There was I, minding my own business in one of Knutsford’s main shopping streets. Then a great roar shattered my peace. I almost literally jumped out of my skin, heart racing, adrenaline pumping… What on earth?

Then I realised that I had failed to notice the shiny red Ferrari Testerossa on the street just by me, so had no warning when a great roar came from the engine, almost as loud as a bomb blast. Of course, the driver was an arrogant looking young male. Who else?

What is it with these immature adults who can only express themselves through annoying others?

The Ferrari incident occurred some time ago. As it happens, we recently visited the local MacLaren showroom, in the interests of educating a visiting French boy, where similar cars were on display. It seems the manufacturers deliberately make the engines really noisy, as that is what the customers want. To me, it seems that the manufacturers are being entirely irresponsible, but then, at that end of the market, money talks.

In theory, there are legal limits on permissible levels of noise. According to UK government website dft“The external noise emitted by passenger cars has been controlled since 1929 when the Motor Cars (Excessive Noise) regulations were introduced. New cars are now required to meet Europe-wide noise limits. These have been progressively reduced from 82 decibels (dB (A)) in 1978 to the current limit of 74 dB (A) established in 1996.” (74dB is something like the level of music played in a typical living room, upper 70s are annoyingly loud to some people.)

The Ferrari of my example well exceeded these permissible levels. But are they actually policed? It seems not. A current private members bill aims to be “A Bill to make provision for the enforcement of noise limits for vehicles via automatic monitoring equipment; and for connected purposes.” Let’s hope the bill gets somewhere.

But just pause for thought. Would the vehicles actually sell for £200-300,000 and upward if they were whisper quiet, and could not be used to demonstrate to the rest of the population just how rich, insensitive and annoying their owners are?!

Featured image is of a particularly ‘desirable’ limited edition MacLaren tagged at £1.5million.




Belisha freedom

In my childhood of the 1950s the way you got across a busy road, although there weren’t many busy roads in Lincoln then, was at a crossing marked by flashing Belisha beacons. These were introduced in 1934 by then Minister of transport Leslie Hore-Belisha. Black and white stripes were soon added on the road surface, and these became known as zebra crossings. Their essential feature was that pedestrians have priority over traffic while on the crossing.

Traffic levels began to increase, and I remember in 1962 Lincoln was chosen, along with Guildford, to trial some new-fangled Panda crossings. Here there were the beacons, but only lit some time after a pedestrian pressed a button signalling they wanted to cross. The balance of power was changing; the pedestrian no longer appeared to have right of way.

The Pandas didn’t really take off, but in 1969 came Pelican crossings which in various guises, are still with us today. The pedestrian presses a button indicating their need to cross, which eventually triggers traffic lights to change in their favour. In practice, this often means a significant wait.

Pelican is a sort of acronym from PEdestrian LIght CONtrolled, giving an illusion of control by the pedestrian. Actually, the balance of power has swung decisively to the motorist; the pedestrian no longer has right of way, in the interests of traffic flow.

Thus was a fundamental freedom to cross the road gradually restricted as we increased our great love affair with the motor car.

Sadly, the Pelican approach has subsequently been over-used. New crossings seem to be Pelican-style as a norm, rather than zebra crossings. Simple observation shows that on a little-used (by pedestrians) crossing, much time is spent waiting to no good purpose by both pedestrians and vehicles – and when it’s foul weather or in hot sun, guess who suffers more. The old-style zebra crossing with Belisha beacons is far more efficent, with little waiting by either.

Knutsford’s main through road has 2 zebras and three pelicans. I know where I choose to cross.

Bring back the zebras and Belisha’s wonderful beacons!

Featured image of Abbey Road zebra crossing
by Josephenus P. Riley, via Wikimedia Commons


Houston and Knutsford

Our only grandchildren live in Houston, an immediate challenge to any ‘green’ credentials we might have had. Our way of reconciling with this is to keep down the frequency of flights to Houston, but to live there a while when we do go. As a result, we observe interesting differences in the way people behave, which are mostly characteristic of Brits versus Americans, but do bear in mind that Houston is probably America’s most cosmopolitan city.

First of all, Americans seem to love the English accent and all seem to have been to or want to go to England. It’s a great conversation opener. They mostly understand English, with the following major exceptions:

  • For tomato, you must say ‘toe-may-toe’
  • For water you must say ‘waar-durr’
  • For toilets you must say ‘rest room’ or ‘bath room’.

Understanding what Americans are saying is a different matter, and you frequently need to ask them to repeat.

i10 beltway interchange
I10 – Beltway Interchange, Houston

Most things in Houston are twice as big as their European equivalents – dual carriageways for residential roads, the freeways and their junctions, the typical local journey, the size of the houses and gardens, the fridges. I was expecting the cars to be as well, but that was up to the 1970s and the first oil shock – now there’s just a much higher percentages of large SUVs and trucks than in Europe.

Residents of Houston drive everywhere. The neighbours are bemused by our habit of going out for a walk, and possibly coming back with shopping bags. It’s just not done. We’ve even seen someone get into her car and drive about 30 yards to visit her daughter’s house – we know she can walk because we once saw her do it.

Sidewalks in the residential areas are sometimes non-existent or poorly maintained. Our son suggests this is because the person responsible for maintenance is the property owner, and not the local authority. Then again, they’re not always brilliantly maintained in the UK

Going anywhere in Houston other than the immediate locality usually involves going on the freeway. This often looks like the M6 on a bad day, but with sometimes 5-6 lanes or more. The nice thing is you can stay in any lane; the scary thing is being under- and over-taken at the same time; even more scary, you actually often need to move out a lane or two to stay on the road you’re on – otherwise you finish up going off somewhere you don’t want. And there are the tolls, but son now has the relevant automatic gadget that means we don’t have to worry.

Satnav is essential for us here, but it’s called a GPS. Our first trip ever, to Galveston, was a disaster. Daughter-in-law had the sound level low on her early GPS because she only used the pictures. We set off on the freeway, could see the GPS was working – there was a map on its tiny screen. But we couldn’t hear what it was saying. This was fine till we reached a complicated freeway junction – where to go? It was too distracting from driving to look in detail at the tiny screen, and I couldn’t hear what the darn thing was saying! We came off, stopped in a car park and worked out how to turn up the sound. We then had to make our way back to the right freeway, which involved a U-turn at the next junction. (U-turns are a common feature of Houston driving.) Keeping up with the traffic, I noticed the lights going red as we went on to the junction. Several weeks later our son received a ticket for jumping the red light! After only 20 minutes driving in the US. Houston abandoned the red light clampdown soon afterwards – it was seen as an invasion of personal freedoms.

Driving in residential areas is a revelation. If a driver sees you crossing a road, or even thinking about crossing the road, he or she stops to let you cross. You can almost feel obliged to cross. This creates dangers when coming back to the UK – try stepping out on an estate road when there is a car within 100 yards, they do not slow down and expect you to get out of the way fast. Basically, drivers in the US are more considerate of pedestrians.
1-0 to US.

There is also a danger for European drivers on these roads. Many minor junctions have 4-way Stop signs. Stopping is mandatory and cars in all directions must take turns to go. It can get very confusing at busy times. The same rule applies at traffic lights with flashing red lights – even on quite major roads. We were once driving home on Texas State Highway 6 and came to a great all-way queue of traffic at one of these. It looked like chaos. We were severally hooted at when we efficiently slipstreamed through the junction behind another car.

Eating and drinking out is a major American pastime. The staggering thing about this is the almost-invariably superb service. Politeness, friendliness and checking that all is OK are the norm. This is possibly because staff are poorly paid and rely on tips, which are typically much higher than in Europe, but I get the impression that that’s the culture. Compare that to the offhand, surly or nonexistent service you often get in the UK.
2-0 to US.

When you get ill, it’s vital that you remembered to sort out the medical insurance. The first thing they want is your insurer or your credit card, and you’ll be lucky to get away with a bill of less than a few hundred dollars just for being examined and prescribed an antibiotic. Compare that to the NHS.

The US does not have a good reputation where guns are concerned, and we were a bit worried when we learned this last trip that the local Kroger supermarket now had an ‘open carry’ policy, whereby guns could be carried openly in the store. In actuality, Kroger was no different than on previous visits, but there’s always that lurking concern that some nutter somewhere will do something stupid with a gun – you read so much about it there.

So there are pros and cons, and both countries could learn from each other and improve as a result.

But there are two big things which easily settles any argument on comparison as a place to live. In the US, history began about 1800 – apart from when you get to the Indian lands. And the climate in Houston is unlivable without air conditioning from around April to October – indeed the city only really began to expand when air conditioning was invented.

I make that 2-4, with two goals in extra time – just like the 1966 World Cup Final.


Freeway picture courtesy of wikimapia


New Renaissance Lectures

unity_houston_lecturesWe were having coffee at the Beans Cafe (again). There in the local free paper was this announcement of public lectures by the Association for Global New Thought, which reminded me of our initiation of lectures in the North West of England from 1993 to 2004.

Our local town of Knutsford in Cheshire, England had just established a new Civic Centre with a then-modern cinema hall. We speculated one day that this space would be ideal for public lectures similar to the Schumacher Lectures that were (and still are) run annually in Bristol by the Schumacher Society. We realised that this would only happen if someone did something about it, so we did, with a couple of local friends. Fortunately the hall was available on suitable evenings.

The first series of six ‘Knutsford Lectures’ was held, one evening per month, in the autumn/spring of 1993/4. We learned the ropes as we went, including booking the hall, arranging speakers, selling tickets, audio recording, and initially primitive publicity – hand-delivering leaflets, informing local media and developing mailing lists.

Our New Renaissance logo

The overall series theme was ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’, which remained the theme for all our lectures. The scope of change necessary in our thinking was indeed of a magnitude that implied the need for a New Renaissance, and vision was needed to set the direction (this is even more true today). Proverb 29:18 “Without vision the people perish” seemed apposite.

Individual speakers chose their own subject within that context. We even had a logo.

Our first speaker was Rt Hon David Ennals, one-time Secretary of State for Social Services in a Labour administration, also known as Baron Ennals – although he was obviously totally disinterested in titles and had a charming personality, as indeed did most of our speakers. Ennals accepted our invitation with alacrity, subsequently explaining that he was delighted to see such an initiative, knew how hard it is to get things off the ground, so wanted to support it. Despite being obviously somewhat handicapped by the ailments of age, he gave an entertaining talk which was much appreciated. Sadly David died a couple of years later.

We eventually ran three seasons of lectures, building up a small organising committee of enthusiasts. I think Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski probably hit the nail on the head when he said to me that I was involved in organising the lectures because that was my process of educating myself. I hope it also helped others.

Our speakers included Jonathon Porritt, who gave us a taste of the problems organisers face, when he arrived over twenty minutes late with a ‘full house’ audience waiting. Other speakers included scientist Rupert Sheldrake, the Schumacher Society‘s own Satish Kumar, Stephan Harding from Schumacher College, and Peter Harper from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In conversation, Satish subtlely challenged us with ‘why not set up your own Schumacher Lectures?’, thus planting the seed that led us to start annual Manchester Schumacher Lectures in 1996, where Satish was our first speaker.

The Manchester events took place over a full day, with usually three speakers followed by a panel session, chaired by myself or Chris Lyons. Here we managed to attract sponsors, including the Ecology Building Society, who faithfully supported us throughout. And there was the provision of music, bookstalls, refreshments etc.

Memorable speakers included Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, novelist Lindsay Clarke, scientists Mae Wan Ho and Brian Goodwin, ex-bishop David Jenkins, activists George Monbiot and Ann Pettifor. Many speakers joined with the organisers in a post-event evening meal, which was usually enjoyed by all.

We also had a fair share of problems. Two well-known international ‘green’ speakers cried off late after committing to come; maybe Manchester was not prestigious enough for them. Fortunately, Herbie Girardet of the Schumacher Society was very helpful in finding late replacements. Also, two well-known UK speakers excused themselves from the agreed panel session, two others behaved in a rather ‘precious’ and demanding way, and there were often problems with the sound/AV systems. It is not always fun organising such events!

I think the stresses and strains eventually took their toll, and the energies of our committee reduced, without the renewing emergence of new blood. Eventually, after the 2004 lectures, we closed down the Manchester Schumacher Lectures, bequeathing our remaining resources to the Schumacher Society. But the spirit did not die; almost immediately new Schumacher events were set up in Leeds, and continue to this day under the banner of Schumacher North.

The need for new ideas showing up the inadequacy of current thinking is ongoing and will never die out – so there will always be the need for initiatives such as this, changing the world’s thinking one person at a time…

So, all good wishes to the organisers of such initiatives, whether run from a more religious perspective, such as the Association for Global New Thought (which I guess is part of the New Thought Movement) or from a more general spiritual or even secular perspective such as the ongoing Schumacher Lectures and the regular events held at Alternatives at St James Church in London.

PS Success of our New Renaissance lectures was dependent on the voluntary energies and good will of many people, but perhaps worth special mention are those who at different times formed the core of our organising committee: Joyce Hopewell, Annabel Burton, Chris Lyons, Mary McGregor, Joan Poulson, Mike Lowe, Esther Austin and Chris Wright.