Train on fire

The attitude on arriving late at Latitude and the perils of reading AL Kennedy. Scotland's foremost

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this – the most stylish possible way to arrive at a summer festival is on board a burning train. So my trip to Latitude was pretty much perfect. As the smoke billowed, we were detained at Berwick for more than an hour. This was “…due to the driver carrying out safety checks.” As matters progressed, we learned that a) train announcements will always avoid mentioning “Fire !” and “Brakes !” even if – or perhaps especially if - the train is on fire in exactly that rather important brake area and b) that trains with hot wheels trigger a hitherto unguessed-at system of restraints which then hold them for random intervals, no matter where they go.

Still, no one was hurt - or even alarmed – many of us enjoyed bonding and grumbling, and my reading was cancelled for the coolest reason ever “A.L.Kennedy cannot be with us tonight – her train caught fire.”

And Latitude – once I got there – proved infinitely more enjoyable than I had imagined four days in a big park with increasingly unwashed strangers might prove to be. Given that I had imagined it would make me beg for death by lupus, I’ll clarify – audiences were friendly, the reading was rescheduled, deck chairs were free, the pies were fantastic, the events imaginative and Robin Ince’s Bookclub was entirely magnificent - you can only imagine my delight at being on the same variety bill as a man who puts forks up his nose and a lady who tap dances while eating swiss roll. Just excellent, lovely people.

I’m used to communal events involving blockades, policemen and occasional rumpusses, so it took me a while to relax and savour the sight of adults just wearing whatever the hell they wanted and/or possibly pretending to be someone else, while almost all the toddlers present generated a massive, wobbly-indie-dancing sub-culture with a rudimentary monarchy.

Sadly, I was unable to successfully propagate the rumour that an elderly man had been dragged into the lake by swimming tapirs, or to persuade the entire audience for Blondie to yell in unison, “You’re not bad for your age!” in an appreciative manner.

Happily, I may well take a tip from Debbie Harry and bind my upper arms tightly from now on - perhaps using lengths of drainpipe - instantly firming an area that slumps so troublingly in the maturer lady. Oh, and according to a festival Tarot reader, I’m quiet, although I sometimes talk a lot, I’ve been working hard, or I’m about to, and love will find me in October. Yeah. Right.

Meanwhile, it has come to my attention that some of you, having found these blogs sometimes give the impression that I am an amusing writer, have been considering buying my books. Now, while my volumes are occasionally funny – particularly if you are, may I respectfully suggest, slightly twisted or the tiniest bit unwell - I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them if you’re – say – vulnerable, unless you want to have perhaps a slightly bruisng giggle.

So maybe flick through one in a bookshop as a tester. Or, better yet – given that a recognisable continuum from stern to pliant is suggesting itself here - wait until you see another, compatibly dominant or submissive reader browsing nearby, then hook up and give each other the thumping good read you deserve. Not that I wish to intrude. Your reading pleasure is my only aim.

Next stop, the Edinburgh Fringe, The Stand and a month of comedy – so there’s a show to polish, iron tablets to take, black shirts to count and soon August will be shining up ahead like a glorious, burning train.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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