Never mind the passage of time

nirvananevermindalbumcoverTobi Vail, former girlfriend of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, became a fan of the youth-targeted deodorant Teen Spirit when it was launched in America in 1991. As a joke Katherine Hanna, the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, which also included Vail, scrawled across a wall in Cobain’s apartment ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’.

Misinterpreting the statement as a comment on mainstream American society at the time, Cobain decided it was the perfect phrase to embody the disconnected rage and contempt felt by those who had not benefitted from, or could associate with, the excess and misplaced optimism of the indulgent 1980s. He used it for a song he had written which included lyrics like ‘I feel stupid and contagious’ just so there was no doubt where he was coming from. He called it ‘Smells like teen spirit’ and it was released on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, which came out 25 years ago on September 24th 1991.

The album went Platinum by November and reached Diamond status in 1999 with 10 million units sold. Only the most ardent of fans would claim it was musically one of the greatest albums of all time, but sick of the cartoonish excess of the ‘hair bands’, stadium-rock and spandex of the previous decades, Nevermind spoke to a generation like nothing else had. Cobain once explained where he drew some of his inspiration for the dark feelings and rejection he channeled in his lyrics: “Some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling — very lonely, sick”.

If there is any doubt about how important Nevermind was, consider this: nothing quite so powerful, with the ability to resonate within a generation has come along since. In terms of economic stagnation and career aspirations, many people today who feel globalisation has let them down are channeling the same anger and frustration experienced by the fraternity Nirvana appealed to 25 years ago. But there has been no voice or sound with the same impact on the current generation as Nirvana had back then. Bruce Springsteen is still valiantly carrying the torch, but nothing and nobody has exploded into the public consciousness with the force to define a genre like Nirvana did with Grunge.

So it’s all the more surprising then, that the title of the album was Nevermind, which suggests more of a shoulder-shrugged disappointment than an angst-fuelled middle-digit to the world.

And it got me thinking. What, 25 years ago, had you hoped to achieve by today that you have not – but no major regrets, just something that you might shrug off with a “well, never mind”? I decided to spend a night out in London asking friends and strangers alike and include some of the answers below:

 

I wanted an ability to drink multiple pints, or wines, without succumbing to feelings of remorse and regret the following day.

I was a stoner. I wanted to be Jim Morrison.

 I wanted to walk and stop wearing nappies (an odd response given the question)

 I wanted to be able to talk to women without going red.

 I wanted kids and a white picket fence. My furry four-legged friend, though, is cheaper and will die younger!

 I was 18 and had just won the North of Scotland Junior Best All rounder (a cycling competition) and come 6th in Scotland. I was pretty certain I would win an individual Scottish championship.

 I was 15. My major aim to was to go out with Johnny Ray. I wasn’t cool enough and two years younger so….never mind. 

 I wanted to have a physique like my brothers when he was about 17.

 I wanted to sleep with one of the Spice Girls.

 I didn’t save enough money before my gap year travels. Not having enough money was the least of my worries as it turned out, so never mind.

 Sad though it is to say, if I think back to listening to that album endlessly on flying scholarship and being best student of the year with a mate who went onto fly harriers, the answer is probably fast jet pilot.

 I was gonna be a big shot architect. No joke.

 I was incapable of linear thought back then aged 19. I always assumed I would want a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Turns out I don’t.

 Honestly: climb Everest (failed); play pro-rugby (failed); learn to paint (failed very badly); live and work in a really rough foreign place (failed – sort of).

 

Taking my research ever more seriously as the night wore on I had a strained conversation (as I could barely be heard) in a bar at 2am. Starting poorly by asking the woman I was chatting to/shouting at if she was from Denmark having heard her accent, she said, no, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. I plowed on regardless and posed my question. She wasn’t sure she’d heard of Kurt Cobain. “What?”, I exclaimed, possibly a little too forcefully, “the restless, troubled genius that gave a voice to millions and defined an era; the sincere, contemplative, creative force that was so genuinely authentic he really felt the pain he wrote about such that it eventually killed him?”

“Sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about”

“But, he was…….oh, never mind.”

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Gene genie

hornet
In my opinion the English language is currently diffy two words. First, the fear that having checked into your hotel room you will pull back the shower curtain in the bathroom – extended for hygiene purposes – and discover a dead body in the bath, courtesy of some horrific Coen Brothers-like murder.

The second missing word describes that mixture of terror and absolute certainty that when you reach into the banana box in Sainsbury’s, you will disturb the massive tarantula that has hitched a lift from Honduras.

I’m not alone in these thoughts, or at least the last one. Sort of. The government announced today that, remarkably, the UK’s National Bee Unit (no, me neither) has for some time been expecting the arrival of Vespa Velutina or Asian Hornet, from pot plants, cut flowers or fruit (I knew the stuff wasn’t good for you). Well, the scourge of the bumblebee (pictured) has finally arrived and has been spotted for the first time ever in the UK in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Nicola Spence, Defra’s Deputy Director for Plant and Bee Health, said: “we have been anticipating the arrival of the Asian hornet for some years and have a well-established protocol in place to eradicate them and control any potential spread”. The government swooped into action like a plague of clichés, established a three-mile surveillance zone around Tetbury and deployed bee inspectors armed with infrared cameras. Nest disposal experts have been put on immediate notice to move.

The plan to destroy any nests and “snuff out the invasion” echoes another debate raging in biodiversity circles at the moment. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just invested $75 million in a scheme to exterminate mosquitoes. It raises interesting ethical questions about man’s right to eliminate other species, no matter how much harm they may cause.

Malaria kills 400,000 people, mostly children, every year and is only one of many nasty diseases carried by mosquitoes. So far, the most invasive technique genetic engineers have come up with is to try to render the males of one species of mosquito sterile. But this has only been tested in Brazil; a limited area in global terms.

The new technique is called a ‘gene drive’. Most genes have a 50% chance of being passed onto offspring. A gene drive (or gene bomb, as it is sometimes called) will aggressively target the DNA of the host to increase those odds. Stop the females of the species from reproducing and eventually the entire population will die.

It is a controversial proposal and even Bill Gates admits there’s no regulatory framework to oversee the method. Aside from the ethics of humanity’s right to kill off another species, many worry that the impact on a fragile and complex ecological system is too unpredictable. Mosquitoes are nasty, but they are also food for other animals.

And what about the consideration that the mosquito is only the route through which any disease is passed, rather than the direct cause of any illness? The unintended consequences of wiping out an entire species could outweigh the possible benefit of eradicating disease, especially if such an outcome was not certain.

Any decision to take such drastic action will require concerted international engagement and agreement; tricky at the best of times. And it is only a short biological hop from a gene drive to eradicate disease, to a biological weapon. So don’t expect any bio-tech programmes to roll out across international borders any time soon.

But that won’t stop you wanting to wipe out the lot of them the next time you hear the ‘ziiiiiiiii’ and feel the bite. Just be thankful it wasn’t an Asian Hornet.

Missing the (Hinkley) point

gatwick-gusher-020816“If a country doesn’t produce its own energy it deserves to have the lights turned off and be invaded.” So says the reliably straight-talking David Lenigas, entrepreneur and energy-investor. The green light to build the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, to be financed by France and China, was a decision based primarily on politics; energy security was little more than an afterthought.

Announcing the decision today in parliament (ironically 16 years to the day after the fuel protests of 2000 ended) the Right Honourable Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, warned that the 19% of UK electricity currently provided by nuclear power will drop to 2% by 2030 if the plants are not renewed. 64% of the value of all contracts in the supply chain supporting the build will be spent in the UK, he claimed, and he was delighted to say it would be constructed at no risk to the UK taxpayer. (Such bonhomie was not universally shared around the chamber and Barry Gardiner, Shadow Secretary of State, grumbled that he had been given only 13 minutes advance notice of the statement.)

But after many years of dithering over energy strategy (by successive governments since the 1990’s), such that the total capacity of energy production in the UK today is only 60% what it was in 2012, the options available to the government were so narrow as to make the decision virtually inevitable. Dr Paul Dorfman Senior Research Fellow of the Energy Institute at University College London, said that Tony Blair consistently failed to make a decision on nuclear energy.

Add to that the minor matters of Brexit and the migrant crisis and the need to shore up Britain’s somewhat bruised relationship with France meant a spat over a contract worth £12billion to Électricité de France (EDF), the state-owned firm, was unwelcome. And China’s proposed £6billion stake (plus investment in HS2 and a possible future post-Brexit free-trade deal) would be a welcome jolt to a British economy that, if not still on life-support after the financial crisis, was only just sitting up in bed complaining the room smelt funny.

Which is why Theresa May’s pause in the approval process, announced in July, shortly after she took over from David Cameron as Prime Minister, was so odd. At the time it looked like a bold new broom had entered Downing Street. Never mind the jitters, here was a premier willing to risk the geopolitical consequences of sticking up for Britain.

So to climb down so rapidly, with vague references to a renegotiation that means the government will have a greater say over “the ownership and control of critical infrastructure”, looks a bit woolly. The US has recently accused China of stealing US nuclear technology and Australia likewise has had concerns.

But China General Nuclear Power, the state-owned company planning to invest in Hinkley, said it was “now able to move forward and deliver much-needed nuclear capacity at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Bradwell”, despite the government announcement saying nothing of the latter two plants.

Sovereign control over energy supplies is a controversial issue. Fears of Chinese hackers holding the UK to energy-ransom abound. How big a stake should one country allow another to hold in such a vital sector? Mr Dorfman warns that Britain runs the risk of depending on Russia for gas and China for nuclear energy.

Mr Lenigas (pictured above, riding his ‘gusher’ in southern England) has a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude to this kind of thing. “It would be like me popping round to my neighbour’s house every time I wanted to boil the kettle,” he told me. He has taken great delight recently in championing the unlikely-sounding oil find under the South Downs around Gatwick. Confounding critics and baffling experts, it seems the Horse Hill site may actually be a viable UK-owned addition to Britain’s energy sector. If only all of Britain’s energy solutions were so straightforward.

As a comment on The Independent’s website pointed out, the ideal solution to modern energy production is a methodology that is cheap, reliable and low carbon, and with modern technology you get to pick two. At £92.50 per megawatt hour Hinkley Point C won’t be cheap. Hopefully though it’s bought time for other renewable solutions to come on line. By all sensible economic reckoning it’s a rubbish deal: expensive, inflexible and reliant on unproven technology. It has been widely criticised as such. But in terms of international political positioning at a time when Britain needs friends, despite sovereignty concerns, it was a no-brainer.

Cosy chats and posturing

sousse-imageCould the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have done more to prevent the murders of 30 Britons in Tunisia last year?

In June 2015 the Britons and eight other foreign nationals were murdered when Seifeddine Rezgui attacked a beachfront hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. The attack, later claimed by Daesh, came just three months after 22 people, mostly European tourists, were killed by gunmen in the Bardo National Museum, in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.

At the pre-inquest hearing in the High Court today, the counsel for the families, Andrew Ritchie QC said “there is a line of thinking within some of the families that the FCO may have failed in their responsibilities to the 60,000 British citizens that went out per month to Tunisia between Bardo and Sousse”. Bearing in mind the main inquest is not due to start until January 2017 and today was meant just to run a procedural finger over the administration, it was an unexpectedly strong opening salvo.

Three weeks ago Judge Akremi, the Tunisian investigator, released his report into the Sousse attack of 26 June. His Honour Judge Loraine-Smith, chair of the Inquiry, said he had seen early parts of the translation and it was “illuminating [and] there’s the possibility of damage to national security by full release on what little I’ve seen”.  Andrew O’Connor QC, counsel for the Government explained: “The detailed consideration of security measures in Tunisia, including the shortcomings of some of those measures, would undoubtedly assist those planning further attacks.”

Mr Ritchie hadn’t finished with the Foreign Office. He said there was concern over the FCO’s “practice of cosy chats with the travel companies” who were more interested in their ability “to run a profitable business”, regardless of FCO advice that there was “a high risk of terrorist activity, including in tourist areas”.

In an inflammatory passage he hinted that the FCO had acted to protect tour operators like Thomas Cook and Thompson. The no-refund policy whereby bookings can only be cancelled and refunded if the FCO has recommended a travel ban to the destination was central to it all, he suggested. He noted that after the March attack there was no evidence of existing bookings being cancelled, perhaps due to the no-refund policy. Instead of recommending a travel embargo after the Bardo attack in March, Mr Ritchie said the FCO had “had discussions with local authorities who said, ‘This will be catastrophic to us if you embargo’, and [holiday companies] said, ‘Don’t do it. We will increase security’”. Unsurprisingly all such suggestions were dismissed by Andrew O’Connor for the government.

A lot of this was posturing for the main inquest. The counsel for the families wants the Inquiry to determine whether or not the British Government breached Article 2 of the Human Rights Act – the right to life – through the advice, or lack of it, from the FCO. He wants to introduce evidence from a security expert who works in an “anti-terrorist Western organisation” who might criticise the FCO by concluding “they mucked it up”.

The next pre-inquest hearing is set for December 1st and will specifically address whether the issue of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act is within the scope of the Inquiry. If the Chairman determines it is, and if he later decides the Government was culpable through the FCO’s advice (or lack of it), the compensation claims will run into many millions.