Thursday, March 30, 2017


[Cover for "Protect and Survive" - 2016 reissue by Imperial War Museum]

I count myself lucky that, while remaining vigilant, I live in a place and time that is relatively free of danger. However, seeing the muted colours, strikes and flared trousers in old videos or pictures of the late 1970s, you forget that the average middle-aged couple of the time would have grown up during the Second World War, then live through the ongoing Cold War between the USSR and the West, under the very small, but still possible, threat of a nuclear attack.
You would hope there was plan in place if, or when, something happened - there was, but it had not been published. Previous examples of “civil defence” leaflets date back to 1938, when people needed advice on protecting their homes against air raids, but apart from some public information films in the early 1960s, nothing more was heard. Eventually, word got out that the Home Office had a booklet, already sent to official bodies, titled “Protect and Survive,” to be issued to homes if an immediate threat of attack appeared. Public interest led the Government to publish it for the general public in May 1980, costing 50 pence.

Reading in 2017, the booklet itself is hilarious, coming across as a way to help people busy themselves, distracting them from almost certain death. There are tips on where to locate your fallout shelter, how to build it, what provisions to keep there, and the siren warnings to listen out for. It is the grim side of the Blitz spirit on which we pride ourselves, but carrying on through anything and everything is the game the book requires you to play. I wish I knew how many people bought it on its original release, and what they made of the illustrations: drawing instructions makes them more functional, but I imagine photographs of real people readying themselves may make a hypothetical situation much too real.

Discredited on arrival by anti-nuclear campaigns, “Protect and Survive” was criticised for making nuclear war look like something that could be survived, leading to a second booklet, “Civil Defence: Why We Need It” (1981), explaining why a plan was even needed, likening the keeping safe of the country to wearing your seatbelt in your car.

Images from “Protect and Survive,” and the accompanying set of public information films, also originally meant to be classified, were co-opted in the cultural fight against nuclear arms, including “Threads,” the bleak TV drama depicting a Britain post-attack. Most effectively, the authoritarian voice of Patrick Allen, as used in the information films, was peppered through Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s song “Two Tribes,” with Allen re-reading the original words to ironic effect.
To me, this still feels like history, only just overlapping with my own lifetime, with debates over the UK’s nuclear deterrent submarines a small reminder of the Pandora’s Box that even the idea of nuclear weapons has proved to be. However, the United States Department of Homeland Security’s website,, still advises that, despite the diminished thread since the end of the Cold War: “the possibility remains that a terrorist could obtain access to a nuclear weapon. Called improvised nuclear devices (IND), these are generally smaller, less powerful weapons than we traditionally envision.” Oh great, thanks for that.

Friday, March 24, 2017


I received my first library card when I was around five years old, spending many Saturday mornings at my local library through to my twenties. I started reading graphic novels there, discovered the Sociology section, and it my father introduced me to Spike Milligan and “The Goon Show,” using a cassette rented from there.
However, my last visit there was because the nearby public toilet was being renovated. I can see why the visits became scarce: having a disposable income, buying my own copies of what I had read, and finding ever more information and media online and on demand. What may have finally done it was trying to rediscover some information I once found there before.
I like looking at old programme listings for TV and radio stations: they are like a social document, showing how people used to entertain themselves, and what interests people had. Unless someone finds and puts the information you want online, you have to know where to go yourself and, for me, it was the stacks of old local newspapers kept at the library, so those Saturday mornings were usually spent photocopying yellowed newsprint, or even copying out stuff by hand.

About six years ago, remembering to use the library again, I went in, and was told the papers were taken away some years before, when the library was renovated by the county council and opened as a “Discovery Centre.” It now has a café, computers, children’s play area, arts space, museum space, and the local registry office was shoehorned in some time later – until a local business stepped in, the council nearly put the post office in there too… Yes, there are fewer books than before.
I was advised to check the “Local Studies Centre” across the road, but it turned out the newspapers were not kept there either. If I really did want to find out which DJs were on the local Top 40 station Power FM in 1991, I would have to travel to the next town to find them. Once I also had another, saner reason to travel, I went to that town’s library – it was still called a “library,” and acted more like one.

So, what I can tell you is that 103.2 Power FM, a station whose jingles still ring in my head nine years after it became just another outpost of a national network, had presenters that are still very active in local radio – breakfast presenters Pete Wardman and Cheryl Phillips, daytime DJ Bernie Simmons, and Chris Kelly in the evening. Meanwhile, the teenage overnight presenter, Scott Mills, has been at BBC Radio 1 for nearly twenty years now. However, drive-time host Adrian Lovett left broadcasting to complete a politics degree, become an MP, then work for charities and anti-poverty groups, including Oxfam, Save the Children and ONE. Yes, I have used online resources for the further information, but I had to know where to start.
For many, libraries are still a valuable resource that are too useful to lose, even if I find it harder to find a use for mine. Even for something delightfully obscure, knowledge should not be made harder to find and, if we going to stay online instead, nothing can be left behind.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


We like to think we are “real,” or “authentic,” people, that we know what a good life is, and how it should be lead. Effectively, we know what a human being should be, but does that automatically mean we know what one is? I would worry if we could not answer that question.
What we need is a human “holotype,” the term for a single physical example of an organism, usually the one used when that organism was described for the first time. Of course, there are many flies, butterflies and bacteria for which we have the holotype – for dinosaurs, it will be a particular fossil. The Natural History Museum is full of these, but they don’t have one for the species looking at them.
Two “nominees” for the human holotype have previously appeared. The 18th century Swedish botanist, zoologist and physicist Carl Linnaeus, but because he devised the system of “binomial nomenclature,” using Latin to delineate the genus and species of all living things, giving the title to the creator of the name “Homo sapiens” was too obvious. Meanwhile, the 19thcentury American anthropologist Edward Drinker Cope nominated himself, but upon his death in 1897, his bones were found to be riddled with syphilis, disqualifying himself altogether.

People like Racquel Welch, Bob Hope and Arnold Schwarzenegger have also been thought of as a possible human holotype but, even if there has never been an official position to fill, there could be said to be a “situation vacant.”
For scientific purposes, we have intricate systems of classification, with two further sets, genotypes and phenotypes, describing the particular genetic makeup of a given organism, then the attributes and properties that organism displays. It is extremely easy to apply these classifications to other animals and plants because, even if it displays consciousness, it won’t answer back, or become indignant, or violent, if you put it into a group it doesn’t like.
This is the major indicator you have a human being on your hands – they are conscious, they are self-aware, and they will let you know when you are taking the piss out of them. We are the most social of animals, subject to the rules and manners we personally live by, those we agree among ourselves, and those we disagree with.
To choose one part of what makes a human, whether that be sex, gender, hair colour, skin colour, body shape, intellect or experience, and use it to evaluate whether one person is better than another, only leads to accusations of misogyny, sexism, racism, and/or fascism, because not only do we - from just between ourselves, to all of us - agree that’s what it is, we will tell someone if they are one of those, or all of them, when they do it. When even that doesn’t stop some people, it shows they are human too, no matter how bad that is, but the ability to change, and the ability to hope for that worthwhile change, is just as human too.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I own an alto saxophone, having written about the allure of them previously [], but I cannot yet play it. One day, I hope to play it like an artist uses a paintbrush, but I am aware of how much practice it will take to get there…  mainly because a number has now been put on it.

The number ten thousand, to me, is a number that is “just about right,” a big enough number to be counted as a “big number.” If you were going on a TV game show, a jackpot of nine thousand pounds sounds like a big enough number, but TEN thousand... We do many things thousands of times in our lives, but if you can look someone in the face at the end of the day, and say you walked TEN THOUSAND STEPS that day, it sounds like an achievement.

Likewise, if you can play the saxophone like Clarence Clemons or David Sanborn, it is because you spent as many as ten thousand hours practising: breaking that time down into a nine-to-five, five-day work week, minus an hour per day for lunch and breaks, and six weeks’ holiday a year, ten thousand hours becomes SIX YEARS, and a couple of months – if I start now, I may be up to the E Street Band’s standard once I hit forty years old, provided Bruce Springsteen doesn’t retire by then.

Ten thousand sounds an easy number to pick, but these two uses of it have reasoning behind them: ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, a Japanese company made a pedometer named “manpo-kei” – “10,000-step meter”- which they later backed up with research that advised walking this number each day helps maintain a healthy weight. This target has since been taken up by the World Health Organisation, and the NHS considers a walker of seven to ten thousand steps per day to be “moderately active”, having walked twice the national average to get into that range.

However, practising for ten thousand hours is more difficult to prove, and even harder to justify. The figure was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book “Outliers,” which looked at why some people are able to achieve more than others. However, people took his writing to mean this number is a cut-off point, where you become an “expert” upon reaching it. The original 1993 research paper, snappily titled, ”The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert  Performance,” talked of this figure being an average – some people just get the hang of things more quickly than others. Its writer, the professor Anders Ericsson, later contended that Gladwell didn’t mention the practice had to be “deliberate” – the name of that essay, “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists,” makes it sound like the rigour needed to do a proper job is something you cannot teach, even if you could try to learn.

What should I do? Practice makes perfect, but practice means pushing yourself – keep walking that bit further than the last time, and learn your major and minor scales on your saxophone. Ten thousand is a target, but once you reach it, set a new one.  

Saturday, March 4, 2017


More than any other car is the “Range Rover” a badge of identity. Range Rover owners have chosen to make a statement about yourself, literally sitting them intimidatingly above the rest of the traffic, and in luxury putting them further above even the vans and buses. They never worry about the cost of fuel, and may never go off-road either. they want people to know they have a Range Rover, so it is already written on the front for you.  They own a Range Rover because they can afford one.
If this sounds like you, I can only offer my congratulations. You may have always identified as a Range Rover driver before you could own one, or it could be something you have only recently recognised about yourself. Once you have accepted yourself, the rest of your life is ahead of you, and all you need to do is drive.
Land Rover are doing their best to encourage Range Rover drivers to come out. Once the original Range Rover, launched in 1970, made driving a 4x4 vehicle as a regular car an acceptable option, the identity of the brand flourished, replacing vinyl seats with leather, moving from three doors to five, and introducing air conditioning. No longer would it be acceptable to shower the interior out with a hose, so by the first redesign of the Range Rover’s body was unveiled in 1994, we had arrived at the archetypal Rolls Royce on tractor tyres, or “land-yacht.”

However, one of the Range Rover’s original engineers, Spen King, said it was, “never intended as a status symbol but later incarnations of my design seem to be intended for that purpose.” It has been parodied by BMW, Porsche, Audi, Volvo, Jaguar, and even Bentley.
The expanded Range Rover range is incomparable, because comparisons create disappointment: drivers of the Range Rover Sport are driving something that hopes to fool people into thinking it is “The Range Rover,” looking and sounding as much like “The Range Rover” as possible, despite being a bit smaller, and a bit cheaper. The “entry-level” Evoque exists to create an “entry-level”, and the new Velar, unveiled last Wednesday (1st March), exists to compete with fancy cars like the Porsche Macan, the sort of land-yacht you find in Kensington and Chelsea.
To be honest, I really should not be judging this. My view of Range Rover drivers, and their cars, has come from prejudice, and that is only because I don’t know enough about the subject. I am not someone that will become a Range Rover driver, and I have never felt like I am supressing a part of personality. I should be more open-minded and respectful about the life choices people make, and learn more about what leads to people wanting to drive a Range Rover. The more we know, the more the world can be a better place - so long as we don’t cut each other up.