Weekly Briefing

Nigeria: lead poisoning
In Zamfara State, northern Nigeria, lead poisoning has killed hundreds this year and affected thousands more. The unlikely explanation? "Backyard gold-digging", according to the UN Environment Programme.

The government recently employed a Chinese company to mine the remote region's gold. But impoverished residents, many working for local barons, have also been attempting to extract gold residues from the lead-contaminated soil around their homes, causing pollutants to leach into drinking water. The UN team was more concerned about the soil itself. In some villages, the lead concentration is 250 times higher than the US legal limit for residential areas.

The full UN report is due this month; in the meantime, Médecins Sans Frontières and other organisations are attempting to help clean up. It's not much of a birthday present for Nigeria as the country marks 50 years of independence.

Ecuador: wage crisis
“The people who shot at the president's car, and fired on the people in the streets, are still free, so the crisis is not over," Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, told journalists. The state of emergency imposed by the government after a police rebellion on 30 September had just been extended to 8 October.

Protests over police bonus cuts turned violent - ten people were killed - and led to occupation of the country's airport, events President Rafael Correa identified as a coup. His government's response? Somewhat surprisingly, a pay rise for various ranks within the police and the military.
However, the country's defence minister, Javier Ponce, insists that the increases are unrelated to the unrest - and, in addition, that they are long overdue. Apparently, officers have been waiting for a pay rise since 2008.

US: climate change
The latest round of UN climate talks, which opened on 4 October in Tianjin, northern China, will be the last before the end-of-year summit in Cancún, Mexico. But some campaigners are focusing on the main event already.

On 5 October, Hillary Clinton received a letter, signed by five US lawmakers, calling for "the establishment of an equitable, effective and accountable global climate fund" at Cancún to help developing countries cope with climate change.

Given that 93 lawmakers signed another letter urging action on China's currency exchange rate, support was not overwhelming. But at least a (gas-guzzling, free-marketeering) national stereotype got a bit of a shake.

Iran: flight into Egypt
“Egypt and Iran are the lungs of the Middle East," Shahbaz Yazdani, an Iranian cultural official, told Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. "The two can't breathe without each other."

After 30 years, Tehran and Cairo, the region's two biggest cities, are to restart direct flights. Given Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and Egyptian links to both Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon's Saad Hariri, full diplomatic ties are out of the question for now. But, with an agreement providing for 28 flights a week, it seems ties of a more practical kind will resume shortly.

Uganda: gone bananas
Not many places have a National Banana Research Programme, but in Uganda, bananas are a vital crop. GM fruits resistant to BXW, a disease that costs Great Lakes farmers $500m a year, are now on trial. And bananas developed to help Ugandans resist disease and malnutrition are also on their way.

North of Kampala, bananas enhanced with genes from plants rich in iron and Vitamin A - many Ugandans are deficient in this - are now growing. Similar trials in Australia have produced ultra-nutritious fruit. In Uganda, GM bananas could be an affordable - and tasty - solution to much child and maternal mortality.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State