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Tree-hugging, American-style


It's the weekend and Oregonians are spending it in the same way they spend much of their leisure time: soaking up the natural beauty of their state's beaches, waterfalls and mist-veiled forests. On Cannon Beach, the sea fog rolling in from the Pacific is so thick that the signature landmark of Haystack Rock looms in the distance like a ghost of itself. The wet sand below is burnished to a mother-of-pearl shine, across which families, couples and running dogs are silhouetted like the cast of a shadow puppet play.

The opaque landscape seems a fitting meta phor for the current political view in Oregon. The feeling in the air is one of relief, as if Barack Obama's election represents not just vast change, but also a return to normality - to having an American president once again equipped with an intelligence and vision equal to his position. After the euphoria, however, came the wait, which is where Oregon finds herself this weekend. Like the view up Cannon Beach, the months ahead hold the promise of brightness, but they are also obscure, and punctuated with the shadow of more than one rock on the horizon.

One of the greatest challenges facing Obama's administration will be to redefine America's relationship with the issue of climate change. His advisers could do a lot worse than take a lead from Oregon and its largest city, Portland. When I told friends I would be visiting Oregon, one of them, Graham, responded with: "Ah, Portland, the city of the future." I figured that Graham, as founder of, the online ecobible with tips on everything green, should know what he was talking about. When I arrived, it wasn't hard to see his point. Thirty years of progressive state and city legislation have repeatedly made Oregon and Portland rank first in national polls for greenness and sustainability.

Half of Portland's energy comes from renewables. An urban growth boundary established in the 1970s has protected 25 million acres of forest and farmland, while an integrated public transport system and green building regulations have resulted in a low-carbon population. On a state level, things are getting even more ambitious. The governor recently unveiled plans to make all Oregon's homes and buildings produce net-zero emissions by 2030.

Kick-starting America's commitment to a new age of sustainability will be no small task, but Obama and the example of the West Coast states might just prove to be a crucially successful combination. While Obama was not the greenest of Democratic candidates (that was John Edwards), his ability to revitalise the historical language of America - of liberty, equality and change - is just what the US environmental debate needs.

There is a pioneering quality to the way the West Coast states have approached climate change over the past eight years. While the motor industry dinosaurs of Detroit are pleading for bailout funds, electric car start-ups in California, such as Tesla and Fisker, are attracting increasing flows of venture capital. It is this pioneering spirit that Obama could reframe as the next step in America's story. By underpinning progressive, sustainable thinking with the old American values of getting things done, of leading the world, the United States could make what was once perceived as "tree-hugging" idealism its natural inheritance. It's a big ask, but for the first time in eight years it feels possible.

Owen Sheers's novel "Resistance" is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State