There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up)

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up) A friend tells me he has been unable to sleep in this hot weather. Another friend tells me the same thing. Then I read in a paper that there is widespread sleeplessness going on. A nation tosses and turns under its low-tog duvets, counting sheep to no avail.
 
I know the misery of insomnia, especially in hot weather: until the age of 15, once the temperature rose above a certain point at night, I found it impossible to sleep. I experienced every second of every warm summer night from 1969 to 1978 awake. The earliest summers were the worst. My parents had invested in the soundtrack LP of the musical Hair – rather against the grain of their characters and tastes, it must be said – and every time they had people round, they would put this on when they thought I had gone to sleep and I would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how many more times I could listen to “The Age of Aquarius” without going mad. (Actually, I rather liked the song but it is funnier to say it drove me crazy.)
 
The sleepless nights stopped in 1978 when I discovered alcohol. Or, to put it more accurately, when I discovered the poise and bearing that would, despite my lack of stature (and though I was only 15), somehow reassure bar staff into thinking I was three years older. Ever since then I have self-medicated, slept the sleep of the just, whatever the weather. I also like the hot weather, as I am a child of the sun; my forebears came from warmer climes. The Beloved, on the other hand, is pure English and, like Manny, the character played by Bill Bailey in the sitcom Black Books, succumbs to Dave syndrome once the temperature hits 88°F. (You don’t want to know.)
 
So I’m tucking myself in the other night, my ticket for the land of nod presented and stamped, when a burglar alarm goes off over the road. It is a loud burglar alarm, pitched high and designed by experts to be distressingly audible for about half a mile around. Thanks to the inverse-square law, from where I am, it sounds bloody loud.
 
I try shutting the window but this shuts off the breeze and I look at the Beloved’s sleeping form and wonder whether this will make her succumb to Dave syndrome in the middle of the night. (You really don’t want to know.) I think of Martin Amis’s example of the typically rubbish opening you get in entries to short-story competitions: “The heat was stiffling [sic].”
 
Feeling that it is better to be deafened than stiffled, I open the window again and assess the situation. It is not wholly devoid of interest, for the alarm has gone off in a building I have not noticed before. How I can have failed to notice an entire building a stone’s feeble throw from my window when I have been living here for six years is a puzzle.
 
The alarm seems to be the manifestation of the anxieties of a very anonymous office building, whose style suggests the mid-tolate 1960s, around the time Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. It is utterly characterless: square, fronted by frosted glass. I must have passed it a thousand times and I never knew it was there until now.
 
On either side, the street is 1850 vintage, so this cuckoo’s existence suggests that the Luftwaffe gouged it out during the war. To pass the time, I look up bombsight.org – the extraordinary site that tells you how many bombs fell where during the Blitz – but we can’t blame the Hun for this one, it turns out; we can blame a council or a firm of architects.
 
And the noise goes on. I wonder what it is that the alarm is protecting. Even if the offices within are in use during the day, who would be interested in carting off a photocopier and a few bulky computers? What else could be there? State secrets? If so, the place would be crawling with Men in Black; however, the guardians of our safety are maintaining a stout indifference.
 
There is no sign of forced or unforced entry. The offices are dark and empty, a non-place. It is as if the alarm went off in response to the office’s inner crisis, a sudden existential awareness of its lack of importance within a vast and uncaring universe. The alarm is simply saying: “I’m here! I’m here!”
 
Several hours later, it stops. I think there is a difference between the insomnia that one suffers on a quiet night and that which one suffers when there’s a racket going on. The dawn is breaking. I check that the room temperature is below 88°F, hum a few bars of “Aquarius” and finally drift off. 
A man sleeps with a newspaper over his face. Photo: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.