Monday, May 16, 2011

I say farewell to my hopes and dreams

I cried today. I never thought I’d see this; a turning away from our outward urge. From Apollo 8 to this final flight of the Endeavour, I have followed our space exploration for years. In real terms Endeavour has not been the end. The end probably happened years ago when we decided that space exploration should give way to delivery runs to our global communications system. And exploration into space may well continue; reaching out to the future will pass to the developing world, to China and India. It has probably been a mistake to identify our access to space with NASA and the American push.

I sort of assumed I would spend my twenties and thirties in Luna City, moving out to the asteroid belt as my children, Jack and Selene, became independent and moved towards their own entrance into space. Seconds would have become true metric units as I thought in kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds, divorced from the constraints of planetary life.


When did my dream disappear? Did Star Wars do it?  Maybe. We seemed to become so embedded in our make believe that the reality of the careful, hugely expensive, preparations for each tiny step seemed silly and petty. In my mind’s eye I have journeyed out, swung around the astonishing rings of Saturn, plunged into the cold depths of interstellar space, walked on strange new worlds, gloried in communication with mysterious and beautiful aliens. Except we didn’t and haven’t and now we’re not even moving towards that vision. Why plod through the endless expensive tedium when cgi lets us believe we are the gods themselves?

Perhaps it’s for the best. Potentially we could squander all the wealth of our beautiful world on finally getting out to a cold and sterile place where we lament our loss; a world destroyed by our efforts to escape from it, a paradise where, if we had stayed, we might have flourished in serene joy. What we seem to have achieved is both less and more tragic than that. We have neither seeded the planets and stars nor relaxed into an eco-paradise. We’ve wasted our opportunities and our wealth on producing vast quantities of ugly trash in which we are slowly sinking. Damn! We are a pedestrian race who neither reach for the stars nor build something fine here on Earth. No wonder I weep.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Going Out

I’ve been out for two evenings this week and they’ve both been enlightening and, to different extents, quite entertaining. The first, surprisingly fascinating, was an hour and a half in Lecture Theatre Two in the University of Sheffield’s Hicks Building where One, The Global Poverty Project and Christian Aid presented the case for combating extreme poverty. I hadn’t realised what good progress had been made but I’m well aware of some of the things that still stand in the way. Corruption, inequality, ill health due to malnutrition and preventable diseases, lack of adequate sanitation, rising food and fuel prices and climate change. Many of these issues are ones where we in the developed world are implicated. We accept and sometime encourage corruption because a corrupt government is easier for us to manipulate. We, or at least the richest among us, are the ones benefiting from speculation in commodities, we are the ones primarily causing climate change. We watched the Living Proof roadshow which is full of inspiring stories of what has been achieved so far, then we each sat and wrote a letter to our MP asking them to support the call for investment in diarrhoea and pneumonia vaccinations, major killers of children throughout the world.

My second big evening out was at the EICC in Edinburgh where we saw Monkeys Uncaged. What a fabulous evening! Robin Ince is my hero, both a marvellous (grumpy old) comic and a relentless populariser of science and clear thinking, here holding together a wonderful show comprising entertainment and important insights into the way the world works.

He presented the irresistibly enthusiastic Helen Keen who gave a shortened version of the show we saw at the Fringe some years ago, ‘It Is Rocket Science’, sadly without the puppet show splendid props.

From Helen to Ben Goldacre who was relentlessly entertaining at top speed about the design of clinical trials for drugs. You can get a flavour of his work by reading the Bad Science Blog but for the full-on authentic experience you really should listen to him talk.

The next ‘act’ and the one I was looking forward to least was Professor Brian Cox. I will confess to having a quite pronounced prejudice against his TV programmes. I will not suggest that he doesn’t know his stuff; he seems very knowledgeable. It’s probably more that I don’t like today’s style of science programme, which seems to assume we are all stupid with the attention span ascribed to goldfish. It irritates me so much that I can’t watch. And then the heroic poses; against a lonely seascape, against a range of mountains, against the desolation of a desert, hair blowing, nobly gaze into the distance; make me mildly nauseous. Well this evening was a revelation. Not only is the man amusing and self-deprecating, he has a talent for explaining difficult things clearly without either patronising or sinking into dullness. I was completely won over.

After the break Helen Arney graced the stage with her ukulele and a couple of lovely songs about sex. We really ought to see more of her. She’s bright and funny and produces great songs. Lets make love like animals. Well perhaps not like Angler Fish. I’d sort of not like a pair of genitals left attached to my body for me to use later.

Simon Singh was dependably interesting, with an understandable description of the Doppler effect, a sodium emitting gherkin and proof of the Big Bang. Even though I’d seen the talk before it was worth listening to again.

Perhaps the nicest thing about the evening, along with the gustatory brilliance of the Home Bistro, was the feeling of being part of a crowd of people getting their kicks from learning from and being entertained by some very bright people. I just wish a similar number of people had been drawn to Thursday’s discussion of ending extreme poverty.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Some more thoughts on banks

I mentioned my bank issues in Journey Planet really as a prelude to an appalling pun, however, it’s something that I want to return to after the Global Poverty project I’ve participated in recently.

To put it in context, although I grumble a lot I don’t usually move away from any provider. A mixture of inertia and loyalty. I have used two clearing banks in my life. My father worked for Midland Bank and so I banked with them until I got married, even when they heartlessly made him redundant. I only moved to my current bank because David, my husband, pointed out that if we ever needed to borrow money we would be better asking a bank with which we had a good credit record. I’d had a permanent overdraft with Midland. Until we married David had never been in debt with his bank. So, I closed my Midland account and we had a joint account with Barclays Bank.

I would never have chosen Barclays. The apartheid protests lingered in my awareness but David made a good point and at the time Barclays had divested themselves of the offending interests. So, we had a joint account and I settled into an apathetic relationship with Barclays.

Twenty three years later I am thinking again. I have always found the telephone ‘support’ from Barclays irritating. Some years ago I considered dumping the bank because of their Hard Sell but the branch staff in Kidderminster were really lovely and provided me with a direct dial so I didn’t have to go through the call centre. They told me at the time that they shouldn’t do this but many of their customers had the same problem and so, in order to keep some semblance of personal banking, they were ignoring the dictat.

My dissatisfaction has grown recently. About a year ago someone from Barclays phoned me up at work, ostensibly to check my payments, but actually to try to sell me cheaper house insurance. It wasted half an hour of my time that I then had to make up at the end of the day. Silly things started to irritate me. I now no longer visit a branch; all transactions are online, so there is never a personable teller to interact with, just an impersonal screen. In some ways I like this, but it means I have no loyalty, and the stupid tricks they play really annoy me. The ‘next’ button on each page is always below the visible window. The obvious button, which I occasionally click on inadvertently, is usually to a sales pitch – update your account to one that gives you useless ‘benefits’ and costs more, for example.

So, over recent years, some irritation. I suspect that this would be the case whichever bank I was with. As is regularly pointed out, they are businesses and they need to expand their business all the time (which is a rant for another time) but I am resistant to being sold to when I have no need and I resent having my time wasted, either online or by telephone sales calls.

What finally tipped the balance, some time on from the banking crisis, was Bob Diamond’s bonus, the pitiful amount of corporation tax paid and the news that Barclays is implicated in the further commoditisation of food via agricultural speculation using collateralised commodity obligations. For those living in extreme poverty, increasing food prices driven by financial speculation means starvation. Generally the people benefitting from food speculation have never been hungry in their lives, have never felt concern about their children suffering from malnutrition, have probably never thought of the consequences of one more financial bet. Barclays Capital are just the provider of this ‘service’ but the banks lobbied very hard for deregulation of the commodities markets to make this type of transaction possible and Barclays is the UK’s biggest player in the food commodities market, one of the big three in the world. I don’t want any part in supporting an organisation that is doing this. I am not under any illusion that taking my monthly pay packet away from them is going to make the least bit of difference to Barclays but I am moving my money to a mutual building society where I’m fairly sure my money will be supporting more benign projects.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day five

It’s the last day and I’ve just eaten my last meal of the five days (chick pea and lovage omelette). I have 300g barley, about 25g quinoa and a dusting of porridge oats left together with 40p. It’s Friday and I really, really want a glass of wine.
It’s been an interesting week. It has been an enlightening experience and the cause of many conversations but I haven’t spent so much time thinking, and talking, about food since I was a dieting teen. I have never been desperately hungry but there has definitely been a peckishness; a desire to eat more, and more varied foods, than I had available. On the other hand I feel quite well. No coffee, tea, wine or sugar, no bread and very reduced amounts of dairy food have left me feeling better than usual. A more equitable sharing of resources would probably benefit the rich world as well as lifting 1.4 billion out of a level of poverty that this week has only given a vague glimpse of.  

Finally I’d like to thank everyone who has (or will) donate money. I really appreciate it.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Day four

A whole banana with breakfast this morning. It felt like luxury. For lunch I cooked a cup of quinoa, mixed in chick peas, olive oil and mint from my depleting pot and divided it up for Sally to eat at home (there was a strike at college) and me to take to work. It was surprisingly delicious and very filling but, as I was running a course with lunch provided, I had to explain to the delegates why I was eating this when they were tucking into exotic sarnies and several varieties of cake. The course was about sustainability and, whilst talking about resource issues we’d discussed escalating food prices and their effects on the developing world so it was an interesting talking point. Tonight I used up all the vegetables bar one onion in a soup, which I’ll liquidise for tomorrow’s lunch. I was a bit appalled to find two of my remaining three carrots had gone manky. I salvaged what I could rather than flinging the lot. 
Only one more day!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Live Below the Line, Day Three

Today has been a hunger free day! Before setting off for work I simmered a handful of barley grains, threw in some chopped kale from the back garden and added it to my left over stew to make a fairly decent quantity. I cycled into work again along the canal. It was lovely and I paused to take a few photos. Breakfast was porridge and ½ a banana again with a dash of milk.

I had half a bowl of stew at noon and another half at 2pm. I’ve found that spreading the meal reduces the hunger and gives me something to look forward to.
Cycling back along the Five Weirs Walk, towards the end I was definitely flagging. Also, whilst I adore my bike, the saddle is not comfortable. Tomorrow I’m running a course so I’ll bike down to the station and catch a train in an attempt to arrive feeling less jounced about.

Once home, as it is half way through the five days we had a treat. It’s a meal I used to cook all the time when the kids were little and the Rayburn was always hot. Savoury oat bake is from Rose Elliot’s fab book, ‘Cheap and Easy’, and consists of porridge oats, a tin of tomatoes and 100g grated cheese, layered and baked. Total prep time five minutes, baking time 30 minutes. Comfort food of the best sort, being both cheap and yummy.

Anyway, enough of this thinking about food. I need to read a paper about resource efficiency and then go to sleep. 

To donate please go to my donation page.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Live Below the Line, Day Two

Today has been fine. I've been mildly hungry most of the day and I've really missed my hot drinks, other than the peppermint tea first thing. I've drunk a lot of water which, again, probably wouldn't be sustainable in a real life situation. Clean water is not easily available for people living in extreme poverty.

In an effort to be more realistic I cycled all the way to and from work today. That's about three hours cycling which may well be comparable with the time spent travelling to look for work (or fuel or water etc). Of course my bike is a nice shiny new one with gears so not truly comparable.

Porridge with a bit of my milk and plenty of water together with half a banana was a quite filling breakfast (35g oats) but less than I would normally have. Plenty of nettle soup for lunch so I had half at lunchtime and half before heading off to woodwork. I've just eaten half my dinner and will save the rest for lunch tomorrow so that I'm not reduced to banana and plain barley. The rest of the meals are sorted, it's just tomorrow that I'm short of. Not really short, of course, there are calories left but I'm too tired to cook barley tonight and don't want to get up before 6am to cook it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Live Below the Line, Day One

I tumbled out of bed this morning feeling distinctly peckish and desperate for a cup of tea. Oh well. I picked a sprig of mint (a perennial planted three years ago and no money spent on it since) and made a mug of mint tea. It was very refreshing and made me wonder why I buy mint tea bags. On the other hand, it’s not that big a pot of mint. It will probably last me the week and then I’ll have to leave it alone for a month. This would definitely not be sustainable long term. Nor is the use of an electric kettle just to make a drink.

To distract myself I got Ian to give me a lift up to the allotment with my fork, rake and watering can. Of course, a convenient lift is another luxury not available to people living in extreme poverty. It took me over two hours to clear a tiny bit of weed engulfed land that I then sowed with wild clover as a holding crop/green manure until I’ve got something more useful to plant there. Once the backbreaking digging was finished I picked a bag full of nettle tops. Another free ingredient but one I wouldn’t have walked over a mile to harvest.

Back at the house I fried the first of my four onions in a dollop of olive oil then went into the garden to dig up a couple of leeks. These are going rapidly to seed. It's amazing they survived my garden being decimated by the builders earlier in the year. I reckon I should put 5p in for my leeks and another 5p for the chard running to seed in a pot in the front that I intend to use. This leaves me with 46p. I chopped my straggly leeks up and added them to the pan. I would not usually use the green leaves but this is not time to throw away food value so the whole lot went in along with three spoonfuls of cooked chick peas, the bag of nettle tops and a fair amount of water.  Five minutes later I liquidised the lot. There’s a decent amount, enough for lunch tomorrow as well. It’s a little thin but tastes delicious. Normally I would have grated nutmeg into it and eaten it with a good tablespoon of yogurt and a hunk of bread. Not today.

I’m already starting to worry about the onions. I’ve only got three left. That’s a worry. I had probably better do a bit of planning.

So, at 6.30pm I’m feeling the sort of peckish you get when you’re on a diet. By no means awful, but noticeable.  We’re just waiting for the 1/3 cup of quinoa to cook. One of the things that is increasing my hunger is that Ian is, very ostentatiously, eating a Chinese takeaway in front of me and drinking a glass of Sauternes. Bad Ian!

Dinner tonight, for Sally and me is chick pea and barley stew with onion, carrot and potato. Two onions, three carrots and three potatoes left. Tomorrow will likey be the same meals again. I’m in the office and then will go straight from work to woodwork at the college. I won’t be home until around 9.30pm so there will be warming up rather than cooking. I’ll have to think about what to eat and when to cook Wednesday lunch. 

It's been a pretty good day. It feels like a very healthy diet so far. I'd just really, really like a glass of wine.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Getting ready for Below the Line

Hm. So not so easy as the Tesco website makes it seem to be. I wandered down early afternoon and there were no loose potatoes, no plum tomatoes, only chopped (2p extra) and the only ‘value’ stock cubes were beef. The non-value vegetable cubes are 78p. On the positive side there were a bag of 7 large bananas for 35p. They looked a little green and slightly bruised but worth the extra cash for a little variety.

Julia Daly asked whether I wanted to move back in with her for the week, which brings me to one of my concerns. It’s a great idea to live for five days to raise awareness of extreme poverty but we shouldn’t forget that we are only eating on £1 a day. People in real need are actually living on that. I have a vague memory of Lady Olga Maitland (con) many years ago proclaiming, after feeding herself for a week on the money given out in benefits (eat liver – it’s very cheap), that it was quite possible to be very comfortable, even if you are on benefits, if you plan well and shop carefully. I am guessing that even at the time her careful shopping would have involved someone else doing all the research and going to a dozen different shops to get the very cheapest of each foodstuff.

I am sure I could have got better value if I had, as I noted yesterday, either the money or the time in my budget to get to the market in the centre of Sheffield but what I would have saved would have been more than lost in either bus fares or time. Similarly, I have bought 500g of dried chick peas which gives a decent amount of food for the money (78p) but require to be soaked overnight, boiled hard in a change of water for a short time then simmered for around an hour. If I were living on the edge of extreme poverty, the fuel to cook the chick peas, if bought, would be expensive and, if gathered as wood, would take a lot of time to collect. I’m also going to cook the full 500g at once but this requires me to own and be able to pay to run a fridge.

So, those 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty have to find the money (or time) for fuel for cooking and warmth, find the money (or time) to travel to find or do work, find the money (or time) to obtain water for drinking, cooking and washing themselves and their clothes, find the money to clothe themselves and their children, at the very least. They might need to pay for health care, and want to pay for their children’s education. Obviously, on a pound a day they are unlikely to be able to achieve most of the above. Obviously, also, as we’ve already found, having more people working together to bring in money will mean that certain economies of scale can be achieved giving a small amount of flexibility. Extreme poverty encourages big families from a purely economic point of view but will not allow for education; everyone will have to work to keep everyone fed. And there is no chance of working your way out of poverty.

I worked out that currently my outgoings are around £20 per day, before we factor in buying food, buying toiletries and clothes (necessary for work) or any fun at all. I can cut that to around £12 per day by cutting out my charitable donations, all my comms (phone, mobile, broadband, TV licence, email domain etc) and my house & contents insurance. Having no car makes this easier. I can, indeed, get to £4 a day by not contributing to university expenses. Could I survive on £5 per day? Yes. But £1? Well of course I could. It wouldn't be in a house but on the streets. It would be the barest of survival.  And around the world a fifth of all people are living on this extreme edge of despair.

To donate please go to my donation page.