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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Yorkshire heritage railways say coal ban is 'threat'

From The BBC

24 May 2019

Two heritage railways fear government measures to limit the burning of coal could affect their ability to operate. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to ban the burning of household coal by 2025. The lines in North and West Yorkshire say they could have to import coal, which would be prohibitively expensive. A Defra spokesman said: "Air pollution is a significant threat to public health and the government has a duty to take action." The North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which runs steam engines between Pickering and Whitby, said the proposed ban was a "significant threat". The Keighley & Worth Valley Railway runs on five miles of track and was used in the film, The Railway Children. Both railways believe the domestic coal ban would make mining it commercially unviable in the UK and they would have to turn to foreign imports at a much greater cost.

Chris Price, the general manager of the North Yorkshire railway, said they were looking at Russian coal. "If we are forced to go abroad, if the domestic coal ban comes in to the UK, that perhaps the government would consider giving a financial subsidy to make sure the cost of coal was kept down," he added. Keighley MP John Grogan said the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway was "crucial to tourism". He said: "I hope the government will live up to the promise they made that they will provide an exemption for heritage railways from the air quality regulations they are going to bring in." The Defra spokesman added: "We understand how important our nation's heritage railways are and the sector raised a number of issues in our consultation."

[I do hope that any projected coal ban – if we go that far – with get an exemption where coal powered trains are concerned. Although I’m not a huge train-head I do appreciate the powerful imagery and the feelings surrounding steam trains. I remember them from the 1960’s and I’ve been on a few of them since then. Their carbon footprint is surely insignificant in global terms. Save the Steam Trains!]

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Garments of Court and Palace – Machiavelli and the World that He Made by Philip Bobbit (FP: 2013)

Since his works – most especially The Prince – were published in the 16th Century the political theories of Niccolo Machiavelli have been in print ever since. Translated into a host of languages, taught in universities across the globe and treated both as valued assistant and the very spawn of Satan one thing cannot be argued – that this Renaissance figure has had a massive impact on the western world. This is all the more surprising, says the author, as not only have few people read his works but fewer still have understood them.

The Prince – his most recognised work – has, in particular, been misinterpreted and (I must admit) the author of this work makes a series of impressive arguments laying out why. His main thrust is that the book itself is not what it appears to be. It is not (as it is usually advertised) a work instructing a Prince on how to gain and hold power in the ever changing and highly dangerous world of 16th century Italian politics. Although it does contain elements of this it is most certainly not the main thrust. The treatise is aimed squarely at the ‘new Prince’. Not simply one who has recently come into power but the precursor to a completely new type of state – the constitutional republic. The ‘new’ Prince is one who thinks in the ‘new’ way and who has already, or is on the cusp of, turning away from his feudal roots. The book is for him – which is why it seemingly shocked the older-style Prince with its harsh pragmatism and the ability to look reality in the face rather than attempt to see things as they should be in an ideal world. But there is more. There is the historical context to be considered.
At the time he was writing the Italy of Machiavelli consisted of warring city states increasingly at the mercy of the great powers of the day – France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Individual cities, or even cities in temporary alliance, could not hope to stand against these regional superpowers. Only by allying themselves to the great and the good could they hope to survive – but Machiavelli wanted much more than survival: he wanted political independence and saw his advice to new Princes the way forward. Machiavelli, the author maintains, was a many simply ahead of his time. Not only did he foresee the constitutional republican state generations ahead of anyone else he saw such a state as the saviour of Italy. The many misunderstandings of his writings reflect the fact that he was, in effect, writing for future generations and for leaders of states than did not yet exist  but which he would (potentially at least) bring into existence. It’s an interesting idea and one that the author makes a very good case for. Italian political history of that period is both fascinating and deeply disturbing – full of intrigue and frankly alarming characters like Cesare Borgia. When I have the time to at least try to get my head around the twists and turns of that ages diplomatic wrangling’s I’ll give it a go. But that’ll have to wait post-retirement.

Overall I liked this book very much. The author knew his stuff and looked at things from some interesting angles which might actually answer some of the questions raised about Machiavelli and his ideas. From time to time a few faint alarm bells went off – essentially a vague whiff of right-wing thinking – but I just ignored them and read on….. until that is I read the Appendix entitled Machiavelli Today. Here the author made a rather strange observation. He said that Machiavelli stood at the crossroads of a transition between the Feudal State and the more modern Constitutional Republics we all know and love today. Meanwhile in our world we are, at least according to the author of this work, at another political crossroads – this time between the Nation State and the Market State. This Market State defines itself in terms of fostering market expansion to provide a wide range of public goods. Not simply that the Market should be used where it can work best but that the Market IS the system and that government (in its surviving form) has only one function: to ensure that nothing interferes with or disturbs the Market in its operation. So, no Social Security, no State Healthcare, no State education or anything else for that matter. Everything, and the author clearly says EVERYTHING is provided for by the Market. Naturally I disagreed – strongly. Not only would such a system be inhumane it would, necessarily I believe, be very short lived. A full no holds barred Market system would be so horrific that the citizens of any such State would rise up and destroy it before it destroyed them. Personally I would enjoy watching it burn. So, after enjoying this book very much I couldn’t help leaving it with a bad taste in my mouth. I had added a further book from the author to my Amazon Wish List but this has now been removed. But there are plenty more books on a whole host of subjects just waiting to be purchased never fear. Interesting in many ways – just skip the Appendix.           

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ok... I'm ALL ears.....!

Just Finished Reading: The Old Straight Track - Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins (FP: 1925)

This book was not at all what I expected. As one of the foundation texts to the New Age movement in the 1970’s and beyond I expected at least a healthy dollop of mysticism, myth and speculation. Whilst speculation did make its way into the narrative, how could it not, it was tempered with reason, logic and a fair bit of scepticism. But I’m running ahead of myself.

The author had a rather strange idea. Although he wasn’t the first to have it he might have been the first to properly systemise it. The strange idea is that prehistoric man, in England and in other places too, produced dead straight paths across the landscape and marked these tracks with stones, mounds (often burial mounds), pools of water and clefts in hillsides which enabled travellers – once on the path – to navigate across great distances with comparative ease. But this is not an idea the author plucked out of the air. Firstly there is the undoubted existence of burial mounds as well as single standing stones (as well as clusters of them) scattered across the English landscape. That can be taken as fact. But the leap the author makes is that these items are not scattered across the landscape in a random fashion – indeed far from it. Using maps extensively throughout the book the author shows that straight lines can be used linking not only two or three such items but four, five and more. Lower numbers might just be coincidental but extended links over miles of the countryside cannot, he maintains be accidental. There are man-made and with a purpose and existed long before the Romans arrived with their straight roads. I was actually very impressed by his logical reasoning. Not only did he discover previously unknown standing stones using his method – Lay Hunting – but he also had very reasonable explanations of oddities like paths that actually go through (rather than around) pools of water – the pools reflect both sunlight and moonlight allowing a walker or rider at ground level to navigate in poor lighting conditions.

One of the things I found particularly fascinating is how both place names and family names reflected the nature of the paths in that area and what they were primarily used for – transporting salt, clay or other items. The men themselves – experts in navigation as well as able managers of the numbers needed to erect the larger stones and arrange them in meaningful ways – gave their profession names to future villages as well as family names (or the bastardised versions that have made it down to us) that still exist today. I do love the meanings and origins of words and it was really interesting to see where names I know well came into existence.

But making his case for Lay Lines was not enough for the author. Although he had discovered many in his home country and in nearby regions he had also collected evidence from other hunters of lay lines far and wide. The field of lay lines was still, in 1925, a new one. To amass the evidence he needed he wanted others – readers of his books – to go out and discover their own lines in their own localities and gave them detailed instructions of how to find them. I imagine, in those far gone days, that it would have been quite an adventure for a local rambling group to spend a day or a weekend looking for prehistoric footpaths long before urbanisation and our incessant road building destroyed them. I suspect that away from civilisation they are still waiting to be found and walked along as they must have been long before the Roman Empire existed. I’m almost tempted to go find one. Who knows where it would lead? An interesting off-the-wall read and unexpectedly evocative of ancient times written by someone with a real passion for his subject. (S2)