I am breaking radio silence to publish this important fact that I just read on the bus:

“From birth, a young mammal spends much of its time in close physical contact with its mother and its litter-mates. A small kitten or puppy, for example, cannot urinate or defecate without help from its mother or some other adult. It has to be rolled on its back and stimulated by vigorous licking.”

Aside from raising intriguing questions about what would happen to the kitten or puppy if their alma mater didn’t really fancy this item on the mothering to-do list (would they explode?), this statement is notable in being exactly 17.2 times more interesting than the following statement:

“From 1st May 2009, the increase in the number of VED bands to 13, to better incentivise a shift to ‘best in class’ cars and to reward drivers of lower emissions cars; and, higher first year rates (i.e. for new cars) in 2010-11 to better influence purchasing choices at the point of sale.”

In fact, is there a more interesting statement in published literature? I will make it my mission to find it.

It strikes me that Bsketti’s coverage of the Copenhagen climate change conference has been less than adequate. Spotty, at best. In fact, my general blogging rate is pitiful. I am the Harper Lee of the blogosphere. Minus the best-selling masterpiece, of course. If Captain Scott of the Antarctic could write an entry in his diary every day despite hunger, fatigue, frostbite and the soul-destroying knowledge that he had been beaten by a Norwegian (metaphorically, not literally), you’d think I could manage to drag myself to the computer once or twice a week. Anyway, I’m here now. Is this a mouse I see before me?

So – first item on the agenda: Denmark. I used to think that Denmark was the Northamptonshire of Europe; a part of Scandinavia only in the sense that Penrith is a part of the Lake District. But, whale watchers, it turns out I was completely wrong! Denmark is most excellent for at least three reasons. (1) You can buy Robinson’s squash in the shops. Need I say more? (2) The shops are open at times that would be unthinkable in Germany, like Sundays, evenings, and daytimes between 10 am and 4 pm. And (3), its citizens are noticeably better-looking than their German cousins. In fact, having been humbled by the extreme level of goodlookingness in Sweden last year, I suspect that people become progressively more beautiful the farther north you go, until you reach Hammerfest inside the Arctic Circle, where everyone is so achingly gorgeous that no one speaks, and instead just sit there looking at each other in silence to an aptly beautiful backdrop of the Northern Lights.

Back to slightly less aesthetically pleasing matters. To wit, my lodgings in Copenhagen, which can be safely described as compact and bijou. The bathroom is so small it is more of a water closet, and there is a slight lack of opportunities on the entertainment front, there being only a television with no signal and a prodigious collection of books on Danish human resource management to choose from. Luckily, the walls are thin enough to allow me to listen to the TV programmes that my neighbours are watching.

Still, I really like it, and it has begun to feel like home. Or hjem, as the Danes would say. I have availed myself of the local laundrette, and was delighted to discover that its drying machines are called “Loadstars”, which is somewhat spooky because the Jeeves and Wooster I mentioned in a previous post features the phrase “lodestar of my life” quite heavily:

This is where Richard keeps his Pølser, as you can see.

Unlike the shops it is always closed, so I haven’t been able to establish what a Pølser is. But it’s nice to know there’s one in the neighbourhood should I need it.

I am only on agenda item 2 but I think I’d better upload this post while I can – I have to go and edit something and I may be some time…

Could this be the most laboured metaphor in football journalism?

The lights were still burning bright inside the Volkswagen offices surrounding Wolfsburg’s home as kick-off approached last night. In this so called “City of the Car” small armies toil long into the evening to devise bold new protoypes so it seemed somehow appropriate that Manchester United arrived configured along brave new defensive lines.

Here is my suggestion:

Many workers at Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen factory have been forced to find new jobs in street cleaning and other sectors of the service industry since the collapse of German car manufacturing in recent years, so it seemed somehow appropriate that Sir Alex Ferguson employed Michael Carrick as a sweeper in Manchester United’s defence last night.

Or perhaps:

Wolfsburg’s Kunstmusem was just closing its doors as I drove to the stadium last night to grab a Currywurst and a copy of the team sheet. Conceptual photographer and rumoured David Byrne squeeze Cindy Sherman is among the artists currently exhibiting work, so it seemed somehow appropriate that the Old Master of football himself, Sir Alex Ferguson, gave midfielder Michael Carrick a once in a lifetime opportunity in the centre of the Manchester United defence for the game.

Or even:

The German city of Wolfsburg is well known for its annual summer gardening festival, so it seemed somehow appropriate that all three of Manchester United’s goals last night should be scored by the resident garden gnome of the front bench, Michael Owen.

Between tortured opinion pieces like this and simple match reports becoming overgrown with ridiculously baroque writing, like…

It is implausible that Capello is conducting a vendetta but he is resolute in his refusal to extol Owen merely for scoring in some match or other.


It was not Cech’s sole moment of equivocation. The defects were all the more apparent when his opposite number Given was having so fulfilling an afternoon.

… I am on the verge of abandoning the Manchester Guardian as my number one go-to source of footballing news. Where to next?

Well, here I was on my way to Coppers: toute seule in a gorgeous train compartment (first class, natch), all warm and toasty with a PG Wodehouse.

Life was pretty perfect… for the 12 minutes between Bonn and Cologne, where I was joined in my camera obscura by two fellow passengers. On entering, both wished me “Guten Morgen” (as is the wont of strangers here; people also say hello in the doctor’s waiting  room and would no doubt greet one another at the lapdancing club or in the firing line while waiting for the main attraction to arrive), then turned their backs to me and began to undress. Having just read the night before about nudist bathing in Schleswig-Holstein I began to fear the worst, but thank God they stopped once their coats were off.

Regrettably, the male passenger seemed to think he was starring in a Getty ‘Corporate Life’ stock image photoshoot and proceeded to run through all the modern business cliches – hanging up his jacket, typing furiously on his laptop, wearing those annoying German glasses with no frames – and my cosy world of Jeeves and Wooster circa 1921 was shattered.

By the way, I noticed the man had a photograph of his son (I presume) in his house (ditto) as wallpaper on his computer, and I thought it would be funny if such family types took pictures of their children facing the corner like they’re made to do by the witch in the Blair Witch Project and put them up in the office just to freak people out. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Back in carriage 41, the man in the suit was now making a series of loud and utterly joyless phone conversations with his executive colleagues in Wuppertal. He had already forced out the other passenger, who I spotted taking refuge in the dining compartment when I escaped for emergency rations, and he would no doubt have proceeded to touch base and explore options all the way to Hamburg had the phone reception not suddenly cut off in the middle of nowhere. While I said “Thank fuck for that” (in my head), our man received commiserations from a second executive type wearing a yellow tie (always unfortunate) who had subsequently joined our party. This led to a happy discussion between them in which they compared briefcases and tutted about the pernicious effect of “farming country” on Deutschebahn’s mobile phone coverage, while I played dead on the opposite berth.

And thusly I travelled to CPH!

I am a bit worried that Roy Keane doesn’t appear to be blossoming into the Best Football Manager in the World. Rather than belittle himself among the bibs and set pieces of Ipswich Town training sessions, I’m starting to wonder if he wouldn’t be better suited to a Captain Ahab/Wolf “Sea Wolf” Larsen role on the high seas, where he can give thousand-yard stares to passing albatrosses and have young sailors keelhauled for daring to leave the deck half-scrubbed.

Keane: a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in a nice woolly fisherman’s jersey.

But if he disappears from public life again, my own life will be over. The only thing I’m hoping is that if he does happen to walk away from Ipswich because the players aren’t good enough,* it will leave him time to come to the climate change summit in Copenhagen. With his skills in diplomacy, tolerance and leg-breaking, Roy could really inject some dynamism into the negotiations.

From the pages of the Independent:

“Roy Keane yesterday launched a savage attack on the Republic of Ireland players island nations and the Irish football establishment the world’s poorest countries for their complaints about Thierry Henry’s handball the West’s refusal to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and told them they were just sympathy-seeking, “mentally weak” hypocrites who should “get over it”.

He could be spared at the Scunthorpe away game on 12 December, surely?

* A good manager blames his tools.

I’ve just emerged from the dark room with prints of my latest adventures in photography and I’m pretty excited, because I think I’ve got a potential Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner on my hands. Here it is:

This is definitely my best best bird shot yet. I like to think it has captured a certain Jonathan Livingston Seagull* vibe. Do you think the esoterica and spirituality publishing industry is aware of my work?

The Natural History Museum is actually holding the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the moment. I tried to visit it on Saturday and ask them where my prize was, but unfortunately someone had neglected to shut the museum before my arrival so I found myself jostling for space with approximately 4,761 other people, which was a bit too much for an intense brooding loner such as myself. So I just went to the gift shop.

You can see the winners here, but I wouldn’t bother – they are cast into the shade, frankly, by the following pieces from my collection:

This is the closest I’ve been to a cow for ages and I wasn’t even that scared! It was only 90 cm tall, admittedly.

That certainly looks delicious.

* Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of the top five creepiest books in the world, if you ask me, along with The Little Prince,The Cement Garden, The Day of the Triffids and that weird one by Susan Hill where a boy kills his stepbrother with a crow or something. Yikes! You may also find Frugal Food by Delia Smith a bit disturbing.

What with the apparent rise in climate change scepticism and the recent news stories snuffing out hopes for a meaningful Copenhagen treaty, I’m starting to feel nostalgic for the brief period in 2007 when the world showed distinct signs of taking climate change seriously.

You remember 2007: the fourth big IPCC report came out, telling us there’s almost certainly, definitely, unequivocally a problem with the climate, there was the Stern Review telling us that we could fix the problem with a mere 1% of GDP, and then almost all the countries on the planet* met in Bali to agree on a statement of intent “emphasizing the urgency to address climate change”. Meanwhile, An Inconvenient Truth knocked Spiderman 3 off the top of the box office charts and stayed there for a record 17 weeks.**

For a while, climate change was all over the media like acid rain over Finland.  I still have some cuttings from the time (how do you like them apples, scrapbookers?):


(By the way: I appear to have mislaid my British Bird Song CD. Please could someone send a replacement?)


Unfortunately, the headline in the second picture has been answered with a big fat NO. (Gosh, the word “NO” really is big and fat, isn’t it?)  In 1997, there was a sense that things might happen – climate-friendly policies might be decided, consumption patterns might be changed, stricken polar bears might be airlifted to new homes in the Antarctic…  But we haven’t really seen the changes that the science was calling for. In fact, since the IPCC and all that, belief and willingness to engage in climate change seem to have been ebbing away.

Aside from the disheartening news about the prospects for Copenhagen, there is evidence from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that cynicism about climate change has actually been rising.  They interviewed 1,500 Americans (a small number, no?), and found that 57% believe there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming, compared with 71% in April 2008. The same thing is happening in the UK – according to a Cardiff University study, for example, there are twice as many climate sceptics in Britain than there were five years ago.

It could be that the media ran too many scare stories and made people mistrustful of climate change reporting. According to some stuff I read in a library in Bangkok (which was AWESOME, by the way), scare stories may have an emotional impact on their readers but don’t necessarily lead us to act. Appealing to our sense of guilt probably won’t work either, as it just makes people feel coerced.

And then there are the climate change deniers, who are proving far better at steering the debate than their environmentalist adversaries (see deniers at work in the totally amusing George Monbiot columns for the Guardian). According to Anthony Leiserowitz (an expert in all this), deniers make up only 7 % of the American adult population, but they also tend to be white, male conservatives who are politically active and have a voice in government and business. For God’s sake. Could you pick a more strident, powerful demographic group to scupper the climate change cause?

Leiserowitz says naysayers are a hard nut to crack, because “many appear to distrust scientists, governments, environmentalists and the media as sources of information”.  I found this really funny. Clearly, the only remaining media channel available to get through to climate change deniers is women’s romantic fiction. Well, that and talk radio, which is the one form of media that they trust.

So I have two proposals to win over the sceptics and inject some of the old urgency into the Copenhagen negotiations: (1) launch a new Mills and Boon series set among beautiful climate scientists marooned at a polar weather station, and (2) persuade Rush Limbaugh to change his position on climate change (this may be hard to believe, but Limbaugh is not terribly sympathetic to the environmentalist cause). In return, we will agree to give him ownership of the St Louis Rams. Genius! I have listened to Limbaugh a few times, and I think I have located his Achilles heel –  if someone can persuade him that fighting climate change could help to bring down the Obama administration, he might just do it.

* I think Iraq and Somalia had a few domestic issues to attend to.
** This is an Untruth.

A tempting offer in my inbox.

Interesting piece on the Guardian today about the “true costs” (e.g. spread of carcinogens, human rights abuses) of must-have Christmas toys, a somewhat sheepish follow-up to its previous “dream toys list”.


The Sylvanian Families caravan (£45.99).  I’m not saying that the manufacture of this has hidden environmental costs. I just think it looks awesome. Although… is that top bunk bed entirely safe? I’m not sure that young rabbits should be sleeping 12 feet off the ground.  (Image from http://www.sylvanianfamilies.com)

I have been wondering for a while if prices could be adjusted to include social and environmental costs – basically, whether externalities could be internalised.  For example, when everything is taken into consideration, should organic food be cheaper, not more expensive, than mass-produced alternatives? Another example is the arrival of a new Tesco.  It may offer local shoppers cheaper prices, but how do these weigh up against the overall socio-economic costs that may filter down to the community from, say, the loss of small businesses?

I’m sure this has been discussed to death and maybe – probably – it is a ridiculous idea.  How would the data be gathered?  How would ephemeral costs like environmental losses be valued anyway (another big debate)?  But then, prices do already include subjective factors such as utility and scarcity.  Is it so different?

Yikes, I am probably embarrassingly myself hugely. But I’ll carry on. Let’s say that in this new pricing regimen, exciting fair-trade hemp jeans produced by village cooperatives in Romania cost $5.99, and the cheapest jeans stitched by the mercury-stained fingers of glue-sniffing orphans in China to be offered in WalMart cost $52.99.  What would be the effect on demand for said hempalicious trousers?  Would manufacturers flock to the sector and introduce more competitive practices that raise the economic and environmental cost?  Or would people pay extra for the WalMart jeans anyway because they can buy their terribly cheap organic food at the same time, or they hate shopping in earnest fair-trade shops, or perhaps because the higher price has given the WalMart jeans a certain must-have quality?

And how would you define social cost anyway? For example, I went to a talk where a man attempted to argue that forest resources in West Papua, Indonesia, were being “appropriated” from their rightful (traditional tribal) owners by harmful mining companies. And who wouldn’t have sympathy with locals who find their fishing waters polluted and traditional harvest lands taken over? But you could argue that the costs to that sector of society have benefited another sector – the Indonesians whose living standards have improved due to the rise in GDP achieved through timber exports.

So is this an idiotic idea, or what? And was it worth writing about just for the pleasure of visiting the Sylvanian Families website? And why can’t I stop asking questions?

Have just had one of those awesome cycle rides home at night when the sky is full of stars, the moon is shining on the Rhine, the ruined castle on the hill is all lit up and even the scary bit where there are no people and no streetlights and, now that I think about it, no road, isn’t all that scary.

You know, one of those cycle rides. And it is all thanks to my new bike!

Since deciding to leave my job, I have been practising fiscal prudence. My best effort to date has been getting to Bangkok airport for 45 baht (82 pence). Continuing in this vein, I went to the second-hand bike fair in Cologne yesterday with the hope of picking up a bargain to replace my last bike, which got stolen. Miraculously, and despite the best efforts of various dodgy gentlemen to sell me something that they had clearly just fished out of the canal, I found a really good, cheap bike, which has immediately become my favourite thing. It doesn’t need to be given a ridiculously affected name like Sir Walter or Brutus, its predecessors. It is simply… Pegasus.

For a start, it has 21 gears, thus allowing me to go super fast. It has neither a saddle covered with gaffer tape nor a pedal that sticks out at a 70 degree angle (both common motifs at said bike fair). And it is navy blue – one of the best colours in the whole world, if not the universe. Buying an object has made me very happy, which has made me rethink my entire position on modern market capitalism.

Strictly speaking, I should acknowledge that my thriftiness is partly undone by the fact that the Pegasus is not actually the only bike that I bought this week. Yes, OK, I bought another one first on Tuesday, but honestly, it is unrideable.

I had turned up at this social project place in north Bonn – an enormous shed with maybe 60 bikes outside and more indoors. “I’m looking for a bike, please,” I said. The man pointed to a modest looking silver number (since christened Slim Shady). “That one,” he said. “Um, thank you, is that the only bike you have for sale [in this GIANT SHED FULL OF BIKES]?” I asked (I didn’t actually say the bit in brackets). Yes, I was told; there was a waiting list otherwise. I took a hard, Prudent look at Slim. “It may not be perfect,” I told myself, “but we are in a new era of scrimpitude. Beggars can’t be choosers!”

So, after a brief spin in the car park (on the bike, I mean, not a whirling dervish moment), during which Slim Shady proved to be passable by going in a straight line and not falling apart, I bought it, feeling extremely pleased with myself in all things fiscal. As I cycled away, having parted with 150 smackers, I ignored the strange noise the gears were making. “Nice little bike, that,” I imagined my dad saying, much as he told me that there was nothing wrong with the Mini Metro I was about to take my driving test in when in fact the clutch had failed (I failed too).

But I was unable to delude myself for long. As I rode to the office, I couldn’t help but notice that the Shadester was so exuberantly sprung that the chief sensation was  one not of forward motion but of going up and down as if on a pogo stick. Even the pedals seemed to have suspension. What’s more, I realised with a sinking feeling that the bike was so small that I had to sit on it like a coachman hunched against the rain. I did manage to hitch up the saddle to penny farthing-like heights, which helped until it gradually slithered down and allowed me to be overtaken by old women on Lady Bikes. Truly, something that should never happen to anyone.

So, I know I should just accept that it is a shite bike (a shike?) and put up with it, but on Wednesday I got overtaken by another Lady Bike and I couldn’t feel my buttocks when I got home, so I decided I absolutely had to buy another one. Obviously I have a bit to learn about fiscal austerity. This week I will have to take Slim Shady back to the shed and hope they will award my idiocy with a refund.

Anyway, the reason for this evening’s outing on the peerless Pegasus was a talk at Bonn museum on Napoleon. As usual, hoi oligoi of Bonn were out in force. It was nice that people made an effort to dress up. One lady came as a pink sofa. Given that I was dressed in neither a double-breasted blazer nor a pashmina and that I have all my own teeth I’m surprised they let me in, but as soon as I sat down I aggressively got out my notebook With Intent, and no doubt I was quickly recognized as a serious Napoleonic scholar (albeit one dressed as a lumberjack).


Sadly, I am not able to parlay the main points of this evening’s talk, because (1) the woman was speaking in German, and (2) the woman was speaking in German with an Austrian accent. This made her almost entirely incomprehensible, to me at least. Certainly the audience lapped her up (not literally; she wasn’t milk, and they were not cats). I think she made a joke about Haydn at one point, which went down very well. But all I can say about events is that I’m fairly sure the French besieged Vienna in 1809. I think they threatened to stay until Beethoven had finished the Eroica Symphony. Napoleon was evidently involved. Soldiers died, as is their wont. Then the siege ended and everyone ate Viener Schnitzel and Viennese Whirls and there was a peace treaty, after which Napoleon started dancing with the Burgermeister in the street and that’s how the waltz was invented. Hurrah!