You need to start asking questions when a quiet, empty house is your idea of heaven

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

I lift the duvet and sink my aching limbs into clean, crisp white sheets. Around me, everything is quiet. Not the kind of quiet that you get in our house, which is laden with the knowledge that within two hours it will definitely be shattered by baffling, implacable screams of red-faced outrage. This is real quiet. It’s-going-to-stayquiet quiet.

Aaaaaaah. I close my eyes and think about floating naked in a tropical whirlpool, clutching some kind of delicious cocktail. Am I in heaven? No. I’m at my friend Hannah’s house. But it might as well be heaven. Everything in Hannah’s house is clean. Everything is white. Everything is in the right place. Most importantly, I don’t have to deal with any of it. It is not my responsibility.

I am here on Dr Ibrahim’s orders, because if I don’t get some sleep soon I will pose a danger to myself and others. She has instructed me to leave the baby with Curly while I go and spend the night elsewhere. Hannah, one of my dearest and oldest friends, not only offered her spare room but also threw in a Chinese takeaway for dinner. She is by nature a person who restores order to a disordered world.

It is a measure of how desperate Curly is for me to be sane again that he happily agreed to this arrangement. In fact, he packed my bag for me and practically booted me out of the house. “Why don’t you stay for two nights, hon?”

The way things have been going recently, he would probably be pretty chuffed if I never came back.

I open one eye. On the floor by my bed is a pair of white, fluffy slippers. They are not mine. They are Hannah’s “guest slippers”. I’d never heard of guest slippers before, but I love them so much, it brings a tear to my eye. I don’t even want to wear them. Just knowing they are there, that someone has gone out of their way to bring about my happiness and comfort, makes me feel as warm and fluffy as they are.

Why don’t I have guest slippers? We aren’t exactly overwhelmed with guests in the slightly-too-small flat, which is just as well, because the only place for a visitor to sleep would be on the floor underneath the dining table, surrounded by Lego.

But the question is more profound than that. Hannah and I grew up together. We have similar backgrounds. We even have similar jobs. How have our lives turned out so differently in this, it suddenly seems to me, quite fundamental respect? Is it just happenstance? Or is there a part of me, deep down inside, that doesn’t actually want guest slippers?

Although half of my psyche longs for a calm, adult respectability, is there another, devilish part of me that delights in uncertainty and chaos?

I feel tantalisingly close to some kind of epiphany, but before it arrives a huge, white wave of sleep sweeps over me. I dive gratefully into its heart, and let it bear me away to a distant, longed-for shore.

A good night's sleep is what the doctor ordered. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Photo: Getty
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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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