Year zero for Britain's frozen travellers
Tuesday, 28 December 2010 18:58

Snow, ice and wind, with more to come; seasonal change is good for wildlife; men are piling on the kilos; post offices for sale; the right for schoolchildren not to believe; 'revolving doors' at the civil service; Brian Hanrahan, a journalist's journalist.

In the US state of Wisconsin, locals like to boast that they have but two seasons: winter and road construction. It's a bit like that here now, except that we have no money left to build roads.

Winter arrived early, and shows no great inclination to leave. At time of writing, temperatures have crept above zero in parts of Britain, but much of the land remains clothed in frost and snow. The airports and railway stations are once again doing business, after long days of chaos and misery, but road conditions remain grim, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the cheery folk at the Met Office say that, by the time you read this, there will be more snow, ice and bitterly cold winds.

Oh well, there have been some light moments too. The government has promised to punish airport owners that allow the weather to disrupt flights. That's a bit like fining farmers whose crops are lost to floods, but at least it does recognise that the big operators, like BAA (formerly the British Airports Authority), were caught with their pants down when the snow fell.

Heathrow in particular was horribly disrupted by just 12cm of snow, and so embarrassed is the BAA chief executive, Colin Matthews, that he has waived his 2010 bonus. Golly.

It's good to hibernate

The big freeze has not been kind to people, but it has been a boon for our flora and fauna. Hibernating creatures have done particularly well, as the cold has encouraged them to hunker well down.

The National Trust, in its annual winter round-up of how wildlife has coped with the year, is relieved by the apparent return of a four-season cycle. Matthew Oates, the charity's nature conservation adviser, said that for the first time in a generation Britain had experienced a traditional year of weather, and wildlife had mostly responded favourably.

"A cold winter enabled wildlife to hibernate properly while a warm spring and early summer created ideal conditions for insects and led to bumper autumn crops in our orchards, woods and hedgerows," he added.

Two years ago the trust warned that unseasonal weather could mean disaster for many species of insects, birds and mammals. This year, according to Oates, there have been more winners than losers. Among the success stories are the puffins on the Farne Islands and the rare large blue butterfly in Somerset. On the losing side were the harmless but fragile crane flies, better known as daddy longlegs.

A nation of fatties

All right, we own up. Us chaps have been very naughty of late: we've stuffed our faces more, drained ever more glasses and spent more time slumped on sofas. The one thing we have successfully cut down on is exercise.

The result, according to some clever boffins at Oxford, is that the average British man piled on 7.7kg (one stone and three pounds in the old money) between 1986 and 2000. The British Heart Foundation, which funded the study, described the main findings as a "ticking time bomb for male health", that would lead to a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

And it's not just men. Over the 15 years studied, women put on an average of 5.4kg. More than half of all adults are now said to be overweight or obese, with a quarter of all men classed as obese in 2008, compared with around 7% in 1986.

Stamps included

Our dwindling network of post offices could be approaching final meltdown. New research by the Communications Workers Union (CWU) suggests more than 1,000 post offices – one in 10 – have been closed this year, or put up for sale.

The CWU fears that more will be put at risk if the government presses ahead with plans to privatise Royal Mail, which owns the network. Post offices depend on Royal Mail for about a third of their revenues.

The union's general secretary, Billy Hayes, said that many sub-postmasters (branch owners) are quitting because of lower revenues and uncertainty about the future. But a Department for Business spokesman accused the union of scaremongering and said there was nothing unusual about around 200 branches changing hands every quarter.

Right to disbelieve

One of the curiosities of our overwhelmingly secular state is that we still require schoolchildren to take part in a daily act of religious worship that is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

The reality is that the law is often simply ignored, taking account of the number of children of other faiths or none, and the more prosaic fact that many schools lack a hall big enough to accommodate all pupils. Nevertheless, the National Secular Society argues that the worship requirement is an infringement of children's human rights.

"We recognise that assemblies with an ethical framework [sic] have a vital contribution to make to school life," said Keith Porteous, its executive director. "We do, however, object to collective worship in principle, as not being a legitimate activity of a state-funded institution."

Mandarins for hire

A generation or so ago, there was a fairly rigid rule against senior civil servants selling their expertise to the private sector for at least three years after their retirement. That seems almost impossibly quaint now, as mandarins queue up for lucrative board memberships and consultancies as soon as they leave Whitehall.

Still, the so-called revolving door culture still occasionally raises an occasional eyebrow. The latest row centres on the recruitment of two newly retired civil servants by the enormous private security company G4S, formerly Group 4 Security.

Peter Collecott, former director of corporate affairs at the Foreign Office, and David Gould, former chief operating officer at the Ministry of Defence in charge of defence equipment, clearly have a lot of inside knowledge to offer their new employer, and will no doubt behave with the utmost propriety. But Denis McShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham, is not happy.

"There is great excitement over politicians and outside interests but the real issue is the gilded path from Whitehall, where billions of pounds worth of public spending decisions are made, into employment with companies that gained from such contracts and contacts," he said.

Hanrahan's way

Brian Hanrahan, who has died at the tragically early age of 61, was known to millions of BBC viewers and listeners as a correspondent and presenter. What made him unusual, though, was the universal respect he earned from fellow journalists.

Famously, he covered the Falklands conflict as an "embedded" correspondent – then a novel proposition. He was doubtless irked by the petty restrictions this imposed on him, but he remained true to his audience. When he was told not to reported the number of Harrier jets taking part in a mission, he simply said: "I counted them all out and I counted them all back", which was of course the main point.

Later, he witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He presented BBC news programmes, where he excelled with his firm but fair interview technique.

Throughout his career, he was a first-class reporter.

(The Guardian)

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