The huge redevelopment site north of King’s Cross station is probably more important for the future than that much hyped Olympics park a few miles east.
What is beautiful here is that, unlike the wider world, this microcosm of Britain is being cleaned up – every awkward corner that formerly festered with rot and moss and crumbling blackened brick – sumps that attracted cans, bottle and filthy rags – is being replaced, repaired, repointed, planted and turned into a spick and span model environment. Along the new pathway beside the canal, trees are planted, leafless in February, like an architect's sketch of the Utopian future.
All of this turmoil has seethed around Camley Street Natural Park for the last ten years or so and to enter it is to leave behind the new industrial design of the Eurostar terminal, the gleaming modern street furniture and the simple monotone concrete bridge over the canal, In the park scrub and brushwood seem perpetually on the point of overwhelming everything, All here is textured, not a concrete beam in sight, not a plane surface or a straight line. Ancient narrow boats sag in the canal and the blackbirds seem to grant a stamp of authenticity to the island of nature.
In the new developments, details from the industrial past are preserved as character endowing features – railway lines in front of the London College of the Arts are cemented into the forecourt; the ring of pillars from the old gas holders are being re-erected as a backdrop for a shopping arcade and flats. None of these industrial details will ever be functional again here. Apart from the scenery, what this complex will produce, all being well, will be breakthroughs in genetic medicine at the Francis Crick Institute; designs that break out into the world of commerce; the books of course that are distilled from the British Library (the first institution to arrive here, back in 1998).
If there is to be a future for this country, it must be taking shape here at King’s Cross.
Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, has attributed the fuss around Frozen Planet's use of zoo footage of polar bear cubs in what was supposed to be a wild setting to the Leveson enquiry into press standards. It seems far more likely to me to have been instigated by the global-warming denial lobby. David Attenborough is the most universally respected man in Britain and he has just made a powerful programme highlighting the consequences of global warming. He did not actually discuss the mechanism of global warming through human-generated carbon dioxide emissions but the programme was still seen as a threat by this lobby. Their methods are always the same: not to address the scientific evidence but to distract by dirty tricks, attacking by scurrilous means the people promulgating the arguments in favour of reducing fossil-fuel burning. There is no real problem with the polar bear footage. To put a camera into a bear’s den in its natural habitat would have endangered the cubs, when the whole point of the programme was to show how climate change threatens the survival of such creatures.
The really shocking story this week is Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. At the moment the world seems hell-bent on conducting this experiment in global warming. And we are supposed to get irate because of a few seconds on footage in a zoo, rather than under the snowy wastes.
The Kyoto emissions protocol expires next year and attempts to formulate the next phase are in such disarray that the date of 2020 is being bandied around as the earliest likely date for a new treaty to come into force. Meanwhile, carbon emissions rose by 5% last year, in a recession, and all the predictions are that the burning of coal, the dirtiest fossil field, are going to rocket in the next few decades. And all this while we know that only action now on emissions will count. If we wait, the stockpile of CO2 will have grown to the extent that the severe climate change we fear will become inevitable. How can we account of this apparently species-suicidal behaviour?
We are creatures of climate change: it made us and it might break us. What do I mean by that? The study of both human evolution and past climate change have both accelerated dramatically recently, and the connections between the two are becoming clearer.
It was almost certainly climate change in Africa from around 5 million years ago that led to the emergence of a line of adaptable, big brained apes. In long-term steady climatic conditions, living things can persist essentially unchanged for many millions of years. But large scale climatic change with mass extinctions produced the great innovations in evolution, such as the emergence of mammals following the Cretaceous collapse that ended the dinosaurs’ reign.
What happened in East Africa from 5 million years ago was less extreme. The climate became drier and the forest thinned, opening up the savannah we are familiar with today as the home of big game. An ape adapted to the loss of a supportive forest habit by learning to live in the open, on the ground. To survive amidst the large predators of the savannah required enormous cunning: the use of fire and tools. Over those 5 million years the African climate was unstable, with wet and dry periods alternating. It is this flux that probably led to the most adaptable species on earth: us.
By around 200,000 years ago an ape with a brain 3-4 time the size of a chimpanzee was established in Africa. I say established but life was precarious, the environment still hostile. Homo sapiens eventually spread beyond Africa. How tough it was know from the timing. They only arrived in Europe around 36,000 years ago.
During the entire period of the evolution of H. sapiens Europe was in the grip of repeated ice ages. At the last glacial maximum, around 20-25,000 years ago, Europe was covered in ice almost to the Mediterranean. Human populations clung on in Southern France and Spain. The Neanderthals, the last proto human before us became extinct at this time. Their last stronghold is thought to have been some caves in Gibraltar.
But 11,600 years ago, the world warmed dramatically, by 6 degrees and the ice retreated. There have been serious climatic setbacks since then but in the last 10,000 years a Northern hemisphere ice-free over much of its landmass allowed agricultural societies to grow and develop.
But instead of recognizing that our great world civilisation owes as much to climatic luck as to our brilliant minds and hard work, we arrogantly refuse to accept the evidence that the climate is fragile and will be tipped by our own activities unless we modulate them.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s forecasts have projected gradual change into the future, but the increasingly detailed record of past climate change shows dramatic changes happening at certain tipping points, over very few years. The one we should be worried about is that sudden 6 degree rise that launched our ascent – it took place in around a single decade!
There is every reason to fear that the next serious climatic change will happen as rapidly as those of the past but our widespread assumption that we have our benign place in the sun as of right is preventing any serious attempt at climatic mitigation. All past approaches to get governments and public opinion on board have failed so a new approach is called for. Most people in the developed world have grown up thinking that our technology can insulate us from the worst that nature can do. Understanding that we have always been at the mercy of the climate and that our benign time is over is the required background knowledge for our next step. We don’t want to be the headline species in the Next Great Extinction.
The impression given by the media is that the UK is slipping away from being a First World country: few houses are being built, the infrastructure creaks; the dwindling manufacturing base dwindles further.
In fact, some grands projets, started long before the recession, are coming to fruition and they offer new hope. The Olympic site is not the only major development in North London. The railway lands north of St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which for decades housed rotting canal-side warehouses, railway sheds and gas-holders, are taking shape as a 21st century campus of great vision and potential.
It began with the British Library – a surprise success for ‘70s planning and government funding: since 1998 one of London’s greatest resources for serious study and also a gorgeous place to hang out.
Then came St Pancras International, the Eurostar terminal and also base for the Javelin high speed trains that can reach the Olympics site in 6 minutes. Just open is the London University of the Arts, a vast complex incorporating Central St Martin’s School of Art, the London College of Fashion and other art colleges. Work has now started on the Francis Crick Institute, a major biomedical research facility. Not part of the site but just across York Way are King’s Place, home of the Guardian newspaper and Macmillan publishers, home of the leading science journal Nature. The revamp of Kings’ Cross station is nearing completion, with its soaring new concourse roof and promised piazza where the old drab concourse used to be.
Running through the site is the Regents Canal, currently being landscaped, and the campus has its natural oasis in Camley Street Natural Park. What was once a blot on the capital city is becoming a learning park of the highest quality. What is especially interesting about this is that no such broad area development has happened in Britain, barring shopping malls, for a very long time. Signature buildings have been dropped into streetscapes to which they contribute nothing. But at King’s Cross the institutes together will add up to more than the sum of their parts. Individually, some of the architecture, at least, is memorable.
Not bad for a place once notorious for dereliction, vagrants and prostitution.
I’ve just finished Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules…For Now and can confidently suggest that if you only ever read one history book, this is it. Morris tells a new kind of scientific history, beginning with human evolution, the growth of technology, and shows how our civilisation really works. He shifts the perspective to show how parochial some of our concerns are. In short: it’s the big picture he gives us.
The analysis of the past is utterly compelling but it’s his prognosis that is most telling. We are reaching one of the great barriers to development, such as human beings have faced several times before: in the Younger Dryas Cold Spell around 10,800 BCE, the Bronze Dark Age of 1200 BCE, the Fall of Rome, etc. He says there are two ways it could go and there is unlikely to be a fudged halfway house. In many respects his work ties in with several other recent thinkers. Jared Diamond is his most obvious influence. James Lovelock is in there too and this probably isn’t an influence but there are similarities to David Deutch’s recent The Beginning of Infinity. These are two magnificent books that everyone should read.
“ . . . smell far worse than weeds”. This is from one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic sonnets No 94). I thought of it today when I was clearing red lily beetles off the plants. They are very persistent and voracious pests that will strip a lily plan in weeks if you’re not looking. The first one I saw, this spring, I mistook for a ladybird until my wife put me right. It is far too long to be a ladybird even before you notice it hasn’t got any spots. The pests certainly make lilies “smell far worse than weeds” because the larvae cover themselves with their own excrement to deter predators. The only real form of control is to pick them off so you have to grasp the nettle, or rather the sticky black mess.
Shakespeare would not have known them because they only arrived in Britain from Europe in the 19th century. In recent years, with global warming, they have increased their range and now breed in vast numbers in southern England. The cold winter did nothing to deter them (the adults overwinter in the soil) and I think I’m going to be picking those sluggy messes off the plants for a while yet.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Rome nearly as much as I did. I’d been once before and it rained incessantly, driving us from refuge to refuge (the Pantheon was a favourite, even though it rains through the hole in the roof). The Sistine was closed. But this time we stayed in Trastevere, Rome was instantly laid out before us, walkable, and the sun shone.
Of course the set pieces were wonderful. Seeing the Sistine ceiling for the first time, I realised that the colours I so loved in Poussin – the apple green, sky blue, terracotta and orange – were of course, really Michelangelo's colours. This time around I have a real interest in the Roman world, not the rather baffled distant respect I had before. Having become interested in prehistory and human evolution, the Rome of 2000 years ago seems virtually yesterday.
But what really struck home was the persistence of traditional Rome – the classic Roman cuisine of saltimbocco and osso buco – and its pleasant unthreatening version of international street life. Campo Fiori and Pizza Navona were the main hangouts.
The buskers were excellent. Everyone knows the Great American Songbook but in Rome the Latin and Rock songbooks rule. Girl From Ipanema, Autumn Leaves, Besame Mucho were the standbys. There is also a great European Songbook: even if some of hails from South America, it’s the perfect music to hear in Roman streets. A really fine rock guitarist in Navona played Little Wing and Sultans of Swing with real fire and technique.
But most striking of all was a street artist with a fabulously theatrical graffiti airbrush technique. People watched him for the theatre more than the results which were usually kitsch but sometimes transcended it. He worked very quickly, rotating his armoury of cans and stencils with hardly a moment's pause. Occasionally he flamed the picture, which was dramatic but had the unfortunate effect of giving the paint a sickly glossy patina which make kitsch unavoidable. His favourite subject was the Colosseum. He painted the planets by request and the joy lay in their eventual emergence from behind a veil of screens and stencils.
From Roman grandeur, through Renaissance harmony, to the hip-swinging joy of Latin guitar music on the streets, it was possible to embrace all of this. The only really jarring note is Victor Emmanuel’s Palace. Enormously tall, overbearingly visible from everywhere, Fascist architecture avant la lettre, this building is wrong in every way. The Corinthian columns piled above ugly masses of stone; the appalling, meaningless decoration in place of standard neoclassical motifs – this seems to be the point where Italy started to go badly wrong. We heard a lot about that, of course, the four-point Referendum was a few days away and the national shame that is Berlusconi hung heavily over the city. But Rome makes a better fist of city life than most of the more touted contenders. It is smaller, more intimate; the bird life in Trastevere, with raucous gulls and air-dicing swifts and swallows, and the majestic plane trees along the Tiber, remind that rus in urbe is Latin. Inspirational.
Christopher Lloyd is a historian for the big picture, believing that history should now include our relationship with the natural and material worlds. Now, he's followed his large illustrated books What on Earth Happened?
and What on Earth Evolved?
with a Wallbook
that opens out to tell the human story from the Big Bang to now. Cunningly arranged, with more information than you'd think possible in such a span, it's a great way of taking your bearings on how we got to this point. The text on the reverse of the chart also does a brilliant job of topic selection. It is particularly good on the emergence of our culture, picking up techniques along the way, especially domesticating crops and animals. The What on Earth? Wallbook
is currently available at £15 from the What on Earth? website
or call 01443 828811.
I have been wondering what the global-warming-deniers would have made of Watson and Crick and Nature in 1953 if they had known how they acquired Rosalind Franklin’s data; if Watson's outrageously politically incorrect views had been outed in hacked emails; if their Central Dogma had been exposed as strictly not true by the discovery of reverse transcriptase in the full glare of the modern media? As for the magazine, this appears in Nature's Wikipedia entry: “John Maddox, Nature's editor, stated that 'the Watson and Crick’s paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature... the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field ... could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure'."So DNA might have become “nothing but a hoax and scare tactic" as the lobbyists’ blogs put it. Molecular Biology might have been set back or killed off for a generation. But of course this was pure science and didn't threaten global economic interests.
Science in every aspect is now in the sights of Right-Wing deny-everything lobby. I was horrified by Newsnight last night. Nature magazine is now under attack, as well as the East Anglian climate unit, and there is a whiff of McCarthyism or even Lysenkoism in the air. The scientists don't deliver the results the powers would like: let the science and the scientists be changed. Of course, the politicians have officially been on message on climate change but the right wing lobbies are scenting triumph now. Neither the BBC's Science nor Environment editor has tried to explain the process of science in all this and I haven't heard any message from the Royal Society or the international scientific community.
There is no need for an “inquiry” into the East Anglian Climate Unit. Every scientific paper published in a journal like Nature is subject to criticism by the work and the papers that follow it. That is what science consists of: an ongoing criticism of all previous work. Science doesn’t do inquiries: science already IS one big inquiry. Unfortunately, the science community needs to learn that the rest of the world works in an entirely different, sly and deceitful, way. Science has got to lose its innocence and learn to play streetwise in public; if not it’s going to lose everything.