If the fountains run dry, fine the bosses

Published in the Evening Standard 29 June 2006

You?ve got to pity Richard Aylard, the luckless soul who serves as PR spokesman for Thames Water. Along with Saddam Hussein?s legal adviser and Tim Henman?s motivational coach, Aylard is engaged in desperate, doomed work. Like them, he has been saddled with a near-impossible task, paid to do what simply cannot be done.

For no-one could buff the public image of Thames Water, not given that company?s current record. The latest embarrassment is its announcement that, should it succeed in its application for a drought order, it will turn off the fountains in Trafalgar Square, along with the displays in Sloane Square and Somerset House. There?ll be no car-washes or window cleaning; public parks will go unwatered. The green parts of the capital will turn brown; the bubble and flow of one of the city?s best-known landmarks will turn to dust.

In other circumstances, Londoners would regret this news, but understand it. If they believed the well was genuinely running dry, they would willingly accept the strictures sought by Thames Water ? along with the ban, already in place, on using hose pipes on their lawns. They would show the spirit of ?76, when the nation heeded the call to conserve water and bowed to the slogan of the summer: shower with a friend.

But this is not 1976. For one thing, back then people accepted as a matter of common sense that there was a drought on. Even as a nine year old boy, I could understand that nine straight, hot weeks without a drop falling from the sky might reduce our water supply. It?s not like that now: last month was one of the wettest Mays on record, and the winter hardly felt dry. The water companies are left explaining that groundwater levels are alarmingly low, but that?s something we cannot see for ourselves. We have to take it on trust.

And trust is the one thing the companies do not have. That?s chiefly because Thames tells us there?s a water shortage even as it loses nearly 900m litres of water every single day through leaking pipes. The first time I came across that statistic, I assumed it was a misprint. But no, I read it right. Thames loses a third of the water it puts into the system, enough to fill around 350 Olympic-sized swimming pools, every day of the week. Now, I?m no engineer, but even I can work out that if the pipes didn?t leak, we?d have plenty of water and there would be no drought ? and no drought order, no hosepipe ban, no threatened stand-pipes. And the fountains of Trafalgar Square could gush all summer long.

It?s at this point that poor Richard Aylard pops up to tell us that, in fact, Thames Water is spending

Making our Jewish identity public

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 23 June 2006

When I was at university, members of the Union of Jewish Students were encouraged to wear small badges, carrying three discreet little letters, all in lower case: ujs. It was the lapel equivalent of a whisper.

A few years later, I noticed that UJS members now wore T-shirts spelling out the organisation?s name in tall, wide letters, with the word JEWISH the largest of all, covering the wearer from the navel to the neck.

I took that to be a sign that the next generation of British Jews were willing to declare themselves more loudly and proudly than before. Where their parents had been wary of being too noticeable - unsure even about using the J-word too audibly in mixed company - these younger Jews were much bolder. In recent weeks, that hunch has been confirmed, though now with evidence rather more substantial than a T-shirt.

A cluster of new books has appeared in which young Jewish writers pursue overtly Jewish themes. Witness Naomi Alderman?s prize-winning debut novel, ?Disobedience,? set among Hendon?s Orthodox community. Or the exquisite ?Earl of Petticoat Lane,? a biography of his grandfather - an East End market trader who ended up mingling in London high society - by Andrew Miller, Moscow correspondent of the Economist.

Both Alderman and Miller were born in 1974. Coming soon is a book by TV documentary maker Dan Edelstyn, telling the story of his grandmother who fled the Kiev of the Russian Revolution only to die years later as a converted Catholic, buried among IRA volunteers in the Falls Road cemetery, Belfast. Edelstyn is 29.

There have of course been books about Jewish subjects before. And the forebears of Ms Alderman, for one, are hardly bashful when it comes to identifying Jewishly (see the column directly above this one). Even so, it?s hard not to sense something afoot - an ease about ?outing? oneself as a Jew that did not exist in the same way 30 or 40 years ago.

Some of that is simply the confidence that comes with feeling settled and accepted, a comfort not always available to our forebears. But the emerging works of non-fiction at least also suggest a desire to excavate a past our parents and grandparents preferred to keep buried.

In ?Remind Me Who I Am, Again,? Linda Grant captured well the initial immigrant desire simply to scratch out a living and survive. Their children, in turn, wanted to advance as far as they could, with little interest in looking back. It has been left to the grandchildren, my own generation, to pause, take stock and remember.

That impulse is not only nostalgic and sentimental, though there is some of that. It is also about the flipside of today?s confidence, a kind of uncertainty about the world and our place in it. That definitely played a part in my own family memoir, ?Jacob?s Gift.? It was not solely an account of the lives of three individuals, it was also an inquiry into identity and belonging - both of which have become vexed and confused in today?s globalised world.

Andrew Miller?s book is mainly a lovingly detailed, rich description of a remarkable man - but it is also a reflection on Englishness, class and the surprising fluidity of British life, accepting newcomers more readily than we might suppose.

For his day job, Miller writes about the big questions of high politics and international affairs. Yet when he came to write a book, it was not a biography of Vladimir Putin or a study of the Russian economy that drew him: it was the life story of his own grandfather.

I understand that feeling. Something similar was at work when I chose to research the lives of my mother and two great-uncles: a sense both that identity is one of the great issues of our times and that, somehow, the lives of ?ordinary? individuals can tell you more about the world than any number of abstract inquiries into ?society.?

Both Miller and I were lucky. One great-uncle of mine left behind a stack of letters; another had been interviewed two dozen times and made sure he kept copies of the tapes. Miller?s grandfather ?kept everything: letters, diaries, photographs, address books, invitations, business ledgers and notes scribbled to himself on the backs of envelopes? a musty record of how? he became an Englishman.?

That leaves a troubling thought. In the age of email, we do not write letters, let alone keep them. Our addresses are stored on SIM cards and on databases. We take countless photographs and video recordings, but store them in places and on formats our grandchildren may have no idea how to use. If, in two generations? time, our grandchildren show as much interest in us as, apparently, we do in our predecessors, where will they start? How will they have any idea what we were like?

?Jacob?s Gift? is now out in paperback (Penguin,

We dare not let our future look like this

London’s rate of recycling is the worst among Europe’s major cities. Without change, the sheer volume of trash threatens to engulf us all

Published in the Evening Standard 22 July 2006

I don?t suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder in any area of my life ? except one. I do not ensure my Coke cans are all in a straight line, like David Beckham. I do not wash my hands repeatedly, as, we?re told, is the habit of Steven Gerrard.

But I am a fanatic when it comes to recycling. If I spot so much as a crumpled envelope or a faded receipt, I?ll march it straight to the green bin. I?ll flatten orange juice cartons and egg boxes, anything which has even the remotest relationship to paper. Tins and glass get the same treatment, rinsed and dumped in the green box. My zealotry is such that if I see a crushed can on our street, I don?t just curse the litter louts who left it ? I find my right hand twitching, desperate to pick up the debris and hurl it towards its proper, green home.

Why am I like this? It can?t be a Bree Van De Kamp desire for regimented order: anyone looking at my desk, its entire surface space covered by wobbling piles of paper, knows that?s not me. No, it?s not an anal need for neatness that does it, just a single visual memory. Several years ago I saw a wide, panoramic photograph of a landfill dump ? and the sight horrified me. The idea that we are digging vast, crater-sized holes in the ground and filling them with plastic bags stuffed with rotten, suppurating rubbish was so awful, it seemed a straightforward, moral imperative that we reduce the amount of trash we bury. Carry on as we are, and we will poison the ground beneath our feet.

The alternative is to burn our garbage, but that?s hardly an improvement, filling the atmosphere with smoke and fumes, to say nothing of carbon emissions. Which is why last week?s government decision to go ahead with the Belvedere incineration plant in Bexley was so roundly condemned by green groups.

No, the only solution is not to bury or burn, but to recycle. And on this London?s record is appalling. When it comes to recycling by local authorities, the capital is bottom of the national league table: we recycle just 15% of our waste. Among Europe?s major cities, London is the very worst.

Of course it would help if more of us developed a compulsive behaviour disorder that made us drop every possible item in the green box rather than the black bin bag. But even that doesn?t get to the heart of the matter. That comes down to a single word: plastic.

Plastic is the stubborn item that refuses to be recycled; in my house it?s the plastic ? almost all of it packaging ?

that fills up the bins. Paper, tin and glass are fine; old food scraps can go for compost. But plastic won?t go anywhere.

What to do about it? The obvious solution is to find ways to recycle it. My own borough, Hackney, have now set up bottle banks where you can dump the plastic. But experience shows that won?t have an impact till it?s part of the regular, doorstep service. Asking us to make a special journey is asking for a monastic virtue few of us have.

Instead, we should tackle this problem at source. That?s why the Women?s Institute deserve three loud choruses of Jerusalem for their latest campaign, against supermarket packaging.

You don?t have to be Victor Meldrew to shake your head in disbelief at the amount of plastic, polystyrene and cling film that comes into the house with a single, weekly shop. Why, you say, your voice rising, do four pears need to be packed as if they are were a rare Faberge egg on loan to the Louvre?

The supermarkets would reply that, if they did not coddle their avocados and apples like precious gems, they would get bashed and bruised and we, the consumers, would reject them. And on this, they have a point. If we were more willing to buy fruit and veg with knocks and scars, the shops would not waste so much plastic protecting them.

We need to send that message to the supermarkets. And there are other businesses which need to hear it, too. Why, to take one example, do Starbucks and many of the other coffee chains insist on selling their iced, Frappucino drinks in plastic cups? If paper will do for a hot drink, why not for a cold one? If you want to do your bit for the planet, that could be a small start. Add to the list of specifications ? Grande, skinny, decaff etc ? a request for a paper cup. See if it catches on. (While you?re at it, ask why Pret and other sandwich bars don?t provide green bins for all the cans they generate.)

In the end, though, we probably won?t act until waste hits us in our pockets. Ireland has experimented with a tax on plastic supermarket shopping bags, forcing customers to reuse them. Meanwhile, Sir Michael Lyons, the civil servant reviewing local government funding, has proposed a black bin bag tax, so that homeowners pay more the more sacks of non-recyclable trash they leave out. It happens on the continent already, with Germans paying 18p a kilo, the Belgians 70p per bag.

Inevitably, politics will intrude. Right now, the Mayor is keen to take overall charge of waste management in the city ? collecting it and getting rid of it. Most boroughs are wary, reluctant to let go of one of the few clear powers they have. That leaves the burden of proof on them, to prove they can get their act together and come up with a strategy that will serve the whole city. If they don?t, they will soon face huge EU fines, as London fails to come into line with European standards on recycling.

This is one of those problems that can?t be dumped in one place: it?s up to all of us, politicians, companies and individuals. And it?s not one we can bury, hoping it will just go away.

Why Sir Ian should answer to the Mayor

London’s policing needs to be more responsive to voters to avoid the problems now plaguing the Met

Published in the Evening Standard 15 June 2006

Blair’s had yet another “worst week,” and there will be more to come. No not Tony – though he’s had enough “worst weeks” to fill a year – but Sir Ian, whose tenure as Britain’s most senior policeman has seemed jinxed from the start.

He’s on the rack over last week’s raid at Forest Gate and on the incident’s pre-echo, the Stockwell shooting in July 2005. In both cases armed police shot an innocent man, wrongly convinced that he was a murderous terrorist. Both episodes have fed the double charge against the Met that it is either racist in its trigger-happy pursuit of anyone who looks, in the words of satirist John O’Farrell “vaguely dusky,” or grossly incompetent – or both.

The result for Blair is fierce criticism from left and right. The former cannot forgive the commissioner the excessive display of force he deployed last week, sending 250 armed men to Forest Gate, and they are ready to pounce on whatever slamming the Independent Police Complaints Commission delivers to Blair when its much-leaked report into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is finally published.

Yet Sir Ian has few friends on the right. Traditional allies of the police have long seen Blair as the plod who’s too PC, a limp-wristed liberal more anxious to make the police a politically correct service than a crime busting force. They don’t like his reforms – hiring more women and ethnic minorities – and would be glad to see the back of him.

The result is a commissioner who is lonely and exposed. The ordure is falling on him daily, from a great height and from all sides, and he is having to take most of it on his own. He looks around and sees no-one behind him.

Or rather he sees everyone. Technically, he is a servant of the crown, appointed by the government in the form of the Home Secretary, yet also under the wing of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), with a nod to the mayor of London. “Nominally he is answerable to lots of people; in practice that means he’s not really accountable to anybody,” says one official who stands in the middle of this institutional muddle. It translates into a black hole, with few Londoners sure of the Commissioner’s exact authority. And that has a practical meaning. When a police officer tells you or me to stand back, in whose name is he acting? What authority, precisely, does he have?

The solution, the only one in a democracy, has to be politics. The legitimacy of the police has to flow from the legitimacy of an elected mandate. Now that could mean, as the Conservatives under Michael Howard proposed in the last election, the direct election of police chiefs, common practice already in several American cities. But for those who recoil at the thought of policemen touting for votes – doubtless promising ever tougher crackdowns at election time – there is another way. The Commissioner could simply be appointed directly by a politician with a mandate of his own.

No, that’s not a call for the Met to come under the operational control of John Reid. Such a move would smack of the national police force Britain has historically avoided; it would also reek of state control of policing, a set-up rightly deemed alien to our democratic culture.

The candidate for the job is much more obvious and closer to home. The Metropolitan police should come under the democratically elected leader of the metropolis: the mayor.

That’s long been Ken Livingstone’s preference: hardly a surprise that, given the choice, Ken would like to have more power. But he’s not been pushing that demand too loudly of late. He’s far cannier than that. Indeed, he has played recent events brilliantly. Somehow he has retained his status as the admired ally of London’s Muslim community – many of whom are feeling deep anger at the police – while simultaneously emerging as the staunchest backer of the Met. He is best pals with both Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sir Ian Blair: quite a feat.

All of which is smart politics for Ken. But his backing for the Commissioner gives us a taste of what could also be smart practice for this city. The mayor should be the Commissioner’s boss – and also his chief advocate. That’s how it works in New York, where the mayor appoints the top cop, takes the political heat for him at moments of stress – and sacks him if he screws up.

Such a move is long overdue. And it would have three rapid benefits. First, the police’s corner would be defended by someone who knows how to do it. Witness the woeful televised apology by assistant commissioner Andy Hayman to the Forest Gate brothers: Ken would have known how to do it properly. Second, the police would operate day to day with the clout of a democratic mandate behind them, rather than with the nervous uncertainty that characterises too much of their activity today. Third, they would have to sharpen up their act because the mayor’s electoral prospects would depend on it. Remember, elections are to democracy what competition is to capitalism: they improve performance.

Could it happen? The government will be reluctant: handing over the Met to Ken means ceding control over a slew of national responsibilities, from protection of the Queen to state visits. And there is no practical way to peel those duties away from the core London work of the Met. But that needn’t be an obstacle. Let City Hall run the lot, even those national tasks: after all, it can boast a better record of efficiency than the Home Office.

More likely is a reform to the MPA, allowing Ken to appoint the chair, much as he does now with Transport for London. That would be a step in the right direction, but ministers, currently reviewing the mayor’s powers, should be bolder. They should realise that the ultimate say over the policing of London belongs with the man Londoners choose.