Could the Stig go Green?

Signing up Johnny Ball to talk on nuclear power is like the fur industry getting Beatrix Potter on-s

It wasn’t quite ‘within days’ of my last blog, but we have now received the government’s official confirmation that they are planning for a new wave of nuclear power stations to be built across the UK.

The announcement was made by John Hutton on Thursday, but not before we heard from the government’s own Nuclear Consultation Working Group that the second public consultation process had failed hopelessly to make up for the deficiencies of the first. This was drily underlined by Jonathan Dimbleby who called a straw poll on Friday’s Any Questions and couldn’t find a single person in the audience who felt they had been involved in a meaningful debate on the issue.

I won’t go into all the many arguments against this decision here, since Green MEP Caroline Lucas has done such a sterling job elsewhere on this very website. Enough to say that, given the likelihood of another legal challenge to the decision-making process, I’m not too downhearted but that it has made for an eventful week.

As soon as the announcement was made, public debate did at last spring up in all media outlets, so every Green and LibDem spokesperson (and a couple of Tory and Labour dissidents) were called out to argue against the madness.

I wrote a joint letter with two of my fellow candidates for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick, which was published in the Evening Standard. In what the Guardian called ‘a rare show of near-unanimity’, we condemned the decision and said: “We believe that we can meet our city’s energy needs through becoming much more efficient with our energy use, local energy generation and exploiting our renewable resources.”

Indeed we can and, with trains carrying highly dangerous nuclear fuel already passing through central London, we will also have to bear a large share of the risks of this policy. Boris Johnson refused to sign the letter, showing a worrying rejection of the interests of Londoners in favour of party discipline.

The debate I enjoyed most this week was rather unexpected. I really wasn’t looking forward going on Talksport radio on Thursday night, especially when I found hummer-driving James Whale would be in the chair and that I’d be arguing against Johnny Ball.

I have been almost in mourning since I first saw him acting as a roving spokesperson for the nuclear industry a year or so ago. Mr Ball and his seminal 1980s science programmes were directly responsible for my chemistry set and therefore indirectly responsible for my choice to study science at university – something I’ll be eternally glad I did. But, to my surprise, our exchange ended up very good natured, fact-filled and even interesting, and that’s despite an outbreak of nonsensical climate denial breaking out towards the end.

It is, I have to admit, a stroke of PR genius for the nuclear industry to have signed up Johnny Ball. If anyone’s image says ‘friendly, trusted scientist’ to my generation (who are statistically most opposed to nuclear power) then it’s him. And he must be having an impact; it’s like the Fur Council signing up Beatrix Potter as an advocate or, indeed, like an investment bank taking on a Labour Prime Minister. It’s about time the forces of good stole this tactic and gathered a few unlikely allies of our own. Perhaps the Stig should expect a call?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage