A stethoscope. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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My keyboard is held together by Sellotape. And what’s that strange buzzing in my groin?

Failing hardware and Withnail occupy Nicholas Lezard.

It’s a weird period, the week between Boxing Day and New Year. It’s as if the whole country is wandering around in its pyjamas, muttering to itself. I hunker down in the Hovel behind a barricade of wine bottles; it seems like the wisest course of action.

Company eventually comes in the form of the daughter, who likes to use the Hovel as a launchpad for her return to university. She finds it a convivial place and seems to enjoy my ideas of how to entertain ourselves in the evening. (Though she loves her brothers, they are not given to conversation once settled in front of their screens.) So the first part of Monday evening is spent eating pizza and watching Withnail and I. Normally I am strict about the matter of talking when a film is on but we’ve seen Withnail so many times between us that occasionally we feel moved to comment when we have something we think is interesting to say about it.

There are, I gather, people who not only do not like this film particularly but think that it is a bit odd to have watched it around 50 times. (This is a conservative estimate.) To which I can only reply: would you put a limit on the number of times you would listen to a favourite piece of music? Moreover, although the film may have, to us, reached the condition of music, there are plenty of times in life when it seems directly relevant.

One of them, which I keep quiet about, occurs early when Marwood (this is the name of the “I” character), after a 60-hour speed binge, says: “My thumbs have gone weird.” I have not been on such a binge myself and neither have my thumbs gone weird; but my groin has. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if someone has left a very tiny mobile phone in the front of my undercrackers and left it on “vibrate” mode, set to go off every three seconds or so.

It is the kind of thing one hesitates to go to the doctor about. Not only is it painless, it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it is not normal; I certainly haven’t read about this in the user’s manual. I am, at the moment, due to illness in the family (and terminal illness at that), becoming rather sensitised to the shocks that flesh is heir to and I wonder if this is the start of something nasty. Then again, the toes on my left foot have been ever so slightly numb for about ten years now. That hasn’t got any better but it hasn’t got any worse.

I suppose I am at the age when the downhill progress starts accelerating. I can see this happening right now on the machine I am using to write this piece. A Lenovo PC of some venerability, it is sort of held together by Sellotape and the keyboard makes a funny, squeaking noise as I type. The built-in mouse has ceased to function, as has the fingerprint reader (a rather snazzy feature that impressed my children when this computer was a new arrival). Somehow I managed to dig out an external mouse from the crap on my desk; only now the cursor seems to skip about after a few hours of use and I will suddenly look to the screen – I’ve never learned to touch-type – and see that I’ve inserted several sentences into the first paragraph, where they do not belong.

Which is all rather tiresome but not unliveable with. After all, the alternative – to get something done about these things, rather than simply to put up with them – does not appeal. One would involve a doctor either putting his or her hand down my pants or telling me to stop wasting his or her time; and the other would involve either buying a new laptop, which is financially beyond me, or replacing the keyboard again. Having had both a new keyboard and a new screen, my laptop now resembles grandfather’s axe, or Theseus’s ship, thus raising the philosophical problem of whether something whose component parts have all been replaced can still be said to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, buzz, buzz goes the groin again, as if a miniaturised submarine full of tiny doctors (including, wondrously, a microscopic Raquel Welch) had got jammed somewhere below the pubic bone. Everything else down there, I hasten to add, is in fine working order. Certainly finer than I might expect of someone of my age and lifestyle. So one does not want to go to the doctor in case one is told that one of the body’s key components needs replacing. Or that one needs an external mouse. Actually, that’s a line of speculation I’m going to close off right now. 

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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.