Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mind the carrrot - more from the nef debate

"What would be the impact if every garden in London grew carrots?"

The audience chuckled. David, the guy earnestly posing the question, looked peeved. David's question was serious but the South Bank audience couldn't resist the thought of thousands of Londoners chomping carrots - Bugs Bunny-style - at bus stops, on the tube and down the pub.

Professor Jayati Ghosh, a key player in the nef debate, answered David. Urban agriculture in Cuba, she explained, had switched in recent years from large state-owned mono-crop farms to a system of polycrop smallholdings where citizens grow food for their families, neighbourhoods and for sale at markets.

I'd heard about this Cuban transition a few days earlier at a smaller gathering at the Marchmont Street Community Centre near Russell Square. Cuban agro-ecology scientist Fernando Gunes-Monzote explained how a land redistribution programme started a few years ago had encouraged 100,000 people - many of them young people living in towns and cities - to farm their own land. 

Fernando showed recent photos of these Cuban smallholdings. One showed a strip of land, not much longer and no wider than the average back garden of a London semi, full of flourishing crops - pineapples, yams, cassava, tomatoes and bananas.

Locally organised organic urban farming now supplies the people of Havana and other towns with 80% of their food. 

I began to wonder - what would be the impact if 100,000 people in London started growing their own fruit and vegetables?

Where did our money go? Surviving and thriving in the Great Transition, Wednesday, 27 October 2010, hosted by nef.

Image: Imperial War Museum

Paul Coleman, London, October 2010.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Britain's 'ridiculous collective masochism'

The actress Maureen Lipman strode down Charing Cross Road carrying a bunch of flowers. Hundreds of people enjoyed an evening meal at the restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall. The West End of London was buzzing - and it was only a Wednesday night. 

I rushed down to London's South Bank to hear a lively perspective on Britain's economic woes from Professor Jayati Ghosh, one of the world's leading economists. "It's extraordinary to come to the UK and see all this collective masochism," said Professor Ghosh from the Jawarharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. 

"Y'know, where people in the UK are saying 'it's a disaster, we've all been bad, we have to have suffer and deserve all of our cuts!' In fact, you have this government debt largely because you bailed out a whole lot of banks," added Professor Ghosh. 

"But, in any case, the state can't go bankrupt," she continued. "This whole announcement - 'if we don't do these cuts then we're going bankrupt' - is completely ridiculous. 

"It's surprising to come here and see the extent to which this completely wrong rhetoric about how government debt has to be redeemed immediately, 'it's like a household' and so on, has been absorbed by the population. I think it's extraordinary...and people have to get out of this thinking!"

Andrew Simms, policy director of the new economics foundation, cheekily wondered whether the "new masochism was in any way related to the public school education system". Who on earth could he be thinking of?

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas cited a worrying prediction by Lloyd's of London that oil prices will soar to $200 per barrel by 2013. If this comes to pass, the cost of fertiliser, food transportation and packaging will rise and food prices will go up. 

"Our food supply system is massively insecure," added Lucas. "It only needs a few lorry strikes and demonstrations outside fuel depots to know we're only nine meals away from a food crisis." 

That's six meals for some, if the size of the portions on the plates at the Festival Hall were anything to go by.

The nef's lively and well-attended 'Great Transition' debate at the Purcell Room wasn't all doom and gloom though. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood certainly stamped her personality and perspective on the proceedings. 

So, I'll return to Professor Ghosh, Lucas and Westwood in later postings. 

Of course, before that happens, I'll have to firstly stop beating myself up over the financial crisis caused by the banks.

Where did our money go? Surviving and thriving in the Great Transition, Wednesday, 27 October 2010, hosted by nef.

Paul Coleman, London, October 2010

Monday, 25 October 2010

American economist warns cuts will damage UK economy

I caught on TV this morning (Monday October 25) an interesting analysis comparing American and British responses to the financial crisis. The Obama administration has spent billions to stimulate demand and spur economic recovery. In Britain, as we now know, the Cameron-Clegg ConDem coalition is committed to deep public spending cuts.

"The British idea appears to be if they make cuts in the public sector, the private sector will come along and re-absorb those people, put them back to work," said Professor James K Galbraith of the University of Texas.

"I don't see how that is going to happen," added the Austin-based Professor Galbraith. "The  British have financial problems similar to ours (in the United States) and I suspect that what is going to happen is that they're going to end up with a great many more people on unemployment, on the dole, or simply retired, without any of the benefit of a rebound of the private economy that they appear to be hoping for. 

"So I think they're pursuing a strategy which is really based upon a very fanciful idea about how an economy works and I would be very surprised if it pays off for them."

Professor Galbraith was interviewed on Al Jazeera TV's Counting the Cost. 

Paul Coleman, London, October 2010.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Toasting the Andalucia Star's brave crews

Out of the blue I recently learnt that another little girl - three-year-old Gillian Ash - was rescued from the sea after the Blue Star Line cargo ship, the Andalucia Star, was torpedoed and sunk on 6th October 1942 during the Second World War.

Gillian Ash fell from the same tipped lifeboat as Jill McNichol, the five-year-old girl whose rescue I've detailed in previous postingsGillian's mother plucked her from the cold choppy Atlantic and pulled her up into a lifeboat. 

I received details about Gillian Ash from Mary Godward, whose uncle George Godward was on his way to England as a volunteer on board the Andalucia Star when it was torpedoed three times by a German U-Boat submarine - U-107 - and sunk with three lives lost. 

I'll highlight more details about Gillian Ash's rescue story in future postings. But for the moment, I just want to say how pleasing it was to receive the following apt and timely note today from Jill McNichol.

Jill kindly wrote:
"My father always phoned me and we would drink a toast today to the Andalucia Star, her brave crew and all who sailed on her during her many voyages. 
Join me in a glass of anything you like. 
All the best and cheers, Jill."

Sixty-eight years ago, Jill was crossing the Atlantic on the Andalucia Star with her father, S.G. Bicheno. According to one account, Mrs L.A. Green, “an elderly stewardess”, switched on a red light on Jill's lifejacket before lifting the little girl into a lifeboat with other women and children

Most of the lifeboats had already been safely lowered but, as another survivor Douglas Gibson later recalled, one of the lowering lifeboats went down bow first, throwing many of its occupants, including Jill (and also Gillian) it seems, into the sea. "The bar steward and an elderly stewardess were crushed between the ship and the lifeboat and killed,” said Gibson. 

William Wheeler, the Andalucia’s lamp trimmer (the ship's lighting technician), heard little Jill’s cry for help and then spotted her red light switched on earlier by Mrs Green. Wheeler immediately dived into the water, swam through wreckage for a distance of 600 yards to Jill and supported her for 30 minutes before helping Jill into the lifeboat. 

"Daddy was getting into a lifeboat when the third torpedo struck," says Jill. "He was very lucky not to have been killed on the spot."

Early October is a poignant moment for Jill and possibly other Andalucia Star survivors and their descendants dotted around the world. "Daddy, every year when he was alive, would phone me on the anniversary of the sinking and we would drink a toast to the ship and her brave crew," says Jill.

So, earlier today, rummaging inside a kitchen cupboard, I found an old bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and two ancient dusty cans of Fosters lager. I opted for the bottle of wine and pondered how a single event nearly 70 years ago continues to echo through the decades and connect with successive generations.

So, I raise my glass to my grandfather, Leslie Coleman (1906-81), who sailed many times as a crew member on the Andalucia Star - and I'll join you, Jill, in the toast you and your father so thoughtfully invoked: 
"To the Andalucia Star, her brave crew and all who sailed on her during her many voyages...we remember and salute you."

Paul Coleman, London, October 2010

Thanks to Jill McNichol.