Free speech, Johnson, Bannon and opposing the new normal

What is wrong with backing that nice cuddly Rowan Atkinson? The effervescent, charismatic Boris Johnson? Quite a lot really. I really hope Atkinson is simply mistaken in defending Johnson, rather than actively backing the ideology peddled by the aspirant Prime Minister.

TL:DR – Johnson’s remarks are a deliberate ploy to normalise offensive speech against so-called ‘immigrants’, anyone who looks different for ‘us’. It’s not acceptable, and it is certainly not funny.

Johnson met with Steve Bannon a few days back. This was well reported. What do we know about Bannon, apart from being that ugly guy Trump sacked after he won the election for him? Quite a lot actually: Bannon makes no secret of his beliefs.

Before Bannon was a political ideologue, he was a film-maker, even an auteur – much as Trump was a television personality and Johnson a journalist. The Independent ran an interesting summary of Bannon’s film work back in February 2017, which points to his skill with narrative, with characterisation of the hero, the importance of staging. The man is expert producer, whether it involves chipped mugs of tea or straightforward lying about the size of the crowd.

And he has an ideology, deeply rooted in the intellectual tradition of right-wing, conservative Catholicism. Yes, he is religious, Traditionalist in the sense of various French and Italian thinkers you (and I) had never heard of before he came to the fore. He is not simply a money-grabbing dynast, though he clearly knows how to use one when he comes into his hand. Bannon is an unashamed nationalist, believing that the rise of nationalism (Russia, Egypt, the UK, America) will promote traditional values. Vanity Fair, in 2017, quotes hims as saying “You have to control three things; borders, currency, and military and national identity.”  Of course, when our national identity rests on a view about free speech, it becomes easy to manipulate us into accepting the unacceptable in its name.

Bannon has also described himself as a Leninist. Salon quoted him saying to conservative philosopher Ronald Radosh in 2014, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  Despite the nationalism and nihilism, Bannon has global ambitions. He may be out of the White House but he would still seek influence in 10 Downing Street. He travels widely, meeting with people all over the world who will help to advance this destructive, traditional, conservative agenda.

And of course, being anti-immigration is at the heart of this philosophy. American journalist has been studying him for several years, and in 2016 told Vox, that Bannon believes in “the power of demonizing immigrants as a way of motivating grassroots voters. Illegal and legal. …Bannon and Trump amplified it in a way that had a pretty profound effect, and they did it in the wake of a financial crisis with an economy that isn’t working for a lot of middle-class and working-class and working poor people….if you drill down into what the guy believes, it’s tradition versus modernity. It’s God versus secularism.

What does all this have to do with Johnson’s jokes?

Two things obviously: Johnson is not a court jester. He is a senior politician with naked ambitions to lead and represent us all. He should be seeking healing and unity, not fostering division by likening British citizens to street furniture and criminals. I do not want an entertainer in No. 10, but a statesman.

Secondly, we do not have unconstrained free speech in the UK. We never have. We ban speech which incites hatred on the basis of race, faith, sexuality and so on. We used to limit it for blasphemy. Liberty summarises the various limitations well: we may or may not share their concerns about those constraints. My point is that speech is not and has never been absolutely free in this country.

More important, in the context of Bannon and the nature of our society, is whether we are being trained to accept behaviour and speech that many of us (at least 48% I suspect) would deplore. Even as long ago as 2015, some commentators were reporting an increase in assaults and restrictions and anyone who has got this far knows that there was a huge spike in hate crime in the UK after the referendum.

Jonathan Freedland back in January commented on the easy ride Humphries gave to the Roger Stone (a deeply unpleasant individual banned from Twitter for his racism). He reflected on normalisation that the acceptance of such behaviour “matters because it’s a symptom of normalisation, the urge to pretend Trump operates within the usual democratic boundaries when in fact he represents an alarming break from the norms that make liberal democracy possible.

Substitute Johnson for Trump. We are being told, urged to accept, that this degrading attack on what women choose to wear is acceptable. Maybe we are angry, broke and lied to by the press; we have been led to believe that those jobs which don’t exist have been taken away by demonised immigrants who profess a different faith from my lackadaisical attendance at midnight mass on Xmas Eve and ambition for a white wedding. Or perhaps we are that alleged elite who think pluralism matters, that free speech is indeed the bedrock of democracy and Johnson has the same rights as anyone else to make a tasteless joke.

I do not accept this lie. Johnson’s remarks were grotesquely offensive, blatant incitement to disrespect women on the basis of their faith-based attire, and utterly unacceptable for anyone aspiring to a leadership position. They were not funny and we should not, Mr Atkinson should not, defend his rights to propound such views. That way lies a fundamental attack on our most basic commitments to tolerance, freedom and a peaceful, pluralist society.

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Self-ID, human rights and definitions


This is my response to a couple of discussions I have been having elsewhere about the impact of gender self-identification in the UK. These debates were provoked by Janice Turner’s article on transgender politics (full text in the first link below), and a particular (real) situation happening regarding use of the communal areas of gym changing rooms. These discussions, particularly with Katy Jon Went and Denise Robatham are here and here (scroll down). And here  is a direct link to Denise’s generous and thoughtful response to Janice Turner.

(If you don’t know all the legal background and acronyms, please go away, look them up and come back. This post does not attempt to be transgender politics or radical feminism 101. It’s also not everything I think on the topic: just a specific response to a couple of converging conversations.)

TL:DR summary:

What is ‘self-ID’ going to mean in practice and how do we deal with people whose behaviour is not what we would hope for? if we want people to learn boundaries, we need to be clear about them. And the cultural shift is really worrying to me.  The net result of where we are is to undermine all sorts of political rights and safe spaces. I am not seeing real recognition of what is happening from the trans-gender rights advocates, despite the actual, painful effects for women, and I am sick of being insulted for politely asking the questions.

What do I want?  I want us to find a rational way to debate this. And I want a practical, workable approach to gender-recognition for people who want to change gender and I want people to have to provide evidence if their behaviour is suspect. Surely that’s not too much to ask.

Some context

It has taken me a few days to respond. Partly because, you know, life happens. And because I too wanted to take time to consider my views, I wanted to let my emotions settle and show respect to the effort and time that friends have put in, not least to sharing their own backstories and pain. (Note: I don’t believe that people should have to reveal publicly horrible things in their past to achieve their human rights.)

As I’ve said clearly in those discussions, I am grateful for co-creating a space where we are trying to have a respectful, considered and practical discussion about the issues swirling around in the toxic vortex of trans-gender politics at the moment. I’ve also said clearly that I focus on the practicalities and policies for service providers and managers, and the positive requests that need to be made to parliamentarians and policy makers. (I am a philosopher and political analyst, and I do have opinions about the theoretical framework, but that’s not the discussion here.)

The current issue concerns the impact of self-ID. I am not interested in unravelling the Gender Reassignment Act (GRA) or the relevant parts of the Equality Act. I also accept that self-ID is often de facto in place: the restraints on asking for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and the EHRC guidance on, for example, spas, make it pretty much a reality in most circumstances. But the culture is shifting in ways which make that de facto acceptance less tolerable rather than more.

Finally – patriarchy is of course real, as Denise has said. Women experience as women (whether of colour, of all ages, lesbian, trans, disabled) systematic disadvantage, violence and exclusion. I see, as a feminist, that the patriarchy remains firmly based in the control of women’s sexed bodies – through control of reproduction and sexual activity. If the word ‘woman’ loses an effective objective referent, it becomes much harder, if not impossible, to continue to fight patriarchy.

Having said all that, there are three specific points that have come out sharply to me in these two intersecting debates, which I do not think we have yet teased out.  I think establishing some specific shared answers would help both our communities and parliamentarians.

What does self-ID mean?

The Commons Committee report says that an administrative process must be developed, centred on the wishes of the individual applicant, rather than on intensive analysis by doctors and lawyers. Their full report  cites several people commenting on the two year, medicalised process in place but there is no suggestion that I have seen as to how self-ID would work in the UK. Katy has said she thinks it will require a settled intention to live in your chosen gender for the rest of your life, but I have not seen that written anywhere, nor what evidence or documentation would be required for someone to obtain a GRC that would alter their legal status.

That sounds as if changing gender, in respect of your day-to-day life and those around you, would be easier than changing electricity supplier, and require less evidence than buying alcohol.

I have been told that of course people wouldn’t do that. But the net effect of the changes would be that you, born and socialised as male, can declare yourself female one day, and gain access to certain privileges or spaces that way and no-one can ask you for documentation which proves that settled intention or suggests that your motives are harmless to those around you.

Those spaces might be changing rooms in gyms, and refuges, prisons or politically protected opportunities such as the Labour Party’s All-Women Shortlists. I refuse to trivialise my concerns by arguing about public toilets. But the reality is that in a gym changing room, young people are undressed, are seeing other people undressed, and they deserve to feel (and be) safe in that environment. Refuges and prisons both house many vulnerable women who have experienced the worst of gendered violence. (And yes I am well aware that refuges have effective and functioning policies supporting trans women escaping abuse. I am more concerned about creating trusted employment in those services.)

We are already seeing people such as Ian Huntley (the Soham murderer – seek to transition. And those liberal people outraged at the treatment of Marie Dean may have missed the reporting of his (deliberate pronoun) long history of sex crimes ( How would that feel for women expected to share a space with them, or the warders expected to pat them down? Building a raft of new secure spaces in the women’s prison estate is simply not going to happen. And those men know it.

I think it behoves those asking for this major change in the law (even if it feels like a minor change in day-to-day life) to explain what exactly  they expect to happen, and how evidence can be used to protect vulnerable people in supposedly safe spaces.

I do not believe trans people are predators. I do believe that predators will use an easy route to their victims when it is opened up in front of them.

How do we support people to protect their boundaries?

Learning boundaries, particularly for young people, particularly for young women, is a real problem: the lived experience of people who present and are socialised as girls is unequivocal. Puberty arrives, along with breasts and hormones, and your boundaries become erased. Strangers tell you how to arrange your face; school mates alternate between aggression, clinginess and intrusion; family and friends disdain what comes out of your mouth while commenting on the paint you have put on it. And that’s just the mundane life of everyday.

And of course, none of that is a crime. None of that is going to get reported. Even the catcalling in the street, even the flashing, even the unwanted hand on the knee. None of that gets reported, none of it is a crime.

In this context, it is not enough to say that you hope ‘people will behave better’. Women have spent millennia hoping men will behave better and it hasn’t worked. And people who are socialised as men, privileged and entitled as boys, however unhappy their internal life, go on accepting privilege and entitlement.

So I cannot accept those who say that transgressions won’t happen, or that some trans people’s horrible histories mean that we must allow any man who claims to be female into women’s spaces. Women are entitled to better answers than that; girls (and boys) are entitled to expect more support and protection.

Overstretched staff and organisations where this matters (gyms etc) need to be able to challenge people who appear to be male, who are in this ‘low-level’, non-criminal and mundane fashion,  invading women’s spaces in an intimidating and inappropriate way – and for that there needs to be a legitimate route to proof of gender identity in situations where it matters. After all, we expect people to prove their age in a bar.

What do we do about the culture?

The debate is vile. Telling me to suck your dick is not somehow magically not sexual abuse because you stuck the word ‘lady’ in front of ‘dick’. Pretending that ‘terf’ is not abusive is just gaslighting. Expecting me to ‘identify’ as a woman by calling myself ‘cis’ insults all my years living and fighting. Hitting 60 year old women at Hyde Park Corner and mobbing life-long activists at Book Fairs is male violence.

You know what – I simply do not see the same kind of abuse going the other way. For all the cries of ‘literal violence’, being mis-gendered or called by a name you’ve disowned, is not like constant death threats, or letters to employers, or graphic rape stories about you on social media.

There’s another, long-standing toxic culture at play here. Men – by which I mean people who grew up and were socialised male, are living as men, have male genitalia and privilege – are using this debate to exercise a ‘right’ to access women’s spaces, to trample on women’s boundaries, to shout down and silence women. Men are telling us what feminism should be, telling us to shut up, play nice and be allies. (I’m looking at you wee Owen, for a start.) Every day, we see men telling women what our politics should be, telling us to tolerate their presence, their incursions, their decisions on our agenda. And that male behaviour is being actively facilitated by the current approach to trans rights, is promoted by the undefined, unprovable self-ID demands.

This is a long read. What do I want?  I want us to find a rational way to debate this. And I want a practical, workable approach to gender-recognition for people who want to change gender and I want people to have to provide evidence if their behaviour is suspect. Surely that’s not too much to ask.

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In praise of the compromised, the partial and the temporary

We who care about the health of the planet, social justice and combatting poverty, live in a time of betrayal and rage. There is no need to rehearse yet again the manifest lunacy of Brexit, Trump and the rising tide of hyper-nationalism in India, but a few reminders wont hurt.

The US, via Trump, has walked away from the Paris accord, while its government scraps with Russia on mining in the Arctic. Violence against women remains an epidemic while a bunch of fundamentalist religionists try to control our reproductive systems, even calling us ‘hosts’ when pregnant. (Yes, the shades of Gilead are inescapable.) Britain plunges into unwonted self-destruction on the back of lies so huge they needed a big red bus to carry them, and its commentators continue to peddle contradictory fantasies and blame anyone but themselves. Meantime, oceans rise, swelling with our own poisonous detritus and the atmosphere approaches thermal runaway.

The savage pessimism of such times is alleviated by some optimistic signals: the American leaders signing their cities and states up to the principles of Paris; Macron and Trudeau’s elections and successes; Wales and Scotland supporting the reproductive rights of the women of Northern Ireland; the rescue of some of the girls of Chibok. Perhaps the most hopeful of all is the rise of indigenous peoples and self-organised communities, and of women – the growth of resistance.

A core feature of the rise of the authoritarian alt-right and some of the left-leaning opposition is an obsession with purity. The fixation on ethnicity and borders, the cult of the hero-leader (note that none of them are heroines), the requirement to toe the line. Many better analysts than me have noted these tendencies in American and UK politics: it is also true in the left attacks on Hillary Clinton, the personality cult of Corbyn, the criticisms of Macron’s labour proposals as if a better alternative had been available.

I am reminded of Ax Preston, the rock and roll hero of Gwyneth Jones quintet Bold as Love. He works to defend the heritage of the Enlightenment, the civil liberties fights of the 20th century, the poorest people mired in despair, and the English environment, from anarchy and rage. Much of the time he fails. His credo is that in protecting the good and working for the better, solutions will and must be, partial, compromised f**ked-up and temporary. Yet those solutions are necessary.

As environmentalists, advocates for the planet, we have different areas of action. Here in Sea Dragon making our #exxpeditionroundbritain, we are centrally concerned with plastic pollution, its pervasive and unmapped effects on our oceans and our bodies. As I write, other crew members are sieving the water trawled from Loch Ness and even here finding eye-visible scraps, in addition to the larger debris we’ve seen here.

Scientists and advocates elsewhere are working on air pollution, climate change, sea level rise, glacial melt, species extinction, deforestation – other parts of the jigsaw of impending change. Richard Heinberg, on this week, reminds us we must think holistically and globally, even as we act within our local professions and geographies.

We must take our opportunities for the partial and the compromised. At the moment, we’ve been unable to source non-vinyl sources of window stickers for the Plastic Clever campaign run by the wonderful Meek Family. So we have to tolerate this horrible material with its disadvantages if we want cafes to promote their willingness to refill your metal water bottle for free. At the same time, we are challenging product designers to come up with better solutions for the long term.

One way of looking at this is to remember that we fight the battles best suited to our skills, location and histories. In the more privileged parts of the UK we might be supporting refugees, protecting newts, fighting for justice, working in hospitals, reporting the truth, bringing up children. All of them are necessary but very few of us can do them all.

Whether we talk about governments, businesses, researchers or our own private lives, we must find ways to tolerate the compromised and the partial. Maybe you cannot cycle to work every day, but if you made it once a fortnight, you’ve reduced your commuting emissions by a whacking 10%. That’s really worth having. Perhaps you can wait a day or so for your new order and use the mail, not a prime same-day delivery, thus reducing the congestion on your street. You can buy a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap, and refuse a straw in your G&T. A little is better, much better, than nothing.

(The picture below, courtesy of Deborah Maw shows plastic nurdles picked up in our Firth of Forth trawl on our way in to Edinburgh. Nurdles are plastic pellets pre-formation into usable items.)

Nurdles collected by Sea Dragon 24 August 2017


Footnotethis short essay was originally written as an update from an eXXpedition crew member and posted on their site as such.  Some of their followers found it a bit rich so, as a Community Interest Company, eXXpedition decided to remove it. That is their choice. I stand by what I have said, and the importance of linking together the manifold different struggles concerning the health of the planet, our societies and our bodies. 

(This blog has been verified by Rise: R662722460fafc195ad87734a419275bd)


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Bridges down for #exxpeditionroundbritain

Sea Dragon has finished her traverse of the Caledonian Canal. It was (as expected) spectacularly beautiful, with the mountains reaching up around us. The route illustrates the profound language of landscape: the landskein of sillouhetted mountains, the ffird of mosaiced habitats on the edge of high upland, the scree, heather and high paths surrounding the lochs. The water itself is dark and mysterious, silk torn by our passage into smooth ruffles which might indeed hide some unseen monsters.

There are monsters in there of course: some seen and others awaiting the microscopic examination. We used the manta trawl twice yesterday: the second had visible plastic in and the first almost certainly contained smaller particles. Bottles bob at the entrances to the lochs, and many litter the crowded locks which just have room for Sea Dragon. The monster is our waste, our disregard and laziness. We ourselves are not the monsters, but some of our behaviour is monstrous.

We came into Muirtown yesterday afternoon to learn that the swing bridge at the bottom of the next five locks is bust. Its brakes are broken. I have no idea what that means but it doesn’t sound good. We had a peaceful night here and several of us found a nice bar 20 minutes walk away in Inverness. (More whisky!) It was a pleasure to stretch our legs and along the way we collected street litter to help our events in Edinburgh and make Inverness (even) cleaner.

This morning we planned to be away at 0840. Sadly, the bridge is still bust. So we are sitting here having an unaccustomed hour of relaxation. Some are science get: Deborah is teaching Jessica to put on the air pollution monitor, Cat and I are blogging, our co-mission leaders are catching up and some of us have rushed to the distant shower for a scrub up.  Given the ongoing intensity of this trip it is a welcome break.

Diane, our redoubtable skipper is less happy of course, because she needs to recalculate all our tidal gates and rethink the weather routing. We are on the edge of the high currently enjoyed by the east coast, and ahead of the low squeezing in from the Atlantic. At the moment we are (again) anticipating headwinds around the major headland on this passage – which is Cape Rattray, famous from the inshore weather forecasts. At the same time, Edinburgh is not Cardiff: it has no sills, shallows, tidal gates and locks to trap us in the wrong place.  

If you want to follow us, don’t forget to go to to find where Sea Dragon has got to. The shot shows our track through the Canal.

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Hunting for plastic with #exxpeditionroundbritain

We have four missions on Sea Dragon: raising awareness about pollution, empowering women, creating strong networks and champions for environmental advocacy – and of course collecting data about plastic in our waters.

There are several research institutes and universities for whom we are sampling, mostly in America and Europe; eXXpedition is well networked with ocean scientists trying to piece together the jigsaw of what is going on out there. And of course it is a changing and evolving situation. Many people have now heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch, but that’s really a bit of a misleading image. Yes, there are places where ocean plastic gathers. There are five gyres in the world’s oceans, areas where currents swirl in ways which allow stuff to gather – materials such as weed, plankton, timber and – of course – plastic. But when you go and look at them, there’s less big, visible chunks of plastic than you’d expect.

This discovery led to the work of trawling for smaller pieces. Plastic – a range of complex compounds – does not decompose in that it does not break down into its chemical components. On the contrary it breaks up, retaining its molecular integrity but in smaller and smaller bits. Right down to fragments smaller than plankton, mixed in with the plankton at such a scale that even under a microscope it is hard to see. Of course, the fish can’t tell the difference, which is a key way the stuff enters the food chain. That’s our human food chain, by the way. 

This non-disintegration also means that plastic bits can travel all over the world, and indeed up and down the water column, at different depths. A plastic soup is now spreading across our oceans. But we do not know much about how thick it is, where is strongest or how tides and currents affect its dispersion. Our mission is helping to fill in a few of the gaps.
So on this mission, we are looking for plastic pollutants at different scales. We record larger bits using an app called the Marine Debris Tracker which collects data from all over and which we can use to say whether it is a bottle cap, or a toothbrush or whatever. We also put out trawls which capture materials down to 1/3 of a millimetre in diameter. That’s pretty small. Those samples get bottled up and labelled and sent off to various places, along with tests of salinity, ph and turbidity (light in the water). On the metal frame over the aft hatch sits our air pollution monitor, measuring particulates along our route. Our bodies also carry pollutants and betray our exposure. We’ve all provided hair samples for testing for mercury which will be fascinating,

Not all our tests can happen every day.  The manta trawl needs the sea to be flat enough to get the spinnaker pole rigged at 90degrees for the mast and then the trawl to ride alongside the boat, skimming off the top 10cm or so of water into its trailing net. It spend half an hour out there while we poodle along at 2 knots and then we bring it all in again. In contrast the phytoplankton trawl, a little torpedo that trails off our stern is much easier to put out and retrieve, and we can travel at 6kts while it is in the water.  But that doesn’t go out in the sort of weather we’ve seen at sea since Our trawl just outside Belfast harbour.

But whenever we can, we put the trawls out. This morning, in Loch Lochy, were perfect flat conditions monitoring for plastic in the stunning waters and hills of the Great Glen. 

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#exxpeditionroundbritain does Force 8

We pulled away from the quay in Belfast prompt at 0800 yesterday, Wednesday, on a quiet, still morning. Out on the Lough the clouds capped the green, green hills and the wind was ruffling the surface. Out of the channel we put the manta trawl over and for half an hour it was calm enough to seize up seaweed, crustaceans and whatever else we find when we can analyse it.

It wasn’t going to happen at the time. As we hauled it in, the forecast wind began to blow and soon was grey closed in and the rain began. The mainsail was set with two reefs, our course laid north east for one long board to Arran and off we went.

It was a hell of a sleigh ride. The wind blew a sustained 40 knots with gusts up to 46 knots while 2m waves surged and rolled and hissed beneath us. We enjoyed a good consistent southerly, giving us a broad reach with a strong preventer on the boom. The wheel was a living connection to gale and sea. It quivered and pulled, sometimes helping Sea Dragon find her course, at others pulling her away to Scotland or off to the outer Hebrides.  Over the whole trip we averaged over 10 knots.
We stormed past the unmistakeable sugar load of Ailsa Craig to draw level with Holy Island, the small Buddhist islet protecting the bay at LamLash. Driving into the wind, we wrestled down the main sail, which needed both Cat and Holly’s weight to drag down the last few hanks. Hauling in the reeling lines, I leant forward just in time to get a faceful of cold sea water. That’s the dollop which meant my bra was wet when I finally got below.

Before then we came round into the beautiful bay and dropped anchor. We stayed in board all evening, reliving the highlights of leg 1 and laughing a lot; the night was calm and quiet, and my anchor watch at 0400 saw the sun rise slowly over the hills in hazy pink and gold. 

The pix are Sea Dragon at anchor off the beach and a big panorama of the whole gorgeous bay.

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Cardiff Bay to Belfast Lough 

We are entering Belfast Lough. It’s been a mixture of weather over the last two days. Once we left the sandy shallows of Cardiff – six hours late thanks to the eel – the weather has blown up to a F5, right on the nose. The sea was a yucky brown colour and ruffled into steep, irritable waves. We got the main up (with two reefs) and the staysail and slowly beat our way westwards. 

The sea stayed rough for while. I was on galley duty for the day. Lunch had been pretty easy, sitting at anchor. My biggest problem had been lack of access to the fridge, as the crew had tools all over it while they fixed the engine. No cheese! The evening was a bit harder and after directing operations and Sue womanfully delivering, I retired.

At 0400 I got up, only for the skipper to remind me that as chef I was excused the night watch. But it was a beautiful night with shooting stars, moonshine, dolphins and a smooth sea. (Too smooth really: much motor sailing.) It was delightful so I stayed up. I love being at sea during a night watch.

Yesterday, Sunday, was very busy on Sea Dragon. We finally got the manta trawl in the water, a tool designed to capture different grades of material in the water for analysis. It was exciting as up to now the weather has been too poor to get it in. And when we were finally ready, spinnaker pole rigged up and all set, a curious seal popped up to examine our antics. After she had gone away, we waited the prescribed 20 minutes; fortunately she did not come back till later. We hauled it in and immediately found we had caught a compass jellyfish who was duly measured and returned to the sea.

We also trawled for phytoplankton, observed gannets, dolphins and other wildlife, and even saw some plastic. Oilskins disappeared to be replaced with shorts and suncream. A good day all round, and with no signal so we could not report to anyone on our progress.

In fact we were doing well. The flat seas allowed us to ride the tide up north, past Milford Haven and St David’s, Cardigan Bay and Anglesey. All the time we were in Welsh waters and latitude, it did not rain even when windy. 

By the turn of last night though, things were changing., I was on watch 2000-0000. By then it was getting pretty windy, at 25-30 knots. It kept coming from the south, so although the waves were building, it was a comfortable, if rolly ride. Unlike Lands End, there was no vomit. Our watch jibed in quite big seas. The whole operation took an hour. I spent it all on the helm and by the time we were done my arms and shoulders were sore with keeping us on a safe course as other crew slowly winched and eased sheets, preventer guys and the back runners. Yes it was complicated.

Today has stayed rolly and intermittently wet. Just now, in the shelter of the Lough, we are managing some science. As I type, we are approaching fairway bout number 5, so I want to go up on deck and see our arrival.  I’ve never been to Belfast before.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment busy kick-off for #exxpeditionroundbritain

I took the train to Plymouth on Sunday, and had a great conversation with a new friend on the way.  The space between Totnes and Plymouth feels like the last moment of calm. I can’t wait for a night watch!

On Sunday night four of us converged in a great AirBnB in Plymouth and promptly went to the pub. First thing Monday we converged on Sea Dragon sitting on the dock at Sutton Harbour. Whirlwind briefings, frantic unpacking and introductions took an hour or so before an excellent lunch prepared by mate Holly. More briefings and introductions followed before our first casting off!  We motored about 100 yards to another pontoon outside Plymouth University’s marine headquarters where we *launched* #exxpeditionroundbritain properly.  Many thanks to the microplastics team there who have been great champions of our work.

We returned to our own pontoon and straggled to bed. I was exhausted. This morning has been spent on a beach clean and boat tours. (Though I’ve spent the morning doing some work – that’s #freelancelife for you.) And now we are settling down to a full scale boat and safety briefing.  We’re due to leave at 1830 to 1900. 

Sky news will have a drone up for our departure so look out for us. The press coverage has been astonishing: it’s great people are so interested and I hope inspired to reduce their reliance on plastic.
(When I’ve persuaded my iPad to show me a photo I took on my phone – there will be pictures.)

This time tomorrow we will be in the Bristol Channel, due to arrive at the Barrage in Cardiff at 0800 GMT (that’s 0900 BST) on Thursday morning. See you there.

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Getting ready (at last)

On Sunday (this Sunday – eek) I am leaving my beloved flat in Penarth to head to Plymouth and once more step afloat. This is rather different from last year’s adventure (see that site here), not least because we are not planning on leaving the UK.  You can see more about this voyage at my intro page on this site, and on the mission site too. There’s even my FB page about it at plastic, the sea and me.

Another big difference is that I have been super-busy right up to the last minute on the day job, so preparing a blog and so on has been a slower business. But I’m looking forward to writing about it, posting pictures and talking about the importance of tackling pollution.

You probably know lots about the horrors of plastic already and you’re going to learn more in the coming weeks. So here’s one thought to start with.  That plastic bottle will last 450 years.

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Flight between capitals

A criss-cross copse, paths meeting at some clearing in the trees, is clear as day from seat 18A. Down there the wood is a maze, a mysterious place where unseen arrows may fly, or a deer appear, hoof raised as it scents the air.


The Home Counties of England sprawl in fields of autumn gold and chestnut, some dark-brown turned-earth and patches of pale-washed grazing green or the seedling flush of winter crops. Their curving, erratic boundaries were laid down by centuries of strip-farming, irrigation or plague, Enclosure and the machine-demands of agri-business. The hedgerow-decimation has not made them tidily square, though right-angles at the edges of woods, ruler roads and arrow-straight railways, shout out beneath the shifting cloud shadows.

Hamlets cluster on the flatlands, placed at seeming random; the niceties of fordable streams, convenient look-outs or other magnets for settlement invisible from the air. Village positions are hallowed by time, proud of their Domesday legacy, jealous of Tudor mansions, reliving the tides of civil war or Napoleonic defense. Iron Age forts, meanwhile, are shrouded in long grass on forgotten tumuli. Sacred wells are mere springs beneath a boggy corner. History acknowledges the Romans, remembers the Saxons and got going with the Normans. Conquest; assimilation and now urgent defense against imaginary enemies trump realities of escapees from  contemporary invasions.

The Dartford Crossing is a toy with spikes as a container ship inches up-river, the water muddy and opaque. Tilbury is left behind as our wings tilt again, turning back towards the reaching roads and crescents, passing the armadillo hats of the Thames Barrier. The dense City reaches up at our undercarriage while docks and roads alike glitter in September sun. Churches sit in their green graveyards and trees flourish in municipal heartlands and wealthy enclaves. Our shadow crosses the roof of Excel before we swoop, low and loud, over Galleon’s Reach.

We have arrived in that fifth country of the Union. London.


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