Monthly Archives: August 2016


So, a bit of a thing turned up in the Guardian last week. Under the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn does a decent thing thing on a train’ (or something) it showed a brief video of the opposition leader making the point that the train he was on was absolutely rammed and so, naturally, rather than come over all ‘I’m the leader of the opposition’, he shunned first class and made himself comfortable on the floor.

All hail that decent man who does decent stuff, was my obvious first thought. But then I thought a little more and a couple of other things occurred to me, neither quite so weighed down with love and awe.

The first being that, dammit, he’s giving a bad name to pretty much everyone who ‘lords it’ up in the big seats. Not saying he means to, but it’s clear from the comment threads (this shot round social media like an atom in the Hadron Collider) that this was serious high-five territory, as comment after comment praised his ‘stand’ as something wonderful, for sticking it so beautifully to The Man, the high falutin’, the over-paid and over-privileged, not forgetting the Tory Toffs at Westminster-On-Alien-Planet, who wouldn’t know a standard class ticket from an artichoke.

All very fabulous and principled. But hang on just a cotton-picking minute, St Jeremy. You might not be the originator of all class-related misapprehensions, but they certainly exist, and you sitting on the floor of a train carriage feeds into them. To shun a first class seat in your position is to suggest it’s at best an indulgence and, if you work in the public sector, and are paid from the public purse, it’s borderline immoral.

No, actually, lets scrub that ‘borderline’. Yet the one thing that defines the average first class commuter is that they tend to work, flat out, for the whole journey. Which is why their employers presumably consider it worth shelling out for the space, privacy and, yes, tea and entry-level biscuits.

I’ve seen all sorts in first class, from Ann Widdicombe to BBC grandees to captains of industry and baronesses and, trust me, it ain’t no crack den or pool party up there. Just the monotonous tap of weary finger on keyboard, with the odd fabulously thrilling (well, to my mind) conversation about the machinations of various executive committees, what the dastardly defence counsel might be up to, whether old Grouseby might be up for the chop soon, or where the £27 million pound grant should be going. (I’ve yet to hear the splish of a Tennant’s can being opened, but when I do, you can be sure I shall report it.)

So while I’m with Corbyn on his heartfelt ‘more and better trains’ thing (our railways are an embarrassment compared to those in Europe, and have been for decades) he should go and get a bloody first class seat, because he’s cluttering up the corridor and perpetuating the whole class myth/divide thing as well.

It was also – for heaven’s sake – the London rush hour. (Could he have timed his journey better? Of course not – this was a sound-bite.) And the London rush hour adheres to a principle we’re all familiar with – that supply and demand dictates that the ones that pay most get the worst customer experience, as he’d surely know if he tried taking his family to Center Parcs at half term.

Bad Commuting (there’s a film there) is something, moreover, that everyone in London’s done their share of, me included. I spent most of my teens and twenties doing Bad Commuting on buses, tubes and trains. And, yes, Jeremy, at this time, they WERE nationalized.

But there’s another reason I’m cringing about this whole sorry nonsense. It’s that image, which I cannot unsee. This is the Leader of the Labour Party, and whatever you think about his leadership, is this honestly how the Leader of the Opposition should BE? Crammed on the floor, suit all rumpled, peering up into the lens – it’s only marginally less wince-making that Neil Kinnock’s timeless pirouette-n-splat on that beach. And, bless him, at least poor Neil didn’t mean to.

Corbyn did. For the entire trip, if the Guardian is to be believed. Just to make a (pretty clunky) point.

But though he might have saved the taxpayer the upgrade on his fare (debatable, since he could have spent that time engaged in useful government work) for me, it’s at the cost of his dignity. We want our leaders to fight for us, always, but not BE us.

Statesmen, not men looking a state.


*… a train journey on the floor feels even longer. If it IS spent on the floor. Since writing this column last week, it’s emerged that Virgin trains – not to mention Sir Richard Branson aren’t taking Corbyn’s sit-down sitting down either.See why here…  


First published in the Western Mail Magazine August 20th 2016 


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Jasione Montana; The diminutive Sheep’s Bit Scabious

I’ve stumbled upon something that’s become a bit of a passion lately – identifying species of wildflower in the Gower, where regular readers will know I spend many a happy weekend. And last weekend, in my new role as unofficial floral ‘birder’, I found a tiny blue plant – apparently the miniature ‘sheep’s bit’ scabious – as well as the climber known as Old Man’s Beard. It was the scent that first attracted me to it – so evocative of my childhood – but it took a while to identify it (many thanks, facebook people) as the wild equivalent of our modern garden clematis.

And so, by extension, to Chris Packham. Also passionate, also wild. Is he now also threatened with losing his BBC tenure?

You might have missed news of the ongoing war between the Springwatch presenter and those with an interest in grouse shooting, including Sir Ian Botham. And though I’ve now read up widely, I’ll let you do likewise, and simply let you know that Packham’s role fronting one of my favourite BBC programmes could, theoretically, be ended.

This follows a comment he made last year in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine, in which he called the hunting and shooting lobby ‘the nasty brigade’, attracting both the attention and the ire of The Countryside Alliance, who, along with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, called for him to be sacked, and prompted a BBC enquiry.

Let’s be clear. I know at least one far–from-nasty sporting gun owner, but when it comes to the sport itself, I’m with Chris. No amount of justification – even from cricketing legends – will change my view that killing animals for sport (as championed by the Countryside Alliance) is unnecessary, anachronistic and cruel. And if doing so endangers wild species (in this case, our rarest bird of prey, the Hen Harrier) then unless such ecological rape can be 100% mitigated, it also becomes indefensible.

But that is not my point.

The call for Packham’s sacking – a PR own-goal, to my mind – is on the grounds that, as a BBC employee, he should be impartial.

But why on earth SHOULD he be impartial on such an important ecological issue? Why should any television presenter of his ilk?

The BBC obviously has a clear, constraining remit. A publicly funded broadcaster has to broadcast for the public, so, as a body, it cannot set its own agenda. Instead, it needs to represent its paymaster’s needs. And, of course, I respect and endorse that. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia – none should be given airtime, much less condoned. It’s also why I feel for them whenever elections (or indeed, brexits) come around, and the clarion cries of ‘bias!’ flood in.

But this is not that. This is programming. Filling slots in a schedule. One day baking, another music, another sport, another wildlife. And what do we want from our presenters of such programmes? Expertise. Experience. Enthusiasm. Passion. And, indeed, the BBC usually champions such attributes, particularly where issues dear to many of us are involved. Do they berate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for lambasting food production practices? Censure Panorama for bringing to light all manner of foul play? (And, indeed, fowl play. Anyone recall their grim 2003 investigation, called The Chicken Run?) Do they tone down David Attenborough for pointing out the decimation of species due to centuries of human spread and ‘progress’?

And so to this. Conservation. Human dominance over other species. The sparking interface where uniquely human desires (aka fun and money) meet planet-saving imperatives.

It’s the place where many of our brightest and most passionate naturalists reside. Yes, it may be that Packham’s comment was considered  intemperate, but, since he’s toiling at that coalface, while many of us merely sympathise, I suspect he has good reason to speak as he does. And its worth mentioning again (I believe he’s already done so) that there is nothing controversial about speaking out against the wilful decimation of a non-human species for sport.

I could be quite wrong. I’m prepared to admit that. It may be that the BBC Charter has a bullet point in it that specifically forbids passion to spill into action, on pain of presenters’ P45s.

Or, to put it another way, that the job of the magic light box in the corner is to re-fashion the wild clematis, in all its rampant glory, into its much showier, more superficially pretty neighbour – nice to look at, but, ultimately scentless and disappointing. Well-behaved, but bland, without heart.

Oh, BBC, I sincerely hope not.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 13th August 2016



I saw an interesting quote on facebook the other day. A quote which seemed to perfectly capture the current uncompromising mood in the face of so much global human misery.

‘Policymakers,’ it went, ‘who deny basic scientific truths, should also be denied penicillin, horseless carriages and airtime on the magic box of shadows.’

It’s attributed to a Joss Whedon, a polymath in the film industry. A screenwriter, director, producer and composer, he also co-wrote Toy Story, which is an epic piece of storytelling, so I already know I’d like him.

And, at first glance, what he says connects too. You can’t have it both ways, after all. And since I assume he’s referring to those who would seek to bamboozle us with myths over fact – your average deranged jihadist, white supremacist, and/or creationist – there’s a lot of righteous sense in what he suggests.Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.01.41

Indeed, it reminds me of various wars raged via email back in my thirties, when ‘horrifying birth stories at the hands of evil medical overlords’ was a competitive sport. It ended, for me, when I was moved one day to point out that for every ‘they ripped it out of me with forceps when it was NOT in my birth plan’ there were thousands more pre-modern-medicine birthing stresses, such as ‘mostly dying’ and ‘the baby dying too’.

But to the point. On second glance (I do a lot more second glancing these days) I wonder if, in fact, that’s not the way.

Though it does sometimes seem so. We have a lot of terms for validating the idea of ‘come-uppance’, after all. With our friends in distress – be it a vile boss, cheating husband, or a slight from a supposed friend – the post-modern way is to invoke the concept of karma, which will see them rewarded for their sins by making their appearance in the next life as a headlouse.

I’ve always liked karma as a friend-soothing device. It’s kinder, more constructive, more emotionally positive, than suggesting the aggrieved arm up and go slash all their clothes.

Like Karma, the buck-passing device with a heart, there’s also the traditional robust go-to of ‘they shall reap as they sow’. You do right by the world and it’ll do right by you, but those who choose the opposite road will have their bums bitten.

And there’s a comfort in that, isn’t there? In the great ‘told you so’ again being dealt with by the future. You know the drill. Her former husband is a low-life, as everyone knows. But her children persist in loving him, even so. Even when he fails to turn up/breaks their heart by forgetting another birthday. They shall reap as they sow, once those children are grown. They’ll be seen through adult eyes and treated accordingly.

Then there’s the warrior’s chant of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword!!’. Dole out violence, expect the same in return.

I could go on. What goes around comes around. Eye for an eye. Do as you would be done by. Ultimately, they are the same. A belief in the rightness of consequences.

Which is a fine thing to teach a child, vis-a-vis their own actions; to let them take the rap for not doing their homework (rather than you doing it) is to have them learn to take responsibility for themselves.

But to champion the idea of meting it out to others – either directly, or by invoking destiny – that’s the bit I increasingly struggle with.

So, for all that Joss Whedon’s elegant words chime with my little-red-hen instinct, do I want to stand by and watch death by infection? Exclusion from the future? A voice denied free speech? No.

They should be given that rope. Not to hang themselves with, but to help THEM climb out of ignorance too.


In other news, I’m having a moment in the sunshine. I hesitate to crow, because I hate to appear immodest, but I share this for all theIMG_7830 talented authors in the world who believe their own day may never come. Tomorrow I am Numero Uno. You won’t see my name (I am the silent half of the author Julie Shaw) but our creation, Bad Blood, is going to be sitting pretty at the top of a certain Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. Hurrah!

It’s been 21 years from my first published article to this point, and almost double that number of published books. So, if you can stomach it, another homily for the young and impatient. Hard graft can have consequences too.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, July 30th 2016

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