Amid all the fuss about the Chinese balloon floating over Montana – we should not forget that the US has 339 military surveillance satellites operating around the world; watching everyone and everything all the time.
They launched four of them in 2020 and, as Space Magazine reported at the time “It’s unclear exactly what the spacecraft will be doing up there.” Though I think we can work it out.
If every other country reacted to that like the US has to this balloon, no future summit would ever be able to take place.
Paranoia about Chinese technology is becoming another theme being pushed hard in the Western Press and on right wing sites. Here’s a headline from one of them. China finds SHOCKING WAY to spy on you – and they’re already in your KITCHEN!(their caps) Of course, if there’s someone from Chinese intelligence who wants to sit in your fridge to note the contents, he or she would have to nudge Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt out of the way first. “Alexa! note down everything I’m saying”.
The US has also been developing balloon surveillance capacity of its own. Last May Politico reported that
Over the past two years, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects, and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 to continue work on multiple efforts, according to budget documents.
For years, DoD has conducted tests using high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data, provide ground forces with communication and mitigate satellite problems. The Pentagon is quietly transitioning the balloon projects to the military services to collect data and transmit information to aircraft, POLITICO discovered in DoD budget justification documents.
This is a slightly tweaked version of the talk I gave at the Socialist Solutions to the Climate Crisis meeting at the Marx Memorial Library alongside Dan Kovalic from the University of Pittsburg, Lauren Collins from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Nicaraguan Ambassador Giselle Morales-Echaverry and chaired by Ben Chakko from the Morning Star. A film of the whole meeting can be viewed here.
What China does to tackle the climate crisis will have a huge impact on whether humanity succumbs to it or not.
This is partly because it
is already the world’s largest economy in Purchase Power Parity terms
has a population greater than that of Europe, North America, South America and Australasia combined; a four continent country
is a developing country that has developed very successfully
is now exceeding the US in the number of patents for new inventions filed every year
is a country run, not by the private sector interests that make the USA the best democracy money can buy, but by a Communist Party with 90 million members; whose project is to build Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
This is in a context in which the US – as the self proclaimed “indispensable nation” and “global leader” – the country for which the rules in the “rules based international order” are written – is failing spectacularly to lead the world in confronting its greatest existential challenge – the breakdown of the climactic conditions in which human society can continue to exist – and prioritising war instead.
On current government spending, the US is putting fourteen times as much into its military as it is into domestic green transmission, and is encouraging its allies to increase theirs too; which they are doing.
The economic context of this is that, because globalisation now favours China not the US, the US is “decoupling” from it and pressing its subordinate allies to do the same, while screwing them over at the same time.
China, by contrast, is spending more than twice as much on green transition as on its military. More precise look at these figures here.
China’s is the right priority for every country because of the scale of the problem. Reports that the 1.5C limit is fast getting beyond reach should be a klaxon going off in all our heads. Not an invitation to fatalism, which will be fatal, but to redouble efforts to accelerate the scale and speed of transition to limit the damage as much as possible.
The consequence of not doing so will be severe. In 2007 a joint report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Centre for a New American Security entitled “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy Implications of Global Climate Change” made this prediction for the impact of the kind of climate breakdown we could be heading into.
“Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long, nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.”
That’s what we have to avoid, and the Labour movement has to take a lead in making sure we do. Not least because if we don’t the widespread anxiety about the future will give rise to wilder and wilder versions of the tsunami of irrationality we are already seeing, with severe consequences as climate crises bite and people seek false solutions. We should note that the capitalist class, which emerged historically– in its own head at least – as champions of reason and enlightenment – are going down promoting collective insanity; Q Anon and on…The only question is whether they take us with down them.
Socialist solutions are needed because, as the FT noted recently “The Free Market will solve the Climate Crisis – but not in time”. This is even recognised in the Skidmore Review of the government’s Net Zero “Strategy” which notes that the state has to provide clear goals, legislative frameworks and sufficient investment for any transition to be viable. The US Inflation Reduction Act has taken the same approach, which has now prompted the EU to follow suit, streamlining investment procedures, resetting regulations and priming green pumps.
This is better than letting the market follow its financial nose while hoping for the best, but its still within a framework in which it is the job of the state to provide the conditions for private sector profitability – with that profitability being the determinant of whether a transition takes place or not.
This won’t be good enough – which brings us back to China.
In the context of the second phase of the Wars for the New American Century, and the great decoupling that goes with it, China will not get a good press in this country; and the dominance of a set of negative narratives relentlessly repeated means that relatively few people, even on the Left, will give it the benefit of the doubt.
This sometimes takes the form of extreme cognitive dissonance. A recent Labour Party Foreign Policy Group Report said that China’s success in poverty reduction for 850 million people in the last half century was “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” but then goes on to argue for technological, commercial and academic disengagement from, and military preparedness to confront, the country, people and Party that produced “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” A similar view is common in the climate movement.
So, on climate, does China get it? Beyond Xi Jinping’s speeches about the need to build an ecological society and for global cooperation to achieve it – a concern that predates him becoming General Secretary – there’s what China does domestically, how it acts internationally, and how the two intertwine. I want to look at two key areas.
China is still heavily dependent on coal to generate power, but we should note that since 2011 the quantity of coal used every year has levelled off, while the economy has been growing dramatically.
Overall, China’s investment in wind and solar has been on such a large scale that it has made them a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuels, which is a crucial global life line.
The current (14th) Five Year Plan envisages a better connected grid with renewables at its core and coal relegated to a back up role.
The International Energy Agency and others project that China’s 2030 target for renewable power installation could be met by 2025, which indicates the sort of exponential growth that will be needed for China’s overall emissions to start dropping before the end of the decade.
The IEA assessment is also that the speed and scale of this drop will, exceed Western precedents.
At the same time, the decision to cease any funding for coal fired power stations as part of the Belt and Road initiative is estimated by the IEA to have the same beneficial effect as the whole of the EU actually getting to Net Zero by 2050. So, a massive deal.
That means that the energy development paradigm for those parts of the Global South where China is hegemonic will be via renewables. The “dash for gas” in Africa being pushed by the EU, and Tony Blair Institute among others, at the last COP is depressing contrast. They are selling this as a “transition fuel” for the continent, but its actually for export to Europe.
The city of Shenzen in Southern China replaced its entire 16,000 strong bus fleet with electric vehicles in 2016. London, with 8,000 buses, is going to take until sometime in the 2030s, and TFL is very good by UK standards.
In 2021 China produced 57% of the world’s electric vehicles and 77% of the batteries needed to power them. We should note in passing that the only gigafactory making EV batteries in the UK is part owned by a Chinese company. The debacle of build it from scratch startup company BritishVolt illustrates the difficulties of the UK model; which can’t compete with the level of subsidy that continental scale economies like the US and EU can put up, while its increasingly Sinophobic Foreign Policy posture will inhibit any inward investment from China, where this technology is best established.
The rapid development of China’s High Speed Rail Network has saved it from dependence on internal medium haul flights – of the sort that the US relies on and which were largely responsible for US carbon emissions rising again last year.
This is also and essential paradigm for Global South transport development through the Belt and Road initiative, which runs on rails.
So, Socialists in the climate movement have a number of tasks
To challenge disinformation about China in the movement and, as the saying goes, “seek truth from facts”.
Oppose the war drive and military spending, campaigning for financial and technological transfer to the Global South instead.
Oppose economic decoupling as detrimental to climate progress (a very clear example of which is that the trade sanctions imposed on Chinese solar panel imports by the US this year has led to a 23% drop in domestic installations – which is bad for emissions and bad for jobs) and seek win win global solutions on the context of the most rapid possible green transition.
In the period between Xmas and New Year the vibe in the local supermarket has changed even more rapidly than in recent years. The decs were all down – not even waiting until 12th night – and relentlessly upbeat music was playing. Even “Things can only get better” with no apparent sense of irony. Nevertheless, it works. Even as I am critiquing it in my head, I find myself bopping along to “Happy” with my shopping trolley. I look around and the only other person in the shop still wearing a mask is doing the same.
Watching the New Year Concert by the Vienna Phil, probably the whitest orchestra in the world, which is self consciously put on every New Year’s Day as reassurance that in a world of change, nothing changes. Three parts a static version of Last Night of the Proms to 2 parts Jules Holland’s Hootenanny. Even if the pieces shift round a bit from year to year, its all the same sort of music, and even though they actually finally let some girls from the Vienna Girls Choir sing with the boys this year – there were only a reassuring few, because you’ve got to take such wild experiments slowly and steadily so as not to scare the (Lipizzaner) horses. And the Blue Danube and the Radetsky March will always be played as encores, and in that order, with the emphatic last two beats of the Radetsky march ending on an emphatic “so there!” Thus, it was, and ever shall be. But not so of course. At the time they were written, those two beats were meant to affirm that, rise as the Italians might, Austria would stay in charge in Northern Italy – and the Habsburgs in the Hofburg – forever; and it didn’t turn out like that.
Its happy, frothy, beautiful music, sometimes accompanied by film of happy, frothy, beautiful – and impossibly clean – people doing swooping dances in classical surroundings dressed in impeccable clothes, or simulating a picnic with food that is visually delicious (this isn’t just food, this is Vienna Philharmonic food) but oddly fossilised, lacking in touch, smell, giving off a sense that the lush red strawberries were 3D printed, not grown in dirt, and with no sound other than the music – an impersonation of feeling in a replica heritage of a culture that died when the Empire did.
As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, no one wrote Waltzes or Polkas in Vienna after the First World War. All the same, since 2014 at the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have not been able to listen to the opening drum tattoo of the Radetsky March, calling all Kaisertreu men to arms with a jaunty innocence that it might all be over by Xmas, without welling up.
Although China has a nominal per capita income of just under a third of the US level in 2022 in PPP terms; since 2020 it has began to overhaul the US as a society in some key respects.
Life expectancy in China now exceeds that of the US by 20 months; at 78.2 years to the American 76.6. This might be dented this year by the current rise in COVID infections, but current indications are that the Zero Covid policy kept the population safe during the most lethal period, so the impact of opening up now will be qualitatively less than it was in the West.
In China, infant mortality has declined to 5 per 100,000, now below the US level of 5.5 and the maternal death rate at birth is now substantially lower, at 16 per 100,000, compared to 24 per 100,000 for the US.
While this is improving but uneven in both countries, the rate of improvement is greater in China.
This compares unfavourably with Xinjiang, one of China’s least developed and poorest regions, where infant mortality dropped dramatically from 26.58 per 1,000 in 2010 to 6.75 per 1,000 in 2020.
At the same time, the maternal death rate more than halved from 43.41 per 100,000 in 2010 to 17.89 per 100,000 in 2020 – less than a third the Louisiana rate.
NB the figure for Louisiana is for 2021, that for Xinjiang is for 2020.
Beneath the brute figures of sheer size of economies – China’s has been larger in PPP terms since 2014 and is likely to be bigger in exchange rate terms by the late 2020’s – China’s largest firms are beginning to outperform those of the USA, with Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 Global list earning $11.71 Trillion last year, compared to $11.34 trillion for the US companies listed. 87 out of the 145 Chinese companies listed are majority, or wholly, state owned.
This is underpinned by increasingly ground breaking scientific research, with the Chinese share of the most cited Scientific papers (top 1%) having grown to 27.2%, surpassing the USA’s 24.9%.
The US model of development, dependent as it is on dominating and exploiting the rest of the planet, producing consumption patterns with an elephantine carbon footprint, is neither a viable path for other countries to follow – because no other country can dominate the way that it does – nor, as we can see above, does it produce the best possible outcomes for its population from the resources it commands. It is already an outmoded model of modernity.
On the way up to Northwick Park hospital on Friday, we passed through Kenton. As the rest of Brent North has become tougher and more workaday. Kenton has retained a tidy “my pink half of the drainpipe” quality where people are well off enough to keep keeping up appearances, keep their houses fixed and front drives clear for shiny cars that all conspire to keep the property prices up. Passing so many handsome detached houses, its still possible to image them populated by the sort of Tory granddames immortalised in Betjeman’s Metroland film (1973); all hatchet faces and horrible hats. Kenton is the one ward that has consistently retained three Conservative Councillors when the Party has been all but wiped out in the rest of the borough since 2010.
One sign of change is that the old Kenton Conservative Club, Churchill Hall, a hideous prefab mausoleum painted 8th Army orange – the venue for generations of young Conservatives to bond over games of ping ping, tea dances and pints of bitter (and twisted) – has been demolished; even as a wave of communalism among better off members of the local Gujerati community gives them an revival of a kind, incorporating “favoured” ethnic minorities in the way the Empire always did, and Anthropology Departments set up to theorise, but now as an aspect of domestic politics creating a kind of equal opportunities xenophobia. Suella Braverman, after all, grew up in Harrow and Wembley.
Going in to A&E in Northwick Park is always a bit daunting. Hearing a radio report recently about how many hospitals were now beginning to slip below the 4 hour limit for dealing with new arrivals, it struck me that 4 hours would have been a fast turnaround for our most recent visits. The staff are always lovely when they get to you, incredibly overworked and kind, the pressure they are under almost unbearable. In a last flicker of COVID precautions, masks now being worn by a minority, I am not allowed in with my daughter.
Walking up the corridor, I am passed by two medics of visibly different grades animatedly discussing ballots; giving a sense that the NHS staff are engaging in a mass collective struggle to save it and make ends meet.
An elderly woman being pushed, backwards, in a wheelchair, clutches a bottle of Lucozade – the convalescent strategies of the 1950s still alive and well it seems.
A bloke walking and talking on a mobile mutters “You don’t understand. You can’t eat an orange in one go”.
In another legacy of Covid precautions the Costa uses paper cups, but the harassed Barista trying desperately to work her way through a queue that keeps growing is too preoccupied to engage in a discussion about it.
The woman selling hand made jewellery along the back of the Costa tells me that the bright, glittery crystal hearts are very popular. Not surprising. They are shaped like love and look like hope. Not medicine, but what you’d want from it.
Waiting over in A&E, my daughter reports that the “Mission Impossible” theme has just been played, raising a few smiles around her. Reminds me of a physio appointment I once had during which the music in the background suddenly launched into the Volga boatman’s song – “Yo-Oh – HEAVE Ho”. I asked the Physiotherapist if it was a departmental theme tune.
Outside the main entrance to the hospital, someone has chained up this extraordinary small motorbike. A retro version of the electric bikes that are becoming more common, and alongside one of them. What the future looks like for petrol heads?
On Saturday, with S properly medicated and beginning to recover, I am sent in search of a wood yard with cutting facilities, which takes me deep into the Harrow part of Kenton to a dour and no nonsense establishment full of shiny drill bits lined up in order of girth, saw blades ordered by type and size, nuts, bolts, DIY power tools, some covered in dust to show that life is too short for cosmetic cleansing and a long counter, staffed shoulder to shoulder with serious looking men trying to keep warm in black fleece hoodies. While I am waiting for the 2 cuts on S’s plank of MDF that the colossal B&Q in Cricklewood couldn’t handle – “the cutting’s not available” – a bloke buying a lot of timber tries to get a bit of edging thrown in for free as a sweetener. He hits a brick wall. “Yes, but you’ll have to pay for that”. He tries to haggle a bit, but knows its a lost cause. The spirit of Mr Flint is alive and well in HA3. This is also apparent when I get my two cuts at £1 a cut. The bloke in charge of keeping tabs on orders hand writes a receipt for £2, writes PAID on it and circles it, handing it to me with an understated but definite flourish.
Walking back towards Honeypot Lane, one of the more hopeful sounding local thoroughfares, I realise that I have been to this area before. In the run up to the December 2019 General Election there was a mass canvas of these streets. A big detachment of the huge urban militia that Labour was able to field at the time spread out across the stony ground of these neat little bungalows seeking to squeeze a bit of red blood out of Tory stones by trying to drive more hope than an aging local electorate could cope with. This bit of suburbia clings on to Major’s conception of it.
I walk past the bungalow with the stone lions on every buttress where the elderly gentleman I spoke to barked at me “Do I LOOK like a Labour voter?” I said that we came in all, shapes and sizes, but it was downhill all the way from there. Actually, he looked a bit like me. Old, white, bald. But he didn’t feel like a Labour voter; and I expect still wouldn’t, however many Union Jacks the leadership stands behind them.
After the drought in the Summer turned the local park into a dustbowl, the grass bleached to straw ghosts, the ground rock hard, the air hazy, the Autumn monsoons that we have had for the past few weeks have turned it back into lush water meadows almost to marshland in places. It hasn’t quite got to the swamp quality we’ve had in previous autumns, with geese wading through puddles that have merged into small lakes, a testament to just how dry it got, but it’s on the way. I now stay on the paths when I walk through, so as not to plash.
A grumpy old bloke in the bus queue outside the Magistrates Court, perhaps ground down a bit by the almost constant rain, turns to the woman next to him and complains about the new Highway Code giving cyclists preference over cars in a tone that implies that this is a sign we are being driven to go to the dogs by a conspiracy of elitists with a thing about Lycra. It is so evident to him that this is a bad thing, and so evident to me that it’s a good thing that I say so. He ignores my comment. or, possibly, doesn’t hear it because I seem to be one of the last people in Northwest London still wearing a mask on the buses. It seems odd that he’s so defensive of cars when he’s queuing for the bus. Perhaps he’s more anti cyclist than pro car.
On the side of a bus outside Willesden Health Centre, “Come for our affordable premier dental care in Turkey”. The shortage of NHS dentists laid bare by an advert.
Outside a fruit and veg shop on Willesden High Road a sign reading “Polski, Irani, Arabi”. Fusion Grocery. Up the street a succession of shops with Brazilian or Portuguese flags. We duck into a cafe that’s a little gem of a place, panettones hanging from the ceiling, dark wood shelves all the way up displaying gleaming bottles of mysterious dark alcohols, a coffee machine that looks well used, a TV in the corner showing Joe Biden speaking grim faced in Indonesia with Portuguese subtitles, everyone else in the place speaking Portuguese and the guy at the counter just about understanding me. We sit at a tiny table next to a freezer cabinet and shelves full of the Iberian equivalent of chocolate frosted sugar bomb cereals drinking an almost perfect Capuchino, just smoky enough, not too sweet, not too much and the best one of those tiny custard tarts I have ever eaten, the pastry flakier than flaky and the custard full of creamy dimensions; positively mindful. J agrees that its better than Costa carrot cake, in more ways than one.
Coming back up the road, a pair of houses are being renovated by a hard working squad of, mostly Sikh, builders. Every day a different smell. Some almost poisonous, the reek of araldite. Some fresh and spring like, newly sawn wood. Outside on the scaffolding, a large stuffed rainbow unicorn is suspended like a hunting trophy with that awful pathos abandoned soft toys always have. “Jackie Paper came no more…”
As we go into the COP, we know the conference will be full of lobbyists from BP – and other companies like them – trying to claim that they are on a pathway to sustainability. Doesn’t look like it, does it?
BP changed their logo and adopted the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000. If this is the progress they have made in 22 years, it doesn’t look like they’ll be getting beyond it any time soon. In fact, carry on making this rate of progress (up to 7.3% in 22 years) and they’ll have made it “beyond petroleum” in just over 301 years – so, by around March 2323; which is a bit late in anyone’s terms.
There’s a little old lady, but not from Pasadena, who lives down the hill and owns a powder blue Morris Minor that’s almost as old as she is. Whenever she takes it out for a spin, she has a look of intense concentration bordering on manic glee that makes every trip seem an adventure as she pootles past. The throaty purr of the glorified lawnmower engine that drives it drowns out the whispering hum of the sleeker, more anonymous vehicles that back up behind her; sounding like a V8 by contrast. As the Beach Boys would have it, “Go Granny! Go Granny! Go Granny! Go!”
Much as people form relationships with their cars – we had an old split window Morris in the 60s that we called “Ada” and had to will up hills – there is a lot less romanticism about them here than in the USA. You can’t imagine a local equivalent of Bruce Springsteen singing, “We were building Austin Metros”, or “We were building Ford Escorts”.
Thunderbirds – quite a name in itself- are redolent of cruising across endless prairies on a “freeway” (and what a loaded word that is) at 100mph or burning rubber in strip races at Ventura Beach and Jack Kerouac proclaiming that “the only word I had was Wow”. The only local equivalent of “Get your kicks on Route 66” is satire, Billy Bragg’s “A13, trunk road to the sea”.
If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
Take the A road,
the okay road that’s the best
Go motorin’ on the A13
Even the opening line has a sense of compulsion about it. If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness…not so much an exploration as a chore, especially as you also have to go “rather near Basildon”. Somebody has to.
One of the odd things about people acting as though the COVID pandemic is over is that it increases the number of people who keep catching it. My Mum and Dad, both 92 and who very rarely go out, recently picked it up on a visit to Hospital, after sitting in a waiting room for quite some time surrounded by people without masks on. Both have got through it, Mum without symptoms, Dad being quite bad with it for three days, underlining again the relative vulnerability of men (weaker sex and all that). Both of them are as vaccinated as you can get and we’re all very thankful for that, as the death rate for people over 80 who are fully vaccinated is 1 in 68. If you have had fewer than 2 vaccinations your chances drop to 1 in 7. Residual vaccine sceptics please note. I’m not saying this to score a point.
So, I went down to Grays and did a very brief socially distanced drop off of some chicken soup my daughter made for them – “give ’em some chicken soup”. “But madam, that won’t help” “It wouldn’t hoit!”
Wandering back through town I stop off for a Capuchino and strudel at Lu Lu’s Cakes and Bakes on the High Street opposite where the Queen’s Hotel used to be. A little gem of a cafe full of pastries and caffeinated smells, staffed by Eastern European women busily doing accounts, with a couple of other grey haired geezers sitting at the tables outside, quietly taking in the breeze and the pale October sunlight. They have a sign on the counter which gains a bit from translation, proclaiming that all of their pastries are freshly made in “our laboratory”. “IGOR!The Strudels!” But the lab does good work. Recommended if you are ever in Grays High Street.
The precinct is busy but determinedly down at heel. An attempt to revive the High Street in the 1970s, complete with multi story car park and killed stone dead by Lakeside opening up in the 80s. The old status stores, M&S, even Woolworths, either migrating there or shutting down. A Poundland. A Burger King. A “Gorgeous in Grays” store. There seem to be a lot of Sacred Heart Jesus posters on sale, a counterpoint to the evangelical revival on display at the mega church at the Eastern end of what used to be Congress House, the old Coop Department Store that we thought was terribly modern in the sixties. The design of these varies, but the Jesus is always very white. In one he points to the blazing heart in his chest with the same sort of understated gesture that a gangbanger might point to a gun – “you don’t want to mess with this”. In another he holds up two fingers in benediction but has a reproachful expression – “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m deeply disappointed”. The fingers are crossed. A woman walks past talking to her mate “He was so fucking rude to me…” The classiest and coziest place in the precinct is the Costa cafe by the High Street entrance, where I pick up a sandwich for the train journey back. Most tables full. A buzz of conversation. A barista straight outa’ Shoreditch, all massive mane of curly hair and beard, brews coffees in a chilled sort of way.
On the way up to the station a tiny black girl gives me a conspiratorial grin as she zooms past on one of those three wheeled scooters.
The journey back goes up the Rainham line. That means we pass Wennington, the small settlement hit hardest by last year’s wildfires during the 40C heatwave. Wennington is one of those unobtrusive landmarks that you tend to take notice of without making a note of. Out beyond Rainham proper and built, presumably, on a bit of land higher and dryer than the big sweep of marshland that surrounds it and sweeps all the way down to Purfleet, so it stands on the horizon. Even expecting to see damage, the state of it is quite a shock. The stubby stone church tower stands at one end like a squat exclamation mark, next to it several houses that have been gutted, just their dividing walls and chimneys pointing blasphemously upwards, then a few houses that look untouched, then several more completely burnt out, blue sky showing where their living rooms and bedrooms should have been, then some more, seemingly normal. Not built back better. Or even built back at all. It stands as a memorial and a warning. We got off lightly in that heatwave, even though the Fire Brigade had more calls than on any day since the end of the Second World War. The winds were light. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky.
A sign of hope as I sit at Tower Hill and eat my sandwich somewhere scenic. The moat around the Tower, filled eight years ago with scarlet ceramic poppies in a striking memorial to World War One, is now running riot with wild flowers. The same sort of recreated meadow we have in our local parks but on a grander scale. The sea of colour waving in the wind somehow gentles down the still, grim old fortress, with its thousand year terrible history and hinting that maybe we can do better than we’ve done and, if we don’t, the flowers will still be here when we are long gone.
On my street, halfway up the hill someone has left a pile of bright yellow Don’t Pay Energy Bills Oct 1st leaflets on a garden wall. They have blown in the wind all over the pavement like autumn leaves amongst the equally yellow barriers put up by the gas men around the holes in the pavement they have dug to replace the mains. This, according to their hand out, is to make our increasingly unaffordable gas supply safe for “many decades to come”. This is a bit alarming. If we are to be off fossil fuels by 2050, “many decades to come” can’t be more than three at the most.
Along Grove Park, on top of the low brick wall under the boundary fence of The Village School – its shrubbery studded by crushed beer cans and discarded wrappers blown in on the wind – someone, some time ago by the looks of it – has propped up a copy of Salman Rushdie’s children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories as though it is an offering, or possibly a statement of some sort. Soaked by rain and spattered by leaves and bits of paper, it is steadily decomposing back into the wood pulp from which it was printed, the pages stuck together in a papier-mâché morass. There is something simultaneously plaintive and defiant about it – an echo and reminder of what it once was; haunting itself like a literary ghost.
Down at the shops, a middle-aged black guy in a brushed fur cowboy hat emerges from the halal butchers looked bewildered.
A huge man wearing a windcheater with a gigantic Welsh dragon emblazoned on the back chats quietly with his mate, in Polish. His 8 or 9 year old son stands next to him with an identical stance and body language.
Outside Aldi – “the cheap shop” – an aging Indian bloke stands staring across the road in a full-length black leather coat and battered, but smart, brown fedora, looking like a slightly effete secret policeman from 1920’s central Europe.
And this evening there were no less than two foot-patrols of police officers walking through the shopping drag. Two men heading East and, ten minutes later, two women heading West, crossing each other’s path like an attenuated square dance. Neither were making any contact with the life on the streets. The two women were absorbed in conversation with each other, turned inwards as they proceeded at the regulation two miles an hour in the general direction of Iceland and VBs and both talking at once. The two men seemed cut off from everything, and each other. No eye contact with anyone, staring unfocussed and a bit glacially into the middle of next week as they walked. There but not there. An oddly passive presence. Waiting for something to react to rather than trying to connect.
Between 1912 and 1920 along the West side of the Edgeware Road, where the Loon Fung, Morrisons and Asda Supermarkets are now and stretching up as far as the Volkswagen dealership by Hay Lane, was where the Airco factory used to be. This was a vast workshop that built a large proportion of the aircraft used by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. All the original De Havilands. The company went bankrupt within two years of the armistice. The end of the war meant there was no demand for aircraft anymore and BSA, who bought it, were sold a pup (and not of the Sopwith variety).
The only part of the original factory that’s left is the former head office, which is now the Beis Yaakov Primary School. Glancing across at it, it is surrounded with solid black railings well above head height – fortress style – and there is a tall square extension in compatible architecture topped off with an inwardly curving fence, presumably to stop balls being kicked over from the rooftop playground and, possibly, to make it hard for someone with hostile intent to throw anything in the other way. At 10 in the morning there are two Community Security Trust blokes shooing in Orthodox looking Mums in sleek grey SUVs delivering a rather late school run. They are both wearing bright yellow hi vis vests. One of them is holding on to it with both hands at chest height, while repeatedly doing that knee flex thing that the Police tend to do when they are standing still but feeling tense. Evenin’ all.
After announcing Liz Truss’s resignation as Prime Minister on the 2pm News, the first piece of music played by Radio 3 was the Thunder and Lightning Polka. I guess they are not in mourning.