Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Blog in the Night Time.(A Climate Change story.)

A strange thing happened today. I was working on my story about Pooh bear (again) which not only involves hand dryers but also the subject of climate change (the story is getting weirder by the minute!) when I decided to go back and read my 2009 interview with Paul Brown, a former journalist with The Guardian newspaper whose specialism is climate change. To my horror, I found that my blog post was all scrambled up so that it made very little sense. Of course, I've reformatted my blog several times since 2009 so anything is possible but, suffice to say, I've not noticed any changes in any of my other blog posts bar a few script and spacing changes. I am rather curious how this peculiarity has come about and with my imagination I can jump to all sorts of conspiracy theories - although I'm sure in reality it's just one of those quirky technical things. It'll probably be the inspiration for a story at some point! Anyhow, I have now reformatted the post in its original location but also for the first time ever I am re-posting a blog (other than those originally posted at The View From Here) as, having read it over again, I think it is still very relevant today - as well as quite a poignant interview. It would also be interesting to hear from any of my American Readers about the current thinking and approach to climate change both in American society as a whole and within the Obama administration now that it is several years down the line. Any comments are very much welcome.

If you found this post informative then please do share the information and spread the word about climate change. Quotes are acceptable usage but please do give do give links/credit back if possible. You may also enjoy my science-fiction story Fantasia, which is about what Walt Disney discovers when he awakes from cryogenic suspension in 2031. Fantasia is part of my short story collection A Modern Life, available on Amazon.

Climate Change: Interview with Paul Brown, Author and Journalist


Paul Brown is the author of 9 factual books, primarily on environmental topics. He worked for The Guardian newspaper for 24 years, the last 16 as their environment correspondent. During his tenure, The Guardian won Environment Newspaper of the Year 4 times. He has met with numerous eminent politicians and scientists, attended climate change conferences and travelled to some of the world’s most remote places, including Antarctica. Although he left The Guardian in 2005 he still writes a weekly column in between travelling the world educating other journalists for The Guardian Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme whilst continuing his campaign to raise awareness of global warming. Global Warning, The Last Chance for Change was published in 2006 and was a best seller in the United States. He is currently writing his first novel, a political thriller revolving around the nuclear industry.



A first part to this interview where Paul and I discuss writing, journalism and his novel can be found here on The View from Here as can my review of Global Warning Last Chance for Change. Paul was very accommodating during my interview and we discussed a variety of subjects at length. What follows is the mainstay of our conversation on climate change; it makes very interesting reading.

J. One of the curious things that struck me in Global Warning was how much interference there had been by the American government and businesses in trying to prevent the progress of climate change discussions and negotiations - Even to the extent that some businesses have disguised themselves with names that imply they are pro climate change and even the doctoring of reports.

 P. Yes, in the narrowest sense they are protecting their interests but in the broadest sense they are actually killing people off.

J. It’s morally hard to grasp that. 

P. For me, more than the warlike tendencies of the Bush administration, was the morally reprehensible defence of the coal, oil and motor industries against overwhelming scientific evidence that they are destroying the planet.

J. Do you think the Americans are going to come back into negotiations now that Barack Obama is on the scene?

P. Oh yes, there’s a huge change in the attitude of the American Administration and all the scientists who were marginalized by Bush have been totally rehabilitated and put in key positions in government.

J. I was shocked to read that in California by 2020 there could be water deficit for eleven million people. Surely people must be ignorant of these facts?

P.In California there is now an awareness that there never was before. I think it is partly down to Schwarzenegger. He did genuinely say he got his re-election as Governor because of his green policies which is an extraordinary thing for a republican to say! And I think the attitude in America is changing.

J. Do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger has been more successful because he’s not a life long politician and is never going to have to live off the back of a political career? So it doesn’t matter to him who he offends?

P. Well I think its partly character isn’t it? He’s essentially European so in a way he’s sort of an independent person. He genuinely looks at the situation from the environmental point of view and looks at the evidence and can’t ignore it. The snow situation in the Sierra Mountains is terrible and when the glaciers disappear, as they will inevitably will, California is going to be a dust bowl. Okay some politicians have ignored the problem but he hasn’t.

J. But warming is a global problem rather than an individual event so whatever he does will be counteracted by countries elsewhere that do nothing.

P. One of the things that came across in Copenhagen last week and as Lord Nicholas Stern said was that this economic downturn was a huge economic opportunity to change into a low carbon economy and if places like California manage to thrive as low carbon economies, as indeed they appear to be doing and adopting green cars and all that sort of thing, then everyone else will want to do it. Because you’re creating a huge series of industries that are growing and the only industries that are growing in this recession are environmental industries. Wind, wave and tidal powers are all growing at a huge rate whereas the traditional industries are struggling. So it’s a potential for growth that people can see by example. So although in California people are still going to suffer they will also be pioneers and will be able to export green technologies to other people.

J. Until you actually read some of the hard facts you don’t really realise the situation. Finding out about the time delay – the 30 year gap before the full effect of the CO2 emissions and the sea level rise over the next 100 years – that these are going to happen anyway was shocking; I wasn’t aware of them at all.

P. In fact since I wrote Global Warning the sea level has risen dramatically. And much faster than scientists anticipated.

J. Some islands, like the Maldives, are going to flood anyway by the end of the century whatever they do, aren’t they?

P. Yes, and very possibly before. I think that was one of the things that frightened me most was the inevitability of the sea level rise.

J. Yes, we’re talking about huge civilizations flooding and where will all the dispossessed go? That is a really huge question. Perhaps in America they can all move inland but where will people who don’t have the same religious backgrounds and beliefs go? It’s just going to be awful.

P. Yes, people keep talking about China and India being the powerhouses of the world but if you take the effects of the glaciers melting in the Himalayas, the water supply running out and the flooding of the Deltas because of the sea level rise you’re talking millions and millions of people who have nowhere to go because the country is already so overwhelmed with population.

J. It is almost inevitable that millions of people are going to die.

P. Yes. One of the scientists at Copenhagen, was saying he thought that unless we made drastic cuts in CO2 now we are looking at a population crash from six billion to one billion.

J. Whole civilizations.

P. Yes. Five out every six people could perish by the end of this century. That’s extraordinary.

J. It is. You didn't dwell on it that much in the book - perhaps because you didn’t want to scare us - about the Gulf Stream and what effect it will have on us in the UK.

P. If the Gulf Stream stops now, today, it would be about five degrees colder on average. That may not seem much but it would mean the winters would last from about the beginning of November to the end of March or even later and the sea around the coast might freeze. The summers would be shorter- we would be a bit like Iceland. The amount of crops that could be grown and ripen might be limited - it could become difficult. It would be an unpleasant place to live as opposed to a very pleasant to live. However, the chances of that happening are not very great – the Gulf Stream just turning off over night – it might slow down a lot- but by then the world might have warmed up a bit and it might counterbalance out.

J. So we don't really know the whole totally effect?

P. No.

J. I’d been wondering, before I knew about your novel, how if you wrote the global warming scenario into fiction how many more people could you reach. There’s a certain type of person who only reads factual books.

P. One of the things that would very much come into this book is that its always been the nuclear industries view that if you have nuclear power stations that you can also have renewable industry too - which is exactly what the government is saying now. But of course this isn’t true because if you have big nuclear power stations you need a completely different form of national grid than if you have small renewable industries - which is actually what we need. So you either have to have two grids or you say we’ll invest all this money in nuclear power and say we don’t need any of this renewable stuff. So it is about whether you do something credible about climate change or whether you build nuclear power stations and so in a sense it is about climate change because in a sense the two things are inextricably linked.... And the motives of the people in the Dept of Energy or as was… these are the people who have been making the wrong decisions and have been for the last thirty years and these are the people you have to make central to your novel because they must have motives. People like Mandelson and Gordon Brown just haven’t got it. They haven’t understood it. What’s extraordinary is that Gordon Brown has been wonderful on poverty in Africa; he really obviously cares about it. But he’s completely wasting his time unless he does something about climate change at the same time because the children in Africa are going to be wiped out by climate change as quickly they are going to be wiped out by poverty and the two things are hand in hand and if you haven’t got that - it’s a tragedy.


J. Yes, I’ve read that there are actually more economic refugees than there are from war. It’s logic really.

P. Yes and it's getting worse all the time and every year it is going to get worse.

J. I was also surprised to learn in your book how much China has done about climate change because the input I’ve had from the media is China is terrible and far worse than the United States when actually it seems to me China has done quite a lot of good things - whereas America is producing 25% of the entire CO2 emissions. Of course China will go on making lots of emissions and increasingly so because of their population but they do seem to be much more aware of it.

P. The Chinese scientists are very good and they have warned their government in no uncertain terms about the problem of the melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau which is going to make their rivers dry up. They’ve also warned them about sea level rise. And the Chinese Gov is aware that they will lose control if millions of people become environmental refugees and so they are much more concerned about climate change now than they were five years ago because they realise it’s going to directly affect them. But the other thing is they get the blame for all the CO2 emissions they make by making all the stuff they sell to us; I mean about one third of their pollution is pollution we’ve exported to them. So they get the blame for that…. I was over in Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government to talk to Chinese journalists at how they should be writing more about climate change and I discovered every street lamp between Beijing and the Great Wall of China is solar powered.

J. That’s amazing!

P. And we don't have any!

J. And that seems like a comparatively easy thing we could do.

P. Yes, and as far as I was concerned they were streets ahead of us in renewable energies. Okay, they’ve got much more to do and their air pollution is shocking but they are turning out more wind turbines and more solar power than we are by a long chalk.

J. I just don’t think people in this country are really aware of what’s going to happen.

P. No, not at all.

J. I know at school they do teach quite a lot as I was talking to my seventeen year old son last night about this and he had obviously been taught about Kyoto. He also knew about the thirty year build up of CO2 but I don’t think people of my age would know that. Maybe there has to be a bigger education programme for the masses.

P. Well it’s very hard isn’t it? In one sense it’s been out there for sometime and if people wanted to know they could have found out. I think there’s an element in all of us of that “I’d rather not know about that because I might have to do something about it.”

J. Yes – ignorance is bliss. At the end of the book when you talk about wind power and hydro electric dams I remembered that when I was girl and lived in Weston Super Mare there was talk for years about building a barrage across from Weston to Wales  *and what effect it would have on Weston - and that’s thirty years ago and nothing’s ever happened. And yet it’s the second highest tide in the world - just waiting for technology to use it.

P. Yes. One of the frightening things is that certainly politicians and people like Tony Blair have been on about climate change for years. Tony Blair was on about it from the moment he became Prime Minster. I mean, he was on about it from the beginning and was there for ten years yet absolutely nothing happened. It’s completely unforgivable really.

J. In the book you say we really have a maximum of fifteen years before there’s a tipping point.

P. Well the scientists in Copenhagen were actually saying 2015.

J. Right. (Momentary silence.)

P. They’re saying we’ve got to start reducing CO2 emissions by 2015 at the absolute latest by 3% a year from then more or less for ever and a day. We’ve got to something about it. 

J. That’s almost insurmountable from a politician’s point of view.

P. From a politician’s point of view, from a scientific point of view, from a technical point of view and every other point of view it is quite possible to do that - if we had the political will.

J. That seems to be the key point. In your book basically you say if we stop burning fossil fuels we stop our carbon emissions. Although we will still have other problems to contain like the methane coming from the permafrost.

P. Yes. There were people at the Copenhagen conference who were saying it’s already too late because these things are unstoppable but I feel that’s the wrong attitude because the science is uncertain - in the sense that you actually can’t tell precisely how the earth is going to react to things. But what we do know is that we’ve underestimated how quickly things will happen which is the frightening bit. Because it would be much nicer if it was reacting much more slowly. But you can’t say we give up. No.

J. Yes – that’s just like wiping out the future of mankind isn’t it?

P. Well for those of us with children it's liking wiping out the future of our children. 

J. If everybody had a carbon allocation do you think that would be the way to go? Obviously flying is a major problem. The emissions from planes are a serious issue; we need to cut down on them. There are people taking three or four holidays abroad a year.

P. Yes. I went to Copenhagen last week to the climate conference and it was important for me as I was actually giving a lecture. It was important for me to get up to date with the science as I’m teaching journalists about climate chance but it is worrying that the only way of getting there practically is to fly. But I am in favour of a personal carbon limit. The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce of which I am a council member has done an experiment with personal carbon and they think it will work.

J. The carbon trading system that resulted from Kyoto seems to have had a big effect in promoting new industries in poorer countries; so it's worked on a global scale so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work on an individual scale. And it seems to have been more successful than they ever thought it ever would be.

P.Also, if you had a really large carbon footprint you could justify that by insulating your loft a bit more or buy a gas condensing boiler - and then you'd able to afford a holiday abroad.

J.Yes, and if it made people think twice then it would work just like the water meters have worked in the UK.

P. Yes, and the moment people start to think about it you are winning aren't you?


**************************

Final comment from Jane (from 2009)

I've been thinking seriously about climate change for a year now since I first read Paul's book. I'd like to think I was aware of it before but I'll be honest and say I wasn't aware of possible total effects which could be catastrophic. However, as Paul concludes in his book we do have the technology to help limit the impact of climate change. What we have to do is act quickly and that means everyone one of us playing a small but necessary role in helping to safeguard the world for future generations.

I've also now read quite a bit more on climate change and of course there are many sceptics. In particular there are those that say we are in a period of  natural global warming. Like Paul, I am inclined to believe that many of these people have vested interests and short term agendas. As for this period of global warming being a natural phenomenon I came across a quote taken from a report entitled “Is the climate warming or cooling?” by David Easterling of The National Climatic Data Center and Michael F. Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in which they say;

“We show that the climate over the 21st century can and likely will produce periods of a decade or two where the globally averaged surface air temperature shows no trend or even slight cooling in the presence of longer-term warming.” (Source Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times.)

It's a question of who you believe. And sometimes you have to go with your instincts because everyone know that facts can be twisted or interpreted any which way you wish - especially if your motivations are not entirely honourable. For me, looking it in the most simplistic sense it defies logic to believe that what we have done to our world cannot have an impact and that burying our heads in the sand will only make the outcome more tragic.

There's a saying in the UK that "An Englishman's home is his castle" and, likewise, all over the world people spend vasts sums of money modifying, refining and equipping their homes with the best they can afford. I think it's about time that we remembered that our castle is more than just four walls, it's our world. And we need to give it the same love and care that we afford to our material lives.

*(Please read link - I found a quote from Alistair Darling saying tidal power was still "in it's infancy" - The Weston barrage (or various forms of it) has been discussed for years - "The 10-mile (16km) barrage has been mooted in different forms since it was first proposed in 1849, according to Roger Falconer, professor of hydro-environmental engineering at Cardiff University" (BBC) )

Copyright Jane Turley and Paul Brown 2009

Don't understand "global warming"? Read this explanation by NASA


Monday, March 26, 2012

Another Emergency Post: Winnie the Pooh and the Case of the Germ Ridden Hand Dryer

I have broken off from writing to make this emergency post.

As you can see from the title I am still working on my Winnie the Pooh story. (Bear with me folks.) Anyway, my Pooh story necessitated me doing some research on hand dryers. (Those machines in bathrooms for drying your hands - just thought I'd mention that in case any of you were confused.) And yes, I know a story about Winnie Pooh and an electric hand dryer sounds almost inconceivable but should you folks ever get to read my masterpiece it'll probably blow your brains out with its originality - or you'll just blow your brains out.

So to get back to the hand dryer business. For my story I needed to know when hand dryers were invented so I duly googled "When were hand dryers invented?" (original I know) and up came the Wikipedia page for Hand Dryer.

By the way, I can't believe how much time some people have to input all this stuff on Wikipedia - is there a Wikipedia page for everything?  In fact I'm going to test that potential theory right now:

Okay, Wikipedia is not infallible.

I put in "My Arse" and luckily no Wikipedia page came up. Phew.

So to continue; I read the Wiki page and discovered that hand dryers were invented in 1948 which suited my story perfectly. Then, unfortunately, I read some really ghastly information. Now, I've always suspected that hand dryers were not very hygienic as to put it simply - they blow hot air all over the place. I've always imagined them to pick up the germs a bit like the wind picks up litter and drops it two hundred yards up the street. Pretty disgusting really. Perhaps somewhere in my dark and distance past I've even read something along those lines. However, suddenly there was all the information in black and white some of which, courtesy of  the good gentlemen of Wikipedia, I'm pasting below:


In 2008, an unpublished study was conducted by the University of Westminster, London, for the trade body, European Tissue Symposium, to compare the levels of hygiene offered by paper towels, warm air hand dryers and the more modern jet-air hand dryers. The key findings were:
  • after washing and drying hands with the warm air dryer, the total number of bacteria was found to increase on average on the finger pads by 194% and on the palms by 254%
  • drying with the jet air dryer resulted in an increase on average of the total number of bacteria on the finger pads by 42% and on the palms by 15%
  • after washing and drying hands with a paper towel, the total number of bacteria was reduced on average on the finger pads by up to 76% and on the palms by up to 77%.
The scientists also carried out tests to establish whether there was the potential for cross contamination of other washroom users and the washroom environment as a result of each type of drying method. They found that:
  • the jet air dryer, which blows air out of the unit at claimed speeds of 400 mph (≈640 km/h), was capable of blowing micro-organisms from the hands and the unit and potentially contaminating other washroom users and the washroom environment up to 2 metres away
  • use of a warm air hand dryer spread micro-organisms up to 0.25 metres from the dryer
paper towels showed no significant spread of micro-organisms.


To which I (conservatively) say ; 


AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!


Now, from reading around a little if you're using a new fan-dangled hand dryers like the Dyson Airbladewhich is becoming more popular here in the UK, it may offer more protection than traditional dryers as the design shields water being spread about as well as sucking in air and cleaning it using an antibacterial filter. Although this sounds great in theory until I see hard statistics relating to how effective these machines are within a given airspace if I have a choice I'll probably still be going for the paper hand towels which decrease the bacterial count by 24%  - whereas according to the Wikipedia article a hand dryer increases bacterial count by 117%. It is good, however, to see Dyson developing this kind of technology though because we all know paper towels and the old type hand dyers are hideously wasteful.






So for the time being at least -the answer maybe to use a paper towel or cross your legs.


Thus ends this emergency post. I've got to get back to Winnie. In my story I'd thought about developing a replacement for toilet roll. Unfortunately, I'm now having second thoughts...... (use your imagination!)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

To dye or not to dye?

Did anyone watch The Voice last night? (Catch a glimpse below of judges Tom Jones, Jessie J, Will.i.am and Danny O' Donoghue performing The Black Eyed Peas' I Gotta Feeling.)
.
So here's a question - do you think Tom Jones looks better with natural grey hair than with the dyed black hair he sported for years? Or is it me trying to convince myself that's the case because I'm considering letting my own hair go grey naturally?

Then there's Jamie Lee Curtis. I think she looks just fantastic for her age. And I like the way her hair looks too. Mind you - it does help if you've got a great face and body when you begin to age. And as much as I'd like to think I look like Jaime Lee Curtis the truth is I probably look more like Miss Piggy so the lovely Jaime probably has one up on me in the beauty stakes to start with. (Okay, so there's not a lot of probability in that statement.)

picture courtesy of wikipedis

Anyway, I'm kinda thinking I may let my hair go grey naturally too. I know I'm lucky that at 47 I still haven't dyed my hair yet but I can see more grey coming through now and although I can probably get away with it for a bit longer, in the next couple of years I may have to contemplate more frequent visits to the hairdressers if I want to stay competing with Jaime.
(And yes,I have been on the booze again. Two glasses of cider so far; I've been cooking the Sunday roast and I need to ease the pain.)

But the truth is Readers I'm not sure I can be bothered with all that fuss and bother. And the thought of having to wear one of those silly plastic caps, even briefly, is enough to age me twenty years.  But there's also the time and the expense as well. Those hairdressing costs could pay for something far more exhilarating - like a masseur for example. I also have very dark hair which I know from other family members doesn't always dye well - so I could easily end up looking even more like a Muppet than I already do.

Am I coming up with enough excuses? Or am I just being too lazy? What if Mr T doesn't find me attractive with a grey mop and moves in with a younger model? What say you readers out there? Tell me your hair experiences; good, bad, funny, indifferent. Mrs T needs your advice!






Thursday, March 22, 2012

Update on Midget Gems

Cripes, can you believe it's Thursday already? And I still haven't posted either my Midget Gem consumer article or my review of The Iron Lady.

However...just to reassure you that I am working on these articles I would like to report that I have almost finished scoffing my second packet of Midget Gems.

Ahhh... the things a House Extraordinaire must do to protect the interests of the ordinary housewife and her family against the might of the retail giants...

You know, I'm beginning to feel a bit sick. And I don't think it has anything with food poisoning..........

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Bad Dream

Ugh - I had a really bad dream last night.

I dreamt I stepped on the weighing scales in the bathroom and they fell apart.

And if that isn't bad enough - they were positioned next to the toilet and in order to stop myself falling and having a nasty injury I had to put one foot down the loo.

Even worse - the loo had not been flushed. You can guess the contents.

(Obviously the toilet seat was up. No surprise there.)

Frankly, I don't think you could get a worse dream than that. I think my sub-conscience is telling me I need to lose weight or something awful is going to happen.

Oh well, I suppose I'd better start another diet....

Oh hang on - I know why I dreamt this! It's because I watched the video below yesterday which if you are in any way squeamish I wouldn't advise watching because whilst most of it is funny the ending is very gruesome.

And don't ask why I was watching this video - let's just say I was having one of my "random" days.

I don't think I'm going to avert the diet though - just in case....


Friday, March 16, 2012

How stupid can you be?

I can't believe it! Have you heard the latest news?

Some idiot bailed Russell Brand. 

Hmm...I wonder if the New Orleans Police Dept would except a bribe to bang him up again?

Anyhow, as I've been fairly quiet this week, next week I shall be posting a review of The Iron Lady and a consumer piece on Midget Gems. And I don't mean this one:

Yes, I know you're wondering what on earth I've got to say about Midget Gems. The answer is plenty.


Ps: just in case you're not familiar with Midget Gems - they're little sweets similar to Wine Gums but about a third of the size. I believe they're called Midget Gems because Small Gems didn't have much market appeal. So I'm told anyway....

An Emergency Situation

Hoist the flags, man the bridges, I have an emergency situation...

I have run out of toilet roll.



Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reading Underground: The Question of Male Reading Habits and the Rise of Illiteracy


Below is an article I wrote in late 2010 which was published in The View From Here Magazine in early 2011. As someone very concerned about schooling and the decline in literacy standards I think it warrants a second outing.


                                                          * * * * * * * * *

I’m on the tube. I’ve only a few stops to travel so instead of reading I observe what’s going on around me. It’s almost 20 years since I stopped commuting and little seems to have changed on the London Underground. There might be digital advertisements, new escalators and cleaner upholstery but the fetid air that brushes your face as the trains arrive and depart, the metal tracks which hum and clink with monotonous rhythm and footsteps which echo down the winding tunnels are all unchanged. As I look around me I am reminded of those lines from The Wasteland; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.”

The tube is an unusual place. You don’t hear much conversation or laughter. Most people are absorbed in their own thoughts or reading. The woman across from me is reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m impressed. The novel, a weighty hardback of 469 pages, would take up a sizeable portion of any handbag. I look on glumly. Even though I’ve read David Mitchell’s bestseller I feel a pathetic failure with my copy of Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, a mere 213 pages, tucked discreetly in my bag.  Maybe I should take some protein powder and do some weight training?  I look more closely at the woman and decide that I’ll skip the weight training as she may have bigger muscles but I have a lot less wrinkles. And my hair is natural. And why on earth is she wearing that hideous skirt and even more hideous shoes? Promptly, the woman looks up, slams the book together and sneezes all over me. Two days later I come down with a stinking cold.

Women are often touted as the chief buyers and readers of books and particularly fiction.  Yet on the tube, according to my commuter friends, and my long ago experiences you’ll probably see roughly the same amount of men and women reading fiction and books in general. If this is true, I have some theories why these men might be challenging popular opinion;

a) Commuting is essentially tedious so although steaming up the window with his nose and writing I wuz here is an attractive proposition for your average male -  after about 20 times it loses its appeal. Therefore, men read to pass the time.

b) Men like to look clever, especially in front of unknown (or in their minds “mysterious”) women. At home they may be content to wander around with their face glued to The Beano but in public they’d much rather been seen with Plato or Aristotle. Although, to be fair, if he’s a humorous kind of guy he’ll have a copy of Tony’s Blair’s A Journey or even Alan Titchmarsh’s Mr McGregor.

c) Men are essentially devious. (I know - I married a man who said he had a manor. Eventually, I realised he meant he had a manner.) So you see, whilst it looks like he’s reading Tom Clancy or James Patterson he’s probably got  Me and My Hard Drive or 50 Ways to Rewire Your House hidden between the pages.

d) Women, more often than not, buy their partner’s books. So it doesn’t actually follow that men are reading less, they just buy less. I know this as I purchase all my husband’s books, as well as his underpants and socks. One day, I hope we will have an intellectual conversation about a book- in the meantime he likes looking at the pictures in his Top Gear annual. To be fair, my husband did once buy me a book.  About cats. I haven’t read the captions yet – but the pictures were lovely.

Perhaps men who read on the tube are an anomaly? Do men in general really read fewer books than women? According to a survey conducted by Associated Press and IPSOS, a research firm, that assumption is correct. Their report concluded that in 2007 American women read an average of 9 books but men only 5.  Perhaps, even more worryingly, was that 27% of the respondents (a quarter of all women and a third of all men) had read nothing at all within the preceding year.

But anyone who has ever participated in a survey will know how subjective they can be, particularly when memory is called into question. Probably results based on one survey aren’t enough to draw any firm conclusions. However, interestingly, a 2007 American report by The National Endowment for the Arts entitled To Read or not to Read coordinated the results of a number of reports, studies and surveys across the US and concluded that reading and the level of reading skills is on a rapid downward curve. It also illustrated, beyond doubt, that the biggest downtrend in reading and literacy skills was amongst young adults. Indeed, nearly half of all 18-24 year olds read no books at all for pleasure and of those 15-24 who did read for pleasure it was a paltry daily average of 7-10 minutes, 60% less than the average American.

But here’s where the report gets really interesting. Whilst literacy is rising amongst small children in the US by the time they’re leaving school in the 12th grade their literacy skills are on the wane. Between 1992 and 2005 there was an overall 13% reduction in the reading proficiency of American children. In fact, the reading scores of 12th grade males showed a 13% decrease and 12th grade girls a 10% decrease and whilst the reading proficiency of American women in general remained static, overall male reading proficiency dropped a massive 19% over the period 1992-2003.

So perhaps there is more than a little truth in the theory that women read more books than men. If we accept American habits as an indicator of trends in the Western world then men are indeed reading less, and reading less well than women.

American best-selling author Jason Pinter responded to an article on the American National Radio website which had reported on both the AP/IPSOS and NEA findings. He argued that the theory that men are reading less than women is a self-fulfilling prophecy put about by a publishing industry, dominated by women, which is failing to cater to men’s reading habits. Pinter, a former editor, may well have some anecdotal evidence to support his convictions but I believe his article and indeed others that reported on both these surveys have steered away from looking at the hard facts of declining male literacy. They have concentrated on gender comparisons - because that’s what creates interest and sells papers. And whilst it may be true, to some degree, that women read more books because the publishing industry caters better for them, or because women exhibit more empathy, or even because women have more time, these are just mere surface details.  In my opinion, and which the NEA report confirms, what is really causing this dearth in male reading, is an underlying decline in literacy.

The last twenty years, have brought about huge societal changes as we connect through the World Wide Web. The ability to communicate has grown with phenomenal speed and has brought with it the power to inform, to educate, to entertain and to enrich but it has also brought with it the power to destroy. Electronic games, the internet and social networking sites can be as addictive as any drug and whilst mature people can harness and balance these developments in a positive way young adults are not always so discerning. The NEA report points out that the decline in reading literature coincides with a massive rise in internet use: between 1997 and 2003 home internet usage rose by 53% in the 18-24 age group. Moreover, the survey found that when reading occurs it is often whilst multitasking with other media. It’s now generally acknowledged that reading on the web results in less focused reading skills and shorter attention spans. Throw into the equation texting, emailing and updating their Facebook status and not only are young adults not focussing on their reading but they’re also communicating in a language, which although universal, is not so accomplished.

In a 2008 survey of men aged 18-34 conducted for Break Media, an online entertainment community for men, 69% said they “could not live without the internet” and over 50% spent over 22 hours a week online. In addition, other surveys have reported that boys above the age of 9 in the US are playing an average of 13 hours a week of video gaming – that’s the age that literacy skills start to falter according to the NEA. Those are shocking statistics and, if true, confirm the theory that over exposure to the internet is undermining literacy development.  Dr Leonard Sax in his book Boys Adrift; The Five Factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men suggests  that not only is excessive  video gaming  damaging educational performance but ultimately demotivating young men and breeding a generation of lazy, self-absorbed adults;

The destructive effects of video games are not on boys’ cognitive abilities…but on their motivation and their connectedness with the real world. These boys may be highly motivated, but their motivation has been derailed… (they) care much more about their success at Halo than about their grade in Spanish…they’ve become disconnected from the real world.”

Dr Sax’s conclusions about video gaming make interesting reading as do his conclusions about education. He suggests that in America the school state system, in particular, is failing to accommodate the needs of male pupils both physically and mentally.  As the mother of 3 boys aged 9, 12 and 18 I can see direct comparisons with state education here in the UK and the increasing underachievement of our young males. It’s my belief, and has been for many years, that young boys are floundering in our political correct schooling system which favours non-competitive sports and teaching methods and exams which inadvertently discriminate against males.

I would suggest that in the UK there are not just problems with teaching methods but, very possibly, a problem with the curriculum. The English literature syllabus is antiquated beyond belief and when new themes are introduced they have little point of reference to young males who spend their spare time playing the Xbox. My eldest son, by any measure, an intelligent, well-read and literate young man got a D for his English literature; his lowest grade at GCSE. I was, frankly, appalled. How much of it was too much time spent on his Xbox I cannot say,  but when he said “sticking me a class with a bunch of losers to study Caribbean poetry wasn’t going to work” I could at least go some way to understanding his feelings.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of studying the classics but my belief is young males need a curriculum and schooling which has more relevance to them.  Year after year we expect our children to read classics which now have little or no bearing on young lives. They are too far distant. Seriously, does anyone believe Pride and Prejudice is of any interest to your average 15 year old boy who might spend several hours gaming every night? Wouldn’t we be better of trying to inspire and educate our young men with contemporary texts?  Why must the educational foundation of GCSEs start with the past and not the present? Surely we need our young men to engage with literature if we are to halt the decline in literacy skills?

Last year The View From Here conducted an experiment in conjunction with Random House and Clarks retailers. We put 50 copies of Fighting Reuben Wolfe by Markus Zusak, a novel aimed at young adults, but which we thought would also engage older males, in Clarks in Luton. We placed an insert in the book asking readers to keep the copy and requesting feedback. Clarks reported that many men sat and read the novel and after one month 30 of the 50 copies had disappeared. But, disappointingly, no one responded to our request for feedback.

I’m inclined to think that the lack of response is not a reflection on the book, as people are often more vocal on their dislikes than their likes. However, it is curious that no one made the effort to respond. Did they take the book because it was free without any intention of finishing it? Without any answers there’s too much room for conjecture but I am now wondering whether there are simply too many distractions in life and that the appeal of other forms of entertainment is too strong. Perhaps books are simply the last in a long queue. After all, it’s probably easier for an older man to flop down in front of the telly after a hard day’s work or more exciting for a young man to enter a virtual world. Maybe those men who walked away with Fighting Reuben Wolfe only read it in the shop because it was a quiet environment where the only other activity was watching their partners parade shoes.

There are a huge amount of questions to be asked about why literacy and reading in young males is declining. Video gaming, the advent of the internet and changes in education are perhaps the most visible culprits but there is so much more to be considered; the breakdown of families and male role models, declining law and order, general wealth and the culture of entitlement, drugs…the list goes on and on.

It’s easy to make jokes about the gender divide in reading and get drawn into superficial gender based arguments. But seriously, we now need do all that we can to ensure our young men, and indeed our young women, are as best equipped as they can be for the challenges that lie ahead in this ever-changing world. What we do know is is that literacy and education go hand-in-hand with progressive and prosperous societies. They are the cornerstones of democracy. We really need to act to stop this decline in literacy standards and we need to act fast. I really don’t want the world to be a place where you’re embarrassed to be seen with a book, where reading is driven underground in favour of video games, films and obtuse text messaging.

There’s a campaign afoot in London to have Wi-Fi installed on the tube by 2012. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I rather like that peculiarly British habit of staring into space or, quite simply, reading a newspaper or book. Maybe we need more quiet spaces like Clarks in Luton. Who knows?  All I can say is sometimes silence is golden.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Dance? Not Likely.

I like dancing, and most women I know enjoy a quick turn around their handbags. Men are a bit different though - especially after some alcohol. And teenage boys? Unless they come from a culture of dancing generally they hate it with a vengeance.

I know my boys dislike dancing at school and I have to admit that beyond the age of about nine I don't see much point of it either. My boys' dislike of dancing seems to be a concept which, rightly or wrongly, they seem to have picked up from me. I know this from the following conversation...

Tuesday Morning;

Master Jacob: Do I have to go to school today?

Mrs T: Yes... Why don't you want to go to school?

Master Jacob. It's dancing. I hate dancing.

Mrs T: Oh (sympathetic smile) I'm afraid though, Master Jacob, you still have to go to school.

Master Jacob; ( Emits long tortured groan)

Several hours later on the way to tennis with Master Jacob and Master Ben

Master Jacob: Our dance teacher got really angry today

Mrs T: Why's that?

Master Jacob: She said we weren't trying hard enough. Then she got so mad she shouted "What would your parents say if I rang them up and said you weren't trying?" So I said "My Mum said would say "It's bollocks." "

Mrs T; Oh cripes. Did she hear you?

Master Jacob: No, but my friend did and he said "Would your mum really say that?" and I said "Yes - and that's not all she would say."

Mrs T: (Contemplating her bad influence) What type of dancing were you doing? Running around twirling  by any chance?

Master Jacob:  Yep, pretty much. It's called Running Free Dance.

Mrs T ( Contemplating her influence again.) Soooo...not break dancing or anything like that then?

Master Jacob: No. We might doing something like that next week.

Master Ben: So you're going to grab your balls and go "Oooh, Oooh, Oooh", Like Michael Jackson?

(Subsequent numerous impressions of Michael Jackson from Master Ben. This is very difficult when strapped in a car with your seat belt but let me tell you he makes a darn good attempt.)

So anyway cue another rant..

Master Jacob is thirteen, five foot ten and an athlete. Now I know some of his contemporaries aren't so sporty but NONE of them want to dance. Now dancing may be relevant in some suburban areas where breaking dancing and such like might be a cultural thing etc etc (and I am in favour of exposing children to cultural forms of art and exercise) but (and it's a BIG but) for the main-part most teenage boys would rather take a gun and blow their brains out instead of dancing. They need to be engaged if they're to be productive. And what the hell is wrong with rugby, football, cricket, cross country running, basketball etc?All I ever hear about at school is dance, dance, dance. Master Ben is currently "Dancing" too. Look, if the girls want to play at being Pan's People let them. Personally, I just wish the education authorities and teachers would stop trying to feminise our schools. Boys should be boys. Let them play with their balls.

Rant over. And yes Master Jacob is right I would have said "Bollocks." And a whole lot more.

Ps Apologies to anyone I've offended. I'm in an anti-establishment mood at the moment. Call me Mrs Awkward.