Today sees the publication of an updated 40th anniversary edition of David Attenborough’s classic book which accompanied his major BBC TV series, Life on Earth (though I think the publication of this anniversary edition has been brought forward a couple of months because I believe the original was published early in 1979. See below).
It is hard to overstate the landmark undertaking that the BBC’s series represented. It was filmed over a period of three years and the result was one of the world’s most informative, beautifully filmed and best loved nature series telling the spectacular story of the evolution of life on earth according to our latest knowledge.
The book version of Life on Earth was divided into thirteen chapters – one for each episode in the TV series. It became a rapid and huge best-seller. My copy was published in November 1979 and it shows that it was reprinted no less than eleven times in the very first year of publication due to its immense popularity.
At a time when the Director of the UK’s Natural History Museum, Michael Dixon, feels compelled to write in a national newspaper this week about his concerns about how Darwin’s powerful theory of evolution by natural selection is being attacked in Turkey, Israel and India by those who have allowed themselves to be blinkered rather than enlightened by religion, this week’s 40th anniversary publication should be seen as an opportunity to share Attenborough’s work with others around us. Dixon writes:
Darwin’s theory of evolution not only underpins all biological science, it has an immense predictive power. From understanding the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, to the ways in which different species might respond to global warming – emerging as new pests or sustainable sources of food – human health and prosperity will depend on decisions informed by evolutionary evidence.
For those of you who like me cannot get enough of David Attenborough – you can now purchase the Audible version of the updated 40th anniversary edition of Life on Earth which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough himself.
Below is a short clip about the original series.
London mayoral candidate ‘should have been clearer’ in paper about multiculturalism
The Conservatives’ deputy chairman has conceded the party’s newly selected London mayoral candidate “could and should” have made clear he was not singling out Muslims or Hindus when he wrote about the impact of multiculturalism.
James Cleverly insisted Shaun Bailey had been misunderstood, and that he was trying to say that because black boys were learning more about faiths other than “their own Christian culture”, they were more likely to drift into crime.
Do the Tories not have any other strategy apart from trying to divide our communities and attack multiculturalism?
It didn't work against @SadiqKhan in 2016 and won't work in 2020.https://t.co/bdDhnWlpfp
Ukip’s controversial and gaffe-prone West Midlands MEP, Bill Etheridge, has dramatically quit the party, claiming that its character has been “permanently changed” and is now viewed by voters as “a vehicle of hate towards Muslims and the gay community”.
The move is yet another blow to the Eurosceptic party, which has driven hard into far-right territory under leader Gerard Batten, who has actively courted anti-Muslim figurehead Tommy Robinson in an obsessional quest against Islam (which he calls “Mohammedanism”).Continue reading...
Six-month programme aims to increase diversity and follows calls for greater involvement
Britain’s leading Muslim organisation has launched a scheme to train women for leadership positions in mosques and community bodies.
Twenty women have embarked on the six-month intensive programme run by the Muslim Council of Britain, aimed at equipping them for leadership positions. As well as one-to-one mentoring, the women will visit “best-practice mosques” and be given media and public speaking training.
For years I had been meaning to get round to reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight but somehow other books kept diverting me away. Finally, a couple of months ago I bought it to read on my Kindle on my commute to work in London. I had watched the October 1974 boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, many times on YouTube and had been impressed with Mailer’s commentary on the fight in the Academy Award winning 1997 documentary When We Were Kings, so it was with much excitement and anticipation that I began to read his book length take on the fight.
A word of warning at the outset: in this nineteen chapter book, the actual description of the fight does not begin until chapter thirteen. Don’t let that put you off though. Mailer was a giant of twentieth century American literature and his observations on the build up to the fight and his encounters with the characters surrounding Ali and Foreman, including Bundini Brown, Don King and not least, President Mobuto of Zaire, are fascinating and add much colour to the background of the fight.
George Foreman is such a jolly and kindly fellow today that it is easy to forget just how terrifying his reputation was back in 1974. He had knocked down Joe Frazier six times before stopping him in the 2nd round in 1973 and had destroyed Ken Norton also in just the 2nd round at the beginning of 1974. And both Frazier and Norton had beaten Ali on points. As Mailer notes: “Each time Foreman knocked a man out, frustration showed on his face. Foreman looked like he still wanted to kill them.”
Ali at this time was thirty-two years of age and widely regarded as being past his prime. He had cruelly and unjustly had his championship taken away from him in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the army for the Vietnam war and had been banned from boxing for three and half years – years when he should have been in the pinnacle of his boxing career. Now, seven years later, while he was clearly eager to regain the Championship, boxing commentators openly questioned whether he was still as quick with his hands and able to dance around the ring as he had so dazzlingly been able to do in his younger years. How would an older and slower Ali be able to avoid being hit by Foreman’s murderous punches?
Mailer was in Ali’s dressing room just before the fight and he paints a gloomy picture indeed. All those around Ali were clearly afraid of the imminent encounter and worried about Ali’s safety. Ali’s personal trainer, Ferdie Pacheco, had quietly booked a helicopter in case they needed to fly Ali out for emergency hospital treatment. The only person who seemed unafraid was Ali himself who said. “What’s there to be afraid about? This ain’t nothing but just another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali. Why should I be afraid of Foreman? My God controls the universe.”
Ali certainly saw a bigger picture. Mailer notes that Ali saw himself as a tool in God’s plan. He would create history by beating Foreman against all the odds. He would then use his resulting fame and influence for the benefit of poorer black people. To this end Ali did not merely rely on his prayers, but trained appropriately. Mailer even went running with Ali late one night until he ran out of breath and had to walk back to Ali’s camp alone in the dark. He tells us that his heart started beating much louder and faster when he heard what was unmistakably the roar of a lion. Later that morning when Mailer shared this story with other colleagues from the press who were there to cover the fight, they laughed and pointed out that Ali’s camp was very close to the zoo.
And on to the fight itself. Mailer was sitting in the second row just behind the photographers and live radio and TV commentators. Just before the fight begins, he describes the posture of the two mighty warriors.
“Ali pressed his elbows to his side, closed his eyes and offered a prayer. Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: “My farts to you.” He was still in such a pose when the bell rang.”
It is a joy to read Mailer’s account of the fight. His round by round commentary is intelligent and vivid. Here is a taster from the beginning of the very first round:
“[Ali] drove a lightning-strong right straight as a pole into the stunned centre of Foreman’s head, the unmistakable thwomp of a high-powered punch. A cry went up. Whatever else happened, Foreman had been hit. No opponent had cracked George this hard in years and no sparring partner had dared to. Foreman charged in rage. Ali compounded the insult. He grabbed the Champion around the neck and pushed his head down, wrestled it down crudely and decisively to show Foreman he was considerably rougher than anybody warned, and relations had commenced.”
In the second round, Ali introduced the world to his Rope-a-Dope technique whereby he would lay on the ropes and seemingly allowed Foreman to come in and hit him. At the time, the commentators thought this showed that an older Ali was simply not able to keep up with George Foreman and was inevitably going to be worn down. Mailer writes that Joe Frazier – who was commentating on the fight for an American network, kept asking “For what reason is he on the ropes? Get off the ropes!”
For those who haven’t seen or heard about what then happens in the fight I won’t reveal any more…apart from saying that Ali triumphs! We are fortunate that the open mouthed and flabbergasted reaction of Norman Mailer and (on the left) boxing journalist George Plimpton to Ali’s knockdown of the mighty George Foreman has been captured in a wonderful photograph.
Over twenty years later, Ali – now debilitated by Parkinson’s and barely able to whisper – would be asked what the biggest thrill of his career was. His response: “Zaire. Got my title back. In Africa.”
Mailer’s book rises admirably to the occasion and is a splendid reminder of an encounter that will long be remembered fondly and with much love by all who have been fortunate enough to watch The Fight. Ali somehow lifted us all up.
Now is the time
Here is the mountaintop
When one man climbs
The rest are lifted up
(When We Were Kings, Brian McKnight and Diana King)
Last night BBC’s File on 4 programme was dedicated to how well the government’s declared intention to get people with learning disabilities out of short-term mental health care and into the community where they belong was progressing, seven years after it was announced following the Panorama expose of physical abuse at the privately-run (but NHS-contracted) unit near Bristol, Winterbourne View. Since then there have been a number of deaths in such care that were related to neglect, most famously that of Connor Sparrowhawk but also Nico Reed (in Oxfordshire like Connor), Stephanie Bincliffe (right) and Thomas Rawnsley (both in Yorkshire). Yesterday it featured an interview with the father of a teenage girl who was being held in the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, in conditions that sounded a lot like those that led to the death of Stephanie Bincliffe but are also somewhat reminiscent of how convicted criminals are treated in some American (though not British) prisons. It also touched on the excessive use of restraint, and finding out how prevalent that was took a lot of detective work on their part as it was not readily available under the Freedom of Information Act. (More: Mark Neary.)
The young lady in St Andrew’s is named Bethany, is 17 and from Walsall in the West Midlands. She has been held in ‘seclusion’ in that hospital for 21 months, so likely since she was 15. The room is bare and has only a chair and a bed, which itself consists of a mattress covered in plastic. She is fed through a hatch in the metal door, she talks to him over the phone through it while someone standing on the other side holds it, and when her father visits, he has to talk to her through it. They do not explain why they cannot let him into the same room as his daughter, but they did say that she had been outside it only a few times in the last year and three quarters, which indicates that she is not let out to wash on a regular basis. They mentioned that she is prone to self-harm and had embedded bits of a biro pen in her arm, which it was supposedly too dangerous to take her to hospital to get removed; she has also become clinically obese during her time locked up. Her father says that on the phone, they talk about what they could do if she was somewhere else, meaning a suitable placement in the community; she used to love going to the circus, but he has been unable to do that (or anything else) with her since she has been there. The hospital do not take her out for activities because they are short of staff.
Earlier this year, she was supposed to be moving to a community placement but at the last minute, Walsall borough council pulled out, claiming that her needs were too specialised for it to be suitable. Her father, Jeremy, says that every three months he attends meetings at which institution staff say that it’s all terrible but nothing changes. As she is detained under the Mental Health Act (or ‘sectioned’), he is powerless to remove her from this situation; it is in the power of the responsible clinician.
The programme exposed a number of conflicts, one of them being that local authorities are resistant to funding bespoke support arrangements because they cost money; they prefer to keep people with complex needs in the mental health system because the NHS pays for that. Local authorities have been a prime target for government cutbacks since the 2010-15 coalition came to power, because the ‘glamorous’ state services have been taken over by bureaucracies which answer to central government — in particular, health and the academy school system. Local authorities run non-academy schools (which are unfavoured), social services (which have been cut to the bone) and services such as bin collection which can be privatised.
However, it really failed to ask why private institutions such as St Andrew’s and the private units run by companies such as Cygnet and Priory do not have the staff to offer a humanly dignified standard of care to people like Bethany. The likely reason is that the prices they charge do not allow them to hire enough staff for that purpose, and behind that lies a competitive tendering system that means there is a drive to bring costs down. There is also a history of ‘soft’ inquests that are reluctant to find neglect or wrongdoing where a disabled person has been killed as a result of doctors’ or commissioners’ decisions (e.g. Stephanie Bincliffe and, earlier this year, Oliver MacGowan); bosses know that the legal system will take their side even when, to any outsider, someone’s death appears to be an obvious result of arrogance, carelessness or incompetence. To combat this there must be some minimum standard of care; mental health patients who are detained for more than, say, a certain number of weeks must be taken out at least a certain number of times, have activities available, have access to a shower on a regular basis and so on. Bethany’s care is costing £12,000 per week; there is simply no excuse for someone’s care to cost that much and be so poor.
We do not know the full details of how Bethany came to be in the seclusion room; we were given a brief telling of her life story by her father. But she has been in this situation for 21 months and if it were possible for her to be in a community placement and go to the circus, it is possible for a hospital to provide decent care in the interim. We heard her speak and she is able to do so coherently; she sounded calm on the phone and likes to sing her favourite song (Three Little Birds by Bob Marley) to him. If the people running this hospital do not have the wit to work out how to accommodate her dignity and her need for fresh air, human contact and stimulation in all that time, they are in the wrong job, and if they cannot get the staff, their financial model is all wrong. There’s just no excuse.
To me, statistics only have so much impact and the finances are of less relevance than the human suffering involved, especially when the treatment in question killed someone a lot like Bethany only a couple of years ago. Clearly the standards are not tough enough and some of the people making decisions that affect people’s lives for years to come are in the wrong jobs.
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Accommodating Muslims and Hindus risks turning UK into ‘crime-riddled cesspool’, Shaun Bailey wrote in 2005
Accommodating Muslims and Hindus “robs Britain of its community” and risks turning the country into a “crime-riddled cesspool” as a result, the Conservative candidate for London mayor declared in a thinktank pamphlet he wrote a decade ago.
In it, Shaun Bailey voiced concern about the marking of Muslim and Hindu festivals, claimed that children were being taught more about Diwali than Christmas and argued Britain “removing the religion that British people generally take to” had allowed immigrants to bring their country’s cultural problems with them.Continue reading...
In an interview with the Sunday Times, which is paywalled, Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary recently notorious for his derogatory remarks about Muslim women, attacked the prime minister’s plans for Brexit, boasting that unlike her, he campaigned for Brexit and believes it is best for Britain (by the way: we all know he actually wrote pro- and anti-Brexit opinion pieces in the run-up to the 2016 referendum and was undecided until almost the last minute). He called for a bridge to be built between Britain and Ireland and the HS2 rail project to be shelved in favour of a high-speed link across northern England. The latter is a fairly reasonable demand because east-west links in the north are notoriously bad, particularly Trans-Pennine links between Manchester and Yorkshire. The first, however, although possible, is preposterous.
If you look at any map of the British Isles, you will notice that the only place you could reasonably build a bridge between the two islands is between the north Antrim coast of Ireland and the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. However, to get to any major population centre, you would then need to build several other bridges to link that peninsula to Glasgow. The shortest route would be from near Wemyss Bay on the mainland (west of Glasgow), across the Cowal peninsula and the Isle of Bute to Kintyre, then along a presumably upgraded A83 (or a newly-built dual carriageway) to the Mull of Kintyre (the southern end of that peninsula) then over to near Runabay Head, east of Ballycastle, on the Antrim Coast. This would require four or five new bridges or tunnels to do a round-about route between Glasgow and Belfast.
Alternatively, a major new tunnel could be bored between Portpatrick near Stranraer in south-western Scotland to near Black Head, south of Larne on the east Antrim coast. This tunnel would serve the needs of English travellers to Northern Ireland but not the south (ferries from Fishguard and Holyhead would still be more viable for accessing south and central Ireland from most of England), and would need to be about 40km long, which would be about the same length as the Channel Tunnel between England and France (this is 50.45km or just over 31 miles long) which connects London and Paris, both cities of about 10 million population, to say nothing of all the other major cities in northern Europe such as Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and so on. It would also require a major upgrade to roads linking Galloway to Glasgow and Carlisle, both of which are currently single carriageway.
These things could be done. But Boris Johnson shows his ignorance of the geography by suggesting bridges. In the winter months, these stretches of water are exposed to Atlantic winds meaning that they would have to be closed very frequently; tunnels, although more expensive, would mean they could remain open in all weathers and not interfere with shipping. However, as experience at Dartford shows, tunnels would have to be closed regularly to escort tankers through (unless they are to be banned from it) which is a major cause of traffic congestion. Another option would be a rail tunnel with a shuttle train to take vehicles, but this would mean frequent queueing especially if the Cambelltown route were chosen, and Ireland uses a different gauge from the British mainland (and western Europe).
He also shows a marked ignorance of the political reasons why a link does not already exist. A set of bridges or tunnels from Glasgow via Campbelltown would lead to unprecedented development in those areas, but it would also destroy the attraction of the area to tourists (both from within Scotland and from further afield) as a place of solitude, tranquility and natural beauty. The landscape is rocky, and would need to be smoothed out with embankments and cuttings to build a fast highway, which would cut a scar through the landscape. Views, both on land and at the coast, enjoyed for generations would be no more if large bridges were built to carry traffic, and this traffic mostly would not stop on the islands or peninsulas they crossed and thus bring no economic benefit. Transport in Scotland is also devolved and all the tolls on road bridges in Scotland were removed soon after the Scottish Parliament started operating; a major new road link that involved tolls would be unlikely to be accepted in Scotland.
The “bridge to Ireland” idea is fairly typical of Boris Johnson’s fondness for vast infrastructure projects; while his opposition to Heathrow airport expansion is well-known, he actually favours a new airport on a new island in the Thames estuary, a concept which has been referred to as “Boris Island” but ridiculed because it takes no account of the geography of the area with planes very vulnerable to bird-strike. This is the sort of project which would be easy for a dictatorship to pull off — or perhaps a government which had no need to secure votes in the areas affected — but very difficult in a democracy where planning processes meant that local objections and concerns about tourism, the environment, the impact on local people and wildlife and so on, as well as the cost-benefit analysis, have to be taken into account.
So a bridge or tunnel across the strait between Scotland and Ireland is a physical possibility, but it would be the easy part — the onward transport links would be an enormous undertaking and politically very difficult. Ironically, it would be more viable in the event of both a united Ireland and an independent Scotland within the EU; as a means of cementing links between post-Brexit England and Northern Ireland, its intention would be seen through very easily and would meet considerable resistance on both sides of the water. Short of a separate act of Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament on this issue, or to scrap the Scottish Parliament altogether, it is difficult to see how it could be achieved politically.
Images: Mull of Kintyre lighthouse by Patrick Mackie; Loughan Bay by Willie Duffin; North Witch Rock by Dave Sands, all licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (BY-SA 2.0) licence.
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The human rights defender was held for 13 months without charge or trial.
Fears that dead are being unearthed without permission and graves reused to free space
Police have opened an investigation after a broken skull, a shoulder blade and leg-bones were among suspected human remains discovered lying uncovered in a cemetery.
The bones include a partial skeleton and were found at the privately owned Tottenham Park cemetery in north London by a group of campaigners who fear that graves are being dug up and reused without consent amid a nationwide shortage of burial space.Continue reading...
Thirty years ago last week, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published. Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. His new novel, five years in the making, had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did.
The novel was, Rushdie suggested, both about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death” and “a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person”. At its heart was a clash of race, religion and identity that, ironically, prophesied the controversy that engulfed the novel and still shapes our lives today.Continue reading...
Executives warned they could incur “criminal liability” over imminent destruction of Khan al-Ahmar.
Israel kills seven protesters, two of them children.
Yesterday it was reported that the police in some parts of the UK, notably London and Merseyside, demand that women reporting rape submit both medical records and an extraordinary array of electronic data to them which can then be handed over to the Defence. Complainants are being asked to hand over all of their counselling notes and school health and social services records as well as all data from their electronic devices such as text messages, social media postings, documents and web browsing history; this data can then be kept for up to 100 years. People are being advised that if they fail to disclose what is demanded, the prosecution cannot go ahead; meanwhile, suspects cannot be forced to hand over this amount of information and police are complaining that they are inundated with data.
The obvious problem is that victims — as most complainants are — are being asked to submit virtually everything they have written down and everything anyone has written about them in the past several years, possibly their whole adult and adolescent lives, in order that the defence be furnished with a raft of mostly irrelevant information they can use to discredit the case against their client with baseless suggestions about the complainant’s history or character. This perhaps indicates that defence lawyers are having to get more sophisticated than simply making the complainant out to be a harlot (by, for example, getting a few of the accused’s friends to testify that they had sex with her) — they can portray her instead as mentally ill, or reveal that a teacher once said (ten years ago) that she was the kind of girl that made up stories or that she “had a fertile imagination”. In one particular case (in which a woman was attacked by a stranger in public), the prosecution service obtained a woman’s mental health records that revealed that she had an illness that sometimes made people prone to risky or unusual sexual behaviour and dropped the case, fearing that if the defence became aware of this it would fatally undermine the case; the rapist proceeded to rape another woman.
Such enormous demands for disclosure can only feature as a deterrent for women seeking to report anything but the most stereotypical of sexual assaults — the situation of the respectable librarian attacked out of a bush on her way home. However, what must also be feared is what else might be done with this information. It would no doubt give clues to a woman’s immigration status and that of a number of her friends, along with their whereabouts, as well as a whole raft of other information that might be used to incriminate her or her friends, particularly if they are involved in any kind of organised protest movement or a political movement that the security forces consider to be “of interest” (which may or may not be rational — see MI6’s obsession with Michael Foot’s supposed Russian connections). In other words, it’s an enormous database of information that the police could use to do anything they want with; let’s not be deceived by their complaints about being inundated. If the victim is someone they are interested in anyway, or associated with them, they will know what to do with the data.
We may think the police are there to serve us, the public; in fact, they serve the Queen, or in other words, the State. It should be no surprise that they make extraordinary demands for information which can be used for their own purposes as well as for making prosecuting rape more difficult (thus cutting costs) in all but the easiest cases. It does appear to be pandering to stereotypes about an awful lot of reports of rape being false and complainants being liars (currently it is only in cases of rape or sexual assault where such disclosures are required) but it still means that justice is not for all: it is only for those who have nothing to hide and no foibles or peccadilloes. It has to end.
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