What Have I Done Now?

Avid followers of my blog (if there are any) will recall a post a while back where I commented on a Vice documentary I had seen, focusing on Liberia and in particular exploring the slums of West Point, part of the capital in Monrovia. I still remember being utterly shocked during the documentary, not quite being able to quite comprehend the levels of poverty I was witnessing. It was a different world, and not one I had any experience of. The naive youth of the post is telling- I knew so much less then than I do now, and it shows.

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West Point isn’t the most developed of places. 

Now my close friends know that amusing, strange and at times unbelievable things happen to me, often from a compulsive urge to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes my way. Dave ‘#SayYesMore’ Cornthwaite (who is currently pedaling around Norway’s fjords on a schillerbike, as you do) would probably be proud of that, though I feel it might irritate family and Catherine, my ‘lawyer for everyday life’, as she likes to call herself. It’s led to a few interesting experiences during my degree, such as the crazy lightning selfie video, a compilation of which currently has more views than people live in Russia. I’ve narrowly (and at times very narrowly) missed major incidents too- flying over Luhansk the week before MH17 was shot down on the same flight journey, and even the Istanbul airport attacks. As you can see, strange coincidences are not new to me.

 

 

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That moment when you know you’ve screwed up, really badly.

But this one is really weird.  

I applied for the International Citizen’s Service not necessarily thinking I’d get in, nor really considering where I might end up going. I’ve always felt that Africa was in my stars, and so I was hopeful for that at least. I wanted to be doing Disaster Risk Reduction work and hopefully use my (newly anointed) Geography degree, and thus I applied to Y Care International, one of the ICS programme partners funded by DFID. They mentioned disaster risk work plenty of times, and thus they were the only option for me.

 

Y CareThe assessment day went well, with lots of amusing team-building style activities and some genuinely interesting characters from as far afield as Glasgow and Belfast, which is a seriously long journey to London! The interview was pretty straight forward, and my boring non-drinker status helped me sail through the potentially more difficult personal issues section. By the end I knew that if selected, I’d be headed to one of a handful of West African countries.

‘Great! I’ll finally be headed to Africa if I get in… #LifeGoals etc’…

 

Then a few days ago, I did get in. I still didn’t know my destination…

 

Today I had an email, and found out. Guess where?

L-I-B-E-R-I-A.

I did more digging. The slums of WEST POINT are part of Y Care’s 2 projects in Liberia. Literally a 50% chance of me going there.

Oh my god. 

So 3 years on from my rather inane, naïve blog post, I might be about to witness it in the flesh. Hopefully not General Butt Naked though, who they interview in that documentary…

Christ.

 

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The fearsome warlord in his ‘heyday’… He is now a repentant priest, apparently. 

Now I might not be going just yet- I have a job interview to hear back from, but I’m very, very keen on the opportunity. It would enable me to network for future disaster risk research, something that could have a positive impact in a state such as Liberia, get practical experience of development work and actually do a proper job of it too, unlike those awful ‘I paid £2000 and painted an orphanage wall’ projects. The ICS programme is great, asking you to raise a sum for the charity itself whilst they cover all your costs both before and during travel, making it a great opportunity for all.

Liberia ebolaIf I do end up pursuing this, you’ll get to enjoy more blogs- even from Liberia- and even Vlogs too, charting my experiences over the 3 months. I’ve already started checking out the wildlife, and between civil wars & ebola, there is still some pretty tasty stuff out there. Pygmy Hippopotamus- you’re mine! So after all of that, it looks like the story of Billy and Liberia has just begun, in yet another weird web of coincidences. I’m already anxious to discover the plot!

Balo

128 Days Later: How Trump and Russia Have Changed Our World

Donald Trump has been president for just 128 days, and the world is already near-unrecognisable. His incompetency on the global stage has seen age-old relationships falter, and with this, the entire nexus of Western geopolitics has shifted. Whereas Obama once stated that”This is as important a relationship as I’ve had during the course of my presidency” about Germany’s Angela Merkel, highlighting close, amicable US-EU relations, it is clear that Trump’s America is altogether different. It is difficult to remember a time in which the United States has been more distant from Europe, or in which such a strong geopolitical bond has deteriorated so quickly due to the will of one man. Merkel, normally a relatively understated speaker, struck a defiant, revealing tone on Sunday, stating that “The times in which we could rely fully on others, they are somewhat over”, with the clear context of the previous day’s G7 summit. The underlying message being as obvious as it is appalling- that Europe can no longer rely on the United States as a close ally. The publication of confidential intelligence from the UK in the US press also drew sharp criticism of Trump, this time from the UK, in the wake of the Manchester attacks.

There is serious discord then, between the two most powerful Western blocs, that of the EU and the USA. This is a major, major issue. The damage from Trump’s first foreign trip does not stop there. At a NATO summit, Trump neglected to endorse Article 5, with is an omission of such gravity that it sent diplomatic tsunamis through military and geopolitical circles. Namely, Article 5 is the Collective Defence clause and the most important clause of the original NATO treaty, the concept being that an attack against one member is an attack against all members. It was a key part of keeping Western nations safe in the Cold War, and it is of great historical and strategic significance. So for Trump to not endorse at this conference, as new leaders are expected to, is appalling. Why?

Article 5 has only ever been invoked once, in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which essentially launched the War on Terror. Allies responded in force and paid in blood. Britain lost 454 soldiers in Afghanistan, Canada lost 158, France lost 89 and Germany lost 57, among many other significant national contributions. 

The United States is thus the only country to ever invoke Article 5, and yet now hesitates to endorse it. It is unacceptable for the US to be ‘picking and choosing’ after so much blood has been spilled in their name by allies. This then, is rock bottom.

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A devastating visual indictment of Trump’s refusal to endorse Article 5

Elsewhere, Trump looks likely to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which would be a hammer blow due to importance as the world’s second biggest polluter. Whilst China is taking great strides both in environmental policy and technology, America is looks set to be resting on it’s laurels, plunging back down the mineshafts in search of coal. Regression isn’t a strong enough word to describe the Trump administration’s environmental policies in comparison to that under Obama, though perhaps we had good warning of this with his plan to gut the EPA.

Trump’s associations with Russia are never far from the news, and with every leak that emerges, it is increasingly clear that there is significant substance to these rumours. These are well documented in articles in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that cover this in better detail than I will go into here. They say that ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’, and there is so much smoke right now that it is difficult to see your hand in front of your face. I doubt we will see anything approaching the truth until decades after the Trump administration, but with every piece of the jigsaw that falls in place, the cries for impeachment grow only louder.

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Scratching The Surface: An outdated visual of Trump’s Russia ties. 

Trump’s campaign ran on an anti-establishment platform, and a key part of that was penetrating the American consciousness with the concept of ‘fake news’ and how the mainstream media (MSM) is the enemy. Trump’s MSM is a broad church, with virtually every news organisation apart from Fox and RT included. The NYT and WaPo, representing the cream of America’s media organisations, have been particularly strongly attacked. On the face of it, this is just a quirk of Trump’s presidency and character, though calling them ‘the enemy of the people’ is obviously extreme. Some news channels can indeed be accused of being ‘too far left’, and perhaps publishing biased articles- but every media organisation has its own leanings. Trump’s attack is significant because his constant tirades about ‘fake news’ have decimated public trust in the media, and this is a major problem. Trump can now dismiss any negative story as ‘fake news’, deceiving the American people and making it very, very difficult to distinguish between the truth and a lie. Trump’s attacks on the media are an assault on the critical thinking of the American people, an attempt to neuter one of American democracy’s strongest assets- an inquisitive, tenacious media.

Taken apart, these events are already troubling, but when pulled together by a common thread, they are nauseating. That common thread, invariably, is Russia. One country and one country alone is benefiting from all of this, and it is isn’t difficult to work out who. There is obvious evidence that Russia strongly interfered in the US election, as confirmed by sources in the FBI and Department of Defense, helping to secure a victory for their preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Whereas before there were peace and a united front, the West appears to be fracturing before our eyes, creating a far weaker bloc in opposition to Russian aggression. NATO, the EU, the G7- all vital partnerships and all faltering. Vladimir Putin has played a long game and an incredibly smart game, and it is undoubtedly winning. Russia’s harnessing of social media and technology to interfere in US politics will be studied for decades to come, and it represents a step-change in cyber warfare. They are very obviously already reaping the benefits of this, particularly geopolitically.

Simultaneously, Russia has managed to carve out a positive image of itself, particularly within the left in the West. In Syria, Russia is seen to be ‘sorting it out’. In Ukraine, Russia was ‘opposing Nazis’. It’s time to call Russia out for what it really is. In Syria, regardless of the geopolitics, Russia is propping up a dictator who has undeniably gassed his own citizens and has committed a mind-boggling array of sickening atrocities. Russia’s displays of air power might be impressive in Syria, but accusing the West of causing civilian casualties when Russia is literally carpet bombing areas a la the Second World War is galling, to say the least. In Ukraine, Russia used ‘hybrid-warfare’ to invade a sovereign European state, capturing land of strategic significance to Russia in the Crimea. In both theatres, Russia has been accused of war crimes.

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Russia is no angel. 

This is the same Russia that influenced an American election. People appear to have short memories, but it is not so long ago that the UK had the ‘British Army of the Rhine’ to delay a Russian attack through Europe, and that US troops were stationed across Europe. It is hard to imagine cooperation on that level in the wake of Trump’s NATO, G7 and EU summits. He is withdrawing from the world, taking America’s superpower status with him. The Cold War may have ended, but a new Cold War has just begun- and Russia is winning. What is more, Russia is winning unopposed. 

128 Days Later? The world is unrecognisable, and it is clear that Trump must go.

But of course. Fake News.

RSPB Middleton Lakes: Warwickshire’s Best Nature Reserve?

Having had enough of the terrible customer service at my usual haunt, Brandon Marsh, I was really looking forward to trying somewhere new this weekend. RSPB Middleton Lakes is a little further than usual, but is still easily within a 30-minute drive, and we were swayed by frequent reports of interesting species there. It turns out that Middleton Lakes is literally right next to Middleton Hall, a historic manor house with attached tea room, which is an added bonus. I can now attest to their quality of their milkshakes…

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Despite knowing little about Middleton Lakes, I was shocked when it turned out to be much, much bigger than Brandon, and it was just so much better. It seemed to be far more alive, too, with ducks and geese along the warren-like wetland network nearly as far as the eye could see. Being able to see Water Rail chicks within 2 minutes of arrival certainly helps, but there was a great range of species on offer. I had a lifer- Great White Egret, and I’m sure I would have had a couple more had I brought a telescope. A Marsh Harrier was spotted earlier in the day- alas, what could have been! Dragonflies and butterflies were everywhere, and even better, the site was bustling with families both young and old. Middleton Lakes has clearly found a formula that works, and it was a joy to behold!

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The RSPB staff were friendly, approachable and knowledgeable, and featured a pleasing mix of young and old for once. This put into context quite how bad the ‘welcoming committee’ is at Brandon Marsh, Brandon being far more Stasi than smiley. I’ve been going there since probably before I could walk, and trust me, it can’t get any worse than it is now! Middleton Lakes was also cheaper, at £3 per car as opposed to £2.50 a head at Brandon. In short, if you are in need of a nature fix in the Warwickshire/Midlands area, then you could do an awful lot worse than Middleton Lakes. I’m pretty sure you could even see parts of Birmingham’s skyline in the distance, but I could be wrong.

All in all, Middleton Lakes is genuinely the best reserve you can find in Warwickshire, and is absolutely worth a visit! I just really don’t know why I hadn’t been sooner…

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A Magical Month

After another gruelling six months of long-distance, transatlantic love, I was finally reunited with Catherine in mid-June, and had the pleasure of her company until mid-July. This gave us roughly a month to reconnect with each other, explore new places and see how the pair of us had grown since we last met, and it was absolutely brilliant. One (tiny) advantage of long-distance is that every time we see each other, it is genuinely exciting. 6 months apart is a long time, but it makes every single second we get to spend in person so much more valuable! We had a blast- I got to attend a conference at the University of Kent, where Catherine presented a paper and did great (I was so proud, but I needn’t have been- this her bread and butter!). This gave us a few days in Canterbury, and we did all sorts- the Cathedral, punting on the river, meals out… Honestly, it was the best start to the trip we could hope for. I’d never been to Kent before, and I have to confess that I was rather taken with Canterbury life!

 

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Alpaca Floof. 

 

We then returned to my native Warwickshire, where Catherine continues to seamlessly fit into the family, which I partly put down to a shared sense of mischief and humour. We befriended the many Alpacas at the local Toft Alpaca farm and coffee shop, and also enjoyed some great bites to eat out at Hilltop Farm Shop, complete with adorable ponies. We did endure some truly godawful meals out too- imagine an Eggs Benedict with a burningly acidic hollandaise sauce, eggshells and a texture of rubber and you are somewhere near just one of the debacles, but on the whole, food was pretty good. We did the silly things too, of course, playing cricket in the garden (Catherine’s pretty good and even has her own cricket bat, rare for an American) and a few long walks, including a trip to Brandon where we caught up with a pair of Hobbies and a horde of grumpy old people.

 

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Alpaca-spotting (and befriending) with Grandma!

 

The final part of the trip was kicked off by two visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, initially just to see Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Swan, but we were so impressed that we had to come back for more, and thus Julius Caesar was duly booked. I’ll do a proper review for each play in a later blog, but Salome was incredible. I’ve seen plenty of plays and Salome must go down as the greatest I’ve seen. Matthew Tennyson was spellbinding as Salome, and I loved the gender-altered specifics of his role. Tennyson could appear vengeful one moment, and then like the weakest, most vulnerable creature the next. Tennyson wore a slinky white dress, and many other characters were in similarly androgynous or gender-bending outfits. Oscar Wilde would have been very proud of this great piece of serious, slightly queer, theatre. The singing was incredible- if you can, just go and see it, honestly. If you are clever (and 18-25), you can get tickets for just £5 under the BP subsidised ticket scheme. Julius Caesar was also very, very good, featuring plenty of gore, bodies and blood, together with the most shocking scene of theatre I’ve seen. I’ve never heard the entire audience at the RSC gasp like that before, and considering the number of tourists from far flung parts of the globe, the universality of that moment was gripping. Brilliant theatre. I’ll reveal what that moment was… another day!

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Having spent an amazing few weeks with my family (thanks so much!) we headed off to London so that Catherine could attend another academic event, this time a 2-day seminar at Kings College London featuring a few students from the University of Michigan. I couldn’t sneak into this one, but I got to meet Jess and Lucas again, and see some pretty cool places. Catherine and I had a ball, nearly even in the driving wind and rain outside St. Pauls Cathedral, when google maps had broken. We explored Soho and Covent Garden, spent hours poring over books in enormous book shops and finding hidden gems (like Stanfords Travel Shop!) that we will surely come back to again and again. We met up with her close friends, Lilli & Haley, ate Sushi & Giraffe (or was that at Giraffe??) and explored art galleries and exhibitions. It was great! I’ve never been a huge fan of London, but this trip saw me fall in love with a city I used to absolutely hate. There’s an oft-repeated quote from Samuel Johnson that ‘to be tired of London is to be tired of life itself’- and I’ll drink to that.

 

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The number of globes at Stanfords was enough to make this Geographer very happy indeed.

 

Our last day together is always emotional, and I was a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to hold it together too well. It’s a tough old beast, long-distance. Instead, I had two important emails come through. The first was an invitation to a job interview for the Civil Service, that could see me pretty much raise what I need for the Master’s degree of my dreams. Something exciting for the future. The second was an email notifying me that I was to be awarded a commendation at graduation for contribution to the department, something that I am incredibly, incredibly pleased with. Something exciting for the past. Those emails patched over our sadness, and made us unbelieavably happy as we relished in each other’s futures with lashings of Turkish ice cream at Picadilly Circus. Bliss.

 

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A better food choice!

 

So I’ll be graduating from Exeter with a strong 2:1 in BSc Geography, coupled with a departmental commendation. I’ll admit to being a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get the First I’d strived so hard for, but after receiving that email I don’t think I care one bit.

After a truly, truly magical month, we said our goodbyes on the Tube in Bethnal Green of all places, and I’m pretty sure we mostly held back tears this time (easier said than done, my friend), which is a great success, all things considered. I zoomed off to a selection day for the International Citizen’s Service, whilst Catherine zoomed off to catch her flight back to beautiful Ann Arbor. But we are happy.

She has plenty of reading for her PhD to be getting on with, together with an important fellowship. I need to get ready for graduation, attend my job interview in London and prepare to move out from Cornwall, so there’s plenty to be keeping us both busy.

Excitingly, this week I’ll find out whether my ICS application was successful- if it was, I might be spending October-December in Senegal, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

Could I FINALLY be on my way to Africa?

 

Liberal Democrat: Anatomy of an Election

I’ve always struggled to find a home politically, being uncomfortable with aspects of both left and right-wing policies and concepts. I’ve always been strong in my belief in the NHS, the environment and education, which might lead you to believe that I’d be a natural labour voter. Instead, parts of the left are greatly concerning to me, and thus I’ve found myself to be far more comfortable as a firm centrist. The Liberal Democrats has thus become my political home, despite the tuition fee fiasco and other aspects of the coalition that badly wounded the party in 2015. The Brexit vote reinforced this- the Liberal Democrats were the only party to take a united hard-line anti-brexit stance during the vote, and this continued during the 2017 snap election. As someone who has studied on a university campus largely funded by the European Regional Development Fund, living in a region that receives far more money from the European Union than it ever would from central government, the concept of brexit was (and remains) entirely unpalatable. Whilst I can appreciate the potential benefits of Brexit in some respects, I am steadfast in my belief that this country took the wrong decision. Labour didn’t take a strong stance on brexit- and Jeremy Corbyn certainly didn’t. 
That’s a rough synopsis of how and why I became a member of the Liberal Democrats, but that would be a boring story on it’s own, right? 

One way or another, I agreed to stand in the local elections as a Town Councillor for Arwenack Ward, and as a County Councillor for Penryn West. I wasn’t necessarily the most serious of candidates, and these areas were places that we (as a party) were likely to lose in. Thus, with very little literature sent out about my candidacy, the party would gather votes but as an individual I was never likely to win on any level. Regardless, I was kindly invited to the election count by Mathew McCarthy, the somewhat unorthodox town councillor for Penwerris and a strong figure in the party locally. The count night at Carn Brea, Camborne was one of the most fascinating and inspiring experiences of my life, with hundreds of people gathered because they wanted to make a difference to their communities, and having seen it in person I believe that this is the most organic end of politics, where people generally are genuinely running to make a positive impact locally. There were people of all parties present, from the Greens through to UKIP, with smaller regional parties such as Mebyon Kernow and plenty of independent candidates present too. With some 123 seats being contested, it was incredible to see so many people present involved and interested in local politics at the grassroots level. The press was in attendance too- though I never found a good image of myself! My results were interesting if unspectacular. In the county council elections I was able to take 151 votes off the popular incumbent Mary May (later elected the chairman of Cornwall Council and thoroughly nice to boot). The Greens did exceptionally well to come in 2nd place, whilst I narrowly lost by 4 to my Conservative student counterpart Ellie Phipps, which isn’t bad considering the surge they had across the county. With actual effort in my campaign it was obviously unlikely I’d ever dethrone Mrs May, but I could have had a good run at 2nd for sure. The town council election was less interesting, but I was only 30/40 votes off beating Jayne Kirkham, who was later the Labour MP candidate in my constituency, which is something. 

As events conspired, it was a good thing I wasn’t elected as I will now be moving away from Cornwall, but it was a great experience, and affirms my belief in the British political system. Whilst we electorally need a better form of proportional representation, the people at Carn Brea that night were deeply passionate about their ideas for their little area- and with 123 areas across Cornwall, that’s a warming part of local politics. Cornwall has an awful lot of people trying to make positive differences for you, and thus the whole ‘politics doesn’t represent me’ argument falls apart in my eyes. If you get involved, you can make a difference- and on a smaller level, your vote really counts. I saw elections decided by margins as fine as one vote, and elsewhere in the county it has to be decided by coin toss/pulling straws, demonstrating the value of what might seem an insignificant, unimportant single vote. There was emotion too, of course- political beliefs and hopes for your area run a lot deeper than the surface. 

Then Theresa May called a snap-election, and I was furious. The local elections had already phased me politically, and I was feeling more than a little worn-out when it was announced. This was the prevailing view I came across too- everyone I knew had enough of being bombarded in the press, social media and through the letterbox by politics- and now it was going to continue, at higher pace and at significantly higher stakes. URGH! 

I couldn’t help as much as I would have liked during the election, being seriously busy with my dissertation and upcoming exams, but I still did my bit. I helped our Liberal Democrat candidate, Robert Nolan, in the campaign for the Truro and Falmouth constituency. Rob was formerly the Mayor of Truro, and his campaign focused on defending our area from successive brutal conservative cuts, that have left our local NHS in bits in particular- just one visit to RCH Treliske is enough to show that (hello 1970s)! Our campaign received quite little support from Lib Dem HQ, and thus I was amazed at the efforts of all manner of local volunteers doing all kinds of tasks- from as menial and mundane as folding envelopes and delivering letters to the more demanding door knocking, press releases and events. We had a relatively small core team, but a much bigger team of volunteers who sprung up out of the woodwork in all areas of the constituency, of all ages and backgrounds, which was awesome to behold. I did a bit of everything, but enjoyed door knocking most of all- though I did get shouted at over the tuition fees scandal. At least she was passionate! On that note I was in frequent touch with counterparts in other parties, and the level of abuse levelled at some of them on a daily basis was despicable, from shouting and spitting to vandalism of signs and the like- we too suffered from many missing signs. When it seems like the only signs to survive were those of Labour, it’s pretty obvious where they disappeared to. Politics should not go that far locally- those standing are just normal people. They’re very human, and they feel just as much as everyone else. It was thus very disappointing to hear of and to witness this. 

This time around, the atmosphere at Carn Brea was electrifying. So much hung on the next few hours nationally, and there was a sure buzz in the air. The press were far more numerous, and the stakes so much higher than last time. Even the election counters looked a little nervous- and from past experience they usually look as excited as a man watching paint dry. Only three elections were being counted that night, with the other Cornish constituencies counted elsewhere. We had Camborne and Redruth, St Ives and then our area, Truro and Falmouth to contend with. Whilst our canvassing had been positive, I thought it fairly obvious that Sarah Newton MP would likely hold T&F, whilst St Ives looked to be far closer between us and the conservatives. Counting each vote that came in, providing rough estimates for votes from different polling stations for future use and challenging any that were wrongly sorted, it was the longest of nights. I drank far too much Lucozade to stay awake, but it was badly needed. It took until 6:00AM to be nearly finished, and our areas were one of the latest in the entire country to declare. I saw some negative reports in the local press calling it an embarrassment, but in reality everyone worked their hardest- having arrived at 10pm, it felt like a miracle to get out at all! I certainly couldn’t attach any blame to the Cornwall Council staff for that. 

Counting our votes for the Truro and Falmouth constituency it quickly became clear that Corbyn-mania had truly permeated our area, with huge block votes coming in from parts of Penryn in particular. Even in our traditional core vote in Truro, labour polled unexpectedly well, matching our effort in places. Regardless, the Conservatives looked the strongest by far. To their credit, Jayne Kirkham ran a very effective campaign and was able to rely on a strong student vote, perhaps swayed by Corbyn’s tuition fee promises. This reflected, of course, the large swing nationally. When the election results were called out, it was hugely unexpectedly close, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Sarah Newton MP prevailed, with 25,123, but Kirkham’s Labour campaign did quite astoundingly, gathering 21,331 votes and vastly increasing their vote share from the previous election. We came a solid third, and given the lack of resources we had to deal with it was a strong effort with 8465 votes. We certainly didn’t expect the Labour surge to be as strong as it was locally, but in hindsight it was difficult to run an effective campaign against the fervour that Corbyn had been able to whip up across the country.

More exciting was the result in St Ives which prompted a recount, but sadly we didn’t quite succeed against the incumbent Conservative MP- losing by just 312 votes, a stellar effort. It raises that bittersweet thought though- just one more street, a few more letters and maybe it could have been won. The St Ives team ran a fantastic campaign and were so unlucky to not come up trumps in the event. Now there was a lot of talk across Cornwall of tactical voting, and I took a fair bit of abuse post-election from Labour supporters for not voting Labour or standing aside to them in our area. My defence of this is thus- all the major tactical voting sites at the time advised a Lib Dem vote, and regardless a brief discussion in the Truro and Falmouth Tactical Vote page on facebook revealed that nearly all of them voted for Corbyn anyway against that advice, so I believe there is little to be gained from that line of thought. In contrast, we needed just 312 votes in St Ives- and Labour took 7298 in a seat they had no chance of winning. Swings and roundabouts, then. Regardless, Cornwall could certainly have had one less Conservative MP if tactical voting had actually occurred. 

Final Thoughts

Being able to be a part of a political campaign from start to finish was an absolute privilege, and I express my sincere gratitude to Mathew McCarthy and the Truro & Falmouth Liberal Democrats in particular. I also give my commiserations to Rob Nolan, a lovely, lovely man who deserved far better and worked far harder than the results show. It was amazing to see the amount of effort that goes into a political campaign, from many different angles, and it made the election count a truly emotional experience. Despite being held in an old leisure centre, Carn Brea will forever be etched in my mind- watching the monument high on Carn Brea emerge in the morning mist as the entire nation awoke to a new political future will be one of those special memories that I’ll look back on with similarly misty eyes in the future. So much emotion and effort goes into a campaign- unless you’ve taken part, you just can’t understand. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think we could have run a more effective campaign in some respects, but this is an observation on a national rather than local level. The Liberal Democrats put the farm out on being anti-brexit, but offered comparatively little else in the terms of policy. Whilst we recovered some seats, it was clear that the party was still badly tainted from the previous coalition, and this undermined our student vote in particular. This struck home particularly harshly during the election count, when the students of Sheffield Hallam voted out Nick Clegg, a true gentleman, scholar and a hugely important liberal voice. Our party will genuinely mourn his loss, and his service to the centre of British politics. Tim Farron did a good job, but was nowhere near dynamic enough as a leader to offer a truly innovative, exciting vision for Britain’s future, and that has to be a core aspect of a successful political campaign. That, to me, was the main failing of the Liberal Democrats as a party in this election. With a visionary leader, this was a great chance to seize the centre of British politics as Labour and the Conservatives pulled further apart on the political spectrum, but it just didn’t happen. With Farron now gone, we again have this chance in the next election, but we need to be careful. We are still tainted from the past coalition, and there are murmurs of a new centrist party in the works… The Liberal Democrats survived, and we have a good future- though I just wonder if bigger changes might be afoot. 

So, my foray into politics took me far deeper than most students go, and it has left me far, far richer for the experience. I’m a better communicator now, I understand local politics far more intimately than previously… I just gained so much from my time with the Truro and Falmouth Liberal Democrats. I’m moving on now, perhaps to Warwickshire or London, and thus Carn Brea will eventually become a distant memory- but I will never forget the determination of the Cornish people to make Cornwall better on all levels, be it in running for elections, doing interviews or even just folding envelopes- Cornwall has people who really, really care, and as one of the poorest regions in Northern Europe, it really needs every single one of them, regardless of their political orientation. 

Cornwall needs them, and British politics needs people like me, people like you and people like us. 

Get involved

Perhentian Island Flooding

As parts of Terengganu flood for the second time in as many years, the islands where I’ve spent so much of my life recently have not been spared. During FxPedition Perhentian Islands we spent a lot of time staying in the middle of the village. We spent many nights eating out at the local restaurants, and we played football with kids and adults alike on the village beach football pitch (though the less said about my performances in goal, the better).

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I’ve stayed in the village twice now, and quite a lot has changed between times. This year there was a few new buildings by the jetty, and the beach football area had been enclosed off by fencing and concrete structures to hold back the tide. A concrete bridge of sorts was built to link a new motorcycle path to Long Beach to the village.  Importantly, the parts that needed updating, especially the sewage system, hadn’t been. The problems with the open sewer system and wider sewage disposal issues are not new, and I can find English-based papers citing the issues all the way back in 2001. Shockingly, a paper specifically mentions how yearly flooding is common on the islands due to overcrowding and lack of government investment that was promised in the 1990s (Ghani, Yassin and Ahmad, The Social Sciences, 2010). Conversely, a Malay language report suggests that this year’s flooding is unprecedented in scale.

We found out early yesterday that little, if anything, has changed. Some 30 homes were flooded, and aspects of public infrastructure were badly affected. If the images are anything to go by, it looks like the open sewer system has been badly damaged, and if that water has been flowing through the village then it represents a serious health hazard to local residents. These are genuinely devastating floods, and the economic losses will be significant. It it not just the locals that have been affected, as I understand that the island’s only health clinic and police station has also been affected. The response from government agencies has been good, with the Coastguard and Navy assisting to evacuate affected people to Kuala Besut, as far as I can tell, as well as assessing the damage to the village.

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They wouldn’t have to do that, though, if the government had properly invested in supporting the residents where it is actually needed it. Whilst flooding on this scale may be rare, papers show that it is not uncommon. Upgrading the sewage system (that has shown to impact drinking water quality and thus health) would be a sure start. I’m sure Malaysia has enough skilled Geographers to assess flood risk, and I can only help that studies are carried out to work out how to protect the village from the next event. The Perhentian Islands are an excellent financial resource for Malaysia- it is damn time that the government treated the residents with the respect they deserve. The islands may be a beautiful paradise for tourists in summer, but what about the poor residents during the monsoon season? Having lived with them, I can tell you that the islanders are tough and resourceful and will respond to these difficulties with courage- it just seems evident that more could be (and should be) done to help them.

Sadly, the islanders are not isolated in their plight, with some 23,000 evacuated across Terengganu state. My thoughts are with them and the islanders at this challenging time.

Footnote

I am well aware that criticising the Malaysian government is risky, but if no-one ever says anything then nothing will change. The people of the islands deserve better. The first slideshow’s images originate from myself and Joshua Gray, the rest are taken from social media. The opinions expressed above are solely my own. 

Scotland’s Great Colony

At the turn of the 18th century, Scotland launched an enormous attempt to start a colony on the coast of modern-day Panama. It was an act that had a profound influence on world history, ruining the Scottish lowlands and paving the way for the union of Scotland and England in 1707. This is the story of Caledonia. 

Whilst England began to capitalise on its position as a major mercantile and colonial power, Scotland was in the economic doldrums. The costly Wars of the Three Kingdoms had not gone well for the Scots, probably accounting for 50,000 of their soldiers, lost through battle and disease in both England and Scotland itself. No sooner had the nation begun to recover than the stirrings of the first Jacobite uprising began in the highlands, eventually surrendering to the Scottish government after initial successes including the Battle of Killiecrankie. The Jacobite cause would rise again, but not until 1715. As if things weren’t bad enough, the already limited trade with France and Baltic states became sluggish in the late 1790s, and a series of painful failed harvests led to widespread famine in the north of the country, killing up to 15% of the Scottish population.

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The fierce Jacobite charge at Killiecrankie broke Scottish ranks and won the battle, but arguably lost the war.

Scotland, then, was in dire straits.

The Bank of Scotland was established in 1695, and it immediately set about establishing trade with other parts of the world, including Africa and the indies. Regardless, Scotland struggled to compete for trade with the more successful English. Scotland had grand designs however, and the people desired to be as renowned as the English for their colonial endeavour and trading power. Raising money for such an endeavour proved challenging, with the English reticent to invest due to pressure from the East India company and from rivals Spain, who claimed the region.

Regardless, an enormous sum of money was raised from every echelon of Scottish society- this was their great hope. The money amounted to some £47 million today, an incredible sum when you consider the population of Scotland was far smaller then than it is today (1,265,380 in 1755- 5,313,600 in 2011). This represented around a 1/5 of all Scottish capital in circulation, underlining the enormous commitment from the Scottish people. Despite initially being billed as trade with Africa and the indies, the Scots were instead sold on an altogether different opportunity, something that was likely only given serious thought to because the English had rejected it weeks previously.

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A map of Caledonia- note Fort St Andrews and New Edinburgh.

The idea was to create a colony at the junction of the Atlantic and the Pacific on the isthmus of Panama, a place where they could hold the lucrative key to unlock easy trade between the two oceans. It promised great riches, and the Scots were hooked.

Some 1200 set off on the first expedition in 1698, including soldiers and officers involved in the Glencoe Massacre (later to cause discord in the ranks), as well as families. Avoiding detection by English warships, they set sail in July and landed at Darien on the 2nd of November. In the most ancient tradition of the Scots, they proclaimed their new land to be ‘Caledonia’, and they were determined to become rich for their country.

They quickly set about constructing Fort St Andrew, armed with some 50 cannon to defend it from raiding parties and the troublesome Spanish, though it lacked fresh water. A watchtower was also constructed at the headland of the bay to give early warning of enemy attack. Work then began on ‘New Edinburgh’, which was supposed to be the capital of the new colony, and this is where it began to go horribly, horribly wrong.

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Jungle in the Darien Gap- a tough environment by today’s standards, let alone the 17/1800s.

The colonists cleared land for agricultural purposes, but quickly found it challenging and perhaps unsuited for their crops. Even worse, they had planned to trade with the local native Indians, however they had no desire for the small trinkets the Scottish could offer. Crucially, passing traders had no interest in what the Scottish had to sell, putting paid to the plans for a great profitable colony. Despite this, letters home portrayed a colonial paradise, and this is understood today to have been a deliberate choice by the colonists to create a positive impression of the expedition. Evidently, this could not be further from the truth.

As summer arrived, the expedition began to fall apart. Malaria and other tropical diseases began to claim up to 10 settlers a day, whilst precious food gifted by local Indians fell victim to the greed of those who needed it least. The food they did have grew mouldy very quickly due to poor storage techniques, and only alcohol gave the settlers any respite from the terrible conditions they found themselves in.This in itself was a double-edged sword, as it accelerated the deaths of some, whilst drunkenness became commonplace.

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An additional map showing the position of New Edinburgh on the isthmus of Darien, Panama.

In just 8 months, Scotland’s great hope had been extinguished, the colony being abandoned in July 1699 with just 300 out of 1200 settlers remaining alive.

There is one more tragic turn to this tale, however. The letters that have fawned over the prosperity of the colony led the Scots to send 2 resupply ships of some 300 people, arriving to find graves and the ruins of New Edinburgh as opposed to the thriving colony they had anticipated. When one of the resupply ships caught fire, the Captains decided to flee.

Worse still, news of the expedition’s failure did not reach Scotland before a second expedition of over 1000 settlers had departed for Caledonia. Again, they arrived to find a ruined settlement that needed to be rebuilt. Unsurprisingly, morale plummeted. At last, the Spanish attack materialised, laying siege to Fort St Andrew. Despite a stout defence organised by Alexander Campbell of Fonab, sent for that purpose by the company, the defenders were surrounded, heavily disease, running out of food and surrounded. The settlers finally surrendered, and the colony was abandoned once again, but for the final time.

Caledonia was no more.

The news came as an enormous shock to Scotland, and scores of lowland families from every sector of society were affected economically, not to mention the loss of family members on the expedition. The lack of English support for the expedition led to an unsavoury affair leading to the hanging of an English ship’s Captain in Scotland, as part of popular discontent towards them after the disaster surfaced. Nonetheless, this was a purely Scottish expedition, and Scotland had to own the Darien Scheme’s failure. It is interesting that centuries later, the Panama Canal would open trade between the two oceans for trade for good, yet the Scottish site on the Gulf of Darien remains largely uninhabited.

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The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important trade routes today, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific.

The Darien disaster is believed to have contributed heavily to the union of Scotland and England, as Scottish elites saw the best chance of becoming a global power lying in partnership with the English, as well as an opportunity to rescue the economy of Scotland. The two countries united in 1707- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the Darien Scheme is regarded as one of the greatest mistakes in political history. Whilst a few people continue to argue that the Scottish were the first to truly appreciate the strategic significance of Panama in the terms of trade, the reality is that Caledonia became the folly of the Scottish people, nearly bankrupting the proud nation with a loss of nearly 25% of all Scottish money. There is still a debate today over whether the colony could have survived had the English assisted, though I find this hard to believe. This area of Panama is still relatively unpopulated. The conditions would have been a nightmare for the 17th/18th century human, ill-equipped to deal with the ravages of insects, fever and the sun, and the surrounding jungle would only have slowed progress. The Spanish were never going to be in favour of the settlement due to the threat it posed to their silver trade, and thus a confrontation was always brewing- and the tiny Scottish Navy would have been no match for the mighty Spaniards.

Caledonia failed then, and it remained great only momentarily in the minds of its greatest promoters. It was a truly monumental disaster, precipitating the fall of a proud and independent Scotland- all because of a small stretch of land on the Panamanian coast.

 

Road To Grad School: Now We Wait

It’s finally over!

All my US graduate applications have been submitted, and I can’t describe how much of a relief that is. It’s taken a long, long time, and an awful amount of money that I (really) don’t want to think about to apply, but it’s done! I applied to 5 in the end, being able to whittle them down in the last few days. Washington didn’t make the cut by the tiniest of margins- I just couldn’t see enough faculty there with relevant research interests. I can forget about the GRE- the worst thought out exam in the history of the universe, it is literally the 11+ on steroids. Urgh.

 

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No, I didn’t expect to be studying under a Trump presidency, either. I took this picture during the speech by Senator Tim Kaine, Hilary’s VP nominee, during the campaigning. A nice little nugget of history. 

 

I’m really happy with those left standing, and though it was nice to field speculative emails from the likes of Harvard, Columbia and Notre Dame, I’m sure I’ve made good choices. That also probably says more about their email marketing skills than my calibre as a student!I’ve applied to the University of Michigan, Michigan State, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and Wisconsin-Madison, all excellent choices in their own right. I just have to hope that one of them really likes me! I’ve been working very, very hard for this for over two years, so I really, really hope it comes off. Funnily enough, I’m a member of a graduate application forum (really boring, I know) called the Grad Cafe, and there’s is another Brit on there trying to get to the states to study Geography. I’m not alone!

Now it’s just the matter of a long wait to see what happens. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I’m back in America…

 

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Isn’t Wisconsin-Madison beautiful?

 

Now what? 

Well, it’s dissertation crunch time, which is terrifying. I’ve got two new modules to start too. I’m still chasing some Expedition related stuff, and then we can get cracking on the report for that, which would be a great relief. Meanwhile I’ve got my eyes to the future- I think there’s a nice gap between exams and graduation to either earn money or have one last project before I leave university. It might curtail my cricket season (again, sorry Perran), but I really fancy having a crack at something impactful abroad before I leave. I’ve a couple of ideas, one involving Indonesia, another involving West Africa, but we’ll just have to see.

After an amazing Christmas surrounded by wonderful family and Catherine (at last), I have too many ideas- and this is the time to focus, sadly.

Malaysian Adventures

Thank you to everyone I’ve travelled with to Malaysia on two expeditions- Perhentian Islands Ecological Research and FxPedition Perhentian Islands- and every amazing person I’ve met on the way. You are all awesome! A big thank you to Craghoppers also, who’s generous support kept me and the teams safe from the mossies (apart from the ninja mossies who went up shirt sleeves). Neil Hinds and Daniel Quilter deserve massive thanks too, for literally making this happen and facilitating so much of it.

I have to save the biggest thank you to my teams though- Simon Rolph and Josh Gray in 2014, and then Josh Gray (came again, the muppet/legend), Ellie Ryder, Megan Francis, Alfie Sheridan, Lizzie Salkus and Ollie Bateman. You all did amazingly well in some really tricky conditions at times, got some great data, made some awesome memories and saw some pretty cool things, too. You also put up with me for 6 weeks, which is easier said than done!

THANK YOU!

Attenborough Under Fire

An article written by Martin Hughes-Games attacking the Planet Earth II series has provoked great controversy in wildlife and conservation circles. It has been billed as an attack on 90-year old Sir David Attenborough (a cardinal sin in the wildlife world), and his views have been derided by many. To many of us Attenborough is our god- the person whom inspired many of us to pursue education and careers in this field, and thus criticism of the great man genuinely hurts. It feels unpalatable, like when people (quite rightly) point out some of Churchill’s (voted our greatest Briton) awful mistakes. Whilst I disagree entirely with his claim that ‘I fear this series, and other’s like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife’, Hughes-Games does, unfortunately, have a point.

 

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Hughes-Games (left), with fellow AutumnWatch presenters Michelle Strachan (central) and Chris Packham (right). 

 

Hughes-Games is wrong in places. He states that: ‘The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense’. He then uses figures from ZSL about nature’s ‘58%’ decline since 1970, stating that because this period runs parallel with Attenborough’s tenure as a living deity since Life on Earth began in 1979, then the programmes should have had an effect on it.

 

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A young Attenborough during filming for Life on Earth (1979). 

 

The first rule of science is that correlation does not equal causation, and Hughes-Games ignores it here. That there has been a recorded 58% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide has squarely nothing to do with the BBC, with wildlife filmmaking and certainly nothing to do with Sir David Attenborough. That scientific evidence says absolutely nothing of the effectiveness of Attenborough’s programmes, as he tries to imply. Hughes-Games sweeping assertion that the NHU’s programmes haven’t inspired people to get involved in conservation is utterly erroneous.

Whilst it would be easy to sweep that aside anecdotally, I’ve carried out a very brief poll of ‘A Focus On Nature‘, an absolutely brilliant, 1800 strong community of young ecologists and conservationists trying to make their way in the conservation world.

‘Did David Attenborough, and the BBC Natural History Unit programmes help inspire you to pursue a conservation/wildlife/environment-based career?’

 

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Breakdown of 52 individual Votes from ‘A Focus On Nature’ 

 

I had 52 responses in an hour, and it is evident that the results clearly show that Attenborough and wildlife documentaries have helped in some form to inspire a generation of environmentalists, naturalists and scientists to work in their respective fields. If I were to ask anyone on my Geography course, on on Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Conservation and Biology courses who their inspiration was, I doubt the word ‘Attenborough’ would be far from anyone’s lips.

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Percentage Breakdown of ‘A Focus On Nature’ Votes

 

In this instance, then, Hughes-Games is evidently misguided.

Where he is right, however, is that it is time for a paradigm shift in wildlife filming, and the BBC Natural History Unit is not excepted from that. When Hughes-Games writes that ‘the fantasy should be balanced by reality’, he is absolutely on the money. Recent NHU documentary series have focused on either animal behaviour or locations-remember the amazing ‘Shark’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Patagonia’? There has been mention of human issues in these documentaries, and brief coverage, but not enough has been done to expose the size of problems on a global scale, or even within these locations. Like Hughes-Games said, the NHU should of course continue to make these jaw-dropping documentaries showcasing the beauty of the natural world, and covering the various developments in zoological and ecological science- there is no need for them to stop.

 

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Perhaps the most touching moment of the Africa series was Attenborough with the orphaned baby Rhino- but does anyone remember it for the poaching, or for the cuteness? 

 

There is room for a new type of programme, however, that demonstrates the scale of the issues facing the natural world. The NHU tried something similar a long time ago in 2000 with State of the Planet, long before the era of HD, 4K and drone videography we are in at the moment. We need documentaries to expose deforestation, reveal the cost of pollution and to look at poaching in all its grisly detail. Wildlife documentaries are traditionally things of beauty, but I’d argue that we now need documentaries to be ugly, to shock too. Perhaps this requires a different breed of videographers and directors to take this more confrontational approach, but we certainly now have the technology for it. Drones are fantastic tools for showcasing the scale of deforestation, for example.

 

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 A Greenpeace image showing just how effective Drones can be at capturing the scale of deforestation. 

 

Whilst these documentaries will be difficult, it has be done and with great success. Virunga, the tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern National Park as it struggles to fight against poachers, the SOCO oil corporation and the M23 rebel offensive is a fantastic, award-winning example. The earlier Blackfish and The Cove are perhaps the other two stand-out wildlife/nature documentaries in this genre, whilst the more recent Ivory Game is another fantastic watch. Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood has tried to illustrate the scale of global issues however, with impressive results.

There is an argument to suggest that perhaps the success of the Plant Earth series amongst others is due to the very same utopian ‘escapism’ that Hughes-Games so despises, but I don’t think that is good enough anymore. In the face of rapid deforestation with no quarter given for habitat and wildlife, coral reef bleaching on an unprecedented level and significant climatic change, it is time for our wildlife documentaries to take the gloves off, and show the real world to the public. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out.

That Hughes-Games has written this timely article is a good thing, as it has sparked a healthy, impassioned debate around wildlife filmmaking and it’s purpose. Ultimately, whilst poor Attenborough doesn’t really need to be in the article, would anyone have read it if he wasn’t?