Saturday 31 December 2016

How humans have tried to control storms

In Lithuania in the olden days, they would drink beer, dance round bonfires, or sacrifice animals. In other Slav countries, maidens would be danced to death. In the British Isles, we burned humans and animals alive inside a great wickerwork idol (remember the cult horror film, The Wicker Man?), while the Aztecs sacrificed children. All these things were done to try to control the tempests which humanity has learned the hard way, can unleash immense destruction without warning.

It must all have sounded so primitive to those in more modern times, who tried to enlist science. So in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century, they fired mortars in vineyards and orchards to stop hailstorms, believing the shock waves in the atmosphere would stop the stones forming. Great success was claimed, but scientific experiments found the method useless.

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union went for a more ambitious approach, trying to protect the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and other places from hailstorms by firing into the clouds rockets and artillery shells carrying silver or lead iodide crystals. The idea was to provide lots of nuclei around which stones could form, making them more numerous but smaller, and less able to do damage.

The Russians claimed that between 1968 and 1984 they achieved 80 per cent success, but American tests were unable to reproduce the results. 

For the full story of humanity’s attempts to control storms see my new book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books). 

Friday 30 December 2016

Storms in films

‘It was a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine,’ said one critic of the spectacular 15 minute storm sequence conjured up by the great John Ford in his 1937 film, The Hurricane. The story of how an unfeeling French colonial regime persecuted a free-spirited native man, it won the Oscar for best sound.

But Ford’s storm sequence was a mere taster for the genre where storms would really come into their own – the disaster movie. The special effects teams for Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow had to conjure up hailstones like grapefruit to fell people in Tokyo, a snowstorm in Delhi, tornados to fling cars around in LA, a rainstorm that floods New York City, and so on.

My new book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion) tells the story of the role played by storms in the movies, as well as examining their place in art, literature, religion and history.

In films, they are often a device for transporting the characters from a normal life to a new, often threatening world. So, in The Wizard of Oz, it is a tornado that whirls Judy Garland’s character up from her Kansas home into the company of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and a wicked witch.

More recently, in Life of Pi, the hero starts a bit less conventionally – sailing from India to Canada with a zoo-full of animals, but things get really extraordinary when a storm sinks the ship and he finds himself in a lifeboat with only a hungry tiger for company.

Another plot function is confinement. In John Huston’s classic thriller Key Largo, a hurricane keeps an increasingly edgy gangster, played by Edward G. Robinson, cooped up in a small hotel with his gang, his alcoholic girlfriend, and the hero, Humphrey Bogart. The tension builds relentlessly until Robinson gets his comeuppance.

The Day After Tomorrow tried to hammer home an environmental message in a way some found crass, but just because a film is packed with special effects does not mean it cannot tell an affecting human story.

In The Perfect Storm, a fishing boat perishes in a long and genuinely scary tempest sequence, but the characters of the captain (played by George Clooney) and his crew are well drawn, and there is an affecting ending when another skipper says the men who died lie in a vast unmarked grave, with no headstones and nowhere to lay flowers, and that their loved ones can visit them only in their hearts and their dreams.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Death of a remarkable survivor

Vesna Vulović, aged 66, died in her Belgrade apartment over Christmas. Nearly 45 years earlier she had fallen 33,000 feet from a Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 that blew up over the Czech Republic en route from Stockholm to Belgrade.

Vulović, a flight attendant, was the only survivor among the 28 people on board. She was trapped in the tail as the aircraft plummeted to a mountainous area, and it is thought that pine trees and the snow softened the impact.

The Serbian woman was rescued by a woodsman who heard her screams. She was rushed to hospital after suffering a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae and a broken pelvis, ribs and legs, but eventually made an almost complete recovery. Vulović’s fall would feature in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest anyone had ever survived without a parachute.

For a long time it was suspected the DC-9 had been brought down by a bomb on board, but in recent years a new theory emerged that it had been shot down by mistake by the then Czechoslovak air force.

(For other stories of remarkable escapes, see my posts of 4 July 2009, 16 January 2010, and 22 March 2011.)

Thursday 15 December 2016

Brexitwatch - is the 'will of the people' sacrosanct?

These days nobody much bothers claiming we will derive any advantage from leaving the EU. Instead Theresa May and the Brexiters say we have to do it because it is what ‘the people’ voted for. And anyone who argues against this is an ‘enemy of the people.’ So is the ‘will of the people’ the equivalent of a decree from an absolute monarch, a dictator or an infallible Pope?

We know there is no legal requirement for the referendum result to be implemented, because Parliament voted for a non-binding referendum, and, as the Brexiters kept arguing during the campaign, Parliament is sovereign. So is there a moral responsibility to impose the result?

There are, of course, many reasons for saying the result has no legitimacy. That it was won by a systematic campaign of lies and deception, that the number who voted for Brexit was far short of a majority of the electorate, etc. etc. But, for the purpose of this argument, let us leave them aside.

Suppose that tomorrow morning, Theresa May woke up and decided the warnings of virtually every reputable economist and most other authorities were correct after all. Brexit was going to do very serious damage to our country. Would she still be obliged to impose it? No matter how serious the damage?

Because if the answer is ‘no’, it means the ‘will of the people’ is not sacrosanct. And Theresa May is asking the wrong question. It should not be ‘how do we implement the “will of the people”’, but what do we do to serve their best interests. And that is something MPs shoud be examining now and urgently, long before Article 50 is triggered.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Storms in art

The only seascape painted by the great Rembrandt is Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). It shows Christ being calmness itself while his disciples panic, and one throws up over the side. Or perhaps that should be ‘showed’ as the painting was stolen from Boston in 1990 and has not been seen since.

At about the time Rembrandt was at work, landscape painting was emerging for the first time as a respected genre, The great French master Nicolas Poussin quickly latched on to the spectacle provided by a storm in his Landscape During a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651) with its trees bending in the fierce wind and its sky riven by lightning.

Poussin took a story from ancient Babylon, but during the seventeenth century, Dutch painters such as Ludolf Bakhuizen began to create naturalistic contemporary storm scenes, often with a hint of blue sky to demonstrate the wild weather was a temporary phenomenon and that order would soon be restored.

But by the end of the eighteenth century, a darker mood was emerging with painters such as the Frenchman Claude-Joseph Vernet painting tiny human figures striking anguished poses as a tempest rages around them. Like the great British depicter of storms, Turner, Vernet was said to have once had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a tempest in the interests of research.

For more on storms in art, films, literature and religion, the worst storms of all time, and how storms have changed the course of history, see my new book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion). 

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Storms - naming, are they getting worse + storms in history and literature

Links here to my interview with Nick Piercey of BBC Radio Oxford (in two parts)

Sunday 20 November 2016

Storms in literature

Storms play an important role in a number of Shakespeare’s plays such as Macbeth and Julius Caesar, where they are harbingers of cataclysmic events, but he also uses them to bring twists to his plots – in Pericles, not once by twice. While in his last play, The Tempest, said to have been inspired by the real life adventure of the sailors who discovered Bermuda, a storm provides a way of plunging characters into a strange new world.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture tells the story of the role played by storms in literature, as well as examining their place in art, films, religion and history.

One of the earliest uses in a novel of their ability to transport characters into a new world came from Daniel Defoe in his famous book from 1719, Robinson Crusoe, in which a shipwreck maroons the hero on a deserted island for 28 years. Defoe, incidentally, also wrote an account of England’s greatest ever storm in 1703.

In more recent literary storms, Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie (2011) sees a boy becoming one of a handful of survivors from a ship’s encounter with a waterspout – a marine tornado - and having to kill and eat his best friend, while in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), another boy finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a hungry tiger.

There is much more on storms in literature in Storm: Nature and Culture published by Reaktion Books. Price £14.95.  ISBN 9781780236612

Friday 18 November 2016

100 years ago today - the last day of the Somme

A service of remembrance is being held today at Thiepval in northern France to commemorate the last day of the Battle of the Somme. (Though the historian Martin Gilbert in his Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War, puts the final action on November 19.) Thiepval’s Memorial to the Missing lists the names of more than 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

I wrote about the Somme in my book Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, noting that every other battle I featured was clearly a defeat, while the Somme is sometimes seen as a victory.

The ground gained was negligible. Nowhere did the Allied line advance more than six miles, and many objectives due to be taken on the first day were never captured, nor did the Allies liberate a single town or gain a single strategically significant point. But it is said that the bloody attrition fatally drained German resources and paved the way for the Allied victory two years later.

The offensive involving British, British Empire and French soldiers had begun on 1 July, 1916. By the end of that day, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were dead, and 36,000 wounded – the worst toll for a single day in the history of the British Army.

When rotten weather and cloying mud finally brought an end to the battle, Britain and the British Empire had suffered an almost unimaginable 400,000 casualties, the French had lost about 200,000, and the Germans perhaps 450,000.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Britain's wettest 5 minutes and the world's wettest minute

On Thursday, 10 August 1893, about an inch and a quarter of rain fell on Preston in Lancashire in five minutes. This remains a record for the UK. It was the result of what that day’s Lancashire Daily Post described as a ‘terrific thunderstorm’.

The rain was so heavy you could not see across the main street, parts of the town was flooded to a depth of two feet, and a horse was reportedly drowned, while there were also said to be hailstones ‘as big as pigeon’s eggs’.

Surreally in the midst of this water, water everywhere, a wholesale greengrocer’s was set on fire when it was struck by lightning. Lancashire also holds other British rainfall records. The most to fall in 15 minutes was 2.2 inches at Bolton Hall in July 1964, and the most in 90 minutes was 4.6 inches at Dunsop Valley in August 1967.

As far as world records go, an inch and a half of rain came down in just one minute on Guadeloupe in 1970, while the island of Reunion (pictured) was subjected to an astonishing 71 and ¾ inches in 24 hours in 1966.

For the full story of Lancashire’s stormy history, see my Lancashire Evening Post story -
For more on record rainfalls worldwide, see Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Cornwall's stormy history - BBC interview

Here's an interview I did for BBC Radio Cornwall with Debbie McCrory on Monday about my new book: 'Storm: Nature and Culture' (Reaktion Books)

Or you can listen to it on this BBC link (it starts about 01 33 00)

Sunday 13 November 2016

The world's deadliest tram accident

Investigators are still trying to establish the causes of this week’s tram derailment in Croydon to the south of London, which killed 7 people and injured more than 50 others. Trams are generally a very safe form of transport but this accident has led to calls for improved safety measures such as automatic braking systems of the kind used on trains.

Probably the deadliest tram accident in history happened on the foggy morning of 12 July 1930 in Buenos Aires. Service 105 was on its way from the city of Lanus, south of Buenos Aires, to the Constitución station in the Argentinian capital. The driver had been with the tram company for only about two months.

On its journey the vehicle had to cross a bridge over the Riachuelo river. As it approached, the bridge had been lifted to allow a vessel to pass beneath, but the driver did not see the red light warning him not to proceed.

By the time the driver realised the bridge was up, it was too late. He tried to apply the brake, but the tram plunged into the water. The driver was one of the 56 people who lost their lives. Only 7 survived.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Storm gods rule!

In ancient religions all over the world – Greece, Rome, Iceland, India – the chief god was the god of storms, whether it was Zeus brandishing his thunderbolt, Thor with his magic hammer, or Indra riding his multi-tusked elephant.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion) explores the fascinating stories surrounding these gods, such as how a wicked giant stole Thor’s hammer and demanded the hand of a princess in marriage as the price of its return. Thor disguised himself as the bride, and managed to escape detection at the wedding ceremony in spite of eating an ox and eight salmon. Then he grabbed the hammer and killed the giant.

The Maoris told of how the sky god made love endlessly to the earth goddess so their children could never get out of her womb. Eventually one of the young deities managed to prise them apart, but this upset the storm god Tawhirimatea who had been quite happy inside his mother, and now became an unruly presence on land and sea.

In some Slavic regions, they believed the darkness held the sun prisoner in a cell which could be opened only by lightning from the storm god, Perun, and a spring festival used to be held at which maidens would dance themselves to death in his honour. This became the inspiration for Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, while the cult 1970s British horror film, The Wicker Man, was inspired by sacrifices to the Celtic storm god, Taranis.

For much more on the role of storms in religion, see Storm: Nature and Culture by John Withington. Reaktion Books. Price £14.95.  ISBN 9781780236612.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Brexitwatch: a lesson from history - when in doubt, blame foreigners.

In 1517, resentment against people from the rest of Europe swept through London. They were supposed to be buying up all the food in the markets, a Frenchman had bullied a shopkeeper into selling him two pigeons, competition from German merchants importing furniture and leather goods was ruining local tradesmen, the Venetians were using their own galleys to bring in goods, depriving English shipowners of work, and so on and so on.

A vicar at Spitalfields denounced these interlopers from his pulpit, urging Londoners to expel them. On April 30, the London mob rioted, with thousands attacking any foreigner they could lay their hands on and burning their houses. The disorder continued into what became known as ‘Evil May Day,’ with the French ambassador having to flee his house and hide.

Henry VIII was at Richmond when the news reached him. He knew that, whatever the mob felt, foreign merchants were crucial to London’s prosperity, so he ordered the Duke of Norfolk to gather a force of 2,000 men and march on the capital without delay.

By evening, the duke was in the city. He quickly suppressed the disorder and arrested several hundred rioters. Many were charged with high treason, for stirring up hostility against states with which the king was at peace. More than a dozen were executed.

Thursday 27 October 2016

How storms change the course of history

Time magazine has picked up my article on the way storms change the course of history -

Saturday 22 October 2016

How storms changed the course of history

See my article on History News Network's website -

Sunday 16 October 2016

The Great Fire of London + 350: when things go wrong, blame foreigners

350 years ago this autumn….more than 80 per cent of the City of London was destroyed or damaged by the Great Fire of London, so what has that got to do with Brexit?

Well, the fire started on September 1 in a bakery making ship’s biscuit for the Royal Navy, but oddly the man responsible for burning down most of the city did not want to admit it was his fault.

So instead the authorities arrested and hanged a French watchmaker from Rouen. Virtually no one in government believed he was responsible, but it was easier to execute him than to stand up to popular prejudice.

The London mob also attacked other French people as well as citizens of the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden. Many people with overseas accents were taken into custody for their own protection.

It was a disturbing example of a recurrent theme in English history: when things go wrong, blame foreigners.

For the full story see London’s Disasters (The History Press).

Saturday 15 October 2016

Brexitwatch: the 8th possibility

On October 9, I tried to work out why Theresa May (or Theresa Mayhem as she is increasingly called) had morphed from (allegedly) anti-Brexit during the referendum campaign to fanatically pro the most extreme form of Brexit just a few weeks later. I offered seven possible explanations -

An 8th has now occurred to me. Perhaps she is following the orders that Rupert Murdoch gave her during their secretive meeting in New York in September.

*A mention for my book Historia mundial de los desastres (A Disastrous History of the World) in one of Venezuela's leading periodicals -

Friday 14 October 2016

The Battle of Hastings

950 years ago today.....the Battle of  Hastings.
In that hilarious book, 1066 and All That, 1066 was selected as one of the only two ‘memorable’ dates in English history. And rightly so. The Battle of Hastings marked one of its cleanest breaks with an entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class removed to be replaced by Normans imported by William the Conqueror.
And yet the battle itself was a desperately close-run thing. The army of the English king Harold was exhausted and depleted, having had to race up north to defeat another claimant to the throne, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and then race back south again.
Even so, the Norman cavalry could at first make little impact on the Saxon shield-wall, and when William was knocked off his horse, a rumour swept through his army that he was dead, and some leading commanders called for a retreat.

William had to win the battle, while a draw would have been good enough for the English, so there followed a race against time to gain a decisive victory before dusk brought an end to the fighting. For the full story, see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, the History Press.
* Here's a short video I made on the battle -

Monday 10 October 2016

Storm god = top god

When you think of how terrifying and awesome storms can be, it is not too surprising that in ancient religions the top god was often the storm god whether it was Zeus brandishing his thunderbolt, Thor with his magic hammer, or Indra riding his multi-tusked elephant.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture features some of the fascinating stories surrounding them - such as of how a wicked giant stole Thor’s hammer and demanded the hand of a princess in marriage as the price of its return. Thor disguised himself as the bride, and managed to escape detection at the wedding ceremony in spite of eating an ox and eight salmon. Then he grabbed the hammer and killed the giant.

The Maoris told of how the sky god made love so endlessly to the earth goddess that their children could never get out of her womb. Eventually one of the young gods managed to prise them apart, but this upset the storm god Tawhirimatea who had been quite happy inside his mother, and now became an unruly presence on land and sea.

Some rulers tried to imitate their storm god – such as a pre-Roman king of Alba Longa in Italy who declared he was more powerful than Jupiter. When it thundered, he ordered his soldiers to bang their shields to drown out the noise. He is said to have been struck dead by lightning.

Storms also play an important role in the Bible. A fearful rainstorm generates Noah’s flood, the mother of all hailstorms is one of the plagues of Egypt, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish after a storm at sea, and Christ calms a tempest on the Sea of Galilee. 

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

Sunday 9 October 2016

Brexitwatch: What is Theresa May up to?

During the EU referendum campaign, British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed to be supporting Remain, though her participation was so discreet as to be almost invisible. And yet just three months later, she is supporting the most extreme and damaging form of so-called ‘hard’ Brexit – rejecting the European single market that buys almost half of the UK’s exports.

Why? There are a number of possible explanations:

1. Ms May is a liar. She was always a supporter of hard Brexit and was just pretending to support Remain because she was afraid that backing Leave would damage her ambition to be Prime Minister.

2. Ms May genuinely supported Remain but has been won over to hard Brexit by arguments advanced by the Brexiters since the referendum. As no credible arguments for hard (or any other sort of) Brexit have been put forward, this seems unlikely.

3. Mrs May, like Boris Johnson, is not much interested in arguments about EU membership. She just wants to be Prime Minister, and will say or do whatever she thinks necessary.

4. Mrs May was afraid the Brexiters might ruin her first Tory Party Conference as PM, so she adopted David Cameron’s approach – cowardice and capitulation. In fact, she still believes in Remain, or at least staying in the single market, and at some convenient point in the future, thinks she will somehow pull the Tories back to this position. Good luck with that one. Look how it worked for Cameron.

5. Mrs May is engaged in a softening up exercise, conjuring up the most disastrous picture of Brexit imaginable, so that when she comes up with something that damages the country a bit less, Remainers will be pathetically grateful and go along with it, instead of continuing to argue that the referendum was (as indeed is the case) advisory and not binding, unfair, won on the basis of a pack of lies, indecisive etc

6. Like Boris Johnson, Mrs May believes Britain can have its cake and eat it, remaining in the single market while ripping up the rest of our agreements with the EU on freedom of movement, EU law etc. This is hard to believe as virtually every important person in the EU has made it clear this is a non-starter, and in spite of (presumably) months of looking, the Brexiters have not found anyone of substance who says the opposite, 

7. Mrs May, like the Brexiters, has not the faintest idea what to do. I am far from sure, but I think this is probably the most likely explanation.

Monday 26 September 2016

The millionaire who made a fortune out of Brexit

Just watched BBC-2’s Brexit; A Very British Coup. The duplicity of the Brexiters is clear to see.

The Tories, like Gove, Johnson and Fox, are under orders to have nothing to do with what their party supposedly sees as Nigel Farage’s irresponsible and incendiary campaign. But in fact, they are in touch with him the whole time, and when a story starts running that if Boris gets to be PM, he’ll offer the UKIP leader a seat in his cabinet, the blonde bombshell does nothing to deny it.

As for Labour Brexiter Gisela Stuart, she says she considers Farage so loathsome, she will never share a platform with him. But when it becomes clear that his anti-immigrant approach can save the Leave campaign, she, er, shares a platform with him.

Another Brexit campaigner is the hedge fund boss, Crispin Odey. The Leave vote sent the pound plummeting – bad news for the rest of us because it cut the value of our homes, savings, pensions, wages etc by 10 per cent or more. But it was good news for Mr Odey. He made £200 million out of sterling’s collapse. Another example of how Brexit was a blow for the rich elite against ordinary people.

But perhaps the most revealing moment in the programme was when disgraced former defence secretary, now leading Brexiter, Liam Fox was asked what would happen after a Leave vote. It was plain he neither knew nor cared. And doesn’t it show?

Sunday 18 September 2016

Brexit: a lesson from literature

Another book I read on my holidays was Snow by the Turkish Nobel prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk. 

Published in 2004, it tells the story of a coup in the city of Kars, mounted by a demagogic but rather past-it actor. Pamuk writes about how local people support him because they believe he will stop immigrants coming in, working for low wages and stealing their jobs.

A lot of folk in Kars are disappointed with life, and different people have different views of the land of milk and honey that will follow the coup. Some think it will end immigration, others that the unlicensed slaughter of animals will be stopped; others still that corrupt politicians and business people will be called to account.

They do not understand that those mounting the coup do not have the slightest interest in these things, and just want to stop political parties they dislike from winning an upcoming election. In the end, the coup fails.

* Fact. Leading Brexiter Boris Johnson used to campaign unsuccessfully for Turkey to be admitted to the EU. Then he discovered he was anti-EU, and started to say it would be a very bad thing for Turkey to be let in, claiming this was about to happen, even though he knew it wasn't.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Brexitwatch: Hinkley Point: 'take control' means lose control cont'd

I forecast a month ago ( that post-Brexit, Thresea May would find she had no option but to continue with Hinkley Point in spite of fears about national security and the colossal electricity price it will bring:

'Another foreign-owned enterprise is Hinkley Point nuclear power station. It looks as though Theresa May would dearly love to cancel it because of the eye-watering price for electricity it commits us to paying, but, the Chinese are major investors, and they have made it clear that if it does not go ahead, they will be severely displeased.

As the Brexiters’ ‘plan’ involves us cosying up to people like the Chinese to replace the trading partners in Europe we are turning our back on, it will be interesting to see how much ‘control’ they dare exercise over Hinkley Point.' 

And now that we have spat in the face of our European allies, Ms May did indeed decide we dare not upset the Chinese. Here's the story:

* A review of my book Flood: Nature and Culture that I have just found -

Friday 16 September 2016

Tristan da Cunha - the volcano that emptied an island

On holiday, I read Hervé Bazin’s Les bienheureux de la desolation (which appeared in English as Tristan) – his novel about the volcanic eruption on the island of Tristan da Cunha, a remote British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, in 1961 and its aftermath.

It tells of how a violent eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak at the centre of the island forced the entire population of 264 to flee to the UK.

There was a strong collective spirit on Tristan, with a belief that no one should raise himself up above anyone else, but life was hard, and the British authorities thought that once the islanders experienced the greater comforts of life in England, they would want to stay.

In fact, many rejected what they saw as the materialism and emptiness of modern British life, and when the government held a ballot a couple of years later, the islanders voted 148 to 5 to return. Most of them did.

They adopted some of the new things they had seen in England, but live television did not arrive until 2001, and there is still no mobile phone coverage. Tristan’s population has barely grown, now standing at 266.

Bazin’s book appeared in 1970, and is seen by some as a comment on the misgivings about ‘progress’ which had helped to foment the French riots of 1968.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Brexitwatch: 'take control' means lose control

‘Take control’ was always a bit of an odd slogan for the Brexiters – dominated as they are by laissez faire right wingers who have happily watched the commanding heights of our economy – the car industry, the railways, etc – sold off to foreign companies. Indeed, apparently two-thirds of our major manufacturing companies are now in overseas hands.

Since Brexit, we have lost even more control. The fall in the pound and slump in shares it caused meant our businesses could be snapped up at knock-down prices. So, for example, Pinewood Studios has gone to the Americans, hi-tech trailblazer ARM was bought by the Japanese, and Qatar has increased its share in the company that owns British Airways.

Another foreign-owned enterprise is Hinkley Point nuclear power station. It looks as though Theresa May would dearly love to cancel it because of the eye-watering price for electricity it commits us to paying, but, the Chinese are major investors, and they have made it clear that if it does not go ahead, they will be severely displeased.

As the Brexiters’ ‘plan’ involves us cosying up to people like the Chinese to replace the trading partners in Europe we are turning our back on, it will be interesting to see how much ‘control’ they dare exercise over Hinkley Point. 

Monday 8 August 2016

Brexitwatch: turkeys vote for Christmas - 2

In spite of receiving £60m worth of subsidies from the EU every year, the people of Cornwall voted 57-43 to leave. Europe contributed to a whole swathe of things – such as the Eden Project, education, broadband, and other infrastructure in the county.

To considerable derision from those had voted to stay, within hours of the referendum result, Cornwall’s representatives were rattling the begging bowl demanding that they should not lose the EU subsidies they had just voted to get rid of.

Apparently they were relying on assurances from leading Brexiters that they would not lose out if they opted to kill the golden goose. It is not clear on what authority Boris, Fox, Leadsom and co gave these promises.

Perhaps the Cornish should now ask them to have a whip round. After all, however the rest of us may have suffered, they have done very nicely out of Brexit. It might also be worth approaching the 5 local MPs who campaigned to leave.

Thursday 4 August 2016

Brexitwatch: turkeys vote for Christmas - 1

About 60 per cent of Britain's old age pensioners voted for Brexit. But in many ways they have the most to lose from leaving the EU.  About 75,000 of the people working in adult care, such as old people’s homes, come from the EU.

This work is notoriously poorly paid, and replacing them could prove very difficult. Already the sector has 70,000 unfilled vacancies. As the population ages, an independent report by two NGOs reckons that by 2020, it will be short of 200,000 workers.

It is a similar story in the NHS. One doctor in every ten, and one nurse in every 25 comes from Europe.

The Express, one of the most virulently anti-EU propaganda sheets, is now panicking about the effects of Brexit, warning pensioners: ‘your retirement funds are set to shrink’ because of falling interest rates and rising inflation. Not to mention the fall of the pound. Should have thought of that before you urged people to vote Leave.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Coups d’état; what is the chance of succeeding?

Last month’s coup d’état against Turkey’s President Erdogan failed, but between 1950 and 2010, on average a coup had a 50-50 chance of succeeding.

Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the University of Kentucky examined 450 from that 60 year period, and found that 227 – 49.7% – were successful. And the plotters seemed to be improving, because those mounted since 2003 had a 70% success rate.

But coups have become less common. Their heyday was the 1960s, when there were about 15 a year. By the first decade of the new millennium that was down to 5 a year. One reason may be that the world is getting richer. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler of Oxford University found that if people’s average incomes doubled, the risk of a coup fell by more than a quarter.

As to the ingredients of a successful coup, there seems a fair degree of consensus – detain key leaders, take over key media outlets, control key transport arteries. The Turkish plotters failed to  implement these properly, but perhaps a new factor was at play – social media, which President Erdogan used very effectively to rally support.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Most ISIS victims are Muslims

Following yesterday’s murder of an 86 year old Roman Catholic priest in his church in Rouen in northern France, a reminder that most victims of ISIS terrorists are Muslims.

More than 40 people have been killed by a massive suicide truck bomb in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli in north-east Syria near the border with Turkey. ISIS said it was behind the attack which happened near a security headquarters. The blast appears to have caused a gas tank to explode, adding to the destruction.

Kurds have been perhaps the most resolute opponents of ISIS, in spite of also finding themselves under attack from Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, Recep Erdogan. As a result they have often been the victims of bombings by the Islamist terrorists.

Earlier this month, an ISIS suicide bomber on a motorbike killed 16 people among a crowd which had gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan in the Kurdish-majority city of Hasakah in northeastern Syria.

Thursday 21 July 2016

'Storm: Nature and Culture': out in September!

This is how the publisher, Reaktion Books, describes my new book:-

Storms affect our lives in many remarkable and dangerous ways. Gales, hurricanes, cyclones, blizzards, tornados, hail and sand and dust storms regularly demonstrate the awesome power of nature that all of us experience in some form. But what causes them? What role have they played in our history, religion and the arts? And will climate change make them even more destructive? 

This strikingly illustrated book takes an in-depth and unique look at the nature of storms and their impact on our lives. It shows how storms have changed the course of history, playing a decisive role in major battles and momentous revolutions from Roman times to the modern day. It describes the deadliest storms in history, such as the Bangladesh cyclone of 1970 that killed perhaps a million people, and explains how humans have tried to control storms through religion, superstition and science. Despite their potent ability to cause destruction, storms also benefit humanity. Stormdescribes the major role they have played in the arts, from Shakespeare’s plays to novels such as Robinson Crusoe and famous works of art by Rembrandt, Constable, Monet, Munch and Turner. It describes how storms even out global temperatures, providing rain and clearing out old trees to make way for new, and considers what will happen to storms in the future. Fully illustrated and brilliantly written, Storm is the first book to cover all aspects of these natural phenomena.