Blood, sweetbreads and jeers (Daily Telegraph)

Television is saturated with finger licking temptresses who answer only to the call of “goddess”, and men who see swearing and food preparation as a means to world domination. Do we really need another eulogy to these egomaniacs doing unspeakable things to our food?

Heat evolved from the author’s assignment to write a magazine feature on Mario Batali, New York’s most recognisable chef and TV cook, a man who gets through a case of wine over dinner and pops raw pig fat into the mouths of grateful dinner party guests. Meeting Batali has a profound effect on Buford, who is a former editor of Granta and a keen amateur chef. Without ever explaining how, he abandons his post at the New Yorker, joins the kitchen of Babbo, Batali’s flagship Manhattan restaurant, and works his way up from kitchen slave, to line chef, grillman and pasta maker. He follows Batali’s past, first to London and Marco Pierre White with whom the young American spent a tempestuous, abortive training, and onto Tuscany where he ends up losing himself in the traditions of rustic cooking. It’s not clear at first what the point is – is Buford seeking knowledge, fulfilment or just a good story about chefs? But soon you don’t care, such is the brio of Buford’s writing, his fine ear for dialogue and appreciation of character.

The engine room of the story is Babbo’s kitchen, a harsh, bitchy inferno redeemed only by the act of cooking and unspoken camaraderie. Of course, Anthony Bourdain has been here before with Kitchen Confidential, his depiction of chefs fornicating, fighting and overdosing. But where Bourdain’s prose was like someone pirouetting around an abbatoir with a chainsaw, Buford is more measured, offering the inquisitive view of a middle aged ingenu, which in the end gives us a better picture of how a great restaurant kitchen really feels. Everyone is constantly fighting for space; on Buford’s first day he is bumped forty times, his colleagues’ way of reminding him that he is bottom of the pile. He cuts his fingers, is burned – usually by himself but occasionally by the vindictive executive chef – is screamed at, sacked from the grill by Batali after undercooking the pork, told to walk round the kichen in circles holding a sea bass, has his food ritually wrecked, but despite the humiliation sticks in there for over a year, at which point he realises he has crossed over from tourist to insider.

As with Bourdain’s “never order fish on a Monday”, the tips, revelations and indiscretions flow thick and fast. The grill is a relentless blur of barked orders and repetitive efficiency, not unlike the McDonald’s production line; trays of meat rest on top of the dustbins due to lack of space; Batali fishes out from the rubbish bags celery florets, kidneys or anything else he considers valuable and serves them up for dinner; the pasta cooker becomes silted up with starch as the night goes on, lending the pasta a richer taste than you can achieve at home. But never order pasta after ten o’clock. By then the water has turned purple and is full of goat’s cheese, shellfish and squash from the tortelloni. Arriving late is a bad move as at a certain point, the kitchen loses interest in the customers and starts preparing its own “family meal”.

Making food in the Babbo kitchen has a raw, macho sexuality – “What else do you put in another person’s body?” one of the cook’s mothers asks Buford. It can go to ridiculous extremes, such as when the sous chef tells a female colleague that from now on portions of sweetbreads should be defined according to bra size: “Elisa, all the boys know the feel of a B-cup.”

Then there’s the long shadow of the New York Times critic. For weeks at a time, Batali and his staff are in a state of heightened alert waiting for her to drop by. Unbeknown to her, when she finally shows up, she is treated to the most experienced waiter plus a backup waiter, floor manager and two runners, with the normally absent Batali checking everything leaving the kitchen. Even the music is chosen with her rumoured taste in mind. She promptly awards Babbo three stars.

Away from Babbo we have Buford’s hilarious brushes with Marco Pierre White and, later, the elegiac sections on Tuscany. White nearly steals the show, dressed in muddy boots and a straw covered jumper, ranting like a lunatic about parsley, forgetting everything and everyone and leading Buford to decide that the process of cooking “seems more typical of how a child’s brain works than an adult’s…like learning to throw a ball.” Perhaps that explains Gordon Ramsey.

At first glance I had feared for Heat. It appeared to blend some of the most irritating modern phenomena: TV chef, self indulgent first person narrative, pretend midlife crisis, and foodie obsession. In fact, it’s a messy, brilliant book, a high brow kitchen soap opera, which never skates over the characters’ flaws but is suffused with an infectious love of food and the people who devote their lives to it.

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, And Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany
by Bill Buford
319pp, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 15 2006


Who are the Barclay brothers? (BBC News online)

To say the Barclay twins do not seek publicity is something of an understatement.

They are billionaires. They own the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator, but rarely give interviews. Now the resignation of one of the Telegraph’s political columnists, Peter Oborne, backed by a searing article in which he accuses the paper’s management of colluding with advertisers, has put them into the limelight they appear to hate.

In his piece for Open Democracy, Oborne wrote: “After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public. There are two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers.”

The second related to the wider free press, Oborne wrote. His chief accusation was that the Telegraph’s management had not given prominence to the tax scandal at HSBC because of commercial interests. Oborne also accused the Telegraph of removing a news story from their website about HSBC.

The Telegraph has denied Oborne’s allegations. “Like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear. We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary. It is a matter of huge regret that Peter Oborne, for nearly five years a contributor to the Telegraph, should have launched such an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo, on his own paper.”

Surprisingly little has been written – in any depth – about the Barclays. Few photos exist of them on news picture libraries. One of the few shows them formally dressed, having just been knighted by the Queen. That was in 2000. One of the images from that occasion shows them playing up for the cameras, with Sir Frederick fussing over Sir David’s hair.

The twins were born in 1934. The Sunday Times in 2003 described them coming from “humble origins as two of 10 children born to a Scottish travelling salesman and his wife in a house in Hammersmith, west London, which they shared with several other families”. Their father died when the boys were 12, and around the age of 16 the boys set up a painting and decorating business, later moving into property.

In 1955 David Barclay married Zoe Newton, a trained ballerina who became a model. She was only 4ft 11in (1.5m) tall but became one of the most highly photographed models of her time. She appeared in television advertisements for the Dairy Council as the “drinka pinta milka day” girl. “The photographers were never far away and David was horrified when it was suggested their son Aidan should be marketed as the first ‘milk baby’,” the Sunday Times reported. Zoe had two more sons – Howard and Duncan – and gave up her modelling career to concentrate on her family.

In the 1970s, Sir Frederick reportedly married Hiroko Asada. Her son from a previous marriage, Ko, followed his stepfather’s example and is now a successful businessman, the Times has reported.

Frederick joined David to buy up old boarding houses in London and turn them into hotels.

Moving into media in 1992, Frederick and David bought the European newspaper from Robert Maxwell. In 1995, they bought the Scotsman.

But their big newspaper purchase came in 2004 with the acquisition of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph from Hollinger, following the forced departure of Conrad Black. The Spectator magazine is part of the same group.

The brothers also own mail order firm Littlewoods, bought in 2002 for £750m. That purchase brought controversy after they ended the firm’s tradition of giving 1% of profits to charities.

But the knighthoods that came in 2000 were for services to charity. By this point their foundation was thought to have donated about £40m to charity and medical research. After the ceremony Sir Frederick said: “Giving to charity is an important part of our life. It’s an obligation to society. If you’ve been fortunate, it’s a duty to give to those less fortunate than yourself.”

They bought the Ritz Hotel in London in 1995. Other businesses they have owned include the Ellerman shipping and brewery group in the 1980s, and more recently the Handbag group of websites. They currently own the delivery firm Yodel.

Today the brothers are said to be worth £6bn, according to the Sunday Times Rich List. Noting their homes in the Channel Islands and Monaco, the Guardian has described them as “tax exiles”. But Sir Frederick has been quoted before as saying he and his brother left the UK solely for health reasons.

In 2012, the BBC’s Panorama covered the tax arrangements of their hotel, the Ritz, reporting that it had paid no corporation tax in the UK by legally claiming reliefs for the 17 years since the Barclays took over. At the time Sir David said: “We have always acted in a responsible way with regard to taxation and have never been involved in any tax avoidance scheme. We are not responsible for corporate taxes in the UK and are unaware what tax is paid on the Ritz.”

A rare insight into Sir Frederick and Sir David’s lives came in a 2012 court case relating to their attempt to gain control of Coroin, a rival hotel group. Sir Frederick, in a witness statement, told the court: “I am now into my late seventies. As I explain below, I am effectively retired. I keep no work diary, have no business secretary and received or reviewed little or no documentation relating to the matters in issue in these proceedings (given the limits of my involvement and the fact that I do not use email or text messages).”

The court also heard that his brother Sir David had undergone heart surgery in 2011 and was not medically fit to give evidence. Sir David’s son Aidan has long managed the family’s businesses in the UK.

The brothers are often called reclusive – a term they are said to dislike. After their knighthood ceremony, during what was thought to be their first face-to-face interview for 30 years, Sir David said: “We’re in a good mood today. We’re giving you a lot of our privacy. We’re not secretive, just private.”

In another interview in 2004 to discuss their purchase of the Telegraph group, Sir David said “I don’t think I’ve done anything dirty in my life.”

Even in 1999, when the Queen opened the new offices at the Scotsman, which they owned, there was no big speech. “Frederick Barclay’s only comment as he stepped into a chauffeur-driven car was that he had enjoyed a ‘good, good’ day,” reported the Daily Mail. The paper, which said they’d been “lured out of hiding” to meet the Queen, noted that the last photograph of them together had been from 25 years before.

The brothers have bases in Monaco and Brecqhou, one of the Channel Islands. In 1993 they bought the 32-hectare (80-acre) island for almost £3.5m. They built a castle, designed by Quinlan Terry and planted vineyards, an olive grove and an organic market garden.

In 2008 they announced they were closing down all their businesses on the nearby island of Sark with the loss of about 100 jobs, a sixth of the island’s population. They later reopened the businesses but there’s been a long-running dispute with some locals over the brothers’ desire to change the island’s system of governance.

Both brothers are in Who’s Who, but with little of the detail that marks many of the entries in the reference work. There are no recreational interests listed. Sir David’s entry mentions that he was a member of the Sark parliament until 2008. Both brothers were appointed “Ambassador Extraordinaire at Large for Economic Development in Monaco” in 2010.

In 2003 the Sunday Times reported that the Barclays had asked their friend Lord McAlpine, who died last year, to write their biography. The piece quoted McAlpine’s own memoirs where he had written warmly of the brothers: “I have spent many hours in their company and never cease to wonder at their insights… The two brothers are not secretive, just immensely private in how they earn their money and how they give it away.” The following year a Times diary piece shed further light on the book: “The intention is that this will never be published, though, but will be for the private amusement of the twins and their families.”

The Barclays make no political pronouncements. But they were close to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who spent the months prior to her death in April 2013 staying at the Ritz as their guest.

In March last year the pair won a £1.2bn payment from HMRC over miscalculated tax.

But it is their ownership of the Telegraph that has prompted the biggest headlines.

Longstanding Telegraph writer Bill Deedes, described the new regime as a “stinking mob” to friends. In a memo, passed to his biographer only to be published after his death, he wrote: “It struck me that what the Barclays saw in the Telegraph was an asset that in the right hands could be turned into a more profitable business… The intention to change the nature of the Telegraph into something more profitable had to be shielded from readers who loved it most for its unprofitable qualities which they saw as a stand against the vulgarity of the red tops.”

But there were those who praised the Barclays for taking on the paper, and it was reported at the time that staff at the Telegraph Group much preferred them to the various other potential bidders.

Staff turnover ratcheted up. Between 1923 and 2004 just six men had edited the Telegraph, Oborne pointed out. Since the Barclays took over 11 years ago there have been half a dozen more. The departure of Tony Gallagher as editor in January 2014 was particularly surprising for media observers.

It followed the announcement of 80 editorial redundancies in March 2013. There was then the creation of 50 new digital journalism jobs, leading to a picture of upheaval and constant change.

A former senior Telegraph journalist says that when the Barclays arrived no-one knew why they’d bought the Telegraph. Unlike Rupert Murdoch, say, they had no “feel” for newspapers. One staff member noted privately that previous Telegraph owners had ended up with peerages.

The Barclays were said to have hated the “country club” atmosphere of the paper. They brought in Murdoch MacLennan from the Daily Mail to shake things up. Some of the moves were symbolic – alcohol was banned in the executive dining room. But the main changes were to staffing.

Old correspondents left and a succession of digital thinkers were brought in, some of whom did not last long, the ex-Telegraph journalist recalls. The Barclays weren’t much interested in what journalism the newspaper did. “I don’t think they intervened very much [editorially]. It was mostly commercial stuff.”

The Spectator addressed the current row over Peter Oborne on its blog. There was no mention of the Barclays in the piece. At the bottom, one reader wrote: “I had a subscription to the DT for over 10 years, but cancelled it once the vandalism of the Barclay brothers became apparent. The current incarnation of the DT is an embarrassment to the memory of great writers like Bill Deedes.”

Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media blogger, puts many of the ways the Telegraph has changed down to the brothers. “It’s less comprehensive in news coverage than it was. It’s very very much more obviously a commercial operation. And less credible than it was.”

“There was a recognisable Daily Telegraph approach to daily news coverage.” It was thorough and comprehensive, Greenslade says. He believes the Telegraph came to resemble “a feeble approach to doing a broadsheet Daily Mail”.

But in the past Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has praised the brothers for their non-interference. In an interview in February 2013 he said he had never met the brothers. His links were with Sir David’s sons, Aidan and Howard, who were interested in politics but did not tell him how pieces should be written.

“I often think how lucky I am to have them as owners; a magazine like ours could be easily run as an entree into society,” Nelson said.

The twins’ wealth and their emphasis on privacy will continue to flavour coverage of the businesses they own. But for Sir David, talking on the day of their knighthood, theirs is a straightforward story. “It’s a great example of what can be achieved in this country from whatever background or education or humble beginnings.”

This piece appeared on the BBC News website on 20 February 2015

Books Culture Zimbabwe

Sympathy for the devil (Prospect)

The aim of Heidi Holland’s biography of Robert Mugabe is to humanise the monster so that we can understand the “three-dimensional Mugabe instead of a cartoon villain.” That doesn’t look like such a bright idea in the context of another brutal election campaign in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been murdered, raped and tortured into submission.

Mugabe claims he has been appointed by God and can only be removed by God. In reality, the people preventing Mugabe’s exit are a junta of security chiefs implicated in past atrocities. In this light, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to pull out of the presidential run-off looks like a tactical mistake that played into Mugabe’s hands by allowing him the luxury of not having to rig the poll. But for those on the ground, the price of staying in may have become too high. In mid-June, Abigail Chiroto, the wife of the MDC mayor of Harare, was murdered by Zanu-PF thugs, the most high profile in a wave of killing that has taken the lives of 80 opposition supporters. Now Tsvangirai, as he has done with previous instances of electoral fraud, is asking the international community to step in to resolve the crisis. But with Thabo Mbeki in South Africa still blocking any serious regional or international intervention, it is hard to see where this crippled society goes from here.

Heidi Holland’s detailed excavation of Mugabe’s past unearths a more multifaceted narrative than that found in western media—a man who is both victim and villain. Reading it, I found myself sympathising with the diffident intellectual who was ill suited to a life of political struggle and leadership, but who gradually came to relish the Machiavellian modes of power. Holland’s gripping biography provides us with an opportunity to empathise with one of the world’s last great dictators—something that makes it deeply unsettling.

Holland was born in Johannesburg but grew up in Rhodesia, becoming an activist against Ian Smith’s white minority rule. The title of the book and the subject of the preface draws on an episode in 1975 when she allowed her home to be used as a safe house for the liberation struggle, and ended up cooking dinner for a young Robert Mugabe. In a nice piece of symmetry, the last chapter of the book is taken up with an interview Holland somehow managed to secure with President Mugabe in December 2007. Ostensibly, the subjects of the two interviews are very different men.

There have been good Mugabe biographies before, notably by Martin Meredith and David Blair, but this is the most captivating because it allows us to see a familiar character afresh. Traditional biography offers a linear progression from birth towards death, evoking a sense of inevitability and closure, but Holland’s method forgoes chronology and instead asks her sources to remember the man they knew and, with the benefit of hindsight, tell us what went wrong. Holland calls it a “psychobiography” because she has enlisted the help of two psychologists and an “emotional intelligence consultant” to analyse her taped interviews. This is occasionally irritating but for the most part it proves enlightening. The impressive roll call of witnesses includes Lady Soames, the widow of Britain’s last governor to Rhodesia, who touchingly describes the incongruous friendship that blossomed between the establishment Soames family and the self-professedly Marxist Mugabes.

The book never glosses over Mugabe’s flaws or atrocities. Rather it puts them in a fresh context. Mugabe’s is a life full of sadness and relatively empty of friendships. By the time he reaches ten, two of his brothers have died, and his father Gabriel has abandoned the family to go and live in Bulawayo. Robert, a bookish child, is teased by his schoolmates for his close relationship with his pious mother, and for being the favourite of Father Jerome O’Hea, the village’s Jesuit priest. Donato Mugabe, his last surviving brother, remembers: “Father O’Hea had told [our mother] that Robert was going to be an important somebody, a leader. [She] believed Father O’Hea had brought this message from God.”

The only person Mugabe ever really adored, his first wife Sally, dies in 1992. Mugabe is inconsolable. There are no surviving children—their three-year-old son had died in 1966 while Mugabe was imprisoned by Rhodesia’s white minority government, and Ian Smith had overruled the prison governor to prevent Mugabe from attending the funeral.

Various theories are put forward to explain Mugabe’s decline into tyranny. Most striking to a British audience is the description of how Tony Blair’s first government handled the question of land. In 1997, following a Commonwealth conference at which Blair and Mugabe had disagreed on land reform, the international development secretary Clare Short wrote a letter to Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister saying that Britain did not accept it had a responsibility to fund land redistribution. “We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers.” This jarringly patronising, never mind morally dubious, message was the precursor to untold damage. Short had her own ideas, wanting to decouple aid budgets from politics, but it was a naive hope in a continent as traumatised by colonialism as Africa. In Holland’s tense interview with Mugabe at State House, the president claims that John Major’s government had prepared a generous package of land reform, but that New Labour’s 1997 landslide changed everything. “‘They were going to tear it up,’ he growled bitterly. ‘And we read then that it was a government without norms and principles at all, and they didn’t deserve our respect.’”

A diplomatic row between an African country and its former colonial master need not have led to disaster. But Mugabe’s sensitivity and sense of betrayal is a recurring theme, whether in the brutal purges he inflicted on his own side during the liberation struggle or the way he quickly became paranoid on taking power.

Conventional wisdom has it that things began going wrong in the late 1990s when tough economic circumstances and the formation of the MDC panicked Mugabe into playing his jokers—land and race. But it is his first few years in office that encapsulates the real, schizophrenic Mugabe. In the early 1980s, he was simultaneously a moderate leader who ensured postwar reconciliation and rapid advances in health and education and a brutal oppressor made paranoid by apartheid South Africa’s attempts to destabilise him. The worst single act of Mugabe’s rule happened in 1983, when his Fifth Brigade massacred anywhere between 8,000 and 20,000 people in Matabeleland to put down a suspected Ndebele rebellion. In contrast to Britain’s later condemnations of the farm invasions, in which a handful of whites died, Margaret Thatcher’s government kept quiet, and a decade later the Queen awarded Mugabe an honorary knighthood.

The spin doctor Jonathan Moyo at one point tells Holland that the young Mugabe was never really interested in politics. As an articulate intellectual with a career as a teacher, he was seized upon by nationalist politicians as someone who could give their movement credibility. “Mugabe looks very different to them, even superior,” Moyo speculates. “And that becomes the reason for him being chosen and given high office, which he did not seek, let alone earn.” Like much of this thought-provoking book, this is just a theory. But if true, it’s telling that the 84-year-old Mugabe is no longer being used as a symbol of learning, but for the fear that his cult of personality inspires.

Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland (Penguin, £17.99)

This piece appeared at Prospect online on July 26 2008

Environment & climate Transport Uncategorized

An emissions odyssey in a 1993 Golf (BBC News online)

It’s not easy finding out how polluting your car is. What started close to home – will my old banger’s petrol engine be better or worse than my father’s more modern diesel – led to a much more surprising finding: many brand new cars are dirtier than older vehicles in one crucial respect.

(This is best viewed on the BBC website: click here to continue reading)


This piece appeared on the BBC website on October 17 2017


Technology Trends

My life of shame (Evening Standard)

We both look similar. Two late-thirties men wearing check shirts, knocking back tea and coffee while we chat. But we’re not the same. And I’m working up to a difficult question: “So what kind of images were you into: oral, anal, vaginal?” For the man sitting opposite me with the warm eyes and easy laugh is a self-confessed porn addict.

When I first met Mike he’d been director of a multinational media firm earning £100,000 a year. But his fascination with internet porn videos had gradually taken an unbreakable grip on his life. It was a secret he kept from Annabel, his girlfriend of four years whom he was engaged to marry. Then in February last year, after hitting “rock bottom” with the addiction and coincidentally being made redundant, he finally decided to seek help. He confessed to Annabel and checked into the Priory. “I went through a full disclosure. The effect was huge for her – betrayal, disgust, shock. We were due to get married in September but we’re now living separately.”

So how did an intelligent, articulate man with a successful career come to be subjugated by pictures of strangers having sex? With admirable honesty Mike says he’s always been fascinated by porn. Aged eight he remembers finding his dad’s books of nudes and then, like many teenage boys, he traded porn mags. But in 1995 his habit made a quantum leap – he discovered the internet.

 “I was given a laptop by work and could go to news groups and download pictures. But it was really slow so I was still using videos and sex shops.” Then in 2000 the internet speeded up. And so did Mike’s porn habit. “I never paid for anything. Video clips were longer and longer and full movies were going up.” Soon it was an all-day, hourly fix. “It became something I did first thing – I’d log on to my PC quickly at home. I had quite a long drive to work and I’d be looking (at porn) on my BlackBerry. Then in between meetings in my office and driving home. In the evening my partner would be watching TV and I’d say, ‘I’ve got work to do’ and be up in my office [watching porn].”

He was watching “fairly normal stuff”, he says, never teens or violent material. “I used to go to portal sites putting up free videos. Just people having sex, couples mainly. Nothing too weird – I liked women in their thirties or older and got into porn stars on and off. The most extreme I’d get is a gang bang.”

His obsession was both physically and emotionally driven. “It was generally about masturbation. By the end it was multiple times a day to the point that it had almost become self-harm.” He also craved its numbing effect: “I was trying to avoid every form of feeling. I’d often sit for four hours but not actually orgasm. It’s the build-up, it’s very ritualistic. [Orgasm] would be the end of it. Then suddenly you’d come right down.”

Drug users talk of the rush. Did he feel that chemical fizz? “Definitely. If I’d had a period of not using and then went back, it was ‘woooo!’ You’d be drawn back to it, trying to recreate that first rush.”

But shame and self-loathing were never far away. “Afterwards you feel just awful, guilty and disgusted with yourself. I was constantly trying to stop, thinking right, I’ll clear my cache, I’m not doing this again. And two weeks later I’d be back on it.”

Because of the porn he rarely had sex with Annabel and would arrange his weekends around his habit: “We’d had such a great sex life. But it went bad pretty quickly. There was the erotic desensitising but also not being able to get close to her because of the shame. And if she went away for the weekend I wouldn’t arrange something socially, I’d just do porn.”

As his porn use increased, so the images coloured his view of women.

“I found I’d sexually objectify just about every woman I saw. I’d be walking down the street looking for the next woman to look at. And in the office, it was so heavy.” He never harassed female colleagues but began visiting prostitutes and reading websites reviewing hookers. “For me it was the intrigue – I used to get a lot out of reading those sites. Towards the end it was compulsive but I was so not into it. I started seeing these looks of disgust in their eyes.”

By the end there was little or no pleasure, just a craving that had to be fulfilled. “The orgasm was nothing. It was: ‘I’ve orgasmed. I still feel low’.” Rock bottom came in Christmas 2009 when he and Annabel went on a month’s holiday to a place with only occasional internet access. “It was such an active holiday that I managed to stay away from it. On the outside I was having great fun. But on the inside I was dreading going home. God, I thought, I’ve got to sort all this out. How the hell am I going to deal with it?” That’s when he told Annabel and became an in-patient at the Priory.

Jenny Dew, the psychotherapist who oversaw his rehab at the Priory describes it as a “process addiction”, like eating disorders. Just as we all need to eat, these days few can live without the internet, which makes it difficult to cut oneself off from temptation. “If porn was a drug we’d rate it as cocaine,” she says, before Mike puts in: “And internet porn is crack cocaine.”

Erotica has been around since prehistoric man learned to daub on a cave. But the internet has revolutionised voyeurism by opening up a virtually infinite number of fantasies available free at the click of a mouse or touch on a smartphone screen.

According to UKOM/Nielsen research, 10.6million people in the UK – more than a quarter of the active online population – visited an “adult” site in January last year. At least 70 per cent were male. Meanwhile in a survey by Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at Oxford University, about half of men in a relationship admitted to viewing explicit material since starting their current relationship. Some might argue it’s only addictive types such as Mike who get hooked on porn. But Dew believes the internet has changed the rules. “Something like cybersex can be so pleasurable that people who have none of the typical profiles of an addict will become addicted. From a neurobiological point of view, we teach ourselves things. And if we do something over and over again we eventually wear a pathway in the brain.”

Mike is worried about the impact on society. He says contacts in the City are getting hooked on lapdancing clubs, while the imagery of porn is seeping into adverts, MTV and the fashion industry. He believes we’re in denial about the number of addicts out there. “The floodgates are going to open. It’s no longer restricted to downstairs dingy sex shops in Soho. Kids are being brought up on it. I know a lot of people out there who don’t see themselves as addicts but I believe they’ve got problems.”

That was what he told me six months ago. Now when we meet for coffee on the South Bank, Mike is ebullient. His new business is doing well and he has news about Annabel. “We’re together again, the marriage is back on. And we’re going to be buying a house shortly. We’ve been doing couple’s counselling. I think she got her head round the idea of addiction as an illness. She’s shown a lot of understanding.” He hasn’t looked at porn since February 4 2010. Like the recovering alcoholic he once was, he’s taking it one day at a time. There’s still a long way to go. “From what I’ve read, my brain can be rewired but it takes two to five years.”

He’s terrified of being identified because of the taboo around porn. Hence the false name and lack of photo. So why risk the success of his new life for the sake of a newspaper article? “I stopped drinking about 12 years ago. What prompted that was reading an interview in the Observer with the footballer Tony Adams. I totally identified with what he went through. I was a binger like him. So maybe this will help someone else out there.”

(Names and minor details have been changed)

This piece was published in the London Evening Standard on 12 January 2012

Environment & climate

The coming storm: climate scientists on what happens next (FT magazine)

Climate scientists are like an exotic tribe – fascinating, sometimes hard to understand and rarely visited. The editor of a science journal warned me that I would find little to interest mainstream readers – the boffins would agree on pretty much everything. The debate, she implied, was over.

She was wrong. While climate scientists agree the world is warming due to man’s activities, there are still large areas of conflict, notably over how certain we can be about the predictions.

How did we choose?

Assembling any top 10 is fraught with difficulties. Assemble one for climate scientists and the problem is exacerbated by the complexity of their research and the range of specialist fields that make up a broad science.

Here, we focused on those people who specialise in climate prediction rather than climate change’s impact on the environment. The criteria for inclusion was original research, influence on peers and sound judgment.

So, while we were willing to consider talking to climate change naysayers – “denier” seems a rather Stalinist term – we found that even their initially compelling arguments were rarely backed up by peer-reviewed research. None made it into the top 10, although since he is a contrarian whose earlier work remains relatively respected, we chose to profile Richard Lindzen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well.

Who’s missing?

One regret is the absence of Chinese experts. Three were approached but either refused to be interviewed outright or failed to make themselves available after seeing a list of questions.

What can we learn?

The fact that experts in the hard sciences disagree about climate change spells trouble for the politicians and policymakers at Copenhagen.

A majority of scientists claim to be limiting their carbon footprint – but measured against the scale of the problem is such individual action meaningful?

“If we believe in free will we can at least make some difference,” says Tim Lenton. Referring to the hundreds of thousands of air miles travelled by climate scientists going to and from professional meetings, however, he adds that “we all have to ’fess up to the fact that we’re deeply hypocritical and contradictory beings.”

Others argue that the focus on personal behaviour is damaging: “Heart-warming stories of volunteers insulating the primary school roof have become a distraction,” says Myles Allen, who believes the future lies in carbon capture and storage.

“We currently enjoy a free lunch, because energy, food and cement prices do not include the costs of decarbonisation. The sooner politicians are upfront with people about this, the better.”


Name: Stefan Rahmstorf
Age: 49
Nationality: German
Position: Head of Earth System Analysis, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Expertise: Oceans

Mr Sea Level Rise fixes me with a steely gaze. We are sitting in a coffee shop close to the Oxford college where he is addressing a climate conference with his boss, John Schellnhuber. The two men are popular with the media, but some colleagues complain that they are too close to the policymakers and activists.

Rahmstorf, who is visiting from Potsdam, a university town strong in the sciences, projects a sense of both order and impatience. He argues that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has massively underestimated the rise in sea levels. Having tracked data for the past 120 years, he found that, above a certain equilibrium, a rise in temperature caused a proportionate increase in sea level. And when he compared the observations against the models for the years 1961 to 2003, the sea level had risen 50 per cent faster (1.8mm per year) than the models had predicted it would (1.2mm).

American oceanographer Carl Wunsch (see below) dismisses Rahmstorf’s findings, saying adequate measurement of the oceans only goes back 20 years: “People who claim to know what the ocean was doing 100 years ago are telling you fairy tales.” But Rahmstorf insists his curve fits recent figures. Since satellite measurements began in 1993, sea level has risen by 3.4mm a year. The IPCC notes the models’ inaccuracy in its full report, he says, yet makes no attempt to alter its projections. Neither will it include estimates for the melting icecaps. “A normal person would conclude ‘maybe we can’t trust the models’. But the models are simply taken as gospel for the future.” Rahmstorf believes the oceans will rise three times faster than the IPCC’s highest projections. Assuming a 4°C temperature rise by 2100, that would also mean a rise in sea level of 1.2 metres.

Rahmstorf believes that unless emissions are under control by 2020, there will be no time to prevent warming going above 2°C. A member of the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change, he has issued a plan for how we can avoid such a rise. It gives every nation in the world a carbon allowance for the years up to 2050.

At current consumption levels, the US would exhaust its allowance by 2016. To give them time to adjust, rich countries can pay developing nations to share their allowance. Rahmstorf believes the payments will enable developing economies to “leapfrog the dirty model” practised by industrialised nations in the last century.

Personal stance: No air travel for holidays. Doesn’t own a car and cycles to work. His house is insulated, cutting energy use by 60 per cent. His “sins” are buying bananas and having a long shower every morning.


Name: John Mitchell
Age: 61
Nationality: British
Position: Director of Climate Science, Met Office
Expertise: Climate modelling

After 36 years at the Met Office, including a spell writing the shipping forecast, John Mitchell has a weather-beaten mind. In person, there is no smug air of foreknowledge. Yet this softly spoken rugby fan from County Down in Northern Ireland is one of the most experienced climate modellers in the world.

Modelling is a contentious area. There’s so much we don’t fully understand about the climate – clouds, hurricanes, ice melting, aerosols – that questions remain over the ability of super-computers to model future climate. One experiment –, which generated thousands of versions of the Met Office’s climate model and got people to run them on their home PCs – showed that models will produce radically different results if you make minor adjustments to their parameters. The week before I met Mitchell, the Met Office was forced to defend its “barbecue summer” press release – proving the difficulty of making even seasonal predictions.

Mitchell takes such criticism calmly. “Essentially, a model is based on Newton’s Laws of Motion. All we’re trying to do with the models is quantify [the warming] better and say what the regional changes are.”

In practice, that means taking balloon and satellite measurements for temperature, winds and humidity in the atmosphere and using equations to give you a rate of change. It is always going to be an approximate picture but he insists there is a “strong resemblance” with what happens in reality.

Big obstacles remain. “There’s so much variation out there,” he says, pointing through the window. “How do you model that? Clouds are the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of modelling.”

But modelling power is increasing all the time. This summer, the government gave people access to detailed regional climate projections for the coming decades. The modelling was done by the Met Office – and though many scientists are uncomfortable with such “postcode predictions”, saying they send out an overconfident message about our understanding of the future, Mitchell is proud that the US is now considering following suit.

Personal stance: Takes small steps – turning down the thermostat and unplugging his mobile phone charger.


Name: Rajendra Pachauri
Age: 69
Nationality: Indian
Position: Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Expertise: Energy efficiency

Two years ago Dr RK Pachauri shared with Al Gore the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change. If Gore was the populist showman, Pachauri was the diligent committee man, accepting the prize on behalf of the IPCC (which he has chaired since 2002).

The IPCC is in effect a huge machine for reaching scientific consensus on global warming. From its creation in 1988, it has brought together thousands of the world’s climate experts to draft reports on the latest authoritative data and predictions. At the time of Pachauri’s nomination for the post, Gore called him the “let’s drag our feet candidate”. Yet while he is not strictly a “climate scientist”, he plays a crucial role in creating consensus, particularly among the world’s developing nations.

Pachauri rejects the view that population is as big an issue as reducing per capita emissions. “In North America,” he argues, “they have emissions of over 20 tonnes per capita per year, while in Bangladesh it’s half a tonne.”

But surely the point is that South Asia’s per capita emissions will catch up? “That’s precisely why a country like India should not allow its emissions to reach anywhere near [those of] the developed world.” He argues that India will have a very different pattern of development to the west with “large-scale mass transport systems” instead of cars, and energy-efficient buildings.

Meanwhile, industrialised nations will have to cut back fast. “My big concern,” he says, “are the people living in several regions of the world where there is no infrastructure, no capability or financial strength to deal with the impact of climate change.”

Personal stance: Has given up meat, and only uses air-con on a moderate setting.


Name: Myles Allen
Age: 44
Nationality: British
Position: Head of Climate Dynamics, Department of Physics, University of Oxford
Expertise: Statistics and modelling

Myles Allen’s young son John, who has been patiently reading in the corner, gets up and writes on the office whiteboard: “Myles is a penguin.” His father thanks him wryly, before launching back into his discourse on carbon sequestration. But there is something of the penguin about this freethinking statistician, who combines upper-crust vowels with the awkward charm of Griff Rhys-Jones.

Allen believes the current approach to tackling climate change is ill-conceived. His latest paper, published earlier this year in Nature, argues we should be looking at the total amount of carbon that humankind emits, not the rate at which we do so – the measure the negotiators in Copenhagen will be focusing on.

He shows me a graph with three different curves representing the same amount of carbon being emitted over different timescales. “Temperature response is identical,” he says. “It’s much easier to frame the problem if you say ‘what’s the total amount of carbon we can afford to inject into the atmosphere’ rather than what concentration should we be aiming for.” Yet because of the way the Rio Earth summit and Kyoto Protocol configured the problem, negotiations at Copenhagen are heading in the wrong direction.

Journalists are always asking Allen to say that unless emissions peak by 2015 we will pass a tipping point. He won’t, because he says such claims are nonsense. Worse, to pretend such arbitrary targets have a scientific basis will only disillusion the public once they find out the targets are going to be missed.

But isn’t it necessary to tell white lies in order to get what you want? “There’s just no point,” he says, looking over at his son before adding: “They’ll find you out!”

Personal stance: Cycles to work but loves Top Gear – “fossil fuels are fun”. Believes focus on personal behaviour is a distraction.


Name: Tim Lenton
Age: 36
Nationality: British
Position: Professor of Earth Systems Science, University of East Anglia
Expertise: Earth systems science

Tim Lenton is James Lovelock’s anointed successor. As an undergraduate he read Lovelock’s The Ages of Gaia (a book which argues that the earth and its biosphere function as one complex system), and subsequently wrote to the author saying he wanted to do research in his field. It led to an “amazing” meeting – and the two have stayed in touch.

Today the protégé takes a different line to the mentor on climate change. Both are worried about positive feedbacks from the climate system – a domino effect of warming – but Lenton does not share Lovelock’s apocalyptic vision. “We’ve agreed to disagree about the level of hope we should have for the future,” he says.

We are talking in the front room of his house in a quiet residential street in Norwich. Hardly the climate change frontline. And yet, in 2007, the freshwater Norfolk Broads were nearly flooded after storm surge conditions at sea. “At some point – maybe in the next 50 years – we’ll see the Broads revert towards a salt marsh ecosystem,” he says.

While others work in decades or centuries, Lenton thinks in millions of years. The book he’s working on chronicles Gaia’s instability, focusing on abrupt changes such as a leap in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago. “My question is: ‘are we at the start of another revolution?’�? He guesses that by the time his son James is 80, we will either be recycling energy and materials, or be on the way to a world of “unpleasantries�?.

Personal stance: Keen cyclist but also drives a Renault Clio. Holidays in the UK, but his wife is from New Zealand so they are using up a hefty dose of “love miles” this Christmas to see family.


Name: Kevin Trenberth
Age: 65
Nationality: Dual New Zealand and US citizenship
Position: Head of climate analysis, National Centre for Atmospheric Research, Colorado
Expertise: Hurricanes

There is a big debate about whether climate change is causing more devastating storms. Some say the increase in hurricanes could simply be the result of natural variability.

New Zealander Kevin Trenberth, on the other hand, is sure of the impact that climate change is having on hurricanes: he says it is causing more devastating storms. But he’s less sure what effect hurricanes have on global warming.

Hurricanes tend to cool things down. They leave a cold wake in oceans, and the extra rainfall they bring helps keep the land a bit cooler, too. Climate models do not currently have a good grip on this cooling effect – so the projections for tropical sea temperatures in them may well be higher than they should be. Therefore, argues Trenberth, the number of projected future hurricanes is probably being overestimated.

That said, when the storms do occur, he is certain they’ll be of greater intensity. Water vapour in the atmosphere helps fuel storms – and according to Trenberth it has increased by 4 per cent over the ocean since 1970. He traces that rise to the 0.6°C rise in global temperatures in that same period; as temperatures rise, the atmosphere is able to hold more water vapour.

Many scientists argue that his native New Zealand will be largely protected from climate change’s most severe effects – thanks to its maritime climate. But Trenberth points out that energy price hikes will drive up shipping costs – and if as a result other countries start growing their own food, exports will be hit hard.

Personal action: He has fitted solar panels, a new heat pump and water heater in his home.


Name: Chris Rapley
Age: 62
Nationality: British
Position: Director of the Science Museum
Expertise: Earth systems science

As a man who has moved between the different branches of climate science, Chris Rapley is well placed to judge his colleagues: “There’s a whole spectrum of views out there,” he says. “Some of the science is clear-cut,” but there are some big uncertainties. Will all the methane in the permafrost be released? What will be the rate of warming? Nobody knows what the world will look like in 50 years, but Rapley is confident it will be a warmer place facing a thousand years of rising oceans.

In 2005, he contributed to the Exeter conference on “avoiding climate change” commissioned by Tony Blair. His paper warned that the vast ice sheet on the western side of Antarctica might be starting to break up. As a result, he said, the IPCC would have to revise its prediction that the ice sheet was safe for 1,000 years. The following year he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Only five years ago, Antarctica was characterised as a slumbering giant in terms of climate change. I would argue that it is now an awakened giant, and we should take notice.”

Recently he’s become more pessimistic about our ability to prevent serious warming. While there is no shortage of human ingenuity, rhetoric or Nobel Prizes, the emissions trajectory has not turned downwards. “Unless Copenhagen leads to deceleration in the emissions curve then I think we’re going to have to be very pessimistic about the future,” he says.

He is not a deep green eco-warrior. He’s a Formula 1 fan and describes Jeremy Clarkson as a “really intelligent guy and great supporter of the museum.” But he wishes the Top Gear presenter would tone down his views on climate change, which he fears encourage people to cock a snoop at “that global warming shit.” The stakes are too high for such pantomime acts.

Hundreds of years from now Rapley believes London, New York and Amsterdam will be under water. But it is the short-term, rapid deadlines of the modern world that scare him most. “We saw with the economic crash it takes hours for things to go wrong. And when [in 2000] the petrol tankers went on blockade, there was a very frightening timescale – about a week for the supermarkets to run out of food, fear of food riots and civil disorder.”

He “hates being apocalyptic” but says his grandchildren will have to choose how to minimise their exposure to the risks. “You’ll find serious people talking about buying an AK47 and a small farm in northern Canada or Scandinavia, forming a commune to grow food and protect themselves in case the wheels come off society.”

Personal stance: Wanders around the museum switching off lights. But believes corporations hold the key to cutting emissions.


Name: Susan Solomon
Age: 53
Nationality: American
Position: Senior scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Colorado
Expertise: Atmospheric chemistry

Susan Solomon was one of the first scientists to explain why the ozone hole was forming over Antarctica, and in 2007 she oversaw the historic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which said it was 90 per cent certain that the bulk of global warming that has occurred since 1950 had been man-made. Still, she believes in keeping the science “pure�? and rejects the idea that her profession has a duty to speak out on global warming.

This conservative approach frustrates activists and some fellow scientists. In the report’s sea level projections, she excluded estimates for the impact of melting ice caps because modelling such a process is fraught with uncertainty. Neither would she discuss the policy response or make emotional appeals.

Almost three years on, Solomon believes she’s been vindicated: “There’s an enormous amount of emotion on this subject, influenced by both the left and right.�? The job of the IPCC is to present the science with the minimum of speculation, she says.

She is convinced that unless emissions are seriously reduced, the world in 2060 will be between 2°C and 3°C hotter. A deal will be tough she says, contrasting her own tribe with the political animal. “If you sit 20 politicians in a room you won’t get them to agree on anything,�? she says. “But bring scientists together, and at the end of a sensible discussion of the data you’ll all agree.�?

But Solomon is hopeful that public pressure will bring about an eleventh-hour breakthrough at Copenhagen. “Whenever I hear a person say this or that is impossible, I think back to the ozone layer days when people said it would be impossible to phase out CFCs from deodorant.�?

Asked about the life her step-son’s generation can be expected to live, she flares up briefly, arguing that such emoting is unhelpful: “I don’t know which way we’re going to come out. But I want the scientific historians to be clear: scientists had primitive tools and limited information, but they played this one right.�?

Personal stance: Tries to eat vegetarian twice a week, cycles, drives a Prius.


Name: Carl Wunsch
Age: 68
Nationality: American
Position: Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Expertise: Oceanography

To many scientists, Carl Wunsch is the world’s top oceanographer. Yet to the layman he is best known as the professor duped into appearing in Channel 4’s 2007 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle. Wunsch was horrified to see his nuanced statements taken out of context to back the programme’s dodgy premise. The broadcasting regulator Ofcom subsequently upheld his complaint and Channel 4 was obliged to broadcast a summary of its findings.

In reality, Wunsch accepts the evidence for climate change, though he worries about what he considers overconfident predictions – and he may be unique amongst senior colleagues in having turned down the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s invitation to participate. He accepts the organisation’s usefulness but believes it moves too fast for the available data and has played down some of the uncertainties to catch the eyes of politicians.

On the other hand, Stefan Rahmstorf (see above) says Wunsch’s comments on the show were not only irresponsible but wrong. “They feed the message that the [film] makers wanted to portray.�? Perhaps understandably, Wunsch and Rahmstorf have little time for each other. Early in our conversation, Wunsch bemoans the fact that some of his colleagues are guilty of “overstating�? what we know to fit the media’s demand for simple answers.

“Often the right answer is ‘we don’t really know but we’re worried about the possibilities’.�? The ocean has a long memory, he says, yet our observations of it are “grossly inadequate�?. Unless you understand what is happening in the south Atlantic or northern Pacific, you are flying blind, he argues.

Accordingly, Wunsch takes a small-picture view. “Why has Arctic sea ice recovered partially in the last two years?�? he asks. “What does this mean for the ‘tipping point’ that people talk of?�?

In essence, he wishes people would stop making projections that read like strong probabilities and instead see climate change as “an insurance problem�? – where we don’t know what will happen but acknowledge there is the potential for something serious to occur, and take precautions.

Like many scientists, he is less inhibited when straying from his patch. Stabilising world population should be the number-one priority and yet the politicians are “too spineless�? to talk about such a thorny issue. “If the world goes to 9 and then 12 billion it won’t matter what the climate does,�? he sighs. “It’ll be catastrophic.�?

Personal stance: Travels mainly by public transport but also drives a Prius. He has insulated his home.


Name: Isaac Held
Age: 61
Nationality: American
Position: Senior research scientist at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Professor at Princeton
Expertise: Climate dynamics

Isaac Held was born in a German refugee camp three years after the end of the second world war, to a mother who had survived Auschwitz. Several years later, the family secured their passage to the US and began a new life in Minnesota.

Held did a PhD in physics at New York State University (Stony Brook) but was lacking inspiration until he read a paper on carbon dioxide and climate by Syukuro Manabe, today regarded as one of the pioneers of climate modelling. Held moved to Princeton where he has remained for the past four decades. Today, he is one of the world’s foremost experts on predicting regional climate change. As the German oceanographer Mojib Latif says: “He’s not as visible to politicians as others, but he’s one of the best scientists – someone who really understands how the whole climate machine works.�?

He believes that changes in rainfall patterns will have the most direct impact on people’s lives. In simple terms, he says, “the wet places will get wetter and the dry drier�?. In the Mediterranean – one of the easiest regions to model – a 3°C temperature rise would cut rainfall by 20 per cent. The real uncertainties lie in the tropics, although Held suspects that the region will be one of the biggest losers from climate change. His research on drought shows how interconnected the climate system is. The dramatic decline in rainfall over the Sahel – a horizontal sub-Saharan strip that stretches from Senegal to Eritrea – during the 1970s and 1980s has been commonly ascribed to overgrazing.

Held’s research suggests the real cause has been the warming of the South Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans during the latter half of the 20th century. Together with the hole in the ozone layer, the warmer oceans have had a similar impact on Australia’s rainfall. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to know which is the dominant factor for Australia, he says. If it’s the ozone layer, then the situation should gradually improve. Otherwise, the land will get drier still.

Held follows the maxim of the medieval philosopher William of Ockham – forget complicated hypotheses if the simple explanation fits. “The case has not been made for any specific tipping point,�? he says. “We haven’t seen that irreversibility. The climate system has so far behaved much as one would expect it to. Climate change means a steady warming with the impacts of warming growing bigger over time.�?

Others, such as Latif, argue that we’re in for a decade of cooling before the warming trend reasserts itself. Quite plausible, Held replies, saying that natural variability may have been underestimated in the rapid warming of the last 30 years. But in the long term, global warming will continue.

Personal stance: His wife has set up a farmers’ market, they eat locally produced food and drive a hybrid car. Says he could join a car pool but prizes his freedom.


The sceptic

Name: Richard Lindzen
Age: 69
Nationality: American
Position: Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Expertise: Atmospheric dynamics

Richard Lindzen is by turns charming and cantankerous. “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!�? he yells when I ask whether global warming is occurring. Later, as I outline the layman’s notion of what warming means, he barks: “Stop this bullshit!�? When I cite a spokesman for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change saying the world warmed by 0.6°C over the 20th century, he puts it down to the natural variability of the climate.

Raised in the Bronx and educated at Harvard, Lindzen is the most respected of the climate change naysayers among other scientists. Arguing that CO2’s impact on climate has been overstated, he says that emissions can keep growing with no consequences. The pre-industrial level of CO2 was 280 parts per million, we are now at 380ppm and the negotiators at Copenhagen want to stabilise it at about 450ppm. But Lindzen says we can safely climb past 10,00ppm. Even if for some reason there is an impact, we will have ample time to see it coming, he claims.

He points out that, contrary to what the models predicted, the world has not warmed over the past decade. We’ve underestimated natural variability, he says. And in the context of “only�? 0.6°C of warming, the argument that man has caused most of it is not tenable. His critics say his emphasis on the past 10 years is a red herring. Assertions of climate change were not based on a 10-year trend but on a 30- to 50-year period.

Lindzen is convinced that global warming will one day be exposed as a con. “I hope,�? he says, “it’s in my lifetime.�?

Personal stance: Drives a small car, uses energy-saving lightbulbs and says he probably uses less energy than “the climate change activists in Washington with their Mercedes.”

This article appeared in the FT Weekend magazine on 20 November 2009

Social policy

50 years of gay rights by the people who lived it (BBC News online)

It was six o’clock in the morning when they came for Emma Riley. “They came in and they said: ‘Get up, get downstairs, you’re under arrest’.” A colleague had told the Royal Navy police that Emma was a lesbian.

They took her letters, they took Suede’s debut album – it shows two women kissing on the cover – and her video of comedian Julian Clary.

(This story is best viewed on the BBC website – please continue reading here)


Foreign reportage Media Zimbabwe

The tourist trap (Guardian)

At Linquenda House, Harare’s gloomy immigration department, the official inspecting my visa extension form asks me what I do. “I’m a wineseller,” I lie. “You’re not a news seller?” he shoots back, his eyes watching me mischievously. “What’s that?” I say, trying to be innocent, but taken aback by his apparent mind-reading. “A journalist,” he answers. “Oh, no, I’m not one of them” I say, trying to laugh. He chuckles and explains that “some of your fellow countrymen are attempting to come in and make trouble,” before stamping my passport.

That was in 2002, but on subsequent trips I have been a birdwatcher, architect and cricket fan. Such is life for the “tourist” in Zimbabwe, where lying to strangers and suspicion of others becomes second nature. You know that you could be jailed for up to two years, but you are also aware that unaccredited journalists caught by the authorities are usually deported. But now, the trial of two Sunday Telegraph “tourists” arrested at a polling station during last month’s parliamentary election has changed all that.

It is true that Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds were acquitted of working without accreditation and are now safe in the UK. But without a judge who insisted on proper standards of evidence – by no means certain in Zimbabwe – they could have been spending the next two years in a crowded, disease-ridden jail cell.

Since Zimbabwe’s new media laws came in three years ago, the state has sought to stop journalists from the BBC, and other news organisations it terms “agents of imperialism”, from entering the country. The British media’s answer has been to send in the “tourists” – an army of men and women keen to see the elephants, visit Victoria Falls and, of course, write about Mugabe. It is a peculiar existence, and one that looks increasingly dangerous.

I have spent three periods working in Zimbabwe without accreditation. Each time you arrive you promise yourself that you will keep risks to a minimum. There are the obvious steps. Keeping a pile of tourist guides, birdwatching books and half written postcards about your person, not talking to strangers about politics, not taking notes in public, ensuring your emails are not being read over your shoulder, keeping phonecalls short and discreet, and listening to the advice of locals you trust.

But despite one’s good intentions, journalistic instincts are hard to suppress. Casual questions become more focused, feigned ignorance disappears, your eyes light up and before you know it, your notebook is out and you are scribbling away. The bottom line is, if you are going to do the job properly you cannot avoid taking risks. When deciding whether to interview people you constantly have to ask yourself: “Do I trust this person?” Not in the traditional sense, but on whether they will turn you in. It comes down to calculated risks.

A year after the murder of white farmer Terry Ford, I visited his farm to see what had happened to it and the “war veterans” who had taken over there. Local farmers warned me the killers were still there and did not welcome visitors. My heart thumped as I introduced myself as an aid worker and showed them a business card belonging to someone I had recently interviewed. But the risk paid off – their desperation meant they wanted to believe me. They were hungry, the farmhouse was an empty shell. I took notes and photos but did not hang around when one of them tried to ring their “boss” for me to interview. At the junction of the dirt track back to the main road I came across a couple of police Land Rovers, apparently waiting for me. My blood ran cold. “This is it,” I thought, as I saw the box-shaped vehicles parked at the side of the road. But they ignored me, I turned onto the Harare road, and slowly my adrenaline levels returned to normal.

There are many such moments in Zimbabwe for the “tourist” hack. In the township of Kuwadzana during the 2002 election I was followed by plain-clothes police. The most malevolent-looking officer bade me farewell, succinctly: “If I see your face again I will shoot you.” It was probably just a threat, but in a place like Kuwadzana, you do not hang around to find out.

You can never totally relax and constantly worry about being followed or whether your phone is tapped. Ultimately you rely on the goodwill of most Zimbabweans and the incompetence of Mugabe’s police state.

So why do we do it? If journalists take the famous William Randolph Hearst maxim as their creed – “News is what someone does not want you to print, the rest is just advertising” – then Zimbabwe is the apotheosis of news. But after the Sunday Telegraph’s close shave, it might be only freelances who are willing to take the risk.

This piece was published in the Guardian on 24 April 2005

Sport Swimming and lidos Uncategorized

Channel number one (Daily Telegraph magazine)

Channel Swimmers

At Samphire Beach, a Japanese woman stands in front of Dover’s white cliffs. She is dressed in a pink and blue swimming costume, yellow cap and goggles. Her back, shoulders and thighs have been basted generously with Vaseline. After a minute or so, she waves to us and begins stepping awkwardly across the pebbles and into the English Channel. It is 10 past seven on a Tuesday morning. Most people will be having breakfast or getting ready for a day at the office. Miyuki Fijita is swimming to France.
There are six of us on the Suva, the boat that will accompany her on the 21 miles to Cap Gris Nez, the closest point to England on the French coast: pilot Neil Streeter, a co-pilot, an observer from the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, a galley hand, Miyuki’s coach Haruyuki Ishii and me.

We watch as Miyuki wades out through the shallows before diving under a wave. If all goes to plan she will not leave the water for another 12 hours. We will average between one and two miles an hour, bobbing around like a bath toy in this most fickle of seas.

Swimming the Channel is one of the world’s abiding natural challenges. Since merchant seaman Captain Matthew Webb first swam it – unaided – in 1875, only 900 people have successfully made it to the other side from about 7,000 attempts. There are other challenging swims around the world – the Cook Strait between New Zealand’s north and south island, the Straits of Gibraltar, California’s Catalina Channel. But the English Channel is the one with history, romance and global branding.

Four things make it so tough: powerful tides, the infuriating geography of the French coast, unpredictable weather and, above all, the cold – the water rarely rises above 15C. Webb swam breaststroke, which explains why he took 21 hours and 45 minutes to reach France. But the size of his achievement can be seen in the fact that it was 36 years and 70 further attempts before anyone else made it across. Between 1875 and 1949 there were four successful swims from England to France and 16 from France to England, which is easier but has now been banned by the French authorities (who do not want to encourage swimming from their side, and by banning it can argue that all swims must be controlled by the British). The sport really took off in the 1950s, and over the ensuing years a bewildering array of feats and records have been set, from swimming it butterfly to multiple crossings. In 1961 Antonio Abertondo from Argentina became the first person to swim it both ways non-stop, in a time of 43 hours and 10 minutes. Twenty years later, John Erikson trumped that with a three-way swim in 38 hours and 27 minutes.

Most are simply grateful to get across once. Six people have died trying. The most recent was Ueli Staub, a Swiss extreme sports enthusiast who disappeared in August 2001 on a wave in the dark just off Calais, not far from the end point. His body was found a few weeks later off the Belgian port of Ostend. It is thought he had a heart attack, perhaps caused by his caffeine-heavy feed pattern of strong coffee and flat Coca-Cola. Renata Agondi’s death in August 1988 was the most controversial. The 25-year-old Brazilian died from exhaustion after her coach refused to let her leave the water. (Now the support boat’s pilot, not the coach, has the final say.)

In 1954 there was the tragi-farcical death of Briton Ted May who couldn’t afford a support boat. He swam towing an inner tube with his food and drinks inside, and despite one failed attempt, which ended in rescue, he tried again a few days later. The rubber ring was found floating in the Channel the next day and his body washed up on a Dutch beach soon afterwards. Other heroic failures lived to tell the tale. Jabez Wolfe reputedly tried to swim the Channel 22 times, starting in 1906, never making it despite three times getting within a mile of France. Lord Freyberg, Governor General of New Zealand between 1946 and 1952, made a number of unsuccessful attempts as a young man. During his best effort, he was only 200 yards from land when he stopped to rest before one final push. Seeing his exhaustion, his wife leant over the side of his support boat and gave him a fortifying slug of brandy. And that was that. He went straight to sleep and had to be pulled out.

The global cachet of the Channel is astounding, and swimmers are drawn from around the world to take it on. At a youth hostel in Dover I meet the Kedia family from Amravati in the state of Maharashtra, India – about as far from the chilly waters of south-east England as one can get. They are hoping to see their second daughter Ritu, 17, triumph over the Channel just as their eldest, Barkha, did in 2001. For Mr Kedia, an aluminium factory owner, the swim is not just a sporting achievement, but an investment, a status symbol. Conquering the Channel helped Barkha secure a place at a good university, and even led to her being invited to Delhi to receive a National Adventure Award from Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. The cost of transporting his family to Kent for two weeks is considerable (even the Channel crossing itself costs an average of £2,100 – mostly to cover a boat and pilot), but Mr Kedia believes it is worth it. ‘It’s so important to have self identity,’ he explains. ‘I am known in the city for my swimming girls. My dream is that both my daughters will go to great heights.’

Ritu recalls her sister’s attempt: ‘When Barkha did it in 2001 the weather was really bad and I was seasick on the boat. But I knew that I was going to do it one day. When you do it, you learn so much.’

Part of the Channel’s appeal lies in the fact that Webb’s tradition has been upheld by strict rules. He was not the first man to swim the Channel: the American Paul Boyton beat him to it in an inflatable rubber suit with built-in paddles and a sail. But Webb (who later died attempting to swim the rapids and whirlpools beneath the Niagara Falls) was scornful of synthetic aids and it is his purist stance that has been kept alive. Trunks, goggles, Vaseline, a feed from time to time, and that’s it. Doing it in a wetsuit doesn’t count. Anyone can apply, as long as they can provide written evidence they have done a six-hour swim in water of 16C or less.

There used to be just one governing body responsible for ensuring people abided by the rules – the Channel Swimming Association, which was founded 80 years ago. But in 1998 the committee split and half the members left to set up a rival body, the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (which is now by far the more popular of the two). The old guard at the CSA feel they have been betrayed and refuse to acknowledge the CS&PF’s swims, unlike the latter, which recognises both its own and the Association’s swims.

Mike Oram, the honorary secretary of the Federation, says his role is far more than just a bureaucratic one; he is also one of the swimmers’ chief motivators. He was piloting the support boat of Christof Wandratsch when the 38-year-old German crossed the Channel in 2005 in a record time of seven hours and three minutes. ‘After four and a half hours he stopped and said he wanted to get out,’ Oram says. ‘We spent 15 minutes arguing – I told him my reputation was on the line. He needed me to make him mad.’

There is one place where you can always be sure to find a handful of Channel swimmers, and that is beside the icy water itself at the Varne Ridge Caravan Park, dramatically perched on the cliffs between Dover and Folkestone. About 125 people will attempt to swim the Channel solo this year and, for many, this will be their base camp. There is a colourful mural marking the dozens of swimmers from around the world who have stayed here, with flags, dates and swim times. Here I meet Geoff Evans and Steve Payne, from Australia’s Blue Mountains who have brought their families over to cheer them on.

Evans, a 44-year-old glassmaker, says the Channel is the ‘bee’s knees of swimming’. His friend Payne, 47, had made two previous attempts, which failed due to sickness, and his stories inspired Evans. ‘I talked to my wife and she said, “OK, you can do it – I need a holiday anyway,” so we all came over.’ For the past 14 months he has been averaging swims of 25km a week and has done three 24km swims in the cold (16C) waters of the Pacific at Woollongong. He has been eating well to compensate for the cold, he says, patting his belly admiringly: ‘The second part of my training is going down the pub for a Guinness,’ he laughs. For Payne, a firefighter from Kurrajong, it’s a case of third time lucky. ‘I couldn’t wait to get back. I’ve done 28 Ironman events but I consider the Channel the biggest challenge of them all.’ They have both been in Dover for three weeks, waiting for the weather to improve.

In another caravan I meet Enrique Flores, a Mexican civil engineer hoping to raise £10,000 for children’s charities. ‘Not all children are as fortunate as my own,’ he says. Later, I get chatting to the Lewis family from Coniston in Cumbria, who are supporting their 23-year-old daughter Becky on her first swim.

Becky has been swimming competitively since the age of five. ‘The Channel is something I have always wanted to do, even when I was tiny and didn’t know exactly where it was,’ says Becky, a physiotherapy student at Teesside University. ‘Since becoming an open-water swimmer and competing in long swims, I realised it was within my grasp.’ She has been in training since last September, often swimming eight miles a day, in Coniston Water near her house, the local pool and in the Irish Sea. She usually eats a balanced diet, but the week before her swim she bulked up on carbs with pasta and jacket potatoes. Channel swimming is one of few sports where a bit of body fat and a stocky physique are seen as a good thing.

Miyuki Fijita is a 41-year-old housewife from Japan’s Aichi province who helps out in her husband’s sweet-making business. So why her obsession with the Channel? ‘I don’t want to be like other people. I started off swimming in the sea and it escalated, and that’s how I find myself in Dover,’ she says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. She has now swum the Channel three times after two failed attempts, and is one of only 16 Japanese to have swum it.

At five to eight, Miyuki is thrown a bottle. She drinks underwater to avoid the waves catching her by surprise, then tosses the bottle back, all within about 10 seconds, and then she is off again, repeating the process every 40 minutes. The drink – a 300ml mixture of carbohydrate solution, vitamin B2, glucose and Japanese tea – is a far cry from the old days when swimmers refuelled on a ham sandwich, cup of warm ale, some cod liver oil, or a slug of brandy.

Miyuki is taking it slow and steady. Whenever she drops her pace, the pilot puts the engine into neutral and we idle until she pulls ahead of us again. By half past nine she looks stronger than she did at the start, her rhythm more measured. The wind picks up sharply.

Just after 10, we approach the first shipping lane, a one-way procession of container ships. The Channel is believed to be the busiest waterway in the world, with 5,000 people afloat at any one time, adding a man-made frisson of danger to what is essentially a battle against nature (though the pilot boats communicate on their radios with coastguards to avoid catastrophes).

At midday, the white cliffs behind us appear to have barely receded, and ahead the low dark smudge of France seems no closer. A couple of curious gulls circle the boat and land close to Miyuki, momentarily breaking the monotony. By now, her body will have started converting fat to glycogen, which provides energy, and the pain will be kicking in (when endurance athletes talk about ‘hitting the wall’, that’s the point at which their glycogen levels run out). Miyuki’s small body is knifing its way through the grey-green seascape. The power comes from the shoulders. The kick is at first glance puny, but never misses a beat. Her face when it turns upwards for air shows an expression of confidence. Her eyes, even though she is wearing goggles, will be stinging by now, her tongue thick with salt, her feet like blocks of ice.

I recall a conversation I had with Greg Whyte, a professor of sports science at Liverpool John Moores University, and the man who coached the comedian David Walliams to Channel-swimming glory last year. Whyte had his own Channel story, an attempt that looked to be heading for a time of under eight hours – two hours faster than Walliams – until a couple of miles off the French coast the tide got him, as it gets so many swimmers as they reach the closing stages. After two and a half hours of going nowhere he had to be pulled out. ‘The cold creates a misery, which you try to psychologically park on one side,’ he said. ‘But it never goes away and as you start to get fatigued it allows negative thoughts to enter your head.’

It is just gone one o’clock and it’s an angry sea now, a 15-knot wind cutting across the surface. Rollers are coming over from our right – it is a sou’wester, just what every swimmer dreads. But Miyuki seems unaffected. Not for the first time, I am finding it hard to appreciate the appeal of the Channel swim. There is a miserable drudgery to it all. These people are not just physically and mentally tough – they are a bit mad, too.

A former currency trader, Alison Streeter – Neil’s sister – is the so-called Queen of the Channel, with 43 crossings to her name (more than anybody else), including a three-way that took 34 hours and 40 minutes. She sums up its attraction. ‘The Channel is like a living, breathing animal and is different every single day, so every swim is unique,’ she says. ‘I have done plenty of other swims around the world but none has the same history or excitement.’

Laura Mahady, a lecturer in sports psychology at the University of Aberdeen, says that extreme athletes are often conformists who use sport to express their obsessive-compulsive side. Amanda Williams, a reader in clinical health psychology at UCL and a former champion free-diver, says endurance sport is about small degrees of improvement: ‘All of these things you do by increments, working up a small amount each time, all of it manageable.’ For David Shearer, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Swansea University, it is about focus: ‘Endurance athletes tend to be very process-oriented. They focus on what they are doing and on the end goal.’

A few weeks earlier, I had met Petar Stoychev, an intense 30-year-old Bulgarian, and a former world champion marathon swimmer. Last summer he had attempted to beat Christof Wandratsch’s record, but in storm conditions he missed out by 18 minutes. He was waiting in a B&B in Dover with his coach and two Bulgarian television journalists, hoping for a break in the weather. ‘This is the oldest and hardest swim in the world,’ he told me. But there was something else driving him on, too – the stopwatch. ‘Mine is a sport without records. During the World Cup races it is important to win, but the time doesn’t matter. [Everyone swims at the same time and winning is all that counts.] But with the Channel, a world record exists.’ Stoychev is tall and lean with not a pinch of fat on him, unlike most Channel swimmers. But because he swims so fast – averaging 3mph, almost Olympic speed, at his quickest – his lack of bulk is not an issue. ‘Most Olympic swimmers can’t do it in cold water,’ Mike Oram tells me later. ‘They are lean machines, used to swimming at 27C over short distances.’

There is a rumour in Dover that the Russians are coming – two expert swimmers, Yuri Kudinov and Natalia Pankina, both highly rated and chasing the record. So is Stoychev worried? ‘I’m afraid of nobody,’ he says in a slightly robotic voice, with a hint of Arnie’s Terminator. ‘I’m just afraid of bad weather.’

It is about four o’clock and for the first time Miyuki stops and looks disorientated. She has hit a bank of seaweed and grinds to a halt, wary of jellyfish lurking underneath. Ishii barks at her to carry on. She obeys.

Two and a half hours later and the coast of France is lit by evening sun. I feel strangely elated, but then Neil Streeter appears on deck with bad news. The tide has turned and we’re not going to make Cap Gris Nez. Sure enough, the famous lighthouse is beginning to slip away to our right as we follow Miyuki. It must be a crushing blow to any swimmer’s confidence, but Miyuki ploughs on uncomplainingly. We should be half an hour away from France but rather than getting closer, the land is receding while we are swept in the direction of Calais.

Two hours later, Ishii says we are a mile and a half away from the village of Wissant and its sandy beach. Miyuki is still going but looks tired. The end is in sight, but many others have come this far and failed. At five past nine with the pink sun setting behind us, Miyuki makes her approach to the beach. There is momentary confusion on board about how they are going to time her arrival. It’s too shallow for the boat to go in any further, land is still a few hundred metres away and darkness is closing in. Ishii ends up diving into the water and trying to catch up. The pilot’s assistant can’t see Miyuki through his binoculars. Finally, she is spotted and her time logged at 13 hours and 59 minutes. On the beach we can see flashbulbs going off as Miyuki and Ishii celebrate with several locals. Miyuki then has to swim back to the boat as night is falling. On board, she huddles up under some blankets and goes to sleep as Streeter points us towards England. The return trip, thankfully, will take only a couple of hours.

Two weeks later, I catch up with the swimmers. Evans and Payne, the two Australians, tell me that they failed in their attempts. Evans pulled out after four and a half hours, defeated by cramp in his left leg. ‘When the pilot mentioned that I was going backwards, I lost any confidence I had and felt it was time to get out,’ he says. Payne pulled out an hour later. He had managed to conquer his sickness this time, but succumbed to intense pain in his shoulder. Undeterred, they have vowed to return in two years’ time.

Becky Lewis, Enrique Flores and Ritu Kedia all succeeded, Lewis in an impressive time of nine hours, 35 minutes. ‘I was really pleased with my time,’ she says. ‘I was very nervous and it took me two hours to settle down, but the cold didn’t bother me much until the end. When I got to the beach I was too tired to get emotional. I’ve now got the bug and want to try again in 2009 – I know there are things I could do better.’

I meet Miyuki and Ishii again, who are preparing to return to Japan. She is pleased that nothing went badly wrong but is disappointed with her time, and is already planning another attempt for next summer. She says she didn’t feel cold, but suffered cramp in her thigh. The south-westerly wind and waves slowed her down, Ishii says. She kept herself going by singing Japanese pop songs and trying to recall the nice e-mails people had sent her. Ishii shows me a map of her swim, a sweeping back-to-front ‘S’ shape reflecting the tide’s huge influence. Miyuki says it was choppier than last time, but at least there weren’t so many jellyfish. ‘The hardest bit is seeing France and not being able to reach it, seeing yourself drifting, that was the toughest.’ So when did she actually know she would make it? ‘Not until I was standing on the beach,’ she smiles.

Petar Stoychev was defeated by July’s bad weather, but returned to Dover last month. On August 24, 132 years to the day since Captain Webb’s crossing, he broke the world record with the first ever sub seven-hour swim, reaching Cap Gris Nez in six hours, 57 minutes and 50 seconds.

Some people, it seems, just don’t know when to give up. And that is what sets Channel swimmers apart from the rest of us. They understand better than anyone the true meaning of the phrase inscribed on Captain Webb’s memorial stone in Dawley, Shropshire: ‘Nothing great is easy.’

This piece was published in the Daily Telegraph magazine on 22 September 2007

Social policy Uncategorized

How did the pro-paedophile group PIE exist openly for 10 years? (BBC News online)

A gay rights conference backs a motion in favour of paedophilia. The story is written up by a national newspaper as “Child-lovers win fight for role in Gay Lib”.

It sounds like a nightmarish plotline from dystopian fiction. But this happened in the UK. The conference took place in Sheffield and the newspaper was the Guardian. The year was 1975.

It’s part of the story of how paedophiles tried to go mainstream in the 1970s. The group behind the attempt – the Paedophile Information Exchange – is back in the news because of a series of stories run by the Daily Mail about Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman.

The Daily Mail has revisited the story of PIE to ask how much Harman and her husband the MP Jack Dromey knew about the group during their time working at the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty, in the late 1970s. PIE was affiliated to the NCCL from the late 1970s to early 1980s.

Many of the revelations are not in fact new. The story’s return to the front pages demonstrates the shock people feel about how a group with “paedophile” in its name could operate so openly for so long.

PIE was formed in 1974. It campaigned for “children’s sexuality”. It wanted the government to axe or lower the age of consent. It offered support to adults “in legal difficulties concerning sexual acts with consenting ‘under age’ partners”. The real aim was to normalise sex with children.

Journalist Christian Wolmar remembers their tactics. “They didn’t emphasise that this was 50-year-old men wanting to have sex with five-year-olds. They presented it as the sexual liberation of children, that children should have the right to sex,” he says.

It’s an ideology that seems chilling now. But PIE managed to gain support from some professional bodies and progressive groups. It received invitations from student unions, won sympathetic media coverage and found academics willing to push its message.

It’s wrong to say that PIE was tolerated during the 1970s, says Times columnist Matthew Parris. “I remember a lot of indignation about it [PIE]. It was considered outrageous.”

The group’s visits to universities were often opposed. In 1977 PIE’s chairman Tom O’Carroll was ejected from a conference on “love and attraction” at University College, Swansea after lecturers “threatened not to deliver their papers if Mr O’Carroll stayed”, the Times reported. The May 1978 issue of Magpie, PIE’s in-house newspaper, records how O’Carroll had been invited to address students at Liverpool and Oxford University but that the visits were cancelled after local opposition.

One of PIE’s key tactics was to try to conflate its cause with gay rights. On at least two occasions the Campaign for Homosexual Equality conference passed motions in PIE’s favour.

Most gay people were horrified by any conflation of homosexuality and a sexual interest in children, says Parris. But PIE used the idea of sexual liberation to win over more radical elements. “If there was anything with the word ‘liberation’ in the name you were automatically in favour of it if you were young and cool in the 1970s. It seemed like PIE had slipped through the net.”

Some have suggested that the nature of the debate was different then. “In this free-for-all anything and everything was open for discussion,” said Canon Angela Tilby on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. “There were those who claimed that sexual relationships between adults and children could be harmless.” Homosexuality had only been decriminalised in 1967. There was still prejudice and inequality. The age of consent was 16 for heterosexuals but 21 for homosexual men.

Wolmar had first-hand contact with PIE. In 1976 he began working for Release, an agency helping people with drug and legal problems. Its office at 1 Elgin Avenue in London was a mailing address for PIE. Nobody knew much about them, Wolmar says. “They used to drop in once a week to pick up their mail. They were greasy men,” he recalls, people who fitted the stereotype of the “dirty mac” brigade. After Wolmar raised questions about PIE it was decided to bring them in for a meeting.

Wolmar’s colleagues pressed the man from PIE on the age of consent. Wolmar says that the man said there should be no age of consent. Shocked at the idea of a group advocating sex with babies, he and his colleagues unanimously decided to “boot them out”.

It was easy to join PIE. According to a Times legal report on a blackmail case from February 1977, there was no need for subterfuge, just an application and a cheque for £4. In the report, the prosecutor in the case stated: “He said on the form that he was a paedophile, male, married, 29 years old and attracted to girls between the ages of seven and 13 years.” The judge proclaimed himself “horrified” at the existence of PIE.

Unsettlingly for a modern audience, the PIE member received anonymity (as is typical in blackmail cases) and there is no mention of any prosecution of him. Meanwhile, the blackmailer was jailed for three years.

The brazenness could be shocking. Keith Hose, one of PIE’s leaders during the 1970s, was quoted by a newspaper saying: “I am a paedophile. I am attracted to boys from about 10, 11, and 12 years of age. I may have had sexual relations with children, but it would be unwise to say.”

When Polly Toynbee interviewed O’Carroll and Hose in the Guardian in September 1977 she heard men incredulous at the lack of support from the press. They seemed genuinely aggrieved at what they called a “Fleet Street conspiracy”. One of them told her: “We would expect the Guardian, a decent liberal newspaper to support us.”

In a Guardian piece from 1975 it’s clear “paedophile” was still not a widely used term and the opening line explains it – “one who is sexually attracted to children”. In the piece, Hose is treated as a reliable source throughout.

There were divisions within progressive circles. In 1977 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality passed by a large majority a resolution condemning “the harassment of the Paedophile Information Exchange by the press”.

When Peter Hain, then president of the Young Liberals, described paedophilia as “a wholly undesirable abnormality”, a fellow activist hit back. “It is sad that Peter has joined the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade. His views are not the views of most Young Liberals.”

And when a columnist supported Hain in the Guardian he was inundated with mail from people – many willing to give their name – who defended sex with children.

Reading the newspapers of the time there is a palpable anxiety that PIE was succeeding.

A Guardian article in 1977 noted with dismay how the group was growing. By its second birthday in October 1976, it had 200 members. There was a London group, a Middlesex group being planned, and with regional branches to follow. The article speaks of PIE’s hopes to widen the membership to include women and heterosexual men.

Toynbee talked of her “disgust, aversion and anger” at the group but added that she had “a sinking feeling that in another five years or so, their aims would eventually be incorporated into the general liberal credo, and we would all find them acceptable”.

There was a battle raging over free speech.

Some, such as philosopher Roger Scruton, felt that freedom of speech had to be sacrificed when it came to groups like PIE. In a Times piece in September 1983 he wrote: “Paedophiles must be prevented from ‘coming out’. Every attempt to display their vice as a legitimate ‘alternative’ to conventional morality must be, not refuted, but silenced.”

A Times letter writer, Peter Cadogan, took a different line, defending PIE from the National Front despite loathing them. “Yet again, they assaulted me with stink bombs and sundry soft fruit when I was defending the freedom of speech of another group I abhorred, viz, the Paedophile Information Exchange.” He continues that the way to cover “nasty people with nasty ideas” is to “give them all the rope they want and then hang them with it every time they practice what they preach”.

But during the 1980s, PIE came a cropper. Its notoriety grew in 1982 with the trial of Geoffrey Prime, who was both a KGB spy and a member of PIE. He was jailed for 32 years for passing on secrets from his job at GCHQ to the Soviet Union, and for a series of sex attacks on young girls.

A short article from the Daily Mail in June 1983 records how a scoutmaster in Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, resigned after being exposed as a member of PIE.

In August 1983 a Scottish headmaster, Charles Oxley, handed over a dossier about PIE to Scotland Yard after infiltrating the group, the Glasgow Herald wrote. He said the group had about 1,000 members.

But the NCCL continued to defend having PIE as a member. As late as September 1983, an NCCL officer was quoted in the Daily Mail saying the group was campaigning to lower the age of consent to 14. “An offiliate [sic] group like the Paedophile Information Exchange would agree with our policy. That does not mean it’s a mutual thing and we have to agree with theirs.”

The authorities debated ways of shutting PIE down. O’Carroll was sentenced to two years in jail for “conspiracy to corrupt public morals” and PIE was disbanded in 1984.

It’s hard now to believe the group existed for more than a decade. “Even then the word paedophile was pretty taboo,” says Wolmar. “I do find it slightly astounding that they were able to use that name.”

(Archive research by Tom Heyden)