Hitting myself with a rat

From infectious hotels to her favourite power tools - Scottish writer and comedian AL Kennedy's bril

Since winning the Costa Prize for my last novel, Day (which I’m assuming was a nice thing) my life has turned into shrapnel and I spend most of my days replying to emails from strangers who want something, slinging huge amounts of snailmail into the recycling bin and running up and down my nearest high street in flight from more of the same.

The only thing working efficiently is my paper shredder. Faced with a choice of researching a novel, adding to a collection of short stories, or hitting wheezy scripts with a stick until they squeak, I have only managed to buy a box set of James Mason DVD’s and make a few quarts of cullen skink.

All my activities are of the displacement variety. Having adjusted to being in my own flat for more than seven days in a row, I have cleaned the house to within an inch of its mortar and it now looks enough like a hotel for me to feel at home. (The room service is, of course, terrible but this is balanced by the presence of many ornaments and items of clothing that I seem to recognise from long ago and far away.) I have also been able to catch up with friends. Two of them have developed a whole extra child of considerable size since I saw them last – a healthy, square-headed chap - my current schedule means he’ll be going through his second divorce before I see him again.

But I am in work – quite possibly more work than I can do. And numbers of the courteous public continue to attend readings. So I can have that kind of fun.

My plan for this week was actually to get all caffeined-up and fly at a new story, having recovered from a) the coldest and smallest hotel room in London – I was, very literally, huddled up and yet this provided no warmth at all - followed swiftly by b) a tangibly infectious hotel in Wolverhampton with a bathroom like a mad fishmonger’s storage area and c) another London hotel erected between two bypasses and equipped with clog-dancing and mysteriously rapping neighbours and a number of electrical devices which proved to be entirely beyond me, tired and tearful as I was.

Technology and I have compatibility issues – my computers toy with me, mangle files, crash whenever they can and force me to wander the globe laden with memory sticks and paper copies of anything that might conceivably become important. Meanwhile, I travel in constant fear that Something Vital will arrive for me on my mobile phone (which loses messages) or by email (almost entirely inaccessible while on the road) and I will miss that key opportunity to discuss my favourite power tools on Radio Five, or hit myself with a rat for six weeks while a Swedish man films it for an art installation. These things being rumoured to aid sales. Sadly, six nights with no sleep at all and a number of train journeys spent typing furiously to avoid contemplating how little time I have to type furiously left me with no more than a deep desire to lapse into unconsciousness for – say – a year and a half.

Next week involves three comedy gigs in Scotland (cue much pacing up and down my living room carpet while talking to people who aren’t there) followed by another dash South of the Border to present an hour of comedy about writing to an assembly of students at Warwick. Then it’s back to Glasgow for more of the same. Dear Godhelpus.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.