An Open Letter To HRH The Duchess Of Cambridge

Women are devoting increasing amounts of time to their "birth day" appearance. Please don't give in to the trend, ma'am.

Ma’am,

We have tried here, at the New Statesman, to afford you a certain amount of privacy as you incubate a future monarch. Not all news outlets have been so circumspect. There has been adulatory speculation about how the million-pound nursery at Apartment 1A, Kensington Palace might be furnished. We’ve seen reports about the Royal birthing playlist, featuring rather less whalesong than one might imagine, and a good deal more Bruno Mars, Calvin Harris and Of Monsters and Men.

The advent of a new Royal has even been used as the hook for stories about a growing trend for a delivery room beauty régime. How new mothers, who might reasonably be expected to be preoccupied with the non-trivial business of pushing an entire human being out of their bodies, are now devoting an increasing amount of time to their "birth day" appearance. Apparently this is so that pictures of the new baby in its mothers’ arms are fit for posterity.

I am dead, dead, against this. For a number of reasons.

1. I think we as a society should learn to accept that what women really look like is actual women. Not creatures who have created a tabula rasa on the front of their heads with foundation and then sketched an idealised portrait of the popular actress Megan Fox on it using makeup. I don’t want to oppress anyone. If someone wants to do that for fun, once in a while, perhaps on a night out, that’s fine by me. But making it the daily standard sounds like a bit of a faff. Asking people to do that when they’re already doing the least relaxing things any human being can conceivably do seems, at the very best, to be an unrealistic expectation.

2. Childbirth is a stressful and, still in the twenty-first century, often dangerous process. If there’s time available for eyebrow reshaping or artful photographic lighting, that is time that could be used into doing things that make the new Mother safer, more comfortable, and less likely to blow a mental gasket. I have never given birth. Nor, unless there are some substantial scientific discoveries in the next few decades, am I likely to. But I’ve seen it done. It looks difficult, painful and a touch frightening. The happiest births are ones with the minimum personnel in the room. Mum, obviously. Dad, ideally. Baby, eventually. It’s nice to have a Midwife or other experienced professional on hand just in case things turn a bit tricky. I would contend that adding Gok Wan to the mix for some labour-day beauty tips is exactly the kind of over manning that crippled Britain’s industrial base and not at all the best working practice for childbirth.

3. All men know that, no matter what kind of person their wife or partner was before the birth, they will suddenly morph into some kind of all-knowing parenting sage as soon as the placenta hits the tiles. While men and women are roughly equal in terms of knowledge and usefulness, Mums are ineffably wiser than Dads when it comes to child-rearing. As a Dad myself, I find that more than a bit annoying. That last picture of the woman we love, in extremis, at her lowest ebb, slicked with sweat and other miscellaneous unnameable fluids, is all fathers have to cling to as our status and influence ebbs away and we become that hapless Dad in every TV advert ever.

If the Duchess Of Cambridge were to give in to this regrettable trend, we’d know about it soon enough. And what the Royals do today, despite our pretensions to a meritocratic society, the rest of us will be doing tomorrow. Or, in the next nine months at least.

We’ve seen inflation of expectation in all sorts of areas; weddings, school proms, baby showers. Life events that we used to celebrate on a shoestring until a celebrity started the ball rolling in the direction of unsustainable expense.

Photos of a perfectly-groomed new mother on the front page of every newspaper will just lead to more unrealistic expectation. Expectation which will inevitably lead to shattered self-esteem for new parents across the realm.

Your Royal Highness, if you’re reading this — and I accept that you may be a trifle too busy at the moment — please don’t look your best today.

Yours,

Michael

Don't saddle us with unrealistic expectations. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

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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.

***

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.