Make Poverty History

2005 is going to be an interesting year for politics in the UK. As well as a general election, we’ll have the presidency of the EU and will play host to the G8 leaders in the golfing grandeur of Gleneagles.

Hence the week between Christmas and New Year has seen some early moves in the game to dominate the 2005 agenda. Leading the pack is the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign.

Bono took it as one of his issues during the Today programme, Rowan Williams made it the theme of his Christmas Day address, Bob Geldof is almost ubiquitous talking about it and Richard Curtis will sneak it into the next episode of the Vicar of Dibley.

It’s all good stuff and I’m fully behind the campaign. What I find remarkable is how easy it now seems. Peter Mandleson wrote a piece in the Independent yesterday which struck me because here was (arguably) the most important person in Europe on issues of trade already using the exact language and arguments of the NGOs.

If I think back to my first involvement in debt campaigning back in 1998, it was incredibly hard and lonely. There were no celebs, the politians thought we were weirdos and the thought of any, let alone blanket, media coverage was pretty far fetched.

I find it fascinating how the UK NGOs have now come to have such a strong influence on political life. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, just an unremarked thing. Once you had to make it in a think tank or business to be lifted into the Number 10 Policy Unit. But now there’s a new route in, a mini-industry that has politics and a culture of its own.

Rees and Jarrett on Channel Four

Couple of great programmes on ‘normal’ TV over the past couple of nights. First up, the final part of ‘What We Still Don’t Know’ getting into some pretty interesting cosmology and consideration of transhumanism. The series has been built around the wonderful (Sir) Martin Rees who as well as being one of the greatest living academic cosmologists, also tends to write a book a year, has the rather grand title of Astronomer Royal and is master of Trinity at Cambridge.

Then there was a programme about Keith Jarrett, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time and a bit of a regular selection on my ipod. Genius is an overused word, but I’m pretty sure it applies to Jarrett.

Last Chance to See

You might think this is strange but the person who got me into ‘ideas’ and public policy wasn’t a politician or an academic — it was Douglas Adams.

As a teenager I devoured all of the Hitchhikers and Dirk Gently books finding it amazing that somebody could take all this stuff we were learning in science and turn it into such fantastical (and laugh out loud funny) prose. Adams attitude to plot was never to think why something should happen but instead, why not? Why shouldn’t a whale suddenly appear several miles above the surface of the earth and consider its existence while hurtling toward a nasty end? Why shouldn’t a spaceship be controlled by the intricacies and improbabilities of a bistro?

Then of course there was all the technology stuff. As I was reading the books I was just getting my head around computers. I’d just sent my first ‘email’, logged onto my first ‘website’ and we were using the Encarta CD-Rom to cheat at homework. The idea of a Guide didn’t seem so crazy to me.

But actually the book of Douglas Adams that I loved most was the one that sold the least. You might not even of heard of it. It’s called Last Chance to See and is co-written with Mark Carwardine. I remember reading it in a couple of sittings in the wood panelled silence of the library at school. I think I was bunking off cross-country running or something. It’s all about a fascination that Adams developed for species that are nearly extinct, those evolutionary ends of the line that we call ‘endangered’. I loved it and certainly developed a lot of my passion for environmental issues from the book.

When Radio 4 were broadcasting the ‘tertiary phase’ of Hitchhikers recently I missed a new episode and logged on to the BBC website to use their ‘listen again’ feature. I was too early though – you could only listen again if you missed it by a day rather than an hour. So I found myself aimlessly following the links to the BBC message board and from there was pointed to a site that a poster called ‘Douglas Adams last lecture’ but which was really entitled ‘Parrots, the universe and everything’.

I thoroughly recommend it. It’s over an hour long and you’ll have to watch it in a tiny little window, but it’s worth it.

Of course, there’s an irony in seeing him talk about Last Chance to See as his last talk, but I don’t think he’d mind — I think he’d get the gag.