beauty of the place, which by all accounts can be pretty stunning (see photo below). They had then stopped over at the Friendship Inn, before driving on to Manchester, and then later back into Wales to Anglesey, where they caught a small plane out to Belfast. It was on this flight – shared with other musicians, including the Welsh band Amen Corner, with whom Jimi was touring – that Hendrix shot some film footage that then came into John’s possession. He still has it to this day, although, it being understandably priceless, he doesn’t like to show it often.

Borth beach

By a process of deduction, it seems that Hendrix made his trip to mid-Wales sometime between April and November 1967. He played twice in Wales during his life, both times in Cardiff: the first on 26th April 1967, and the second on 23rd November that year. It seems most likely that his trip to Borth took place in between playing in Cardiff on the 23rd Nov and going to Belfast for his only ever Irish gig on the 27th (although the tour dates show a packed schedule for those dates, so it must have been a lightning overnight visit).

The journalist and author Lyn Ebenezer recounts another possible Hendrix visitation to Wales in his recent book, Operation Julie. In it, he recalls how a hippie incomer to the town of Llandewi Brefi, one David Litvinoff, attracted visitors from the Sixties pantheon of rock gods, of whom Jimi Hendrix was reputedly one. Litvinoff also allegedly received an invitation card to Hendrix’s funeral, with a twist: “On the front of the card was stuck a boiled sweet which [Litvinoff] intimated contained LSD. Those who could not attend were expected to take the acid at the exact time of the funeral.”

Not all stories about Hendrix should be believed, of course. In 2007, the net went wild with the story of a supposedly newly-discovered recording of Jimi playing the Welsh national anthem, giving it the same treatment as he had the Star-Spangled Banner at the Woodstock Festival. It was, alas, a hoax; but a clever one, since its perpetrator gave Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau a welcome boost in British consciousness.

One further hint that Hendrix’s heart was captured by the peace and beauty of mid-Wales. In his last ever interview, conducted a week before his death, Hendrix mused on where he’d like to live: “I want to get up in the morning and just roll over in my bed into an indoor swimming pool and then swim to the breakfast table, you know, come up for air and get maybe a drink of orange juice or something like that. Then just flop over from the chair into the swimming pool, swim into the bathroom, and you know, go and shave and whatever…”

You want to live luxuriously?, the interviewer asked.

“No! Is that luxurious? I was thinking about a tent, maybe,” Hendrix laughed, “overhanging a mountain stream.” Perhaps, had he lived, Hendrix would have ended up making camp in the mountains of mid-Wales, away from it all, at peace.

The extinction of memory

January 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

“Don’t it always seem to go,” sang Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi, “That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. How true. But when it comes to the environment, we increasingly don’t even know what we’ve lost any more. Worse than just the extinction of species is the escalating extinction of memory.

Take whale populations, for instance. Back in the 1980s, Greenpeace waged a very successful campaign to ‘save the whales’, culminating in an international moratorium on whaling. Today, whale numbers have returned to stable levels. But ‘stable’ is not the same as flourishing. In fact, recent genetic evidence suggests that pre-industrial whale populations were much bigger than previously thought; perhaps 10 times bigger than official estimates, and far bigger than today’s depleted numbers. In other words, our society is simply forgetting how bountiful the seas once were. We are beginning to suffer from extinction amnesia.

As a species, we’ve forgotten how many other species we once shared the planet with. Who now remembers the Quagga? This strange creature, half-horse, half-zebra, once roamed the plains of South Africa, until Victorian game hunters shot it into the history books. The same goes for the Thylacine, gone by the 1930s; the Caspian Tiger; the Great Auk; and countless others whose only cultural epitaphs are the mournful monochrome photos snatched of them before their genus expired.

When a habitat or species is lost what also disappears is the awe it once inspired. Can anyone alive today imagine the sight of the millions of buffalo that roamed the North American plains a century and a half ago? What must it have been like to see the migrating flocks of passenger pigeons which, it is said, sometimes darkened the entire sky with their numbers? When we forget, we grow complacent and accepting. Take another example: how aware are we today of the noise of modern life? The CPRE’s ‘tranquility maps’ reveal a landscape awash with noise, even in the most rural areas of the UK; the legendary peace of the British countryside is now best preserved in a Thomas Hardy novel. Without a clear memory of what we have lost, how are we to regain a better quality of life?

Perhaps, one day, future generations will think nothing of a Pacific Ocean cloyed with plastic or an ice-free Arctic, considering these part of the natural order of things. Sometimes one has to simply forgive and forget. But such forgetfulness will be unforgiveable; in reality those generations will have been handed an impoverished wasteland in place of an Eden. They will have experienced what Kiran Desai calls ‘the inheritance of loss’ – only many won’t know they have.

It’s not enough to bemoan what’s gone; but nor is it enough to simply slow the rate of loss – which is all that Governments currently aim towards under the Convention on Biological Diversity. No. What is needed is something more profoundly ambitious; an awe-inspiring new environmentalism for the 21st century. Our goal should be the restoration of the biosphere to its former glory. Re-wild the wastelands; re-freeze the Arctic; re-forest the Amazon. An impossible dream? Perhaps; but in some ways it’s simply applying the standard operating procedures of the Age of Information. Click the un-do button: halt the damage. Invoke total memory recall: remember what it was that we lost. And then press system restore. It’s time to reboot Planet Earth.

Jilted generation – or regeneration?

December 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

As the student protests have been kicking off over the past month, I’ve been reading about generational politics. It’s been a big theme of 2010 and one set to continue over the next year. A lot of the coverage of the student demonstrations has marked by dewy-eyed nostalgia for 1968, missing the point that much of the current anger is directed precisely against the legacy of the 60s Baby Boomers.

A clutch of recent books have made similar arguments about a coming ‘clash of generations’. The most well-known of these, Jilted Generation by twentysomething journalists Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, has become something of a bestseller, thanks in part to its uncannily prescient timing. Published in September, before the first whiff of burning benches reached Westminster, it’s a strong polemic against the way British society seems to have conspired against its youth, the ‘jilted generation’ that were born since late 1979 (of which I am a member). Faced with rising youth unemployment, the mounting cost of higher education, and sky-high property prices, Malik and Howker argue under-30s are also having to come to terms with numerous debts laid upon them by the previous generation. The banking crisis and public deficit are only the most immediately obvious of these; those now coming-of-age also have to reckon with decades of under-investment in the UK’s infrastructure (much of this thanks to privatisation and public asset firesales), squandered national resources (such as North Sea oil and gas), and a ticking pensions timebomb.

Other commentators have agreed, and not just members of the ‘jilted generation’ themselves. A paper by Ken Roberts of Liverpool University entitled The End of the Long Baby Boomer Generation, out in October, contended that a ‘€1000 generation’ is becoming rapidly politicised out of a fear “that they will be unable to live as well as their parents”. Unlike the Baby Boomer cohorts, who have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, this rising generation is having to come to terms with various economic chickens coming home to roost. Earlier in 2010, various Baby Boomers themselves ‘fessed up to the parlous inheritance their generation appears to be leaving behind: Francis Beckett with What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?, Neil Boorman with It’s All Their Fault, and even Government Minister David Willets with The Pinch.

You don’t need to think that your parents are heartless bastards, nor think that all under-30s are hard done by, to see that these assessments have a point. The past thirty years – as the Baby Boomers have come to dominate the electorate as well as Britain’s boardrooms and political classes – have seen the triumph of short-term selfish individualism. Long-term planning has often been sacrificed to produce what JK Galbraith once called “private opulence and public squalor”. Successive governments have merrily sold off social housing and public assets whilst failing to ensure sufficient new housing stock is built or energy infrastructure maintained. Meanwhile, Malik, Roberts et al are right to point out that political consciousness often does get formed along generational lines – and with the growing student unrest, a new consciousness may now be stirring.

But two things are largely missing from their arguments. The first is a proper discussion of the parlous environmental inheritance being handed down by the Baby Boomer generation. Ecological debt should be as much of a concern to us as student debt. Many of those saddled with debts in the ‘jilted generation’ may still be being “bailed out by the bank of Mum and Dad”, as Ken Roberts puts it, but it’s hard to see the previous generation picking up much of the bill for climate change – or living with its worst effects. The message from Copenhagen and Cancun certainly seems to be: leave it til next year. We have to make it crystal clear that, though most climate negotiators won’t be around in 2050, today’s youth are not prepared to live with their failures.

The second thing missing is a realisation that, if we’re going to do better than the previous generation, we’ve got to ditch the selfish individualism that has marked Baby Boomer politics. It’s no good just crying for a bigger slice of the cake that they’ve enjoyed. We’ve got to reorientate the priorities of our politics, economics and society from a Thatcherite get-rich-quick mentality to one that invests over the long term in what’s really valuable: community, education for its own sake, and the environment. Rather than consuming our inheritance, this generation needs to re-build what previous ones have allowed to be run down. This isn’t just the politics of a jilted generation: it’s the politics of regeneration.

Arts, crafts and prostitution

December 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

When I was young, my parents used to keep bees on a wooded patch of land outside our home town of Newbury. I was always curious about the old ruins on the site amidst the trees, which suggested a house had once stood there. A manmade lake, now stagnant and dark, stood in the grounds, and away from the buzzing of the beehives the atmosphere was made eerie by looming specimen trees clearly planted by human hands. It was only much later in life, after starting my undergraduate degree in history, that I began delving into the story of what the ruins had been.

What I found astonished me. The house had been an old mansion by the name of Cope Hall – and besides an illustrious past that took in the Civil War and several generations of keen Victorian gardeners who had built the extensive grounds, the Hall harboured a secret. During the dying days of World War One, it had played host to a reformatory for female prostitutes, known as the Women’s Training Colony. There, in the leafy fastness of the Home Counties, ‘fallen women’ from the heart of Edwardian London had been sent to learn arts-and-crafts skills and fashion a new life for themselves in the fresh air. It was a story that, I discovered, had lain hidden within dusty archives and under the ruins of Cope Hall for eighty years, and I was to be the first to re-tell it. So fascinating was the story behind the Women’s Training Colony, that I decided to make it the subject of my undergraduate dissertation; you can find the full document for download below. But for those of you who can’t stomach 12,000 words, here’s a quick taster.

Edwardian Britain was a society that still viewed prostitution with no small degree of suspicion. Though the stigma attached to prostitutes had faded since the dark days of the Contagious Diseases Acts – when women suspected of harbouring venereal disease could be locked up and subjected to compulsory inspection – the prevailing attitude was still one of ensuring ‘social purity’ through penalising female prostitutes rather than their clientele. Social work was still dominated by Christian missions and probation for young people in its infancy. Into this unpromising environment was born an intriguing new organisation: the Committee for Social Investigation and Reform (CSIR). Its grandiose name was highly establishment, but its founders and associates were not; many came from the suffragist and suffragette movements, with big-name donors including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett. One of the principal founders of the organisation was Margaret Odeh, the wife of wartime artist Paul Nash, who before taking up the plight of female prostitutes had been part of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, and had taken to carrying a bull-whip to deter hecklers. Another key figure was Captain Arthur St John, a former fusilier in the Burmese wars who had read Tolstoy, become an anarchist and helped to resettle a pacifist tribe from Russia to Canada. The unorthodox and radical politics of the founders helped shape the outlook of the CSIR’s efforts – one aspect of which was the Women’s Training Colony.

Margaret Odeh, left; Millicent Fawcett, right

At first, the CSIR concentrated its work in the cities, working with sympathetic magistrates to prevent young women charged for soliciting from being taken by the Church missions – ever keen to save souls – and instead divert them into rehabilitation in one of the CSIR’s schemes. These schemes often saw the women being trained in handicrafts of one sort or another, such as weaving, millinery, or ‘artistic dressmaking’, in a programme that was inspired partly by the arts-and-crafts movement and partly by an early form of art therapy. The CSIR’s charges were not simply being trained for alternative employment, but also encouraged to free their minds through creative endeavour: as one of those involved claimed, “Not only do these handicrafts prepare the worker for life… but they have a moral value, as every craftsman knows. They form a marvellous tonic for the whole mind and nature.” Certainly this was a world far removed from the back-breaking, mind-numbing laundry-work awaiting those former prostitutes incarcerated in the Irish Catholic Magdalenes (a tragic fate captured poignantly in the 2002 film Magdalene Sisters).

Fired by a blend of early psychoanalytic theory and back-to-the-land romanticism, the CSIR went on to set up the Women’s Training Colony, choosing Cope Hall as a setting for the next stage of their efforts to rehabilitate women who had been forced to sell their bodies on the streets. It was to be a retreat more than an institution, a place where the women could grow flowers and vegetables in the Hall’s gardens, and where some could look after their (illegitimate) children – an amazingly liberal step in a society that viewed children out of wedlock as an unpardonable sin. It also took on some of Arthur St John’s anarchist leanings through encouraging self-governance, treating the women as ‘colonists’ who could help determine the direction of the initiative through weekly meetings.

In the end, the Women’s Training Colony folded through lack of funds, and a hardening of attitudes towards the cause it embodied, as soldiers returned from WWI carrying venereal diseases from the prostitutes they had visited. Yet through the course of their work, the CSIR had come to win the support of the Home Office, influence the way probation was carried out, and help steer a slow shift away from religious charity to secular social work. More than just a curiosity, its example had helped forge new, more empathetic approaches to tackling the ‘world’s oldest profession’.

To find out the full story of the Women’s Training Colony, you can download my thesis on it here:

The Women’s Training Colony – Guy Shrubsole

Below: Cope Hall on an OS map of the late 19th century; and as it appears now from the air, overgrown with trees


Biochar and the Victorians

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Late 19th century charcoal-making

I love anachronisms. The idea that a technology might have been invented long ago, ‘before its time’, and only rediscovered recently, has a great sense of mystery to it. When one comes across such apparent ‘anachronisms’ (like the ancient Greek computer, for instance, or Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a parachute), it is also, I feel, a vindication of timeless human ingenuity: people have always been technically adept, long before the industrial revolution.

So when I first heard about biochar – the charcoal soil amendment which is now being touted as a means of carbon sequestration and way of boosting crop yields – I was both excited and suspicious. Excited, because biochar does seem to be a very promising technology, capable of tackling the twin challenges of climate change and food production. Suspicious – because, as such a low-tech, ‘appropriate’ technology, I was sure someone must have invented biochar before. Though global warming is a relatively recent spur to invention, growing more food where less grew before is the oldest of human necessities.

As it happened, modern biochar research had grown out of archaeological finds in South America: the discovery in the 1960s of the Amazonian Dark Earths, soils with a very high carbon content that had been created by long-lost civilisations with a profound knowledge of how to cultivate poor tropical soils. But reading the rather romanticised accounts of these civilisations, I felt there had to be more. You don’t need to be a long-lost Amazonian civilisation to know how to make your veg patch grow better. After all, biochar is only essentially charcoal by another name, and charcoal has been made and used in Europe (and most other centres of settlement) for thousands of years. My hunch was that others had also hit upon its agronomic properties. So I checked out some Victorian gardening almanacs, and lo and behold, a number referred to charcoal’s utility as a manure. More interestingly, some authors seemed to come up with the same explanations for these properties as modern soil scientists. Ransacking the shelves of second-hand bookshops, I scoured gardening manuals from the mid-19th century through to the early organic pioneers of the 1950s, discovering a welter of examples of biochar use long before it became fashionable. The resulting study can be downloaded as a PDF below.

Unearthing the past GShrubsole Nov 2010

So what?, you might ask. The fact that biochar has been used by some gardeners and farmers for centuries doesn’t mean it was widely used; nor does it of course negate the need for modern experiments to better understand biochar’s properties. But the existence of historical precedent might make us, firstly, a little more confident that biochar really might work; secondly, a little more humble, in that others have cracked the idea before; and thirdly, a little more attentive to the wisdom of our ancestors.

I’ve got a few old documents relating to early biochar research that I’ll be scanning in, so will return to this subject again in a future post – particularly to argue why the Soil Association ought to be promoting biochar more than it does.

After the end of history…

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

… is my blog about – yes, that’s right – history. It will mostly be a collection of things I’ve written over the years but never got around to sharing publicly. To give you a taster, the first few posts will feature Edwardian prostitution, home-made nuclear bomb shelters, Welsh hippies, and the Victorian answer to carbon sequestration. As I get into the swing of it, I hope to explore some more profound themes, such as: what can history teach us for the present? After all, Machiavelli reckoned that “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.” My other passion besides history is the environment, so I’ll be considering what lessons the past might offer towards safeguarding the future of the planet.

For writing on current environmental politics, you can read my blogs on Climate Safety and Left Foot Forward.

Incidentally, the blog title refers to The End of History and the Last Man – a book by US author Francis Fukuyama in 1989, who was convinced the end of the Cold War signified the triumph of free-market capitalism and the end of history itself. Naturally, history has had other ideas…

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