A mouse (not the one from the author's kitchen). Picture: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1899
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Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know

I saw the recycling bag shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight and started to reflect on animal cruelty.

I go into the kitchen one evening. Mousey is there: ambling across from the chopping board to where the teapot is.

“Please, Mousey,” I say, “give me a break.” It is late, and I am tired, so tired. Tired of being alone, of being a failure, of being tired. Recently some moron called me a “patronising git” and a “wealthy media lefty” for the column I wrote here in which I said I was very sad that the Tories were knocking down Shepherd’s Bush council housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. There are few things more tiring, in terms of the fruitless exasperation it causes, than being insulted by a moron. (The “wealthy” was especially fatuous.)

Mousey’s normal routine, when I come into the kitchen and he is having a snack, or a stroll, is to turn and scurry away as fast as his little paws can move him, which is pretty damned fast. But this time he doesn’t bother. He just stays there and looks at me for a bit, and then carries on, slightly slower than before, as if in mockery, pausing to sniff at the tea caddy (perhaps his way of saying, “Any danger of a cup of tea next time?”) before he disappears behind the cupboard next to the fridge.

Enough is enough. I have always, since I first read it, been impressed by Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s address to the fly that had been tormenting him all through dinner: “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head . . .—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” I did once hurt Mousey, very badly, when I found him gorging himself, oblivious, in an ecstasy of gluttony, inside a bag containing what earlier that evening had been a sliced loaf of bread, now reduced entirely to crumbs, and I had twisted the top of it shut and brought my heel down on it very hard and quickly. When I wrote about that, someone on Twitter said I was inhuman, but that person had not seen the bag, shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight, from which I had been hoping to extract a slice for a snack.

My murderous impulses were not there this evening. I was too tired. Also, it is nice when an animal does not flee or attack a human being. And Mousey had not, this time, come to ravish my dinner.

Still, there is the question of infestation. That runs up against some deep-rooted human feelings. We may like cats because they do not flee or attack when we come near (for the most part), but the reason we liked them in the first place was that they killed the mice and rats in our barns, and scared the bejesus out of the ones that escaped. I cannot have a cat here, which is one of the reasons I am going mad, but I had heard that Mousey cannot abide the smell of peppermint oil – and that only costs a fiver from Holland & Barrett and, unlike with a cat, you don’t have to arrange for the oil to be fed if you go on holiday.

So I get a wee bottle of this oil and sprinkle it liberally behind the counters and cooker, which seems to be Mousey’s main thoroughfare. In fact, having no idea as to how much peppermint oil smells, I slosh it about very liberally indeed, and for the next few days I feel like I am living inside a Bendicks Bittermint. I also get some on my hands, and I discover that the sensation that occurs when you accidentally rub some on the sensitive skin at the corners of your nostrils is the closest sensation you can have to burning without it actually hurting. Still, at least the smell of peppermint is nicer than the smell of cigarettes and regret that is the Hovel’s current atmosphere. And Mousey will move on and there will have been no cruelty involved.

Well, you can guess how that turned out. The daughter, who had popped down for a brief weekend visit, came back from the kitchen to say she’d just said hello to Mousey; and a day or so later, I heard a rustling coming from the recycling bag kept next to the bin. Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know. Maybe he thinks there will still be some Curiously Cinnamon in the empty Curiously Cinnamon box he discerned through the blue plastic. Stupid Mousey.

I leave him. He can do what he wants there. But then next night I come into the kitchen and I see another Mousey standing by the bag, as if trying to give some message of solace and hope to the Mousey who is trapped. This is not anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy. I know that posture when I see it, and I am unmanned. Does that mean, then: that I am moused?

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 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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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.