What if a politician was washed up on a Turkish beach?

A while ago in India we passed a festival site. We knew we were approaching something from several kilometres away as a fair amount of debris was spread far and wide. Amazingly, several million pilgrims had attended during that day but by nightfall they were all gone – every single one on them. Back to their towns, villages, huts or, as happens too frequently in the sub-continent, a roadside somewhere. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Several million – gone in hours and nothing to show but some paper plates and Styrofoam cups.

On a Saturday afternoon it takes something like two hours to clear sixty thousand people out of the Emirates stadium after an Arsenal home game – less when they lose to West Ham.

But in Europe, that international symbol of cooperation, understanding and mutual back-smacking smugness, that can’t happen. Despite being around three times the area of India politicians of every country and any complection are telling us how difficult it is to absorb a number of refugees that is something around fifteen times smaller than that of the pilgrims who gathered at that festival. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, told us yesterday that ‘absorbing refugees would not help ease the international crisis’. Today after any human being with even a modicum of compassion was moved to heart-stopping despondency by the story and images of little Aylan Kurdi, he had the audacity to look painfully at an interviewer and express his earnest view that Britain is a ‘moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities’. 

And tonight I hear that in Hungary refugees are being dealt with away from the glare of international media in an ‘operation zone’ because they are ‘a German problem’.

Politicians, eh? Well, forgive me for thinking that the whole lot of them are a bunch of self-serving, two-faced hypocrites whose only ‘moral obligation’ seems to be to themselves.

I think an allocation of 15000 refugees in each European country would disappear far faster than you could say ‘hari krishna’ and they’d be far more grateful than those Arsenal fans bemoaning the price of their season tickets. Why is it so hard to reach out and take care of these put-upon and unfortunate people? Have we really got to a point where it’s OK to let this happen and say it’s someone else’s problem?

A pox on politicians; may they rot in hell. God help us all.


Down the toilet

A secretary supporting us in the office a while back took it upon himself to let us all know, each morning, that the day we were embarking upon had been given a special designation. This, I suspect, was his way of brightening our day with a moment of levity as we set about dealing with the usual succession of design issues, project delays and cost overruns. It meant that the first thing we’d see on our screens as we logged in was a message imploring us to smile because ‘today is national moustache day’ or urging us to endorse ‘international flat feet awareness day’. After being encouraged to provide twenty-four hours of moral support to the suffers of haemorrhoids, transgender single parents or the collection of fancy teapots I was forced, despite being an accommodating sort of chap, to call a halt to his daily well-meaning but unsettling nonsense. There are some things that I simply can’t take before coffee and I have an aversion to half-arsed good causes.

Those early-morning entreaties are history now but this week the memories were brought into sharp focus when I read that 19 November had been designated ‘World Toilet Day’ and found that its campaign slogan was ‘We can’t wait’. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as both unimportant and awkwardly pitched as my usual reaction to any ‘commemorative’ day is less than sympathetic, advocating as it usually does yet another example of questionable self-indulgence or unhealthy interest in an obscure subject. This month has already delivered us ‘button day’, ‘Origami day’ and, would you believe, ‘sandwich day’. But this one intrigued me and I found myself wondering who had thought it up and if there might even be a World Toilet Day Committee.

Well, it turns out that someone did think it up and there is – more or less – a committee. In 2001 someone called Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organisation [WTO] through the World Toilet Summit. Now here is guy with an enthusiasm for restrooms, sanitation, the sustainable disposal of waste and all manner of things smelly that transcends the boundaries of normal curiosity. The WTO now has its own college – yes, it is called the World Toilet College but it isn’t about learning how to sit on the throne. It convenes an annual summit and has set in motion a campaign that is now supported internationally. The overriding issue, I read this week, remains the ubiquitous problem of open defecation. That didn’t come as news to someone who has travelled a fair bit in the third world and is on record as ranting about India developing a space program while almost half its population still sh*ts in the woods. What was surprising, though, was learning of other equally serious concerns that flow from it, so to speak.

Something like 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to what we think of as a toilet and nearly half just defecate in the open. We ‘civilised’ people in the west tend not to think or, worse, speak about toilets and sanitation – aside, that is, from some services engineers I have worked with who took on a dreamy look as they discussed the intricacy of sewerage design. The implications for health, however, are obvious. In addition, there is also a correlation to be drawn between a lack of sanitation, failing education and violence towards women. I was blissfully unaware that menstruating girls in some parts of Africa avoided school where no facilities existed and that there were increased levels of violence and intimidation towards women in India where they had to find a place to defecate after dark. This is all a very long and frightening distance from the extensive range of novelty toilet seats you can buy on Amazon.

It seems to me that anything that raises the profile of this issue – even dedicating a day to the toilet – has to be worthwhile. So, instead of casting a wry smile at World Toilet Day I suggest you take a look at what they say at UN-Water. A huge improvement can be achieved with little effort; toilets that pay you to use them, biodegradable ‘Peepoo’ bags, composting toilets and – something in which I take a big interest – biogas generation can provide multiple environmental and social benefits where the will exists.

I wonder how much money has been spent this week on space in my newspaper, the colour supplement, pop-ups on web pages and unsolicited junk mail that encourages us to go out and get the latest smart phone. It’s working in Africa, where uptake is phenomenal*; in India, more people own a mobile phone than own a toilet. After all, the capability of apps in all manner of tasks just keeps increasing and there will soon be nothing your phone can’t do. Except, that is, to wipe your bum.

*John Evans’ article in TechCrunch can be found here.

Beam me up, Rakesh

Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite
Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base



Dubai and Sicily – growing old gracefully

Towers at Barsha adjoining Dubai Marina

Travelling in the weeks leading up to Christmas was interesting as it allowed informal cultural comparisons between Sicily and Dubai. Last month I was standing alongside the water at Dubai Marina, a spectacular and very impressive melange of towers, contemporary construction, neon light and retail outlets. It’s a new and artificial inlet that frequently appears as a backdrop in Dubai’s publicity and was created, I suspect, simply because it could be. At night the coffee-shops and cafés that border the promenade are filled with the conversation of the dispossessed and translocated of the Arab Spring and the air is apple-scented with the smoke of shisha. Nonetheless, it still manages to feel a lot less Middle Eastern than one might expect. The stainless steel and machined copings are as far removed as they could be from the worn quay faces of the harbours of Marsala and Mazara dell Vallo in the south-west of Sicily and the irony is that those towns also formed the bridgehead for an Arab influx that, unlike in Dubai, brought with it a culture and style of building that still characterises the region.

In Sicily you experience history and a built environment that has substance; a cultural background and a population that can trace its roots back to 800BC. In Dubai, the vista is one of a city-state that exudes such a redolence of newness and impermanence that one begins to doubt it might even be there on the next visit. In December the President announced that all homes in the northern Emirates less than twelve years old would be demolished and replaced with new and one anticipates that all the new buildings will be the same shape, same size and same colour. And probably similar to what you might see in Florida or on the Costa del Sol.

And so Dubai pushes on but is guilty of forgetting one or two minor details in its headlong rush to cement a permanent presence in the 21st century. Thirty years ago the buildings we designed took on a form that reflected the local climate and traditions while meeting the exacting standards that were used in the West. [Much to the chagrin, I might add, of finance departments in our clients’ offices that were trying to keep costs low]. With more questionable probity and a worrying reflection on the greed all too commonly seen here we have recently discovered – well, some of us knew already but it’s now in the public domain – that some of the material used in some of Dubai’s iconic towers isn’t fireproof. That’s bad news if you purchased an apartment off-plan and probably cause for some sleepless nights if you live above the first couple of floors. Talk now is of new fire regulations and improved vigilance but I wonder if my reverie at the Marina will prove prophetic – will they start taking the towers down when they’re twelve years old?

When did you stop beating your wife, Mr Murdoch?

I’m watching the James Murdoch interrogation as I write and have to admit to being mightily impressed. Not by the process or by the results of the process; I’m impressed by how easily Murdoch is holding them off without breaking into a sweat. Not that I think for a moment that James is as pure as the driven snow and not that I think the Commons culture, media and sport select [CMSSC] committee don’t have some points to make. But it seems to me that, despite their having written down a series of wide-ranging and searching questions so as to avoid the bumbling incompetency that the previous session displayed, they just can’t get the man to admit to being a liar and a conspirator. Well, he’s probably not going to do that, is he?

Tom Watson has tried hard to get Murdoch to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to rambling insinuations and in doing so lost the intellectual argument. His parting shot was of accusing Murdoch of being a Mafia boss, for Heaven’s sake!

I’m left with several clear impressions; first, the approach taken by the CMSSC suggests it doesn’t have a clue on how corporate business conducts itself [even when a business might be acting inappropriately]; second, the CMSSC appears to be concentrating on nailing Murdoch rather than bringing more transparency to the alleged phone-hacking behaviour that he might have been complicit to and third, the longer this public nonsense continues the more credibility the CMSSC will lose as James Murdoch is never going to admit to any wrongdoing. Being guilty of a bad memory, not recalling conversations he may or may not have participated in or being inattentive to detail aren’t, after all, criminal acts.

After watching all this I have a better understanding of how medieval witch-hunts might have worked. I might also suggest that aspiring senior managers look and learn. James Murdoch might or might not be an honest man but if my company was in trouble I wouldn’t mind his going out to bat for me.



Peeking over the parapet

Thus far 2011, a few highlights aside, has been a memorable year that I’ll work hard at forgetting. Face-to-face confrontations with mortality bring a lot of things into focus and for the most part they’re less than pleasant. The loss of loved ones and old friends has been difficult but, if nothing else, has raised a dusting of memories that had settled imperceptibly over the years. What it has also done is to give perspective. But then, I always take the view that the only way one can fully appreciate perspective is by considering it from as far away as possible.

By August that necessitated a change of air, some time away from things and more than a little reflection. Sweden would provide that; the trickling autumn migration was about to become a deluge, friends would visit from Switzerland and Dubai and a little self-indulgence seemed possible. I looked forward to some lazy navel-gazing days in the sun on the deck but the weather conspired against it; it was wet and windy in Skåne. There was, however, a way to avoid the cold and get some sun en route, if we travelled a long way round, through Sardinia. So while the disaffected youth of Britain was burning buses and wrecking corner stores in Tottenham or stealing mobile phones so that they could send each other inconsequential text messages I was sitting in the lush and secluded garden of the Nora Hotel Club, enjoying a long, chilled Campari and fresh orange-juice.

Autumn did what it was supposed to do and provided enough distractions. And there were some sunny days in Sweden when not very much happened at all.

So this awful year moves towards its close. 2011 proved to be an exceptional autumn from a birder’s point of view, a dusting of new memories has started to settle and now – still with the funeral of a good friend to navigate next week – a feeling is starting to emerge that 2012 has got to be better.

Sometimes you just have to take the time it takes and keep your head down.

Seclusion and calm: the garden at Nora Hotel Club



One day, son, all this will be yours


A long while ago now, when I was just a toddler and thought the world a more serious place than I do now – I was perhaps four or five years old – some of the most memorable times in my life involved getting ready to ‘do work’ with my Dad. The invitation to assist on some essential household maintenance or new project in the garden was something I took very seriously indeed. I had to spend time preparing, of course, and applied great concentration in pulling on my work clothes, rolling-up shirt sleeves, tying shoelaces on my boots and generally getting into the frame of mind required when one is about to undertake an important task.

I recall more about the effort I applied to getting ready than I do about any of the jobs we actually completed together; my Dad had shown me great respect in seeking my help and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t let him down. Looking back through the years though I’m certain that none of the bent nails were of much use – using a hammer with two hands isn’t easy, after all – and I suspect he secretly disposed of the little pieces of wood I was given to saw. Nonetheless, it was always job well done; I was pleased to know that he couldn’t have finished the work without my help and, in return, he assured me that he’d continue to ‘teach me the tricks of the trade’ as I grew older. He did, too. He was a remarkably good craftsman and what I learnt from him continues to serve me well – a legacy more far-reaching than he would have imagined, looking down at the serious little boy beside him.

In the past few months I’ve agonised as I’ve watched him leave piece by piece, as first his mind and then his body failed him. After his funeral last week the tools that he handled with such ease and dexterity, some of which remain too heavy to use comfortably, passed to me. And so did his now dilapidated shed, his deserted greenhouse and the postage-stamp of a garden where we worked together in quiet companionship all those years ago.

He’d told me then that one day it would all be mine and now that it is, the only thing that matters is that he won’t ask me to help him ‘do work’ again.