Monday, 20 November 2017

Prince Philip's rumoured affairs

Just as the Queen and Prince Philip prepare to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary, rumours about Philip's alleged affairs have resurfaced. 

One concerns British actress Pat Kirkwood, whose legs in her heyday were said to have been 'the eighth wonder of the world'. Kirkwood, who died in 2007, always denied there was an affair.

I interviewed her about the story in 1999 for a programme entitled Prince Philip - one step behind the Queen for the American television series Biography made by A&E Network.

She told me the rumours arose because she danced with Philip in a London night club in the late 1940s. As they were gliding across the floor, some people came in, spotted them, and looked rather cross. She continued:

'I said to Prince Philip: "Who are those people that have come in just now? They seem to be awfully disgusted with something." He said: "Oh them. They're the courtiers." Whereupon he started to imitate them, pulling his face into disgusted positions. It was so funny. So I said: "don't you think we'd better sit down now?" He said: "No. And that's an order."'

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Brexitwatch. Parliament: We demand to be irrelevant!

When Theresa May had to hastily cobble together a White Paper to pretend she had some kind of ‘plan’ for Brexit, even she had to admit that while the UK has been in the EU, Parliament has remained ‘sovereign’, contradicting one of the major lies of the Leave campaign.

But now MPs are busily voting that after Brexit, they should no longer be sovereign. Do they want a say on workers’ rights? No, thank you. Animal rights, then? Certainly not!

And remember the 58 Brexit impact studies that Parliament is supposedly forcing the government to publish? Shouldn't MPs make sure they have a look at them before pushing Brexit through? Oh, no need for that, old chap.

Winston Churchill once remarked that the House of Commons would not be a truly representative body if it did not have its proportion of fools. Well, now the fools are in the majority. More than three hundred of them have been found to vote themselves into irrelevance.

You can understand why. I suspect most MPs realise Brexit will be a disaster, but if we complain to them, they will have the perfect excuse: ‘You voted for it!’ So why speak out and go through all the heartache of being abused by the extreme right and the newspapers they control? Better to just nod it through.

The trouble is: if our MPs keep voting that they should be irrelevant, that is what they will become. And the ‘people’ are likely to start asking what is the point of Parliament.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians': BBC Radio Essex interview and Lancashire Evening Post article

Interviewed by Tony Fisher of BBC Radio Essex on my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians' - how do you live to 100, what is it like if you get there, longevity myths, why do women survive better than men etc. The interview is here:

And a piece on the book from the Lancashire Evening Post: Britain's oldest killer, debut author and the last surviving member of the merchant navy from World War One:

Monday, 6 November 2017

Brexitwatch: a bad week for the Brexiters

As I forecast in my post of June 21 (Brexit; a game of two halves), things were always going to get tough for the Brexiters once the negotiations began and the wild promises they had made started to hit the rocks of reality. But this has been a particularly bad week.

Theresa May’s Tory government has been desperate to keep hidden 58 studies it has done on how Brexit will affect the UK’s economy. Now Labour has successfully demanded they be published. No doubt May will keep wriggling, but if pro-democracy MPs keep fighting, the reports will surely be revealed.

And after a fair bit of foot-dragging, the Electoral Commission has finally agreed to investigate how the Leave Campaign was financed, just as investigative journalists begin to probe the involvement of Russia in securing the Brexit vote.

Brexit fanatic (and disgraced former defence secretary) Liam Fox had to admit that if we leave the EU, we will have to rip up trade deals with many other countries, leaving about 750 new agreements to be reached according to some estimates.

Then there was what Harold Macmillan used to call: ‘Events, dear boy’. A new disgraced former defence secretary, Michael Fallon, had to quit the government over his inappropriate treatment of women. And question marks have appeared over other MPs. At the moment, a minority Tory government needs by-elections, like a hole in the head or, say, a Leave vote in an EU referendum. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Secrets of living to 100 and the world's oldest author

Interviewed this week by Debbie McCrory of BBC Radio Cornwall about my book Secrets of the Centenarians: what is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? and about the world's oldest working author. Here it is:-

Ida Pollock from Lanreath, near Looe, was reckoned to hold the title when she died aged 105 in 2013, just before the publication of her 125th book. She used ten different pseudonyms to write romantic novels, of which she sold over a million, with titles such as Hotel Stardust and The Bay of Moonlight.

She wrote her first book at the age of fourteen, and became a full-time writer in her twenties. Over one five-year period, she produced 40 titles, and said she could finish a book in six weeks.

Many of her romantic heroes were said to be based on her husband Lt-Col. Hugh Pollock, who had previously been married to Enid Blyton. He died aged 82 in 1971.

Secrets of the Centenarians is published by Reaktion Books.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The benefits of storms

Thirty years after the Great Storm of 1987 - Britain's worst since 1703 - it is worth considering some of the benefits of storms. It is a topic I tackle in my book Storm: Nature and Culture.

The tempest brought down about 15 million trees in Britain, and in one place that had been badly hit, Toys Hill in Kent, the National Trust did an experiment. One area was cleared and replanted, while an other was left alone so nature could take its course. This one did better, producing a far wider variety of trees and flowers.

In the US, some scientists said that while storms like Sandy and 'Snowtober' also felled trees, they too brought an explosion of biodiversity in animals, birds, insects, plants and fungi. Another benefit claimed for storms is that native species tend to survive them better than imported ones.

Lightning can liberate nitrogen atoms in the air which fall to the earth with water and act as natural fertilisers. While fires started by strikes clear undergrowth and debris from woods, turning it into nutrients, and they allow sunlight and water to penetrate through to germinating seeds on the forest floor.

For more, see Storm: Nature and Culture, published by Reaktion Books.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Swansea's longevity record

During the 1980s, Swansea boasted the oldest man and the oldest woman in Britain. Anna Williams lived to 114, and John Evans to 112, having become the oldest man ever to be fitted with a pacemaker and astounding the doctors by being fit to go home three days later.

I was lucky enough to interview John Evans, and a remarkable man he was. He had spent six decades as a coalminer, and complained that he only stopped working at 73 because they 'threw him out'.

His full story is my new book Secrets of the Centenarians (Reaktion). Below is the article the South Wales Evening Post wrote about Welsh centenarians based on the book.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Is there a limit to human life? My piece in i Newspaper

The number of centenarians has increased spectacularly over the last six decades. Back in 1954, there was only about 200 in the UK. By 2014, the figure was more than 14,000.

But even though we see an increase in the number of people reaching 100, is maximum life span going to change? After all, Jeanne Calment remains the only human being known to have lived past 120. She died back in 1997, and her record seems in no immediate danger, as the oldest human alive today is 'only' 117.

Here is my piece in i Newspaper based on my book Secrets of the Centenarians.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Radio interviews on the history of storms and 'Storm: Nature and Culture'

Interviewed on Talk Radio Europe last week by Dave Hodgson about the history and future of storms, how storms changed history, climate change, global warming and my book: Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).

Interview is in two parts. Part 1 is here

And this is part 2

Sunday, 8 October 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians' book signing + Lake Nyos disaster

Thank you to all who came to Waterstones, Camden High St for my talk and book signing. And thanks to Maxine Mawhinney for the photo.

Signed copies of Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century and who will survive to find out? (Reaktion Books) are still available at the store.

Meanwhile, El Espanol has written a piece based on my account of the Lake Nyos disaster from my book Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner Libros) which appeared in the UK as A Disastrous History of the World and in the US as Disaster!

By the way, El Espanol, thanks for the thought, but I'm not an Australian politician, so far as I know.

Friday, 6 October 2017

How do you live to 100? FREE talk and book signing, TONIGHT London NW1

Book signing and free talk on Secrets of the Centenarians. What is it like to live for a Century and which of us will survive to find out? (Reaktion books) Waterstones, 128 Camden High St, London NW1 0LU tonight 1800-2000. Talk at about 1830.

All welcome!

Saturday, 30 September 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians': interview on Talk Radio Europe and New Zealand newspaper excerpt

Interviewed this week by Dave Hodgson of Talk Radio Europe on my new book: Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century, and which of us will survive to find out?'

You can hear the interview here:

And the New Zealand Herald ran this long excerpt from the book:

Monday, 25 September 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians' book signing and free talk. October 6.

I'll be signing copies of my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians: what is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out?' at Waterstones, Camden High St, at 1800-2000 on October 6. I'll also be giving a brief talk. All welcome.

I'm also in the Books Etc September book Club:-

Friday, 15 September 2017

Why do women live longer? Part 2 of Daily Mail serialisation of my 'Centenarians' book

Across the world, women have a four or five times better chance of reaching the age of 100 than men. Why?

Part 2 of the Daily Mail's serialisation of Secrets of the Centenarians (Reaktion)

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Want to live to 100? Big piece from 'Daily Mail' on my 'Centenarians' book

How do you live to 100? A big piece from today's 'Daily Mail' based on my new book 'Secrets of the Centenarians' (Reaktion). Part two tomorrow!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The deadliest ever Atlantic hurricane

First there was Harvey (see my blog of Sept 4). Now we have Irma, and soon there will be Jose. Hurricane Irma is the fiercest Atlantic tropical storm in a decade. It has caused more than 30 deaths across a number of Caribbean islands, including Barbuda which is now said to be ‘barely habitable’. Next in its path is Florida.

But the deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all remains the Great Hurricane of 1780, which made landfall in Barbados on 10 October. Most buildings were destroyed or severely damaged and ‘a luxuriant fertile island’ turned into ‘the dreariest winter.’ The number killed was put at 4,500.

Next the storm moved on to St Lucia, where only two houses survived in the port city of Castries. Five Royal Navy ships that had been fighting in the American War of Independence were sunk and nine others severely damaged. The island’s death toll was estimated at 6,000.

On St Vincent, more than 580 out of 600 houses at Kingstown were destroyed. At Grenada, 19 Dutch ships were sunk, while off Martinique, 4,000 French sailors were drowned, and perhaps 9,000 people lost their lives on the island. The total death toll from the storm was put at around 30,000.

For the full story, see Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books).

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Brexitwatch: how the UK can have its cake and eat it

As members of the EU, we are able to trade freely in the richest market in the world. We can travel to, study in, work in, and retire to 27 fairly nearby democratic countries.

But not only that. The UK has special bespoke deals on a whole host of things – we are not in the euro, we are not in the Schengen area. We get a discount on the sum we should be paying into the EU, we have special opt outs in the areas of fundamental rights and freedom, security and justice, etc. In other words, we are ‘HAVING OUR CAKE AND EATING IT’.

But Theresa May and the Brexiters plan to throw away this unbelievably good deal. Instead, they are demanding all sorts of impossible arrangements like being in the Single Market without Freedom of Movement or leaving the Customs Union but having ‘frictionless trade’.

To the (confected on the part of the better-informed) outrage of the Brexit fanatics, the EU has made clear on numerous occasions that none of this is going to happen, but still the UK has no plan B.

Even now, though, there is a way of having our cake and eating it. Cancel Article 50 and stay in the EU. If we are foolish enough to leave, before long we will be begging to be let back in. But never again will we get a bespoke deal as good as the one we have now.

*Thanks to Elkhart Public Library, Indiana for this mention for my book - 'Disaster!'

Monday, 4 September 2017

Hurricane Harvey: storms don't only devastate through strong winds

In my book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion), I discuss a number of ways in which a tropical storm can cause catastrophic damage.

The one usually focused on is the power of the winds, but in addition there is the way sea levels rise because of low air pressure, making flooding more devastating. And then there is heavy rainfall. This has been the biggest problem with Hurricane Harvey, which has been drenching Texas and Louisiana.

During the course of 4 days, some areas suffered more than 40 inches of rain, making Harvey the wettest tropical storm on record to hit the continental United States. At least 47 people have been killed, and 43,000 have had to be housed in temporary shelters. The storm has also been blamed for one death in Guyana.

Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has described it as the worst disaster in the history of Texas, with damage being estimated at anything up to $190 billion.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Brexitwatch: why May will stay

Not so long ago, the main interest of the Tory Party was winning elections. And they were rather good at it, so that of the first 50 years of my life, 39 were lived under Conservative governments. Their next (and closely related) big interest was running the economy efficiently.

In that Tory party, Theresa May, who called a completely unnecessary election and threw away a parliamentary majority, would not have lasted five minutes. But the modern Tory party seems quite uninterested in the economy or winning elections. Indeed, the only Conservative leader who has won one in the last 25 years was dumped barely a year later.

So in this new Tory party, expect to see Theresa May stay on for at least another couple of years. She has a crucial job – scapegoat. The vast majority of Tory MPs (including, I suspect, a number of those shouting loudly for Brexit) know that leaving the EU will be a disaster. So it is vital that May stays in office until Brexit is completed and all doubt about its disastrous consequences dispelled. Then she can be blamed for the disaster and cast aside, so that a new leader can fight the next general election.

But there is another reason why May is likely to stay. At the moment, It would be hard to prevent any Tory leadership election from turning into open war between supporters of moderate and extreme Brexit. But once we have left the EU, the question of how damaging a Brexit we choose will have been resolved, and with a bit of luck there will seem to be no point re-fighting old battles.

Whether any of this will save the Tories is another matter. With Labour finally threatening to show some common sense, Brexit is likely to be seen increasingly as a Conservative project. And the unprecedented incompetence with which it is being executed could do permanent damage to the Tory brand.

Friday, 25 August 2017

My new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians'

This is how the publisher (Reaktion) describes my new book:-

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The shipwreck that launched the shipping forecast

Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…..the Shipping Forecast is 150 years old today.

Its weather warnings began life as a response to the wreck of the Royal Charter off Anglesey on 26 October 1859, in which 450 people lost their lives. The disaster happened during what is considered the worst storm of the 19th century in the Irish Sea. Altogether, 69 ships were wrecked at a cost of nearly 800 lives.

The iron-hulled steam clipper was bringing emigrants and gold back from the goldfields of Australia to Liverpool. As the ship reached Holyhead, it ran into 100 mile-an-hour winds.

The captain tried to anchor the vessel, but at half past one in the morning, only hours from the end of its long voyage, the Royal Charter was dashed onto rocks and broke in two just 50 yards from land.

As people watched from the shore horrified, an able seaman, Joseph Rogers, leapt into the waves. Three times he was beaten back, but on his fourth try, he was able to tie the vessel to a rock. Twenty-eight local men formed a human chain and managed to rescue 41 of those on board.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Brexit and borders: a fantasy

One of the reasons our economy is being subjected to death by Brexit is, Theresa May and the Leave fanatics keep telling us, so that we can ‘take control of our borders’.

If we are foolish enough to leave the EU, the only land frontier between the UK and the EU will be the one between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And how do the Brexiters propose to ‘take control’ of this border? By getting rid of it.

So while the Brexiters will proclaim they have slain the bete noire of Freedom of Movement in March 2019, any EU citizen who wants to enter the UK will simply have to go to the Irish Republic. Then they can take a bus, train, car, bicycle or just walk across the border into Northern Ireland and the UK is their oyster.

I heard some hapless government spokesman on the radio conceding that this was all true but saying it didn’t matter because the EU migrant would be detected by the authorities as soon as they tried to take a job or to rent a flat.

He wasn’t asked why then do we pay out millions and force people to wait in long queues to have their passports checked at Heathrow, other airports, ferry ports etc.

The Brexiters promised we could ‘take control’ of our borders but still have free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic. (Anything else would probably wreck Northern Ireland's economy and its peace process.) Fourteen months after the referendum they still have no credible plan as to how this is to be achieved. 

And even if they had, there is no guarantee it would be acceptable to the EU.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Deadly mudslides

At least 400 people have been killed by the mudslide that swept through Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on Monday morning. Another 600 are still missing, as rescue workers desperately hunt for survivors.

Freetown is an overcrowded city of more than a million, many living in makeshift settlements which are easily washed away in frequent heavy rains and floods. A key objective at the moment is to avoid the disaster being made worse by water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.

Probably the deadliest mudslide ever was the one that hit Venezuela in the dying days of the last millennium in December 1999. It effortlessly swept away the shanty towns precariously perched on ridges around the capital Caracas.

But smart apartment blocks also found themselves buried under the mud. Most estimates put the number killed at around 30,000, with 140,000 left homeless, and more than 20,000 homes destroyed. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

See also my post of 21 February 2010.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Brexitwatch. Hammond's surrender gives certainty. UK will be driven off a cliff

The last member of Theresa May’s cabinet who could give a passable imitation of having some grip on the reality of Brexit has caved in. Chancellor Philip Hammond, has surrendered to Brexit fanatic and disgraced former defence minister, Liam Fox.

After arguing for a meaningful transition phase after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 to spare us from the worst effects of Brexit, Hammond has now agreed that instead, we will jump off a cliff, leaving the Single Market and the customs union.

This is precisely what UK businesses feared and had been arguing against, but the modern day Tory party has little interest in jobs, the economy or prosperity. Many will see Hammond’s decision as the ‘certainty’ they have been asking for. Unfortunately for you and me, that ‘certainty’ will be that the UK is no longer a viable country in which to invest.

Fox and Hammond’s joint letter repeats the lie that in the referendum, voters voted to leave the Single Market. They did nothing of the kind, of course, and indeed a whole series of Leave campaigners promised we would stay in the Single Market. It is important that this lie is contradicted every time it is uttered.

This odd couple say we need the transitional arrangement so that goods can still cross borders, and businesses can still trade and recruit the staff they need. The corollary of that, of course, is that once the arrangement ends, these things will no longer be possible. What Liam Fox does not explain is why, if Brexit is as marvellous as he says, is it so important to delay its effects?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wars, ethnic rivalries and weather

Last year, nearly 102,000 people were killed in armed conflicts across the world according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Many of them died in civil wars, and since 1946, two-thirds of civil wars have been fought between rival ethnic groups.

But climate-related problems, like crop failures, also play a role. Research published last year found that between 1980 and 2010, 23% of civil wars coincided with climate-related disasters in countries with deep ethnic divides. And worryingly global warming may make this kind of disaster more common.

Delving back into history, another study discovered that outbreaks of violence against Jews often seemed to be linked with economic shocks. The authors examined more than 1,360 pogroms or expulsions in more than 930 cities between 1100 and 1800, and plotted them against falls in temperature big enough to reduce crop yields.

They found that a fall of just one third of a degree increased the danger of a pogrom or an exclusion by half over the next five years. As we have seen recently, in times of economic difficulty or disappointment, it is very tempting to blame people who are different in some way.

For more on the link between global warming and war, see my posts of 21 September and 25 November, 2009.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the government should have....done nothing

Oh, the perils of failing to follow my advice. There would have been no referendum. Today we would still be happily in the EU not looking over the abyss of an economic collapse, we would not have had a spike in xenophobia and hate crime, and David Cameron would still have been prime minister with a workable majority.

If only he had taken note of what I wrote on 3 April 2015:


UK election: the next government nothing

One of the more bizarre criticisms of the UK’s coalition government was that in its latter stages, it entered a ‘zombie’ phase. In other words, for once, MPs were failing to carry out their supposed duty of rushing through poorly drafted new laws which they have not read properly, and which have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

It is the kind of mentality that saw Labour inventing 3,600 crimes in 11 years, and we wonder why the prisons are overflowing. Or that had the Tory-dominated coalition mounting yet another complete reorganisation of the NHS – something David Cameron had specifically promised not to do.

What we seem to get more and more is government by vanity project. After all, how is a politician meant to get into the history books by making sure the health service or public transport ran efficiently? No, they want to be the man or woman who shook up the NHS, or built HS2.

How many times have you heard governments promising to ‘cut red tape’? But power is so delightful, and the temptation to boss other people around just too great to resist. Back in the nineteenth century when a colleague demanded that Prime Minister Lord Palmerston should pass a new piece of legislation, he replied: ‘There are too many laws already.’

Somebody once said the trouble with elections is that whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. Whichever government wins this time, expect a flood of new laws and regulations.

More on this from Simon Jenkins -

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Storms and floods: Met Office says they'll get worse

New analysis from the Met Office says there is an increased risk of ‘unprecedented’ winter downpours in the UK, perhaps even worse than those that caused the major floods of 2014. Its supercomputers have calculated that for each year over the next decade, there is a one in three chance of record rainfall in an English or Welsh region.

In my book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion 2016), I noted that four of Britain’s five wettest years since records began have happened since 2000. Globally, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seeks a consensus from the views of thousands of eminent scientists all over the world, predicts fiercer rainstorms ‘over many areas’.

In my previous book Flood (Reaktion 2013) I quoted a United Nations report from 2011 which said the number of natural disasters had quintupled over the previous four decades, and that most of the increase could be attributed to what it called ‘hydro-meteorological’  events, including storms and floods.

I also wrote about a UK government report in 2012 which concluded that climate change would greatly increase the danger of flooding, saying the number of people at risk could more than double to 3.6 million by 2050.    

Monday, 24 July 2017

The real 'Dunkirk'

Just seen Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. An impressive and gripping account of the evacuation of nearly 200,000 British troops from the beaches in 1940. 140,000 French and Belgian troops were also rescued.

Churchill, though, recognised that the campaign overall had been a ‘colossal military disaster’, with the British Expeditionary Force losing almost all its equipment as well as 66,000 men killed, wounded or captured.

One of the fascinating questions the film does not tackle is why Hitler made his rampaging army call a halt when the enemy appeared to be at his mercy. Was he concerned that in some parts of his force, half the tanks were now out of action?  

Had he been shaken by a British counter-attack near Arras or did he believe that surely at some point, the French – supposedly Europe’s greatest military power – must have a serious counter-attack in them?   Or was he convinced by Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could destroy the Allied forces on Dunkirk’s exposed beaches without any help from the army?

Whatever the reason, the result was ‘Dunkirk’.

For the full story see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters. See also my post of 24 January 2012.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the compromise that could unite the UK

Heavily diminished Prime Minister Theresa May keeps saying she wants to unite the UK behind Brexit. This is a tough ask as tens of millions have long ago realised how damaging it will be, but all the same there is a potential strategy she has not yet tried.

The winning margin was very narrow – closer than 52% to 48% - but one thing that was striking was how many top Leave campaigners promised that even if we left the EU, we would remain in the Single Market.

Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson, Daniel Hannan, and the man who bankrolled Brexit, Arron Banks, were among those who took this line. So it is reasonable to assume a fair proportion of the 52% who voted to leave the EU wanted to STAY in the Single Market. Clearly all the 48% who voted Remain wanted this, so if you add to that the Leave voters who also wanted Single Market membership, you end up with a proposal that seems to enjoy considerably more support than the proposition to leave the EU, and could become a compromise around which a substantial majority of the country would rally.

But bizarrely, Theresa May ruled out Single Market membership, saying people had voted against it, even though they plainly had not. Even more bizarrely, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supports Theresa May.

I personally believe the UK should remain in the EU because I cannot find any form of Brexit that will not be worse than what we have now. But if Leavers were prepared to implement their promise of leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market, this is a compromise I, and I suspect most of the country, would accept.

What a shame for the UK then that both Tory and Labour are ruling it out.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

What was the Black Death?

Did bubonic plague really cause the Black Death? This was one of the questions tackled in BBC TV’s Decoding Disaster, which went out under the Timewatch banner.

What is certain is that the epidemic was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, disaster in history, killing perhaps 75 million people in Europe and Asia from 1346 to 1353 – 30 to 40 per cent of the population. The conventional explanation is that it was bubonic plague, carried by the fleas of the black rat, along with pneumonic and septicaemic plague which could be transmitted from person to person.

Sceptics, though, have suggested there were just not enough rats to spread the disease on the scale that happened, so other ideas have been suggested – notably anthrax or some kind of haemorrhagic plague, like Ebola. Others maintain that with a death toll on this scale, a number of different diseases must have been raging at the same time.

At the time, top academics at Paris University came up with their own explanation: a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius on 20 March 1345, but they were humble enough to acknowledge that some things were ‘hidden from even the most highly trained intellects.’

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World. See also my posts of 19 January and 31 March 2009, 1 September 2011 and 17 December 2013.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the Germans have two words for it

Even the most enthusiastic Brexit supporter surely cannot maintain the negotiations are going well. The EU side seems prepared, united and knows what it wants. The UK side appears in crisis: still unprepared, deeply divided, and with no idea of what it wants, let alone how to get it.

Two long German words might help us to do better – Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik. The first means ‘ethic of conviction’; the second ‘ethic of responsibility’. They reflect a conflict between idealism and pragmatism that came to the fore in the crisis that wracked Germany after the First World War.

Politicians who follow the ‘ethic of conviction’ believe in preserving their moral purity, following the course they ‘know’ to be right whatever the consequences. And if it all goes horribly wrong, that is not their fault.

Increasingly this ‘ethic of conviction’ is the ONLY argument we hear for Brexit: ‘it is the will of the people’. There is no real pretence that leaving the EU will make life better for the British people in any meaningful way. (I have already explained in my post of 15 December 2016 why the ‘will of the people’ argument is bogus.) This is odd in a nation that used to pride itself on its pragmatism.

Those following the ‘ethic of responsibility’ on the other hand, are guided by the likely consequences of their actions and decisions. What will they do to the people affected by them? If Theresa May and her government could switch to this approach, it might help bring them some much needed clarity and avert what is beginning to look more and more like an impending disaster. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

British battleship accidents

On this day…..100 years ago, the Dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard sank in Scapa Flow in Orkney after a series of explosions. Of the 845 men aboard, only two survived.

Although the First World War was still raging, the most likely explanation for the sinking is thought to be an accidental explosion in the ship’s magazine. Certainly it sank almost immediately.

Nor was this an isolated incident. On 26 November 1914, a series of explosions ripped through the battleship HMS Bulwark as it was moored in the Medway (pictured). The ship was lifted out of the water then fell back in a thick cloud of smoke. There were only a dozen survivors from the crew of 750.

It being war-time, not many details emerged, but a court of inquiry heard that shells aboard were not stored according to regulations, and concluded that the probable cause of the disaster was that cordite charges, kept by a boiler room bulkhead, overheated.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

My new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians'

On Amazon, first sightings of my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians. What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out?' (Reaktion). Orders being taken now!

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The world's deadliest tower block fires

A retired judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has been appointed to head the official inquiry into London’s Grenfell Tower fire in which at least 79 people died, while the police say they are investigating any criminal offences that may have been committed.

The deadliest ever fire in a tower block (or blocks) was the result of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, which cost more than 2,300 lives, but the worst accidental fire was probably the one that raged through the 25-storey Joelma office building in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 1 February 1974. (Grenfell Tower had 24 storeys.)

The blaze happened just a few weeks after the disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, was released, and it became known as ‘the real Towering Inferno’. It was started by an electrical fault on the 11th floor, and spread rapidly thanks to the ready availability of combustible materials such as paper, plastics and wooden walls and furniture.

When the blaze began, there were more than 750 people in the building. More than 170 fled to the roof, but the heat and smoke foiled a helicopter rescue, and about 40 were killed jumping down or trying to get to firemen’s ladders out of reach below them. Altogether up to 189 people died. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Oil tanker crashes + poverty = disaster

When oil tankers crash in poor countries, people often rush to the scene to gather the spilt fuel, often with lethal results. That happened again this week after a tanker crashed on the outskirts of the city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan on Sunday.

It is reported that the vehicle overturned on a sharp bend after the driver lost control when a tyre blew. A crowd of 500 had gathered to try to collect fuel in bottles, cans and household containers when, about 45 minutes after the crash, the tanker exploded.

It took firefighters two hours to put out the blaze. Twenty children were among the 146 dead, and another 80 people were injured. One local man said he had lost 12 relatives.

Probably the deadliest tanker crash ever happened on 2 July 2010 at Sange village in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The vehicle overturned as it was overtaking a bus on a dirt road. Again local people rushed to collect the spilt fuel, and a lighted cigarette caused an explosion, killing at least 230.

For the story, see my post of 7 July 2010. See also my posts of 1 February and 12 October, 2009, and 13 July 2012.