Does Germany still have a ‘special responsibility’?

This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.

If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.

Berlin2If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.

Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.

I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from  German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.

German Protesters against refugees

German Protesters against refugees

This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.

In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.

More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy.  Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.

Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.

“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”

Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.

Berlin5What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.

When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.

During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.

Berlin6On my last day in Berlin, the  news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.

So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that  it has done much to solve the underlying issues.

I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.

What price a cup of tea?

Some things have the capability to act as shorthand for a country, a kind of national image which everyone associates with a people or nationality. Often this is even the case when the object in question has very little to do with that country in terms of origin.

teaOne such example is the humble cup of tea. Few other things could immediately conjure up the British nation than it’s devotion to tea. The best estimates suggest that over 60 billion cups of tea are made each year in the United Kingdom alone.

Despite being only six major types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and post-fermented) these all come from the same species of tea bush, the difference is merely in the post picking preparation. The love affair with these steeped leaves started in the 1600’s with Portuguese traders bringing tea leaves back to Europe from China.

Indeed some people say the British love of tea stems from decisions made in Tudor times when Elizabeth I granted the East India company a charter to operate. As that company grew, it established an infrastructure which ultimately supported the British Empire in India and lands capable of growing plants smuggled out of China.

moneyWhatever the reasons, it is clear that tea is now very big business in the United Kingdom. The exact figures are hard to establish accurately, however, there is little doubt that tea production and sale in Britain is an industry generating in excess of £1 billion pound annually.

Although originally a Chinese specialist plant, the majority of the world tea production is now concentrated in the sub-continent of India. Assam and Darjeeling being the best known areas.

The Indian government recognising the importance of a stable and readily available workforce placed requirements on tea plantation owners to provide adequate homes for their workforce. A move which at the time of its introduction made the more reputable plantations attractive employment options.

tea1However, things have deteriorated over recent years with homes in many estates now being little more than shacks. Many have virtually no roofs and the original concept of a house per worker has been rapidly moved to multiple occupancy often with as many as eight families sharing one small hut.

Many of the plantation owners have also started to apply a

de-facto levy to the provision of housing. They claim these requirements provide above average living standards for their staff which means their base salaries can remain low – and by that I mean typically £1 per day.

tea2The backlog of repairs on many  of these estates means people living without running water, sanitation and even functioning toilets. Some simply have the concrete footprint remaining to indicate where former outhouses once stood. Yet despite this wages of tea workers have remained unchanged for years. This has already led to industrial unrest and even the murder of one estate owner. However, most people are simply living on existence wages so ‘rocking the boat’ by taking a stand for workers rights is simply not an option. More details of this aspect were recently reported by the BBC’s Justin Rowlat

So is there an issue with the sale of tea from these estates? Is the product over-priced or hard to sell? These conditions exist in plantations selling to Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, Twinings and Fortnum and Masons to name but a few. Hardly the cheaper end of the retail market and far from small purchasers.

tea3As an example an experienced tea worker can pick up to three bags of tea leaves during their shift for a day. Once processed these can make a pallet of tea, roughly 500 packets of loose tea such as the one shown  here.

In this example, just one of those five hundred packets within that pallet sells for £7.50. Put another way, just  one packet equates to nearly a weeks wages for the average tea picker. Someone somewhere is making a very nice living, but it certainly isn’t  those picking the leaves to provide your breakfast cuppa.

Regulation and legislation does exist in India to address these conditions. However, the simple truth is that they appear to be totally ineffective. So what are our famous name purchasers doing with their undoubted buying power to improve the situation? The answer appears to be washing their hands of the problem. It appears to be the majority view that this is an internal matter for India to resolve.

So next time you pay for your branded tea and wonder why fair trade tea might be more expensive this could well be one reason for the increased prices. However, reliance on fair trade isn’t sufficient in my view. Come on big brands, make a stand and refuse to accept working conditions that would have been more at home in the worst of the Dickensian novels. Food for thought when you next put the kettle on for you cup of English breakfast.

The vital Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre, London)

TIOBE1An unusual but not unique blog today with a set of thoughts based around (among other productions) a review of The Importance of being Ernest. This classic comedy is arguably Oscar Wilde’s true masterpiece and is currently playing for a relatively short run at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

As a fan of this Wildian romp through Victorian social climbing I was desperately looking forward to seeing this production. With David Suchet and Michele Dotrice there was a promise which was almost always carried the risk of under delivering.  However, in this case that was an unnecessary fear.

From the very first entrance on stage by Algernon Moncriefe, it was clear we were dealing with actors comfortable with large parts. The sets had been prepared with a conservative but effective attention to detail and simplicity but allowed a modern and witty directing style to keep the actors in a near permanent state  of animation.

Whilst this was well received by the audience (and ultimately it’s bums on seats that count) I thought the amount of ‘business’ on stage might be slightly more than was called for by the original, rather more leisurely script. However, it made for both a bright and pacey first act which took us rushing to the first of the two intervals.

globe2Only a few weeks earlier, I had been lucky enough to see As you Like It at the Globe theatre, a production I enjoyed and am similarly pleased to have seen.

However, for a production which spent so much time focusing on detail and accuracy there were a few ‘liberties’ taken with the production apparently to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Perhaps the most notable being the entrance of Audrey (a comedy foil) on stage riding a 1970’s style shopper cycle which  although effective was certainly anachronistic. For anyone other than the purist (and perhaps not even all of them) this worked well and brought humour to an otherwise ‘hard going’ part of the play. However, for me it jarred, it was almost lazy, the easy way out.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the actors concerned were both excellent and unless Audrey snuck in the cycle as some elaborate ad-lib, were operating as directed. Presumably the addition was felt necessary to lighten the mood and make the scene more accessible to a modern audience? It’s simply that with so much attention to detail elsewhere this was almost patronising to the audience. Would a wooden wheel-barrow or a donkey or anything less out of time been an impossibility? Alternatively, why not in line skates or a moped?

My concerns, such as they existed were similar for the Importance of being Earnest. The text is certainly of it’s time and even dated in parts, but directors please note – 90 percent of the audience know this before they buy the tickets.

clownFor my taste, the production fell just on the wrong side (at times) of pratfalls and farce. Again, it was clear why, to ma language more accessible, text less dense and to give multi-dimensional characterisation to characters who stretch the suspension of disbelief at times.

However, the amount of physical comedy from a cast who clearly could have achieved the same level of comedy from the beauty of the text was at times overdone for my liking – although many in the audience clearly loved it and didn’t share my concerns.

It is impossible (or perhaps more accTIOBE2urate to say) that it would be inappropriate to single out any particular cast member as they were a true ensemble acting as a traditional troupe.

David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was an amazingly subtle almost filmic tour de force of facial expressions and comedy timing. Having seen many others including Dame Maggie Smith and Edith Evans (albeit on film) he certainly found new space for this amazing character to live.

However, even here, (whether following direction or the actors wish not to ‘parrot’ Dame Edith), there was a singular choice which left me robbed of an old friend.

The best known line in the production is undoubtedly ‘A handbag?’ asked (usually incredulously) by Lady Bracknell on learning of the birthplace (or at least finding) or Jack Worthing.

Undoubtedly for the best of theatrical reasons, this was delivered not as a statement of shock or disbelief, but rather as a swallowed laugh. The only point in a spotless performance that I felt didn’t quite ring true.

DirectorSo was I glad to have seen the performances? Absolutely.  Did I enjoy them? Undoubtedly. My only appeal would be to Directors to trust their audiences to know the work they are about to watch or to be capable enough to endure the rough patches with the high emotional and performance peaks.

So much has been ‘dummed down’ in recent years that some of us seek out challenging, thought provoking and demanding theatre. Sometimes that also includes being reintroduced to an old friend who doesn’t need to have been subject to a ‘makeover’ or turned into pantomime. Be brave, be imaginative but remain true to the text and the spirit of the production.

Regrettably you are too late to see As you Like It, but if you get a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me I know not of what I speak, I would thoroughly recommend you to do so. Two amazing shows.

What is the point of Pride?

Pride expressedWhat is the point of Pride? An unusual topic to pick surely? Well bear with me and hopefully the seasonality  of this particular question will become apparent.

Pride is one of those human conditions that we know when we see it in others and when we experience it ourselves. The picture to the right screams pride to me, yet others see other meaning in the facial expression. In my purely personal and unscientific experiment, responses to the question ‘Describe the feeling within this picture’ have included Pride; in fact it was the most popular response – around 40% of those replying. However, I also received replies such as smug, sanctimonious, disdainful, condescending, sneering, conquering and superior. Interestingly, although it was the strongest reply, less than half of those who answered me associated the image with pride. Perhaps it’s a particularly difficult thing to recognise, or I was dealing with people who had difficulty reading expressions, or it was a poor choice of photograph.

angryAlthough unscientific, I had tried to consider some of those points. The photograph is of a model with the brief of expressing ‘pride’ -one of a range of similar photographs.

The same group had little difficulty in associating the second photograph with anger, rage or fury. In fact 24 out of 25 read the face in that way. So is there something special about pride?

In fact, the more I read and examined this area, the more doubt I uncovered. Some psychologists considered pride to be an emotion in its own right. Others argued it wasn’t an emotion at all, but was a considered response to other behaviours. In any event, pride is an area which has very little in the way of serious academic research and the value it brings to an individual or society seems unsettled.

Pride Model

Emotional Generation Model

Most of the serious models use a model similar to that shown here. It argues that there are complex (hybrid) emotions and more primal (true) emotions. When considering pride, it argues that this follows an appraisal of how a person has responded to a concern and/or stimulus. That stimulus could itself be one of the more basic primal emotions such as fear or rage.

This model could also explain why we find these less complex, more primal feelings more easy to identify in the facial expressions of others.

However, the question of what purpose pride has, what it contributes remains in debate. The usefulness of fear and anger can be easily seen as part of the self preservation instinct, necessary in evolutionary terms for life itself. However, pride seems an almost self-indulgent nive to have. The nearest I could find to any form of credible theory was that it was a pseudo reward mechanism which may have been an early trigger for self-reflection. It may not give anything in itself other than a warm glow, but could reinforce reflective practice and potentially some of the underlying positive behaviours. Hold that thought for a moment!

Of course, in recent years Pride has taken on an altogether different meaning, particularly for the younger, gay or festival generations. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a series of event championing equal rights for what was then called the ‘queer’ or homosexual population (there was no community recognised at that point) started to appear in major cities of the UK, most notably, London and Manchester.

Stonewall March

Stonewall March

Initially, these were  organised by Stonewall and they amounted to little more than an organised march with people dressed much as they would be if they were going to the cinema or theatre but with the occasional stonewall banner.

The purpose of the marches at that time was clear, equality in terms of rights, acceptance and integration into the wider community. As the 1980’s matured, the scourge of AIDS rose bringing a double challenge to the emerging gay community. Firstly, the emerging community was decimated by the arrival of HIV. Secondly and more challengingly, the natural fear of such a threatening virus seen as being born of the gay community brought a sense of ‘blame’ to that community further marginalising it in some quarters.

Manchester Mardi Gras 1996

Manchester Mardi Gras 1996

The Stonewall marches adapted as the eighties matured, these became more defiant and in some cases defiance veered towards the confrontational. However, these settled into a more educational and celebratory phase with accompanying name changes in most of the major events.

Manchester re-branded it’s celebrations as Mardi Gras with an increasing number of events emerging across the remainder of the country. Again, during this period the events had a clear purpose based around the battle against HIV/AIDS, the removal of clause 28 (perceived as homophobic legislation) and the promotion of ‘safe sex’. This continued through most of the naughties.

At that point my problems with these type of events started to grow. Arguably, the introduction of combination therapies leading to the effective management of HIV, the growing acceptance of homosexuality as part of mainstream society and the repeal of legislation such as Section 28 has removed the natural causes traditionally supported by such events.

Perhaps sensing this, Mardi-Gras and similar events started to diverge either competing with the growing festival scenes or becoming more of a celebration of an increasingly accepted homosexual lifestyle.  Mardi-Gras (along with most others) followed London by rebranding itself to first ‘Gay Pride’ and the simply ‘Pride’.

However, that acceptance and increased integration into mainstream lifestyle has at least for me sounded the first ringing of the death knell of Pride in its current form. In simple terms, they have lost their purpose and relevance for me.

Increasingly, these events have become more about being seen in gear, walking on the march (for reasons that are unclear to me) and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. They have also moved from the largely free events of the 1970’s to events in their own right often charging between £15 and £30 to gain entry.

Whist I have nothing against walking in the street, wearing gear or copious amounts of alcohol, I can do that in many places and don’t need to pay for the privilege of so doing. If the money raised during these events went to counter some of the modern battles facing the gay community I would have less of an issue. However, typically the collection funds the running costs of the events with just 3-5% going to related charities and good causes.

gmpprideFrom my perspective, the development of Pride events as a commercial event now has very little to do with its original purpose. Now, its much more about bringing in the cash (the cynics might say milking the pink pound).

The worst example I can think of would be Manchester Pride 2014 sad for a city that has contributed so much to equality. In that example, a large area of the city (the gay village) was blocked off with the right to enter, pass and re-pass without hindrance suspended – unless of course you purchased a wrist band grating you access. Residents were granted ‘permits’ to reach their own homes but everyone else was prevented from gaining access.

I would have no issue if this was a private place or related exclusively to venues taking part in the ‘event’. However this wasn’t the case and people were effectively being charged to access public roads as a pedestrian. The actions of the Council in 2014 in relation to the implementation of the road closure have since been found to have been unlawful by the local government ombudsman (details of the issue can be found here). By extension, the security contractors and Greater Manchester Police who enforced the orders found themselves in a difficult position one nobody wanted to repeat this year. How far from the original ambitions of those who first marched.

Loss of Direction?

Loss of Direction?

So, what’s my point? What have I got against Pride? To answer that we need to go back to the purpose of pride in psychological terms. Pride allows us to reflect on concerns and stimulus, assess and feel we have/are making improvements or contributing to their being improved.

Has Pride simply become just another reason to drink until you fall over and be seen in your best leather, rubber or just show off your perfect abs?

The historic educational component is largely gone, the supportive and community aspects have in my view started to go the same way. Are there no  longer any issues for the gay community to address and raise in the public consciousness? I haven’t seen anything, for example, to support those struggling with the emergence of ‘chem sex’ within the gay community. An increasing dependence on chrystal meth and similar chemicals can be life shattering for some and there is precious little support for anyone wanting to give up outside London. Similarly, there is barely any educational or community support visible at any modern pride.

Isis throw men from tall buildings for being gay

Isis throw men from tall buildings for being gay

So is it just the case that the political scene for LGBT communities is now so settled that there is nothing left to fix?

Whilst it may be the case that things have improved incredibly over the past couple of decades in the UK, that is far from true in the rest of the world.

In the most extreme examples, ISIS are executing men by throwing them off multi storey buildings just for being gay. So far in 2015 there have been over 200 documented cases.

In less extreme examples, there are still significant issues of equality to be tackled both within the UK and internationally. These include the failure to recognise same sex partners as next of kin in many jurisdictions, the inability to marry or enter into civil partnerships in countries including Australia and unfair dismissal due to sexual orientation.  These would seem to indicate that the battle isn’t quite yet won. Yet on these points, Pride is typically silent in favour of stalls selling often over-priced  tat.

If the human state of pride is a psychological mechanism allowing reflection and improvement then I hope organisers of the various Pride events might take a lead from that example. Surely we can do better than what has been described as ‘just another piss-up in the park’. For my money until the modern day Pride events offer more than just another booze-up then it’s legitimate to ask exactly what is the point of pride?

The rehabilitation of an ‘artist’ and salvation for Weston ?

Sometimes, the juxtaposition of two elements creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It appears to me, this is particularly true when the elements being brought together are unexpected and wouldn’t be something you would naturally think of in partnership. I think I may have spotted just such a marriage today. The problem is that by their nature it’s nearly impossible to spot the difference between an act of genius and a car crash.

‘Weston-super-Mare’, BR poster, 1948-1965.

‘Weston-super-Mare’, BR poster, 1948-1965.

From the 1920’s Weston Super Mare in Somerset developed a name as a traditional seaside resort. As a resort at that time it had a lot going for it, a great pier, easy rail routes from the industrial centres of Birmingham and Manchester and the warmer climate of the west country.

The town even made allowances for it’s rather ‘muddy’ beach (so much so it can rather cruelly be know as Weston-super-mud) by building and promoting a lido. With landladies arguably second only to those of Blackpool and a natural knack for advertising Weston became the west country seaside destination.

Under the banner or ‘Weston Super Mare with air like wine’ the town reached its zenith in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Although remaining a popular summer destination for many, the town has suffered from the rise of cheap air travel and package holidays to sunnier and hotter locations. Indeed the reliability (or lack of it) of the British summer has perhaps been the biggest factor in the decline of Weston from those Halcion days, not even donkeys on the beach and a revitalised pier being able to fully compete.

As for that lido, unfortunately time has not been kind on what was once one of the jewels in the town’s crown. Gradual decline and disuse has left the building empty and in parts near derelict despite several attempts to revitalise or repurpose the complex into something more useful to the local community.

tropRebranded in the 1970’s and 80’s the Tropicana became something of a political football with several redevelopment schemes failing to get off the ground for a variety of reasons. In anyone’s books it is a rather sad and bleak shadow of its former self.

With changes to local government boundaries, many would argue that Weston has suffered from the continuing rise of Bristol.  With that city’s growth and rise as a regional centre, it is Bristol that has grown into the regional hub for business, entertainment and the arts more generally.

That said, not all Bristolian artists have been universally acclaimed or even that visible. Odd as it seems, there is a fairly strong history of artists acting counter-culturally and shunning the very oxygen you would imagine they seek – publicity.

Eddie Izzard Season Four Premiere Screening Of "Nip/Tuck" - Arrivals Paramount Studios Hollywood, California USA August 25, 2006 Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/ To license this image (10076180), contact WireImage: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Germany +49-40-320-05521 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) (e-mail) (web site)

Eddie Izzard

Stretching back as far as  Pope and George Elliot there have been those artists who avoid the attention of the media of their time.

More recently, despite the initial unlikely nature of this relationship, artists such as Euan Uglow, Francis Davison, Michael Andrews and even Eddie Izzard have exhibited the same behaviours. Some appear to be genuinely averse to the attention whilst others may well be benefiting from their natural ability to manipulate the expected norms of modern marketing.

Perhaps the greatest current exponent of this art is Bristol born Banksy. His initial reticence in the early 1990’s may well have been because his early works were often considered to be little more than vandalism or graffiti. He was certainly not welcomed in many of the locations in which his stencilled art appeared, certainly not in those early years in any event.

One of the significant differences (with all except perhaps George Elliot) is the fact that Banksy has managed to keep his identity more or less secret since that time.Thought to be Bristol born Robin Gunningham or Robin Banks, speculation still abounds as to his true identity, no doubt adding to his cache and popularity.

banksyghazaKnown for satirical and thought provoking images, his work is now known world wide including the curtain being drawn back on paradise painted on the Israeli security wall within the Gaza strip. His artwork now regularly sells for up to £500,000

So, my unexpected juxtaposition could best be explained by the question ‘What happens when you cross Banksy with Weston Super Mare?’

The answer is something unexpected, bleak, thought provoking and subversive but which those lucky enough to have seen it say is an overwhelmingly positive and uplifting (if somewhat challenging) experience.

dismalandDue to open for local audiences tomorrow and to the wider public shortly afterwards Banksy has collaborated with other artists to create Dismaland. Complete with a very familiar type faced sign and morose volunteers welcoming guests to this bleak attraction this ‘bemusement park’ looks like breathing life into Weston over the coming months as it will undoubtedly draw fans from across the country and around the globe.

It will be interesting to see how the notoriously litigious Disney corporation respond to the parody (including ears on the volunteers that look remarkably mouse-like).

So is this just a publicity stunt or is there more to this surreal and ultimate in pop-up art culture.


Death on a bumper car

Taking over the whole of the tired and broken Troicana, Dismaland feeds on the atmosphere of entropy and decline with a mix of humorous and the bizarre, political comment and audience participation.

Although Banksy isn’t the sole artist, his work and that of Damien Hurst dominate the more challenging and provocative pieces. There is the unfortunate unicorn in formaldehyde (a Shetland pony gave it’s life for a piece I could really have done without) however, Hurst’s fragility of love featuring a beach ball hovering over a collection of sharp knives and shards of glass is both imaginative and strangely touching.

In addition to these pieces are works from other artists all with a darkness within their theme but somehow bringing a sense of wonder and tackling some fairly deep and topical issues ranging from immigration to commercialism and environmental issues.

The Princess' Carriage

The Princess’ Carriage

Perhaps the most political and subversive pieces is displayed within a decayed and abandoned castle (again a la Disney). In this, a pumpkin carriage is seen overturned in a tunnel with the body of Cinderella hanging from the carriage window whilst being photographed by the gathering paparazzi.

No explanation or parallels are drawn and none were needed. However, it was clear that the subtext was all too apparent to those viewing it.

This is far from the simple stencils on walls of the 1990’s. As someone who is not usually a fan of modern conceptual art, this collection made me think and respect the thought and effort put into its creation and presentation. Far from a car crash of a marriage, I suspect Weston will once again be the throbbing hub of the west country for the next six months or so.

Ironically, this year’s poor summer and the relative decline of the building is exactly what is needed to showcase this most unusual and imaginative collection.

Those in the town of Weston-Super-Mare can’t speak highly enough of Banksy and his counterparts. A true rehabilitation of those artists who’s work was washed from the walls years before. It’s unclear at this time where the money which will be raised is going and how much of this might find its way back to Weston. I hope this dark and confronting  collection of works brings some brightness and happiness to a town which has had more than it’s share of troubles. For something so initially dark, it is surprisingly uplifting and enjoyable. A strange but productive marriage.

Will long haul aviation be possible after peak oil?

My moa380st recent long haul flight was from London Heathrow to Melbourne. I must admit that with the excitement of the trip, sustainability wasn’t at the forefront of my thoughts as I settled into a business class seat.

With a flying time approaching 24 hours, it had been a conscious effort to upgrade to the pointy end. Thankfully with a combination of frequent-flier points and not thinking about the impact on my bank balance that had been possible.

However, as we increased speed for take off, the size, weight and power of the plane came  into focus as the engine roar became suddenly much louder. I do remember thinking briefly what power the engines must be generating.

Of course modern aircraft fuel is highly refined and a relatively efficient fuel. However, you need plenty of it to get modern passenger jets off the ground. The Airbus A380 is the largest of the beasts with a fuel capacity of over 350,000 litres. It costs around £111,000 to fuel one of these monsters at today’s price (August 2015). With a return flight scheduled for next June, that fact alone helps me understand (to some extent at least) the price of the tickets.

jetengGiven the weight of the aircraft, the passengers, luggage and freight load, distances travelled and available fuel storage, it seems unlikely that there are any meaningful alternatives to jet propulsion. Whilst both electric and solar powered flight is possible, this is largely a theoretical and academic challenge which is unlikely to move into mass transportation any time soon.

However, in a time when oil reserves are being used up at an increasing rate, how will flight be possible without access to the fuel to power these incredibly powerful but thirsty engines. For some years, researchers have been predicting the gradual decline of air travel brought on by diminishing oil reserves.

peakoilOf course, people have been predicting peak oil (the point at which maximum production has been reached and supplies begin to diminish) for many years. We still produce billions of gallons per year and the idea of peak oil remains controversial. However, most commentators agree supply is likely to become more difficult after 2050.

If this is correct and given existing demands on oil for road transport, heating, manufacturing and a thousand other high profile things, it’s hard to see civil aviation competing for increasingly scarce resources. This could make flight the domain of the super rich and simply price people out of the market. What is clear is the status quo is unsustainable based on current fuels.

So, given the requirement to find a fuel which could be used in existing (or slightly modified) engines and have similar weight to power profiles are there any options? A non dissimilar situation may give us some pointers for the future.

ww2oilIn the late  1930’s and 1940’s, it wasn’t peak oil causing the issue, but the combined efforts of the Allied forces. During this period blockades of German ports and supply routes meant a significant drop in fuel for the German war effort. It meant alternatives had to be found if the Luftwaffe was to continue to fly,

Germany’s answer was synthetic aviation and high octane fuels derived from processing coal and lignite. Between 1938 and 1943, synthetic fuel output underwent a respectable growth from 10 million barrels to 36 million. The percentage of synthetic fuels compared to the yield from all sources grew from 22 percent to more than 50 percent by 1943. The total oil supplies available from all sources for the same period rose from 45 million barrels in 1938 to 71 million barrels in 1943

Technology in the 1940’s was certainly embryonic in comparison to synthetic fuel manufacture technology today. This shows that even during the most adverse conditions, synthetic fuel production could provide one mechanism to create the high octane chemicals required by the aviation industry.

Other possibilities include the rise in the production of bio fuels. Boing and Airbus have research projects into  the replacement of current fuels with bio production.  The early results seem to show considerable cost implications for jet propulsion but real possibilities for shorter range turbo-prop aircraft. Alternatively, this could be blended with traditional fuels to ‘stretch’ kerosene as far as is possible.

If bio-fuels are the answer then we better get used to more, shorter low speed trips. My flight to Australia would still be possible but I may find it made up of several shorter legs.

One of the more surprising candidates is being developed separately by General Electrics and LEI. Using a combination of superconductors, the strength and lightness of graphene and lighter aircraft design electric jet propulsion may be viable in the very near future.

eplane6LEI has already successfully demonstrated a superconductor electric engine suitable for a Cessna light aircraft. Although this was only intended to be a proof of concept the results were enough to convince even the most hardened cynic.

On a larger scale, jet airliners designed to carry 120 passengers  powered by electric jet engines are well into the test production stages.

In this example, each wing has the usual single engine replaced with five smaller electric engines. As technologists have faced the inevitability of changing from aviation fuel the advantages of the alternatives also start  to emerge. This aircraft would be significantly quieter and the engines could be powered by a variety of far more sustainable sources.

Longer term, there is a strong candidate in liquid hydrogen. German and Dutch airlines are already powering their groundcrew vehicles with this fuel and both NASA and Boeing have plans to increase research in this area more than any other comparable technology.

lh2 lh2All the major manufacturers have plans to refit their existing fleet and design new craft based around liquid hydrogen fuel.

Although it requires greater capacity in terms of volume compared to traditional fuel it is significantly lighter. For anything over mid range flights the fuel cost would be reduced over current fuels.

Two German and one Dutch airline are working closely with manufacturers to see the first hydrogen powered planes in our skies by 2040. One particularly canny chemist has worked out how to produce hydrogen as a by-product of bio-fuel production. Apart from the potential cost and weight advantages of hydrogen, the big advantage is that the pollution produced by the engines is non-existent. Just water vapour.

With the degree of innovation in this area, I’m confident that my trips to Melbourne are secure.  We have too much of a love affair with long haul flight to return to a period without this freedom. The most recent investors in the hydrogen fuel process are interestingly nothing to do with aviation but are the traditional car manufacturers wishing to learn from this experience.

With peak oil approaching (as it has been for many years) we may very well be at the end of the fossil fuel era and the dawning of the age of Hydrogen.

Memories of Manhatten

It isn’t often that I find myself literally stopping in my tracks. However, a short and powerful animation has done just that. Originally intended for broadcast on Children’s BBC in the UK, I have no hesitation is saying I found it thought provoking, dramatic and very moving. It was on Saturday of the recent weekend when I accidentally flicked to a channel showing the material. Although it was part way through I was so engaged with it that I watched to the end and then found it online to watch from the start.

Little Boy

Little Boy

The last week marked seventy years since the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The innocently named ‘little boy’ was released at around 32.000 feet from the Enola Gay at 08.15 local time.  After falling for just over 40 seconds it’s detonation arguably led to the shortening of World War II and undoubtedly shaping the military geopolitics of the next 50 years.

In the second following detonation 70,000 people were killed by the force of the detonation simply vaporised by the explosive power of the device. Over the next days and weeks a further 100,000 died from the fallout and radiation poisoning.

The ‘little boy’ had an explosive payload of 15 kilotones, that being the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. At the time, this destructive power was simply beyond the comprehension of many hearing of the explosion.

In fact, the second detonation at Nagasaki was larger. The ‘big man’ device was closer to 20 kilotones and given the geography and make up of Nagasaki was considerably more destructive. Knowing this, how can you make an animation detailing the events of that day?  Simply put, by humanising the story, putting the viewpoint of a young girl who found herself on the outskirts of Hiroshima on that fateful morning.

The skill of the animators in sympathetically presenting those events was based on the real life experiences of a now well known Japanese poet. However this powerful example of the impact of such weapons has done little within Japan to silence the growing voices for the re-introduction  of Japan’s capacity to wield such weapons as a nation.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

Following its defeat at the end of world war II, Japan introduced a greatly revised pacifist constitution. This prevented aggressive armed forces (although it allowed the country to retain a greatly reduced self protection force).

Last year, Prime Ministe Abe reinterpreted aspects of the constitution to broaden the definition of self defence. As a result, Japan could and has now publically stated would come to the support of American forces if attacked by growing Chinese power in the region.

Similarly, weaponry seen as unconstitutional just ten years ago  is now permitted. These include long range anti aircraft and anti missile defensive weapons.

This move had the unforeseen result of bringing traditionalist and nationalist Japanese voices joining in a call for the ultimate self-defence  capability , nuclear weapons.

Whilst current anti-proliferation laws and the political balance of the country is unlikely to see Japan develop these, it might see further deployment of strategic weaponry from allies such as the United States.

Hiroshima building

Hiroshima building

The fact that a nation has a right to defend itself and its people is not in dispute. However, the irony of Japanese protester demanding nuclear weapons outside the shell of the most famous surviving building in Hiroshima seems lost on those taking part.

A fact which may give pause for thought for those calling for this type of rearmament relates to the growth in power of weapons  since 1945.

The ‘little boy’ explosion flattened an area of some ten square miles. Even allowing for the construction methods of Japanese housing at the time this was devastating force which virtually nothing hit by the blast wall was able to withstand.

The ‘standard’ yield on most atomic weapons is no longer the 15 kilotons of the little boy. Most carry an explosive force of 15,000 kilotons. I wonder if those in all countries who call for the ultimate protection of nuclear weapons could look at Hiroshima and imagine something one thousand times as destructive.

I for one hope that in the week in which the events of 70 years ago are remembered, we might all consider the futility of weapons that are now so powerful they could not be used tactically and would ensure joint annihilation. We may not be able to unlearn the knowledge coming out of the Manhatten project, but we can all play a part in preventing further reliance and proliferation.

Are we on the brink of eradicating HIV ?

Don't die of Ignorance

                    Don’t die of Ignorance

Anyone who was in their teens or twenties in the 1980’s in the UK cannot fail to remember the ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign launched when the first cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed and making the headlines.

Hard-hitting, uncompromising and frankly frightening, this ad campaign certainly underlined the ‘death sentence’ perception of an HIV diagnosis at that time. Indeed, in many senses, this wasn’t just a perception. In the early to mid 1980’s the likelihood of survival was very low with the toxic AZT being the only line of defence to a virus which ravaged segments of the gay and hemophiliac communities. At that time, the idea of HIV being a manageable let alone a treatable condition was simply fantasy.

Freddie Mercury

         Freddie Mercury

The stigma associated with a diagnosis at that time cannot be understated.Yet, if the condition had any anything at all working in it’s favour it was the high profile names that fell foul of the infection.

The announcement that Rock Hudson, known for his rugged and powerful acting performances was the first I remember having a wider public impact.blo Then, the communal intake of breath as Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury bravely appeared in public. The sight of him as a gaunt and sunken figure, a weakened and reduced version of the powerful character we all thought we knew. That struck a chord with so many people at the time. The power and aggression of the HIV/AIDS virus at that time was suddenly seen as something that must be overcome.

Since that time, progress quite simply unimaginable at the time has been made. From dozens of fairly toxic tablets three of four times a day we have now progress to a point where combination therapy means the condition is treated as manageable – much like diabetes. Many people currently living with the virus take just one tablet a day and have a near normal life expectancy experiencing little in the way of side effects.

However, despite this progress, the condition can only be managed, not cured. However, as researchers in different fields combine their results, there is real hope that the prospect of a cure for HIV/AIDS in infected people may be on the horizon.

The first piece of good news comes from the University of Oxford which reports that the natural evolution of the virus is producing gradually weaker strains. As the virus has spread, it has had to evolve to survive. Every so often the virus meets a strong and effective immune system. If it doesn’t evolve it will be destroyed – so it changes. But those mutations typically result in a drop in the ability of the virus to replicate. That in turn makes it less aggressive.

Professor Phillip Goulder and his team at Oxford even believe we may reach a point where the HIV virus becomes virtually harmless to humans in future generations merely by this process of ‘watering down’  by natural mutation.

hiv1The complexity of the infection cycle means that researchers have been able to tackle different stages of the process. One seeks to starve the virus of the building blocks it needs to replicate within a ‘hijacked’ cell.

Researchers at the University of Rochester medical center identified the building blocks needed within the cell to allow the virus to replicate. These building blocks are referred to as deoxynucleoside triphosphates or dNTPs. They also identified that a protein SAMHD1 can break down these dNTP’s – effectively starving the virus of the building blocks it needs to continue replicating itself. Whilst this research is in the early stages it provides a new route to tackle the spread of the virus within the body.

The second line of attack may come with a change to the prescription regime of the most effective combination therapies. At present, treatment is routinely left until the immune system is compromised. However, studies in London based on early intervention and treatment have shown significant variation based on the start point of treatment.

The Spartac study, which involved 366 patients from eight countries around the world, tested the theory. Some patients were given 12 weeks of drugs after being diagnosed, another group had drugs for 48 weeks after diagnosis and a third group were given no drugs until they reached the levels at which treatment would currently be started.

Prof Jonathan Weber, from Imperial College London, said those on the 48-week regime “end up with much higher CD4 cell count and a much lower viral load”. – In simple terms, their immune system remained stronger and the number of copies of  HIV found in the blood was significantly lower.

HIV3The third and most recent development stemmed from findings in the treatment of Lymphoma at the UC Davis school of medicine.

Recent developments in combination therapies mean that there are now very effective ways of tackling the virus when it is travelling in the blood stream. However, the challenge is that much of the virus remains in ‘reservoirs’ within the body (the gut, brain and bones being examples) where the combination therapy is unable to tackle these dormant virus copies.

This research uses medication currently used in the treatment of lymphoma to flush the reservoirs into the blood stream of the host. Whilst this leads to an initial rise in the viral load of the individual, it also means the virus can now be tackled by existing combination therapies. Whilst still in the early stages of clinical trials, this holds out the real prospect of ultimately being able to ‘clear’ the virus from the body.

It is unlikely that any one of these approaches will be successful alone. However, as research from a variety of disciplines start to come together, the possibility of enhanced combination therapies including some or all of these strands becomes far more real.

Although nobody is promising a ‘cure’ for HIV/AIDS the progress made over the past 30 years is staggering. With new avenues such as these becoming viable treatment methods, the next 10 years can truly be said to hold real promise for those living with HIV as well as wider medicine where these approaches may be replicated for unrelated conditions.

When the politics of greed falls silent.


Bill Gates

Love him or loath him William Henry “Bill” Gates III is a figure you would have to work very hard to avoid.

Whether you look at him as an entrepreneur, a technologist, self-made man, co-founder of Microsoft, philanthropist or social commentator he is often a figure who produces strong opinions.

According to Forbes, Bill Gates has a personal net wealth of $79.5 Billion. That in and of itself is enough to make him the subject of dislike, even hatred by some around the world. To put that figure in perspective, that is greater than the gross domestic product of countries including Luxemburg, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kenya, Panama and Bahrain.

Of course, whether any individual should have that much personal wealth is at least in part a function of your political beliefs. Whether you see this as an obscene example of untrammelled capitalism or the embodiment of the American dream is a matter for you. Personally, I take a rather more ambivalent and hopefully pragmatic view. For me, it depends in part on how that wealth was acquired and perhaps more importantly what the person who holds this wealth does with his or her riches.

Gates Foundation

Gates Foundation

So given that measuring stick, what has Bill Gates done with his undoubted fortune ?

I was one of those mildly sceptical in 2000 when I heard of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation being launched with a view to reduce poverty and sickness. I remember thinking the aims were rather motherhood and apple pie. However, I would  be the first to say I missed the simplicity of its aims.

The Foundation is now the biggest  in the world and has made significant inroads into the vaccination of some of the poorest communities in the world. Apart from this, it has made real progress towards not just the reduction but the near eradication of diseases such as Polio, elephantiasis and river blindness.
In 2008 Bill Gates announced that his fortune would be donated to charitable causes on his death rather than being passed to his children. He stated that he would rather make a lasting contribution to the world and not create another wealthy dynasty just for the sake of it.

Before looking at some of the outcomes (which I admit took me by surprise), here’s another statistic that puts the undoubted wealth of this individual into perspective. Over his lifetime, Gates has already given away $29.5 billion. Again, that is greater than the GDP of countries such as Bolivia, Cyprus or Jamaica. Put another way, he has given away more than fifty times the personal wealth of Queen Elizabeth II. – Some track record.


Better seed choice/research bring greater yields

When researching the results delivered by the Gates foundation (in close collaboration with UNICEF and the World Health Organisation) I was amazed at their successes so far. The number of children under five who die each year worldwide has been nearly cut in half, from a high of nearly 13 million to 6.5 million today.  Drought-tolerant seeds are dramatically increasing agricultural yields; economies in the once-desperate countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now matching the developed world in rate of annual growth.

“We’re already moving toward an HIV tipping point,” says Melinda Gates, “when the number of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa who are in treatment will exceed the number of people becoming newly infected.”

What surprises me is the relatively low profile of these efforts and achievements. It was only when watching an Episode of The Big Bang theory that I wondered how Ebola had been tackled in the recent west African outbreak.

In a recent interview, Bill Gates explained how his foundation has an eye to the future with his view of what poses the greatest threat to humanity over the next 50-100 years. His fear is not that some rogue scientist develops a killer pathogen (a la Big Bang). Instead, he believes that the risk is simply that something as innocuous as the flu virus could mutate by chance into something as aggressive as the Spanish flu of 1918.

This is where the scale of the donations made by the Gates took me by surprise. One the United States and the United Kingdom give more as countries to the eradication of health issues such as those the Foundation target. Whilst it may never overshadow the work in sub Saharan Africa, the foundation is also considering how we should plan and prepare for a major pandemic (whether natural or manufactured).

fighterWhat is worrying or rather depressing (at least to me) is that the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Gates Foundation and similar organisations agree on one thing. We could probably tackle the issue of preparedness for outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS or similar pandemics if we had the political will.

In this case, the political will equates to the willingness to fund the resources and preparation. This would amount to just under 1% of the defence budgets of most western countries . Ironically, the largest standing armies, navies and air power will have zero impact on preventing any major pandemic.

I will admit to having been critical of multibillionaire figures such as Bill Gates in the past. I still hear many voices criticising his wealth and resulting carefree lifestyle. What I don’t often hear is any credit where it is due. It appears by any objective measure that hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives have been positively  impacted by the philanthropic side  to this wealthy individual. Far better than just stashing the cash in an offshore account.

So I for one will be following and supporting the continued work of this progressive and successful foundation and am not ashamed to say a big thank you to Bill Gates.

Politicians: Those we value most are least like those we say we want.


President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

When I reflect on my childhood, I remember my parents (and those of their generation) talking of moments frozen in their collective memories. Perhaps unsurprisingly given my age, I couldn’t understand how such a wide and varied selection of individuals could share a singular point in time.

The most obvious and now cliched example cited by them was the fact that everyone knew where they were when they heard of the death of President Kennedy.

The first time I became aware of this linkage between location and passing was the death of Elvis Presley. I have no idea why  I was at Birmingham New Street station with my parents, but I know exactly which of the waiting rooms I was in when evening television was interrupted with the news of his death.

In common with most British nationals, I have a similar experience with hearing the news of the death of Diana Princess of Wales. She above all others, probably mirrors the American ‘frozen moment’ associated with Kennedy.

However, all three of these examples were leading figures on the world stage either through politics, celebrity or status. It is rare for our politicians to make such an impact.

John Smith (19??-1994)

John Smith (19??-1994)

Firstly, I should declare myself as being politically engaged rather than a follower or member of any political party. I often find my political views dotted across the traditional political spectrum.

However, I remember the sense of shock and huge loss when the sudden and unexpected death of John Smith (Labour leader in the mid 1990’s) was announced. For many supporters of the Labour party – and those like me of no particular party – he was perhaps the greatest Prime Minister we never had. Interestingly, he was far from the traditional politician of his day.

John Smith was religious at a time when secular MP’s were the norm, he had worked in ‘the real world’ becoming a QC before entering politics but came from a very traditional Scottish working class background. He was some distance from the ‘ideal’ often described by many of the public and most of the political selection committees of the time.

Then we come to today. In the United Kingdom, I sense the same sense of shock, loss and wasted opportunity with the death of a rare politician. Not JFK but CPK.

Charles Kennedy (19?? - 2015)

Charles Kennedy (1959 – 2015)

Charles (Peter) Kennedy was one of those unusual politicians with whom you could disagree strongly but still admire for their honesty and humanity.

His death was announced today and although he had recently lost his seat at the 2015 general election, the overwhelming sense I feel is one of huge loss and wasted potential.

Again, it struck me that Charles Kennedy was some distance from the ‘ideal’ MP we so often say we seek.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is life experience. The British public consistently say they want fewer ‘professional politicians’. We want our MP’s to have previous life experience on which to draw. Charles Kennedy was first elected to the House of Commons at the tender age of 23 having no signficant business or professional career. He was the youngest MP with his previous experience being university debating. However, this didn’t stop him being one of the most natural politicians in the house.

The tribute from the Speaker of the House of Commons is notable for a number of reasons. The speaker (whilst politically neutral in his role) is a conservative MP. He is clearly moved and gives a warm and glowing tribute to a former member of the House. This genuine and wide ranging praise was reflected across all parties and factions within Parliament.

Then we turn to Gravitas. How often do we cringe at our politicians and their attempts to get ‘down with the kids’ or gain ‘street cred’ by undertaking some form of political stunt? Kennedy ignored warnings of falling on his face even becoming known briefly as ‘Chat show Charlie’. He is probably the only politician to survive appearing on Have I got News for You.

As in this appearance on that programme, Kennedy often undertook these against advice and public expectation. However, almost uniquely he managed to pull off the trick of being seen as both a credible politician and a human being.

Then we turn to being a ‘middle Englander’. Not meant literally, this refers to a politician belonging to the middle ground. Charles Kennedy was far from this.

In a time where being a proud Scot can be problematic, Charles Kennedy was not only this, but more importantly a proud Highlander (a distinction missed by many in England). Nobody could have been more proudly Caledonian, yet, not unusually for such a thoughtful politician, he was staunchly pro the United Kingdom. He spoke out publically and actively against the move to independence for Scotland.

Anyone doubting his true roots only needs to watch his concession speach. The Sgian Dubh (skee n Doo) referenced in his speech is the knife worn along with the kilt as part of traditional highland dress. Anyone wishing to paint themselves as a man of the United Kingdom would be unlikely to start from here – yet he managed it with ease accepted, liked and respected on both sides of the border.

kendrinkThen the whole question of clean living. Arguably, we the great British public want a non drinking, non smoking, a-sexual athiest to represent us. At least that is the impression we often give.

In his tribute to the former Liberal Democrat leader, Ken Clarke described him as being the last politician to enjoy debate in smoke filled rooms. As a Scottish highlander, it should come as no surprise that he had been photographed enjoying a wee dram.

However, it was that battle against alcohol which cost him his leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Many well placed in the party believe he would still be leader had this been manageable or handled differently. It’s certainly one of those questions how different the UK would be today if that had been the case. Kennedy opposed  the coalition with the Conservatives; It is hard to imagine anything stronger than an offer of confidence and supply under his  leadership.

That said, I remember seeing the Question Time debate in which this most able of political commentators appeared to struggle with his demons.

It is certainly unfair to overstate this problem (and who doesn’t have problems in their lives). Indeed, his apparent difficulties may have more to do with his father suffering a fall shortly before going to air. Whatever the truth, there are reportedly lengthy periods where he wouldn’t drink and was far from the uncontrolled alcoholic. There is no suggestion that his death was alcohol related and in some ways, his public battle made him all the more human.

So given these apparent issues what made him such a compelling and popular politician. I can’t better the summary given by Harriot Harman MP – again not of his own party who summed up (at least for me) what Charles Kennedy brought to political life.

For myself, (as someone who is politicallly non-aligned) I will greatly miss this conviction politician. His staunch and unwavering critique of the Iraq war at a time when that was politically unpopular marked him out as a courageous and thoughtful politician. I for one wish we had more of these and were able to make more allowance for human frailties in all their forms.

Charles Kennedy divorced five years ago but remained a doting father to his son Donald. As someone who lost my father at a similarly young age, I know some of the challenges he may face. However, whatever the future may hold, Donald should always be increadibly proud of his fathers achievements and humanity.The cross party tributes to this popular politician show some of the reasons.