Tuesday 30 July 2013

The planners' tunnel vision threatens Northumberland's far horizons

The great historian G.M. Trevelyan famously described his home county of Northumberland as “the land of far horizons”.

Today we rely on altogether more prosaic “Landscape Character Assessments” to determine just how many gigantic wind turbines may be shoehorned into any particular patch of cherished countryside.

Reading the recently issued county planner’s report on the application for a large industrial turbine in my own neighbourhood of Callaly, I was initially encouraged by the quoted assessment that “this landscape … may have an increased sensitivity to this type of development … [and] the high intervisibility and the proximity of this landscape to the National Park suggests the highest level of sensitivity.”

The application has attracted 107 letters of objection and precisely none of support, which is some achievement given that it is never hard to round up a few useful idiots prepared to assert that any “green energy” development is a fantastic idea, whether on the grounds of “saving the planet” or “creating local jobs” (both, of course, equally untrue).

It is also opposed by four parish councils, Northumberland National Park and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, on a variety of grounds including visual impact, road safety, the effect on tourism and the potential for setting an unfortunate precedent.

Yet all these petty local concerns are magisterially set aside by Senior Planning Officer Joe Nugent, relying on advice from the county council’s experts on highways, conservation, ecology and public protection that those who actually live in and love the area do not know what they are talking about.

Because the “potential impacts on the local landscape and visual amenity … are not considered to be of such significance [as] to outweigh the wider benefits of the proposed wind turbine in terms of renewable energy provision.”

The mindset of council planners has long been completely beyond me. A neighbour is told that he cannot replace the jerry-built extension to his listed house with a sound one of identical size and appearance because it would be “too big”. Yet ask to whack up a giant industrial turbine, with all its supporting impedimenta, in the middle of glorious, unspoilt countryside, and it apparently presents no problem at all.

The planner devotes five paragraphs to explaining why the National Park, who might be expected to know a thing or two about protecting fine landscapes, have got it completely wrong. While the tourism argument is dismissed on the grounds that few actually come to admire a field on Follions Farm, and are unlikely to be deterred from visiting Cragside or Wallington.

As for that concern about precedents, once the landscape has been degraded by one turbine, it should surely come as no surprise to find that the local Renewable Energy Plan has already concluded that the area could accommodate up to 12 of the things without anyone noticing at all.

A telling column on these pages recently observed that Northumberland County Council’s planners seem to regard themselves as cheerleaders for the speculative wind farm industry, helping to push their proposals through in the teeth of opposition from ill-informed yokels like me.

I write “telling” chiefly because I do not recall anyone from County Hall writing in to deny the charge. 

We pay the wages of the council’s “experts”, yet they show no inclination to acknowledge the overwhelming strength of local opposition to such wind turbine developments. Nor, on the evidence of his deafening silence of late, does our elected county councillor.

Northumberland is still the most beautiful place I know, but the more the rash of wind farms spreads, the less this will be true.

True to form, an application that was quietly slipped in on Christmas Eve 2012 comes up to have the officer’s recommendation of approval rubber-stamped by the council’s planning committee next Tuesday, August 6, when so many of those with an interest in the subject may again be expected to be on holiday.

However, my neighbours and I are not (because why would anyone who could take their holidays in Northumberland ever go anywhere else?)

I hope for a lively debate between the tunnel-visioned “green energy” profiteers and those who have minds clear enough to appreciate the true preciousness of those far horizons.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Hello, hello, hello. What's all this, then?

My whole life flashed before me when the two men in black unexpectedly appeared on my doorstep on Saturday morning.

Or at any rate it did once I had grasped that they were policemen. This took me a while: first because they were implausibly young, secondly because they were wearing combat fatigues rather than crisp white shirts, and finally because they were simply the last people I was expecting.

How a policeman looks in my mind's eye

I had not spoken to a policeman for around 20 years, when my last Border terrier but two made a poorly judged lunge at the letters our temporary postman was ill-advisedly waving at him.

This time I was pretty sure that my dogs had not harassed anyone, so the part of my life that chiefly flashed by was the 1980s, as I tried to work out which of the secretaries I dallied with at the time might finally have dobbed me in for sexual harassment.

I started croakily making the speech I had been taught by a legalistic friend at university: “It’s a fair cop, guv. You got me bang to rights. It’s bird for me this time. Society is to blame.”

(The theory, as I recall, is that the arresting constable will solemnly read this out from his notebook when the case reaches court, whereupon it – and hopefully the rest of his evidence – will be dismissed as an obvious fabrication.)

Luckily they interrupted my speech by advising me that they had not come to arrest me, but to follow up “the incident” of last Tuesday.

What incident?

Oh yes, when the lady who tends our garden called to drop off some plants, and decided that she “did not like the look” of the men up a ladder on our roof. Men with a property maintenance company’s marked van, who were carrying out some long-awaited repairs to stop water pouring into my younger son’s bedroom whenever it rains.

Mending the roof when the sun shines, in fact. If only Gordon Brown could have got the hang of that, how different all our lives might have been.

They tried to explain this to her, but she was not to be fooled. In her mind, their undoubted criminality was exposed by the fact that they were doing the work at 5.30pm, when everyone knows that all genuine tradesmen knock off by mid-afternoon and go down the pub.

A roof repairer and a burglar. Easy to confuse, I'll admit.

I had also been criminally irresponsible in leaving some of my upstairs windows open, though this did not seem altogether unreasonable to me given that (a) there was a Category 3 heatwave taking place at the time, (b) there were two Border terriers in the house in need of a spot of ventilation, and (c) they were the sort of small windows that only an anorexic contortionist could stand the faintest chance of climbing through.

To be fair to my gardener, she did ring me on my mobile before calling the police to arrest the malefactors, but I failed to answer it because I was desperately busy at the time.

I later got a message asking me to ring the police on their 101 non-emergency number to confirm that the roof repairers were indeed genuine, as they had already told the officers who had turned up to suss them out.

This my wife duly did on my behalf, making me all the more surprised to receive a follow-up visit in person.

We had an inconclusive chat about the wisdom of leaving small upstairs windows open even in the height of summer, then the PCs went on their way.

As they did, I wondered to myself how much more police time is wasted by no doubt well-intentioned Neighbourhood Watch curtain-twitchers, whose willingness to call in the law evidently matches some people’s inclination to dial 999 because they can’t find their TV remote control.

But I also felt profoundly grateful to live in a country where the overstretched police can still handle such encounters with patience and good humour.

And, above all, profoundly glad to live in a society in which “not liking the look” of someone going about their lawful business does not provide an excuse to shoot them dead, just to be on the safe side.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Might opera contain the secret recipe for everlasting life?

When I first attended the Buxton Opera Festival in about 1990, I remember looking around the theatre and realising that I was almost certainly the youngest person there.

It was therefore somewhat disturbing to have a virtually identical experience on Saturday evening, diluted only by the presence of the comparatively youthful Mrs Hann.

We were attending a performance of Ottone in Villa by Vivaldi, arguably his earliest opera, first performed in Vicenza in 1713. (I write “arguably” because there is some evidence that he wrote an opera in 1705 under another composer’s name, like J.K. Rowling in reverse.)

I could not help wondering, admittedly rather uncharitably, how many people in Buxton Opera House could remember the premiere.

The problem with early opera, which I adore, is that the contemporary public may find it a bit dull. The singers tend to come on in turn to belt out their individual numbers, in which the words of each aria are typically repeated several times.

We know that Venetian theatres of the time kept their audiences’ attention engaged with a range of ingenious special effects. Nowadays directors tend to do it through costumes (or the lack of them) and dance.

Having the lead soprano and a number of attractive young hangers-on disporting themselves in bikinis certainly kept me awake even in the searing heat of last weekend, but it won nul points from my geriatric companions, who could be heard at the interval loudly condemning the production as “absolutely disgusting” and “very, very silly”. Though I noticed that hardly any of them were appalled enough to miss the second half.

Perhaps frequent attendance at an opera house is a key to longevity. (Sceptics will doubtless contend that it just makes your life seem longer.) However, I do begin to see why theatre managements are so obsessed with trying to draw in younger punters, through initiatives such as English National Opera’s unappealingly named “ENO Undressed”.

The message being not that you should turn up anticipating a Spencer Tunick nude photo shoot, but that you need not don any finery to attend a performance. Though the custom of getting dolled up in black tie seems no bar to near sell-outs at the various country house opera festivals around the country, sadly excluding the North East.

Still, something clearly needs to be done when I rank at the youthful end of the audience spectrum and the insidious cookies on my computer long ago decided that the most appropriate companies to advertise to me were vendors of pensions, annuities, equity release schemes and funeral plans.

Which is a mite disheartening when one has two children under the age of five. Perhaps I should make more use of my all but redundant Google Gmail account, which will apparently analyse the content of all my messages to ensure more accurate tailoring of the products and services I am most likely to buy.

For now, please let me try to persuade all of you, whatever your age, to give opera a try if you have not already done so. Don’t worry too much about when it was composed. The most enjoyable night I have spent in a theatre so far this year was at an English National Opera production of Charpentier’s Medea, first performed in 1693, but I also wholeheartedly endorse George Hepburn’s recommendation yesterday of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which had its premiere in 1945.

Medea, not Peter Grimes

There is much Britten opera around in this centenary year of his birth, and all of it is well worth your attention.

What is so good about opera? It contains some of the greatest and most memorable music ever written, performed by singers and players of truly staggering virtuosity. It has an ability to engage all the senses in a way that no other art form can match, and it indisputably constitutes one of the highest pinnacles of human civilisation.

Apart from which, it can and should be huge fun.

Buxton’s real secret may lie in the famed therapeutic qualities of its spa water. However, we should surely also consider the faint possibility that opera holds the secret of an exceptionally long life among its audiences, if not quite the immortality it bestows on its greatest composers.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

HS2? No thanks, I'd prefer broadband, heat and lighting

When I was young I found it ridiculous that every newspaper story wove its subjects’ ages into the text: what bearing did that have on anything?

Now, at 59, I know that nothing has more influence on our attitudes to any bright idea than our assessment of whether we are likely to live long enough to witness the outcome. That is why I feel the pain of seeing giant wind turbines advance across the beautiful uplands of Northumberland so acutely; because I know there is no chance that I will still be around when they come down again, if they ever do.

Image courtesy of SOUL, the Barmoor Anti Wind Farm Group

It does not take a genius to see that nearly all the arguments advanced in favour of building these gigantic bird-swats are self-interested or simply wrong-headed.

Which makes them curiously like those put forward for construction of the HS2 high speed rail line. On which, like Kevan Jones MP, I experienced a moment of horrible discomfort last week when I suddenly found Lord Mandelson agreeing with me.

Still, it could be worse. I’ve Googled “Gordon Brown HS2” and found no evidence that the new Sage of Kirkcaldy has come out against it, so there must be a sporting chance that I am still right after all.

The theoretical cost of this project keeps going up. It was £42 billion at the last count, and that was apparently without one small but useful addition: some trains to run on it. Still, why worry about that? We all know that the important thing is to get the aircraft carriers built, not fuss about whether we can afford any planes to put on them.

A chimera, and apparently an unbudgeted one at that

The Business Department now seems to be admitting that its key assumption that time spent on trains is economically dead because no one does any work on them is, to use a technical term, cobblers.

While the chief defender of HS2 tracked down by Radio 4 at the weekend claimed that the extra speed of journeys was irrelevant: the project was really all about creating much needed additional capacity for a rail system bursting at the seams.

Except that, as a regular traveller on the West Coast Main Line, I often survey masses of empty seats, particularly at those peak times when all those without calf-length pockets have been priced off the railway altogether.

If we do need more capacity, why not reinstate some of those passing loops and diversionary routes cleverly axed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s?

The Number One Hate Figure of my childhood, surpassing even the bloke who taught swimming at my school

If we’ve suddenly found a huge amount of spare cash to invest in transport, how about creating a Transpennine rail service that is genuinely worthy of the name “Express”? Reopen the freight lines in South East Northumberland to passengers, extend the Metro, build some more urban tramways (first learning all the lessons from the debacle in Edinburgh), stop cutting back bus services, relieve the congestion on the Gateshead western by-pass, and, yes, dual the A1.

I write as one who adores trains and whose youthful blood was regularly brought to boiling point by letters to this paper from the Railway Conversion League, arguing that the answer was to rip up all the rails, lay concrete and run buses. Even a schoolboy could see that their case was total rubbish.

I am delighted to have lived long enough to see rail emerge triumphant and enjoy a renaissance that seemed as least as implausible, back in the 1960s, as a British man ever again winning Wimbledon.

But it really is time to get back to reality and stop politicians grandstanding with ludicrous promises of massive public expenditure that actually cost them nothing because they will be long gone from office when the bills start rolling in.

In the vanishingly unlikely event that we really have got a spare £50 billion to improve the national infrastructure, please let’s spend it on something genuinely useful. If we must invest in something high speed, make it broadband. And spend the change on some new power stations that will keep working when the wind isn’t blowing at just the right speed.

Otherwise we are likely be spending our winter evenings in the cold and dark not in some imaginary, distant future, but uncomfortably soon.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Older generation should OF known better than that

One of my dwindling stock of small private pleasures is taking an almost daily look at a website devoted to photographs of Newcastle in the past.

The sort of thing that gladdens my heart (copyright unknown)

I still hope that one day I will come across a picture of my mother leading a gabardine-clad boy on our weekly Saturday pilgrimage to the Tatler or News Theatre, then on to R.A. Dodds in the Grainger Market for our Sunday joint, and Tilley’s in Clayton Street for cream cakes for afternoon tea.

Or perhaps by some remote chance someone captured the look on my father’s face in the 1930s, when a backfiring motorcycle on Pilgrim Street caused two shire horses to rear and the LNER delivery cart they were pulling to reverse smartly into the bonnet of his brand new car.

But sadly I fear that I am going to have to close off this small avenue of pleasure because I am regularly driven close to apoplexy by the comments beneath the photos, and particularly by their authors’ almost universal conviction that the verb “have” is spelt “of”. (And the few who differ on this point are almost all convinced that the correct form is “uv”.)

Somehow this is particularly irksome because the natural audience for sites trading in nostalgia is the older generation. Such sloppiness may be forgivable in the young, who have had the benefit of our marvellous comprehensive education system, but surely their seniors should know better? They should be among the “haves” not the “of-nots”.

Surely teacher would have mentioned the whole "of / have" business?

I realise that I ought to be capable of rising above this sort of thing and simply rejoicing when people take pleasure in expressing themselves. After all, their observations are still intelligible (if not always particularly intelligent), so why should they be hidebound by tedious old rules?

I also know that I am in no position to cast stones, since an ex-girlfriend who teaches English regularly pulls me up on this column’s terrible grammar (for which my only defence is that the Royal Grammar School, in my day, seemed to regard it as the cornerstone of teaching in every language apart from English).

But while I find it increasingly hard to remember how I ever got through the day without constant access to the internet, the wilful illiteracy of so many of its users is becoming increasingly hard to bear. Along with their penchant for posting questions to which the answer is blindingly obvious, if only they could be bothered to do a five second search before asking them.

Then there is the constant bickering about crediting photographs, and whether they may be shared or reproduced. (Can anyone explain to me why, if you are jealous of the copyright of your material, you would post it on the internet in the first place?)

Plus the sheer venomous ill will to be observed in comments on every piece of writing ever published by anyone on every website in the world.

I yearn for that gentler and slower world in which people wrote polite letters in copperplate then sent them on their way by Royal Mail. In fact, the very world captured in those black and white photographs from the 1950s that I really must stop seeking out online.

Perhaps just the one last whiff of nostalgia ...

Particularly when there are alternatives available in my family albums of the time that I never, ever look at; and the dozens of picture books that I have acquired over the years to sit gathering dust on my shelves. While I click on inferior images on my laptop that have the virtue of being instantly accessible, and a welcome distraction from whatever work I am supposed to be doing at the time.

Early in my career, an unkind but perceptive superior suggested that my epitaph would be “He had great gifts but was too lazy to unwrap them”. Now I suspect it might be “He acquired a great library but was too idle to get up and open a book.”

The distinguished science author Steven Pinker, interviewed on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday, expressed confidence that Twitter and textspeak would not destroy conventional English, any more than the telegram had done in the 19th century. I 4 1 wud leik to think he cud of bin rite.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.