This blog contains upsetting scenes right from the start.

Well… er… actually, no it doesn’t. Unless of course you have serious problems with my writing style or the needless overuse of full stops and exclamation marks…!!!

I was watching the TV news the other day and a report from Syria was prefixed by something similar to the above and I found myself thinking why do they do that?

Surely these scenes of death and destruction are normal for a news broadcast? The scenes that followed were indeed horrific but I was left wondering if the men, women and children in this Damascus suburb, all apparently civilians and not that dissimilar to the men, women and children in my London suburb received the benefit of a similar warning before the shells slammed into their homes.

This is I think, the question many people ask. Why are we in our privileged society given warnings about images of things that are actually experienced by other people in far off places?

This is what in modern social media parlance is referred to as a “trigger warning” and mocked or condemned by many in positions of privilege. It’s designed to warn those who’ve experienced horrors in the past to images which may cause them distress in the present. It can apply as easily to those who’ve survived physical attack, rape or a serious accident as well as those who’ve survived an air raid. There are increasing numbers of “survivors” in our society and the psychological damage that has resulted from their experiences is better understood. They’re here. They’re now. Why should we accidently cause people to relive their most traumatic experiences? The trigger warnings are for them.

In my equalities-centred world I find the need to provide trigger warnings is constant. This is not just about air raids and transport accidents it’s about everyday things that happen to everyday people. They happen in the next street and the car park over the road. The huge number of women in this country who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted; the trans people who’ve been brutally attacked for simply existing; the disabled people who are abused and spat at day-in-day-out for being “scroungers” and with no means or confidence for self-defence; the ex-soldiers who are distressed by every loud noise; the people of colour who continue to suffer racist attacks in their own country… for these people, though they may hide it well, the emotional trauma is ever present and ready to leap out with the slightest nudge. Have you ever experienced a friend turn into a quivering tearful wreck at some event that barely registered with you? I have. What huge cost for something so small and trivial?

So yes – though it may seem silly to many of us such warnings are necessary. Think about your content and keep applying them. For most people it’s a minor issue but for others it will save a lot of pain.

 

A post on Twitter by one of the Trowelblazers team re-ignited my interest in a pet theory of mine which I’ve been mulling on and off since my aborted Maritime Geography undergrad course many years ago.

Now that modern media gives me the opportunity I might as well float it for anyone with an even vaguely enquiring mind.

Firstly my hypotheses have probably been tested ad-infinitum in academic publications that I’ve never had the opportunity to read, or even more likely dismissed as hogwash by people more knowledgeable than I. I will further add that I’m just a bored geographer whose glittering career in this area was largely thwarted by other activities.

Anyway, here’s the question: What exactly is at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea? Well… a great many ships obviously, but what else?

Being a bit churchy back then – something long since grown out of – I found myself contemplating the books of Genesis and Exodus and found stories such as the Great Flood and the Red Sea Crossing quite interesting. Looking at them in the light of what we were beginning to understand about climate change (this was the early nineties) I wondered whether it would be possible to explain some of these miracles through sea level change.

However the Bible is just one set of stories. Legend is littered with stories of great floods such as the Deucalion of Greek legend and Atlantis; together with numerous others originating in a variety of cultures.

So what if we assume these floods occurred? I am a great believer that if you have a number of unconnected sources, however unproven, telling you much the same thing then there is probably at least the seed of some truth in them.

My theory goes like this: Although most of the Mediterranean is oceanic it is shallower than both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. It also covers large areas of continental shelf especially in the Adriatic but generally around the coastal areas and islands as you’d expect. What if during the last glaciation much of that was dry land; let’s be extravagant and say down to the -500m contour with a freshwater sea at its centre. That’s a lot of land. What if it was quite fertile and well drained with a reasonably temperate climate nicely suited to human habitation? Imagine the early civilisations which might develop in this land of plenty.

But there’s a snag. The ice sheets are melting and the neighbouring oceans beyond Gibraltar and the Red Sea are getting higher until they rise over the barriers at either end, and start to spill over into the Mediterranean Sea. This would lead to the gradual inundation of settlements and farm land; people would be forced back to higher ground. Gradually.

So what if the process wasn’t gradual? What if the Strait of Gibraltar wasn’t a strait at all back then but a natural dam? What if that dam suddenly and catastrophically ruptured under the weight of water behind it? There would be potential for a rapid flood event which wiped out civilisations. Atlantis would probably be one of the first to be destroyed before the waters reached biblical territory further east. How long would it take? Weeks? Days? Hours? Probably not enough time for people to escape from most of those civilisations.

We could imagine that the bulk of civilisation was wiped out permanently in a very short timeframe. A few stragglers with easy access to high ground (or arcs) might escape to tell the story, but their state of development would be set back greatly by the loss of their national infrastructures. Indeed most of them would be among the least affluent and developed of their epoch; farming the poorest lands on the slopes of what we now know as Europe and Africa. They would tell tales of that flood and those tales would become legend.

The theory which prompted this piece suggested that people inhabited the (dry) Adriatic in order to escape from the ice sheets further north. My theory is the obverse of that; they colonised northern Europe to escape from ever rising sea levels fearing another catastrophic flood. But it is just a theory. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to test it further but maybe someone else will one day.

It would be interesting to know more about what – if anything – is down there.

larner2a

I must have been seven or eight and was being taken to Birmingham on the train. As the train entered the city fringes I remember very clearly passing a huge forest of high-rise flats. I now know this was the Castle Vale estate and there must have been well over thirty towers. They were standing ethereal above the haze of a misty morning; at once beautiful and forbidding. As a child from the country they were the epitome of urban living; glamorous and sophisticated. They were my fantasy. I wanted to live somewhere like that. 

That train journey was in the very late seventies when the development was a little over ten years old; relatively modern in housing terms, but by that stage the estate had a reputation for crime and deprivation that was far from the glamour that youthful me imagined. It was designed as a solution to urban deprivation; a massive overspill estate on a former airfield accommodating 20,000 of the cities least advantaged residents. 

Unwittingly I was living the vision of the planners. From the safe distance of the railway this estate had an awe-inspiring beauty stimulating the imagination. But that was the closest middle-class kids like me were ever going to get to it. The real story for those living there was one of vandalism, crime and squalor compounded by poor maintenance and ever diminishing services. Since then, this and similar estates in every major British city have gradually been demolished. Only two blocks at Castle Vale now remain amid the replacement low-rise development because schools were incorporated into the structures and demolition was too complicated. The standard of living has improved and it is now regarded as a model of community-led regeneration. 

Most commentators now see high-rise housing estates as a huge mistake born out of the ceaseless optimism of modernist sixties planners who had an idealised vision of an urban utopia which was ultimately defeated by human nature. The estates were laid out paying great attention to visual aesthetics to reflect that fashionable post-war idea of what the future might hold but with less thought to the wind tunnels and eddies they created. Going almost unnoticed was the fact that these were homes to thousands of people; these were where people actually lived. The inhabitants were the poor and the vulnerable; the elderly and disadvantaged; this was where disaffected youths congregated in stairwells and objects were thrown from high windows; where lifts broke down and weren’t fixed and as they became older crime and anti-social behaviour increased making them ever less desirable. For all their architectural splendour this type of high-density communal living is best removed from the housing stock, but it would be wise to remember they were built in response to specific problems. 

The danger here is that the economic realities which produced these huge estates are back with us today. The competing interests of a desperate need for additional housing and a powerful conservation movement; both equally valid could yet focus developers on the advantages of large scale high-rise development to make the best use of limited space. The signs are there. Modern blocks are getting taller and wider. Initially most are intended for first-time buyers but invariably they are becoming buy-to-let after a few years. Occasionally even very tall residential towers are springing up across London and other cities marketed as desirable new concepts in urban living which is exactly how the original estates came about. How long will it be before we see a twenty-first century Castle Vale trumpeted as the solution to all our housing problems? The post-war slab sides, flat tops and regimented rows may be a thing of the past but how much better will living conditions be with amorphous design and air-conditioning?

 

The second High Speed rail-link (HS2) is designed to give a quicker journey time between Birmingham and London to boost the northern economy. Any investment in the rail network is good news, but links to London are not the only journey times that should be addressed. Routes to London are already fast and the trains are high quality but what about the journey from Birmingham to Nottingham? The current railway infrastructure, reflected to a lesser extent in the motorway network, is very London and south-east centric. 

Urban connectivity between northern cities is a major problem. Rail services linking the metropolitan areas of the north and midlands are relatively poor. Services west of the Peak District are reasonable due to the West Coast mainline but services on the trans-pennine route are less so, whilst those covering the area east of the Peak District between Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham are poor. 

Travelling from Leeds to London takes two hours to cover approximately 270km; to Sheffield takes over an hour to cover 45km and to Manchester takes an hour to cover 60km 

You can work out average speeds from those figures. 

Sheffield to Manchester and Sheffield to Nottingham each distances of roughly 50km take about an hour, whilst Sheffield to London takes about two hours to cover 230km. 

On all these routes the trains to London will be eight or nine coach inter-city sets with a restaurant car and first class accommodation whilst the others will be formed of short overcrowded multiple units with limited facilities and under floor diesel engines. 

The quality disparity between rail services on inter-city (read to London) routes and other routes linking major cities is stark. The latter have over the years been downgraded to near branch line status with direct lines removed or served only by stopping trains. The product being delivered is not of the standard required by business people, academics and other professionals on tight schedules who might wish to combine a journey to see a contact in a neighbouring city with a quick lunch on the go. 

The geography of northern England places a number of large cities including Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent around the green lung of the peak district. Others including Liverpool and Leicester are not far beyond; however the rail links between many of them are slow and sporadic. This population distribution is not greatly different from the Dutch Randstad where far more efficient services are provided – possibly because in that case they include the capital and largest cities, or the German Rheinland.

London will always be the dominant city in the UK but there’s no reason why the gulf between it and other British cities should be so great. What would help our own round-city would be a fast and efficient network of inter-city trains in the true sense; providing a high quality of on-board service and only stopping at major interchanges. 

Inter-urban connectivity is key to the northern regional economy. At present our transport system takes all the blood to the brain instead of circulating it around the body starving other parts of the oxygen needed for growth. Strong links between neighbouring cities would do more to keep capital circling within the regions and stimulate long-term economic growth which will ultimately benefit the whole country including the over-heated and overcrowded south-east.

 

UKIP have won council seats right across the country in yesterday’s election. They’ve had a lot of coverage and undoubtedly many people will have voted for them as a protest against mainstream parties which are seen as detached and unable to provide solutions to the problems we face, but this is not the whole story. Whilst there are legitimate concerns with their language and policies and certainly several of their candidates have not covered themselves in glory, they are still winning votes and fulfilling a genuine role in UK democracy. 

It should be no great surprise that UKIP have gained most of their seats in unfashionable parts of rural England nor should they be thought of particularly as a protest party for their success in such areas. The anti-EU rhetoric and opposition to large scale immigration have certainly been popular but these are not the only reasons for their advancement; it’s just as likely that they have won support because they’ve filled a glaring gap in the political spectrum and energised a new group of activists. 

UKIP won sixteen seats on Lincolnshire County Council becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats are in the east of the county remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern seems to have emerged in Norfolk. They have won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers in the local economy; in small, isolated market towns that are off the beaten track and dispersed villages of nineteenth century red brick farm houses. It’s the countryside but it’s not picturesque in the traditional sense though it’s often eerily beautiful with wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is an essential part of life and if you don’t have one you’re cut off from the world. Wind farms are springing up everywhere with little perceived benefit to the local community. Welcome to the rural fringe. 

UKIP have spoken to a large group of people who hitherto haven’t really had their own party. In Scotland and Wales these votes would be swept up by Nationalists but in peripheral English regions they’re there for the taking. These are the rural working class who have for various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, never really engaged with the Labour movement and have been too remote from Labour heartlands to have been noticed. Voters who may have previously considered the Liberal Democrats and Greens, but aren’t that right-on and environmentally concerned. Most of the people voting UKIP are socially conservative and will traditionally have given their votes to the Conservative Party yet at a time when that party seems more elitist and metropolitan than ever, the working-class “common sense” rural voter can see little to keep them loyal to a party which has only really ever been the least bad option. These are not the ruling classes. They’ve always been here and they’ve always felt the way they do yet hitherto there hasn’t been a party which really reflected their beliefs.                                                                                                                       

If UKIP are to become a major player in British politics they, like other parties, must cultivate heartland areas and what we have seen in this election may be the first signs of an establishing powerbase. To dismiss them as clowns and fruit-cakes is unfair and will only serve to galvanise all those supporters who are glad to finally have a party to vote for with enthusiasm and who have never felt as if their concerns have been taken seriously before. Maybe the comparisons with the progress the SNP has made in Scotland in the last twenty years aren’t so far-fetched. This is a very interesting time for British political diversity and could yet enrich our democracy.

 

I spent much of last weekend flicking through old family papers and photographs. I enjoy genealogy. Finding out where I came from, what my ancestors did and what happened to them is fascinating but on this occasion I wasn’t really looking for anything new just re-treading old ground.

Most of the pictures I was looking at were from the first half of the twentieth century; largely pre first world war. We were one of those relatively fortunate families for whom the ravages of that war brought no immediate losses with the menfolk all being too old, too young or down a coal mine. That said the photographs tell a tale of what by the standards of the day was a fairly middle class family. They weren’t rich but they weren’t poor either. Those in mining were mostly pit deputies and overmen; joiners or other skilled workers. Chapel was big. The women wore beautiful long skirts and elaborate blouses with their hair in tight buns. The men wore suits with stiff collars and most sported bushy moustaches; those that didn’t had mischievous smirks and “reputations” within the family. A stifled laugh here and a twinkle in the eye there lend a beautiful humanity to long dead relatives in otherwise formal poses.

When these pictures were taken, the extended family seemed to be concentrated in a very limited geographical area. All lived within a few miles of each other and the families were large. As the century progressed some of those Edwardian children dispersed right round the country moving out to other areas to explore opportunities away from the mines and making use of readily available transport. Those sailor-suited boys and the girls with their smocks, boots and plaits went on to work in chemicals, aerospace, nursing, teaching and engineering. They were the people who created the world we have now.

I met a few of these people when I was very young. They were extremely elderly and quite scary to a small child. Their first names and those of their generational peers were a byword for geriatric frailty. Yet here they were in their childhood or in their physical prime; proud and vital; smiling at the camera. What were they thinking? What jokes were they cracking? What were their hopes and dreams? So much is hinted at by a look in the eye frozen for posterity. The grey haired veterans bent double with their sticks are trapped in my own memory; to my nephews they’ll be happy, healthy and sepia framed forever in the prime of life.

Of course for many of these the prime of life is as far as they ever got. A shocking amount didn’t live beyond my age, failing to survive their twenties and thirties. Why? They didn’t look sickly. They didn’t go to war. What happened? Were they taken by the sort of random conditions which still claim lives today or were they victims of relatively trivial illnesses which in our own time would have merely resulted in a couple of weeks off work? Were they victims of injuries and illnesses that are now routinely repaired by the NHS, or prevented by health and safety culture? How many of those women died in childbirth? In my experience these are usually recorded as such along with the child but not in these cases.

Infant death and death in childbirth were givens. But what causes a healthy 23 year old to die in peacetime? What causes several healthy twenty and thirty something’s from the same extended family to die over a twenty year period?

At the other end of the spectrum we look at the man who died at 51 and think he had a good life. Fifty-one. The “elderly” were dropping off in their 50’s. A hundred years ago 60 was considered a good age. When you imagine all the illnesses and conditions that we routinely treat nowadays is it any wonder?

Had I been born a hundred years previously I would almost certainly have fallen in my thirties when my gender dysphoria reached its climax untreated, assuming I had survived my childhood which in my case was fairly unlikely. How many of my contemporaries would have expired through various conditions and injuries? How many of us would have succumbed to illnesses we never even had due to vaccination and preventative treatment? What free healthcare was available was generally limited to wage earners in a few selected industries, but not their spouses or dependants, or by friendly societies where they existed.

This was only a hundred years ago. Two or three generations. It wasn’t a backward society by any means. I would have met some of these people had they survived to a modern life expectancy. This is the value of genealogy. It makes us understand how lucky we really are.

thamesmead

For most of the last thirty years we have been told by the government that we should maintain close family ties and support our parents and grandparents in their old age rather than allowing them to become a burden on the state. This, along with stable (heterosexual of course) marriage, is usually referred to as “traditional family values”. At the same time governments have told us that if we can’t find a job we should move to where we can; assuming we have the skills of course. For many of us these two aspirations are contradictory. If we do one, we can’t do the other. 

As of April 1st, those council and housing association tenants claiming housing benefit from the state for their living accommodation are subject to what is now commonly known as the “bedroom tax”. Actually it’s not a tax at all; it’s a benefit cut, but to those affected the result is the same. Tenants will lose money for every spare room that their council deems them to have. Each adult or couple is entitled to one room but children under sixteen must share if they are of the same sex (don’t get me started on gender expression at this point!) and those under ten whatever their sex. Separated parents will not be allowed to keep a room for their child to visit; nor will it be possible to keep a room for a child who is away studying. 

Of course, as with so much in this country, the “bedroom tax” was dreamt up by political advisers who live and work in London. Down here there are huge numbers of one-bedroom properties and ample public transport connecting them together. Unfortunately this situation does not extend much beyond the M25. In most provincial towns and cities one bedroom properties are few and far between. Land is cheaper and there was never any need to build them in such large amounts. Now people will be priced out of larger houses as incomes outside London are much lower, yet there are less one-bedroom properties for them to move into. The result will be increased homelessness, empty houses, dispersed families and overcrowding as children share rooms and make way for lodgers; as a consequence of all this there will be a likely increase in domestic violence and child abuse as well as an increased birth rate. This has all happened before during the industrial revolution. 

Through the late twentieth century we’ve lost sight of the risks that serious, widespread overcrowding brings as we’d largely eradicated it. It is not just a problem for those who have the misfortune to live in those conditions; it’s a problem for all of us. Infections and diseases spread like wildfire in cold, damp and overcrowded conditions. The prevalence of air-conditioning in our modern trains and buildings will ensure that the overall health of the nation will take a tumble with consequent effects on the wider economy through sickness absence and reduced productivity. 

Meanwhile in London; more and more studios and one-bedroom properties are springing up and they’re getting smaller and smaller. Often they are marketed as “executive” or “luxury” but to me they look like the sink estates of the future. These properties also inevitably lack storage space; few new flats inside the M25 have any storage areas – a luxury you may think – but fairly crucial if you want such basics as an ironing board, a mop and bucket, a broomstick and a clothes horse. These usually have to live in the bathroom and kitchen where they become dangerous obstacles. Most flats do not have a garden so there is no drying space for clothes leading to damp within the building (especially in winter) or the need for a washer-dryer; either way heating and electricity bills will increase accordingly and as we all know electricity is expensive. In these conditions mould and condensation become problematic and have a negative effect on our health. 

The result of the bedroom tax here will see older people living in the cold, damp upstairs flats that they had to move to when their children left, struggling to store the necessary items to keep themselves clean and safe. They won’t be able to have family members to stay so the NHS/DSS will have to step in and help. People of all ages will need to relocate to unfamiliar areas away from friends, families and the social networks that they rely on. 

Besides the bedroom tax, there is a clear need now to set stringent standards in housing quality. It would be good to see the reintroduction of a reasonably generous minimum floor area and designated bedrooms should also have a minimum size suitable to accommodate a king size double bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers with sufficient space to walk around them. Every new property should come with a storage cupboard of sufficient size to accommodate the household necessities; and if no drying space is available then there ought to be sufficient space to have a proper electric dryer alongside the other necessary appliances. Dividing walls between neighbouring flats should be solid and sound proofed; and all rooms, particularly bathrooms and kitchens should have an opening external window. 

Provision of housing should also be more carefully planned. Market forces are not necessarily best in this area; instead social housing ought to be specified according to need and then built by private firms within the prescribed guidelines. One, two and three bed properties need to be constructed in numbers proportionate to existing projected demographic requirements rather than endless executive studio apartments with high maintenance fees which will never see an executive within their design life. With these rules in place and a commitment to demolish older properties which don’t conform I believe that overall standards of living will be improved immeasurably.