Rung choice: a workman up a ladder paints traffic lights in 1933. Photo: Getty
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I know it’s silly but I am superstitious: I’m trapped in the Hovel by a ladder in the doorway

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard. 

I have to go out but as I open the front door I see a ladder propped up bang in front of me. Like many rationalists who revere science and the rule of reason, I am deeply superstitious, all the more so for knowing that it is very silly. It is the very silliness that exercises its grip on me.

Anyway, there it is. It’s bad luck to walk under a ladder and now I am paralysed by wondering if opening a door to find yourself already under a ladder can be said to constitute walking under it; and then by trying to work out whether I am slightly to the left or right of its centre, so that if I sidle out in that direction, I can claim that I have not, strictly speaking, contravened the injunction by not having passed through its vertical axis.

All this is very annoying, as I am cutting it a bit fine for the thing I have to go to and do not have time to go back in, have a cup of tea and hope that the workmen painting the bit above the front door will have finished and gone away by the next time I try to leave.

I muse a lot on fortune, though. Long-term readers of this column with unusually retentive memories may recall that I used to invoke The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, in which he remarked, while in prison after falling spectacularly out of favour with Theodoric the Great, that life’s all ups and downs, innit, although he put it rather more elegantly than that. We are all at the mercy of fortune’s wheel, he said: consul one moment, awaiting execution and sharing your bread with rats the next.

Because of my great good fortune of having been born in an affluent country at an epoch in history in which there are anaesthetics and medications that relieve asthma (once, gasping without an inhaler in the middle of a spidery house in the middle of nowhere in France, I found an old medical textbook that confidently asserted that asthma attacks were “never fatal”; had I been born even a century earlier, nothing on the broader scale of time, I would have been killed by medical ignorance), there is a certain resistance to the downward motion of the wheel. If you’re born to a poor family in most parts of the globe (and, increasingly, this one), then your lowly position on the wheel isn’t going to change very much.

So I’m not grumbling. But there is a certain contingency to all lives and somehow it has to be acknowledged. I once thanked Providence that I had met a certain person; she said that this sounded a little bit like thanking God. Maybe it is but I tried to wriggle out of this one by saying that it is a neutral way of not taking things for granted and Providence is nothing more than a shorthand for “what has happened” or “the way things have turned out” – although, yes, I did capitalise the word in my head, just in case Providence turns out, despite the lack of unambiguous evidence, to be a matter of the Abrahamic God, or the Fates, or some Nordic crones with a thing for spinning wheels, who have a stake or an agency in what goes on. I like to cover my bets, for the precise reason that one never knows what might happen.

Meanwhile, I know that very bad things indeed can happen, even if you have been born to become an adult in 21st-century Britain. It may not feel like that at the moment, when the worst here merely looks like the rise of Nigel Farage or any of the other clowns who constitute the political scene, but there are terrible things out there – the imagination can become a fire hose spewing out nightmares if you let it run away with itself and even if touching wood and thanking Providence are obviously futile gestures that will have no bearing on anything, they at least represent, like the coin in the chugger’s bucket, a token of consideration, the homage made to the sense that one ought to do something, however small, however feeble the gesture. And I am still aware, as indeed are the National Westminster Bank and all my other creditors, that I am too near the precipice to be able to walk with a carefree swagger through life.

Anyway, after a while, I decide to sidle round the doorway as far to the right as possible, the people in the shop next door thinking that I, always clearly on the brink of madness, have finally sailed off the edge. Breathing a sigh of relief at having outwitted the Norns, or whoever, I get run over by a No 13 bus on Gloucester Place. All right, I don’t actually but it could have happened

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 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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.