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When I go on TripAdvisor, I wonder if the reviewers could have disparaged Eden

My week, including secret beaches in Puglia, TripAdvisor whingers and Norfolk’s smartening seaside.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel”, first published in 1956, just gets more and more prescient. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams/hurry too rapidly down to the sea,/and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops/makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion . . .” she writes, perfectly ventriloquising an exhausted and whining traveller, spoiled by seeing too many wonderful things.

“There are too many waterfalls here” is the kind of po-faced line I expect to find on TripAdvisor. Since I discovered a comment on the site that described a Cuban garden where guests ate breakfast as unhygienic, on account of the disgusting birds, I have a morbid fascination with the things people will find to complain about. My husband and I spent our holiday exploring Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy. I had heard enticing rumours of beaches with the feel of St Tropez or Capri in the Fifties and Sixties, before sleepy fishing villages became the most sought-after holiday places in Europe, with outposts of Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, the Mediterranean churned up with superyachts and lunch fraught with the risk of running into Philip Green. (“There are too many boats here,” as Bishop might have observed, “too many tycoons . . .”)


Monopoli on beaches

The first days of our trip were spent sunning ourselves near the beautiful tiny port of Monopoli (“Not just a board game!” the tourist T-shirts insist). On the beach we were asked if we wanted a small or a big tree for our umbrella. Pampelonne Beach in the early Sixties? Quite possibly. According to one complainer on TripAdvisor, this same beach is a real disappointment, and so rocky that he/she had to walk to a whole different beach to get in the water.

While there were, it’s true, some rocks that made the Adriatic look simultaneously blue and green, like a watercolourist’s attempt at sea, young children could clamber in without difficulty, or you could move a distance of perhaps ten yards to walk in through sand. I sometimes wonder how Eden might have been reviewed.

The beach club is called Tamerici – don’t tell too many other English people.


The Grandfather

Basilicata was our final stop, right in the sandy instep of Italy. We stayed in Bernalda, which clings to a hilltop, and whose most famous former resident is one Agostino Coppola, who emigrated to New York at the turn of the 20th century. The story of his grandson is cinematic history, and Francis Ford Coppola is single-handedly responsible for directing visitors to his grandfather’s home town. Palazzo Margherita is the luxury hotel he opened there in 2012.

On first impressions, I’d say it’s something of a beautiful curiosity: as luxurious as any hotel you could find in Amalfi or Rome, and yet here it is in this tiny town where daily life hasn’t changed much in decades. Whiners doubtless might argue that there isn’t enough to see, but I could have spent many hours cycling around the town, watching not much more happening than front steps being swept, plants being watered and neighbours chatting.

Every morning I cycled past an old man sitting outside his house peeling a huge plate of figs and each time I hoped and failed to find a way to politely ask if he would let me take his photograph.


Mixed massage

While it’s true that the unspoiled places I loved along the coast of the Adriatic and the Ionian seemed (MacBook Airs and Kindles aside) to belong to holidays of a more innocent age, the beach scenes of this summer perhaps seem particularly precious. Even before the horrors of the 14 July mass killing in Nice, there had been reports of terrorists planning to disguise themselves as vendors to attack holidaymakers. The idea is grim, but so, too, is the effect on the hot and bothered vendors with their jewellery and sunglasses that no one wants to buy. In Puglia, a man dressed in white with a small rucksack walking determinedly down the sand through the crowds made everyone stop breathing for a moment. All he was trying to do was to sell massages.


The British Hamptons

This week I’ve had the last beach days of my summer in Norfolk. In all seasons, we spend our weekends at our falling-down farmhouse, bewitched by big skies and the views, destressing by deadheading roses. We are oblivious to the absence of hot water or heating until we have guests. In these bracing conditions, I have long since joked that Norfolk, with its long white beaches and swelling summer population, is exactly like the Hamptons, but now I’m worried it might be true.



On a sunny day, Wells on the north Norfolk coast looks like a Shirley Hughes drawing of how a British beach should be. It was recently named by the Sunday Times as the UK’s best beach but should fans be alarmed by the arrival of an outpost of the high-street holiday chain “Joules Beside the Seaside” that has popped up next to the beach café? In Burnham Market (long since known as Notting-Hill-on-Sea) the bakery has been replaced by a high-end boutique, patronised by people who don’t eat buns. And above Gurneys Fish Shop there is now “Jaipur Plaice”, a summer pop-up ­selling clothes and interiors and kaftans made in Rajasthan.

The butcher has the air of a man living through a siege and there are dark rumours that fishermen in Wells have been told to wear trousers in the pub. Over the weekend, as I enthusiastically instagrammed my new favourite local, the Hero, a formerly dusty old pub reborn this summer with lobster and chips and macchiatos on the menu, and packed my wet swimming stuff away in my ethically sourced waterproof bikini bag (picked up in Jaipur Plaice), I started to worry I might be part of the problem.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war

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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