Does progress always have to be savage?

Navvies monument

Navvies monument (Photo credit: phill.d)

Whenever there is a great leap by mankind, someone, somewhere suffers. Empires rise and fall, companies thrive, plateau and die. Whole industries die out to make way for new ways of doing things. It happens over and over. In the long run, the human race as a whole blossoms, but in the short-term, someone, somewhere gets hurt. The incredible feats of Victorian engineering that came about during the Industrial Revolution only exist because of hoards of navvies. Working in appalling conditions for pitiful pay, these manual workers toiled away to produce some marvellous structures. The mortality rate was sky-high. More navvies died building the Woodhead Tunnel than during the Battle of Waterloo.

Jobs in manufacturing disappeared thanks to the rise in mechanised assembly lines. Printing jobs went up in smoke because of the digital age. Where it once took an army of workers to produce a large print run of newspapers, it now only takes a handful. Office workers in their droves saw their jobs vanish due to computerisation. Cars today are much more reliable thanks to the robotised construction techniques, but that means we employ far fewer car assembly workers.

The sheer amount of technology available to us today is mind-boggling. 10 years ago, I only had one multiple electric gang socket. Today, my house is riddled with them. All this technology has an increasingly diminishing shelf life. Many people replace their mobile phones every year if not more often. Today’s laptop will be tomorrow’s landfill.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

30 million computers are discarded in the USA every year. Europe manages to ditch 100 million mobile phones. All in all, an estimated 50 million tonnes of electrical waste needs to be disposed of every year. All of this waste contains a cocktail of poisonous substances and useful materials that could be recycled. Unfortunately, much of this waste ends up in developing economies where workers are slowly poisoned whilst earning a pittance to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In this country, we immediately throw our hands in the air whenever there is any kind of project that might affect the resale values of our precious homes. Spare a thought for anyone who stands in the way of a big engineering project in China. They certainly get the job done and progress is made, but at what human cost?

Of course, we eventually clean up our act. If you work on a big construction project today, the laws in place to protect you are legion. We are starting to put together frameworks for the handling of electronic waste. China has even passed a new law, after a tortured 12 year journey through the courts, to better protect the rights of homeowners when faced with compulsory purchase.

But when the trail is being blazed, the damage gets done.


The Industrial Renaissance

Teenage mutant ninja turtles

Teenage mutant ninja turtles (Photo credit: cubedude27)

I have to confess that the names Michelangelo and Leonardo make me think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles long before I think of Florence and all the amazing architecture and artwork. Even so, it’s an amazing place. We spent a day there and marvelled at all the sights. Our tour guide was a short, round man who sported a massive pink umbrella which he held aloft for us to follow. One of the first things he told us was that he was homosexual. At first I wondered what relevance his sexuality could possibly have, but as he took us around all the beautiful buildings he pointed out, he told us a little about the famous renaissance men.

The way he explained it, they were all lovers and they spent their spare time, whilst they weren’t painting masterpieces or carving marble, sleeping with each other. “It was a marvellous time” he told us in his squeaky Italian accented voice. “There was love everywhere and that’s where the inspiration for all these masterpieces came from.” Whatever it was that inspired those great artists, they did a fine job, even if it does mean you get fleeced everywhere you because you are in the presence of greatness.

Although they are very nice works of art and Florence is a beautiful city, I have far more respect for another period in history. If I could travel back in time, the period of choice has to be the Industrial Revolution. In less than a century, a number of inventors transformed the world. Great advances in textiles, metallurgy and energy made more of an impact than any other period that came before (and arguably afterwards). Isambard Kingdom Brunel built God’s Wonderful Railway and if he’d won the argument about how wide apart the rails should be, we would have much faster, safer and more comfortable trains today. Instead, Stephenson, another Victorian engineer won out. Railway lines spread out across the country in a frenzy of navvies.

It was an age that saw the first postage stamp, the first pedal bicycle and the first flushing toilet. Telephones and typewriters were invented along with petrochemicals. For those with a sweet tooth, someone invented jelly babies and ice cream. Pasteurisation meant you could eat the ice cream without fear of being poisoned. The electric light bulb came along to light up our lives. For those with an ear for music, along came the gramophone and the wireless. Children all over the world (as well as some grown up children) give thanks for the invention of the comic book.

Maybe we will look back at the last hundred years and think it a revolution of a different kind. The internet revolution, although undoubtedly profound, somehow pales in my mind when compared with the achievements of our Victorian forefathers.


The greatest show on Earth


2012 Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the winning city for the 2012 Olympics bid was announced in Singapore, Britain rejoiced for 24 hours. The following day, the 7/7 atrocity took place in the capital and the mood of the country flipped to sadness and anger. For a number of reasons, this Olympics will be etched into the memories of the host nation more than any other.

This is the 30th Olympiad and the 3rd occasion with London as the host nation. 4 years ago, it was Beijing and by any standards, the spectacular show the Chinese put on is crushingly difficult to follow. As always in the build up to such events, there have been wobbles along the way.

When Boris and Beckham in a bus rolled into the 2008 closing ceremony for the handover, I cringed. All Beckham had to do was kick a ball into a massive goal mouth and when he missed – I cringed again. It all looked so amateur in contrast to the drilled professionalism that surrounded them.

June 2011 - Aerial photo of the Olympic Park m...

June 2011 – Aerial photo of the Olympic Park main stadium and Orbit tower under construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Opening Ceremony for 2012 was a closely guarded secret. Indeed, when we took a helicopter over the Olympic park a few weeks before the ceremony, the flight restrictions were legion, apparently in place to stop photography of the rehearsals of the opening ceremony. Inside the stadium, there wasn’t much to be seen when we made our all too brief fly past. The base of the arena looked like the rolling fields of the British countryside.

We watched the opening ceremony nervously, hoping against hope that we didn’t embarrass ourselves on the world stage. we needn’t have worried – it was so good, we watched in again last night on BBC iPlayer. The opening was a bit shaky, with frolicking and wobbly Maypoles, but the choirs singing Jerusalem and Flower of Scotland raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

The Industrial Revolution kicked in and top hatted gentlemen in their hundreds made their way in. Uprooting trees and rolling back grass to make way for the vast belching chimneys. Pools of red-hot steel were poured into gullies to form large rings, Olympic rings. Once made whole, they were lifted skyward, triumphantly forming one of the most famous logos in the world.

A helicopter picked up James Bond and Her Majesty the Queen from Buckingham Palace and whisked them over the impressive London skyline and they parachuted into the stadium wearing Union Jack parachutes. The London Symphony Orchestra played Chariots of Fire with the help of Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean in one of the funniest sequences of the show. A tribute was paid to the digital age with Sir Tim Berners-Lee  tweeting live from stage.


OPENING CEREMONY (Photo credit: itupictures)

With our heritage of creative industry, music was always going to feature heavily in the opening ceremony. There were some strange choices I thought. Mike Oldfield and the Arctic Monkeys rather than the Rolling Stones. No Elton John or Cliff Richard for example. No Take That or the Spice Girls.

The athletes parade was enjoyable, but interminably long. It seemed to take an hour just to get through countries beginning with the letter ‘A’. There were many countries that I had never heard of and as the host nation, we had to wait until last. In we came along to David Bowie’s “We could be Heroes”.

One of the most poignant things I have seen for some time was the tribute to those who lost their lives in the 7/7 bombings. A haunting rendition of “Abide with me” as the photographs of the 56 victims flashed past in a montage on-screen. May they be remembered and let’s hope that nothing like it ever happens again.

Good luck to all our athletes. Proud to be British.

News travels fast


English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalg...

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s connected world, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago, events took a long time to become widely known. News was originally spread by word of mouth which meant that it travelled only as fast as the people who carried it. With the advent of literacy and language, people began to use the written word to communicate with the wider world around us.

Military communications relied on various methods throughout the ages. A company runner was often sent across a battlefield carrying instructions between different units. Sometimes he even survived the trip. Semaphore signals using flags or lanterns were somewhat safer and are still in use today between ships in the same formation.

There is a plaque in Kensington marking how the news of Nelson’s death was broken. After he was killed in the battle of Trafalgar just off the coast of Cadiz, the ship carrying his body pickled in a barrel sailed to Falmouth where the news was sent by rider to London. Even after riding through the night changing horses at every opportunity – it was days before the public knew about Nelson’s death. As time went on, despatch riders exchanged their horses for motorcycles and advances in radio and telecommunications rendered them pretty much obsolete altogether.

In the wild west, news was propagated by the pony express – literally men on ponies riding from town to town spreading news of anything noteworthy. As the railroads crept across continental America, telegraph lines were built alongside and before too long, a message given to a telegraph operator in one town could be relayed to the other side of the country in a matter of hours.

The first recognisable newspapers came about in Venice around the 17th century. Costing one gazetta (a small coin of the time), these handwritten sheets gave the reader an inkling of what was happening in the world. During the industrial revolution, great advances were made in technology and it was possible to buy a printed newspaper for the first time. Many of the newspapers we recognise today (such as the Times or the New York Post) started at around this time.

In order to populate the newspapers with stories, they relied on correspondents. They were so-called because they would send in the stories via letter. Any such letters from far away climes would travel on packet steamers across the oceans to deliver their stories to the newspaper office ready for publishing. The further away the correspondent, the longer the delay.

When I was growing up, if you wanted news you either read a newspaper or tuned in to the television at 6PM or 10PM.

Today, there are whole networks and channels devoted to bringing the news into your life 24 hours a day. There are hundreds of sites all over the internet dedicated to providing the very latest news. It can be a matter of seconds before a story becomes world news. Satellite technology means that correspondents can report direct from very remote locations live as events unfold.

Not only that, but smartphones have become so sophisticated now that every user is a potential correspondent. Nowadays, we get breathtaking footage of disasters as they unfold – often in high-definition. Revolutions that might have once been quietly suppressed by brutal regimes are now headline news. There have been many high-profile cases where people have attempted to stand Canute-like against an unwelcome story by taking out injunctions. With Twitter, the news seems to sweep over them like an angry wave.

If only more of the news was good news!