Saturday 30 April 2016

Ancient apocalypse: The great British tsunami of 6100 BC.

Watching Neil Oliver’s excellent History of Ancient Britain on BBC-4 television, I was reminded of the story of a great tsunami that struck the country 8,000 years ago, which may have been the first major natural disaster suffered by British men and women.

Archaeologists think that in about 6100 BC, huge landslides in Norway triggered great waves which struck the North-east and penetrated 25 miles inland, turning low-lying plains into what is now the North Sea, and cutting us off from the continent.

Before the tsunami, a landbridge from the region around the Wash connected us with the Low Countries. Rising sea levels were already threatening it before the natural disaster finished off the job.

The drowned area was known to archaeologists as Doggerland, and was largely made up of lagoons, marshes and mudflats. It is believed to have been one of the richest hunting grounds in Europe. So many humans would presumably have been caught up in this ancient tsunami. (See also my post of 1 May 2014.)

Saturday 23 April 2016

Europe: stay or leave? Focus on fact - 4

People complain there are not enough facts in the Brexit debate, so here are a couple:-

1. The anti-Europeans have not got the faintest idea what will happen if we leave Europe.

2. If we walk out of Europe, we tear up more than 50 trade agreements with countries across the world. Freeing up trade increases prosperity. That is why nations and organisations like the EU go to the considerable effort of making these deals. Conversely, losing free trade agreements reduces prosperity.

Some of the anti-Europeans have been claiming that everyone will be queuing up to sign a trade deal with us. Even if this is true, and it may well not be, these deals take a long time to agree. Canada and the EU have been negotiating for 7 years. Even if we could reach new deals to replace the 50 or so we tear up, this would take us years, perhaps decades.

The anti-Europeans have been plotting Brexit for years, so how many countries have they managed to sign up to give us new trade deals if we leave Europe? None, so far as I am aware. And managing to insult the United States and the Commonwealth in one sentence as Boris Johnson did yesterday, is probably not a great way to go about it.

As with so many things, the anti-Europeans have been flip-flopping on this issue too. Having had their claims that all and sundry will be queuing up to do trade deals with us blown out of the water, they are now saying we do not really need these agreements. As I said, if that were true, countries and organisations would not make so much effort trying to negotiate them.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Europe: stay or leave? Focus on Fact - 3

One of the curious things about the UK's EU referendum is how the anti-Europeans claim to be patriotic. In fact, not a single ones of our allies and friends abroad want us to leave Europe. The only people who want us to leave are our enemies – ISIS and President Putin.

These facts are particularly inconvenient for the Brexiters because they claim that once we have dumped Europe, we can cosy up to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Good luck with that one. All those countries have told us we need to stay in Europe.

If they manage to drag us out of Europe, the anti-Europeans load most of their hopes on America. So how are they preparing the ground? By insulting President Obama, and telling America to shut up. There is a worrying bullying streak to some of the Brexiters, particularly Boris Johnson and the disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox, who try to silence anyone who says anything positive about Europe.

Now they have told Obama that he must not dare express his views on the subject. I trust we can count on the president to ignore the bullies.

Sunday 17 April 2016

The curious case of the Tory minister, the dominatrix and the silent tabloids

Before he was a minister, John Whittingdale admits he had a relationship with a professional dominatrix, though he says he did not know her occupation. Normally this would be pure gold for the prurient UK tabloids. You know the kind of thing: 'Politician's shame! Full, disgusting details. Pages 2,3,4,5,6,7 etc.'

On this occasion, the tabloids took another view: 'Move along. Nothing to see here'. The explanation they offer is that they had an attack of high-mindedness. Mr Whittingdale was a single man. It was no business of anyone else who he chose to have an affair with.

Deplorably, there are some cynics who have taken a rather different view of the tabloids' motives. You see, Mr Whittingdale is no ordinary minister. He is in charge of regulation of the press and broadcasting. And from the tabloids' point of view, he has been playing a blinder. Soft-pedalling on the tightening of press regulation the Tories had promised in the wake of the Milly Dowler phone hacking scandal, and constantly sticking the boot into the BBC who the tabloids hate and fear.

For those trying to decide which explanation is right, the latest Private Eye has unearthed some interesting lines. If the tabloids really were converted to the 'people have the right to a private life' notion, it came pretty late in the day. Because three of them put a lot of effort into confirming the story before deciding not to publish. Astonishingly some people have floated the preposterous idea that the newspapers might have thought it valuable to have a journalistic Sword of Damocles hanging over Mr Whittingdale's head, just in case.

Thanks to the breaking of the story by a little-known website, any such sword has now been blunted, and funnily enough this morning the Mail on Sunday launched a fierce attack on Mr Whittingdale, accusing him of breaches of national security in his relationship with the dominatrix, and saying the Prime Minister should now be considering whether he is suitable for office.

Friday 15 April 2016

East London Disasters

Thank you to the East London History Society for inviting me to talk to them last night on 'East London Disasters'.

There was a good turnout, with some fascinating stories from members of the audience: two men who had been working at King's Cross underground station on the night of the fire, and a woman whose mother had been caught up in the Bethnal Green tube station disaster of 1943.

That was one of the disasters I covered in the talk, along with the Barking flood of 1377, cholera, the Princess Alice, the Forest Gate school fire of 1890, the HMS Albion launch disaster of 1898, the Silvertown explosion of 1917, Ronan Point and the Dudgeon's Wharf explosion of 1969.

A great time was had by all!

Sunday 10 April 2016

Is this the world's deadliest firework accident?

Nearly 100 people are believed to have been killed in what may have been the deadliest firework disaster in history. It came at a display to celebrate the Hindu new year at a temple in southern India. The number injured is put at up to 350.

The fire at the Puttingal temple in Kollam, Kerala, is believed to have been caused by a stray firework hitting a firework store and causing a major explosion or perhaps a series of blasts. There are suggestions that dynamite sticks were also being stored. According to some reports, the explosions caused a roof to collapse, trapping people beneath.

About 6,000 people had been attending the festivities, and local residents spoke of concrete blocks flying through the air, and landing in gardens.

Southern India suffered another serious firework disaster in 2012 in the town of Sivakasi, known as India’s firework capital, because it turns out perhaps 70 per cent of the country’s production. 40 people were killed and 70 injured in an explosion at a factory that did not have a valid licence.

(See also my posts of 28 January, 25 March, 28 October and 3 November 2013.)

Saturday 9 April 2016

Europe: stay or leave? Focus on fact - 2

I saw Boris Johnson on tv the other night saying he wanted an honest debate about Europe. So why does he keep telling lies? As the Treasury Select Committee found, Boris has no scruples about just making stuff up (which was what got him sacked by The Times, of course).

Boris and his fellow Brexiters were up in arms because the government is going to send out a letter explaining some of the facts about EU membership. If we are going to have a fair referendum, this is, of course, vital, as the right wing tabloids spew out a relentless tide of anti-European propaganda, and have long ago given up any idea of covering the issue in a balanced, factual way.

But the Brexiters want to silence anyone who speaks up for Europe. They tried it on President Obama. His advice to Britain to stay in the EU was particularly inconvenient, because the anti-Europeans claim we will be able to cosy up to America once we leave Europe.

Boris also tried to ban anyone at City Hall from saying anything nice about Europe.

Also interesting this week: the ‘Jagger backs Brexit’ claim (so apparently do the Queen, and probably God, according to the anti-European tabloids). If you actually read what Mick said, he argues that for the first 20 years, leaving will damage us. Then in the ‘long term’ it might be ‘beneficial. ‘ As the great economist John Maynard Keynes said: ‘In the long term, we are all dead.’

Sunday 3 April 2016

Europe - stay or leave? Focus on Fact - 1

I am getting increasingly depressed at the way the UK's Europe referendum debate has become a fact-free zone. We can expect no help from popular newspapers. Most have given up any pretence of covering the EU objectively and have simply become anti-European propaganda sheets. So I will be posting regularly on the facts.

Some recent development:-

1)This week I heard a couple of anti-Europeans on the radio blaming the plight of the British steel industry on the EU. Now it has been revealed that the EU wanted to take action against the dumping of Chinese steel, but the UK government has been blocking it:

2) Even the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph has had to admit that Boris Johnson doesn’t know what he is talking about on Europe.

More soon!

The cost of pandemics, and how to reduce it

SARS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, Zika. It is hard to believe that not too long ago, there was an idea that infectious diseases had been largely conquered, at least in principle. Then along came AIDS, and now with more people on the planet and more travelling, new infections are actually becoming more common.

Ebola has infected almost 30,000 people, killing 11,000, and inflicted an economic cost of more than $2 billion on some of the poorest countries in the world. SARS infected far fewer – 8,000, and killed 800, but because it hit richer places, it cost more than $40 billion. A recent report on global health risks put potential global losses from pandemics at around $60bn a year.

America’s National Academy of Medicine suggests that $4.5bn a year, about 3% of what the rich world spends on development aid, invested in medical research, public health services and better emergency co-ordination could significantly strengthen our defences against disease.

More effective health systems would help fight illnesses such as tuberculosis that costs perhaps $12bn a year, and malaria which probably costs several times that. Better research could help find vaccines to treat diseases that at the moment are mercifully rare, but which could become pandemics, such as Lassa fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever.