Scorsese: doesn't rhyme with "foresees". Photo: Getty
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“Don’t say anything nasty,” my son pleads, as we head for a university open day

A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to another university, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him.

To Manchester, with the eldest boy, for the open day at the university. Such English roots as I have are from the west of the Pennines; for that reason, I had asked his mother to take him to Leeds for its open day. Besides, that was where she had gone, so she was better placed to make comments along the lines of: “This used to be really nice,” “There used to be a great pub here but I see they’ve pulled it down,” “I was sick here once,” and so on.

My memories of Manchester were patchy and dim. The last time I had been there was years and years ago, taking a train up with Mr Self so that we could drop in on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 programme, on which Will had a slot talking about books. “Welcome to Manchester,” I muttered, as we left the station. “Twinned with Mordor.” For it was dark and drizzly and cold and we were at the end of our tethers: the man sitting next to us had spent two hours swearing at an Action Man-sized doll of Michael Schumacher; indeed, he’d encouraged us to join in. (This sounds unlikely but is quite true; Will gave me a “Sorry, this kind of thing always happens to me” look.)

Manchester was much nicer this time round. For one thing it was, if not exactly sunny, at least unseasonably warm and we’d had a quiet journey up, without anyone abusing homunculi in the shape of German Formula One racing drivers. But because of a misreading of the rudimentary map handed out by the university, we walked the wrong way down Fairfield Street for a few minutes and it didn’t take us long before we were in one of those urban landscapes that seem beyond redemption. I hate making stupid, basic mistakes like this – I hate it only a little bit less when a child of mine reads the map on his phone better than I read my paper one – so we turned back, almost running into, as we did so, a couple of bedraggled, near-toothless women in conversation. Something about their attire seemed wrong and as we passed them I realised, from the embonpoint of the one and the short skirt/boots combo of the other, as well as the lipstick that served only to bring the barrenness of their surrounding features into sharp relief, that these were prostitutes. It was about noon.

I didn’t fancy explaining to the boy, should he have asked, what these ancient women were doing got up like that and, while he has spent much of his young life playing the Grand Theft Auto games, in which I gather prostitutes feature more than they do in real life, I doubt any of them look like that. But everyone was civil, the encounter passed without incident and we proceeded along to the campus.

The boy had anxieties of his own, I knew that. A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to — University, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him; the boy wanted no repetition of anything like that. But he wants to study and make films and I was quietly confident that no film-maker was ever going to – to give a comparable solecism – pronounce Scorsese as if it rhymed with “foresees”.

“Also,” said the boy, “don’t say anything nasty about Manchester.”

As if – even if the author of a horrible letter about me last week, in this very magazine, came from the city. I pointed out the grandiosity and permanence of the Victorian civic architecture, although, for instance, the Fire Station on Whitworth Street had long since been separated from its original purpose. Both of us marvelled at the way that it had black cabs and I said that Manchester had produced an inordinate number of great bands and that if the boy did not form or play in one for at least a couple of weeks while
he was here, I’d disown him.

Later, after I had had a pleasant nap in the lecture theatre while the relevant prof introduced us to the outlines of the film course, we sat eating our lunch on the campus green.

The boy, who was still discombobulated to think that you could have black taxis and double-decker buses and yet be in a city that was not London, reflected that he had hardly been to any other city in Britain; whenever he left London, it was either to go abroad or to go to the country.

This struck me as a very true and useful observation and one that should make Londoners a little bit abashed and a little less cocky.

“Leeds was really nice, though,” he added. To which I had nothing to say at all. 

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 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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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