The ghost village rises again

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This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Times

Haweswater curls like a tapeworm beneath the bald, brown peaks of Westmorland. This is the most isolated tarn in the Lake District, edged by a blind road, a gloomy and incongruous art deco hotel and Arctic silence. Horses once carried the east Cumbrian dead along the pass of Corpse Road, which bends east to Shap, the nearest village. A dwindling number of people there still grunt the Penrithian dialect.

Winds have beaten the land to tough grass and dust. England’s last golden eagle, in stately middle age, slices through currents kicked up by the glacial mountains. Few tourists come here and few of those who do realise that Haweswater is bogus, a confection. They don’t see how implacably it captures the tussle between progress and continuity, the urban against the rural, industry versus nature. In 1919 parliament passed an act — sneakily avoiding the need for planning permission — to flood this valley, drowning the village of Mardale Green that had stood here for centuries, perhaps millennia.

One hundred miles away, bloated from the industrial revolution, Manchester needed a new reservoir. So the Dun Bull Inn, which hosted the hunt, the farmsteads, the 19th-century vicarage, the stone chapel, the tiny school where the spinster Miss Forster arrived in 1891 and taught for 41 years — all would be lost. In 1935, when the last person was gone, the army blew up most of Mardale Green. The waters swallowed what was left.

This has been the driest September for half a century. Haweswater has sunk almost to the lees and the skeleton of Mardale Green has risen to the surface. After a long train journey and a half-hour drive, I skitted down the fern-knotted fell to the reservoir’s edge.

A line of stones rears from the water like the grey scales of a sea monster. From the low bank, running down into the lake, are waist-high rows of heaped shale. They are all that is left of the dry-stone walls that marked the edge of the farms: unmistakeably manmade, but with a Palaeolithic primitiveness and distance. Blackened tree stumps splinter from the soupy mud. Two smooth, tall stones, drilled with holes, mark where a gate once swung; the pressure and decades have twisted one away from its neighbour.

This was always a remote community: local nobs, the Holmeses, hid here after a failed rebellion against King John in the 13th century and never left. Mardale’s farmers grew barley and oats, kept geese, drank beer, ate mutton, told old-wives’ tales, tilled, toiled and died. They were evicted without ceremony. Protesting that their families had lived here for generations, that history as well as land would be lost in the flood, they were largely ignored. More than 1,000 people attended the final service in Mardale’s chapel; the building had room for 70.

I cross the slippery, boot-snatching reservoir bed. It gurgles with methane. A spooky red film covers the topsoil: nails, door jambs, ranges and assorted iron Victoriana are settling on the reservoir bed and reaching for the northwest’s water supply.

On the western side are some smashed remnants: a farm, I think, called Flakehowe. Its walls mark the steep road where horses used to clatter into the valley. The outline of the rooms is as clear as the rainless sky. A bent metal pole, caked in rust, turns to powder when touched. Behind is an outdoor store for firewood. It is one of the saddest places I have ever been.

Picking through Flakehowe’s bones, I meet a Yorkshirewoman, holidaying nearby in Ullswater, who heard about the surfacing village on the radio. “I thought it was awful that the army blew it up,” she says.

“But it was different, coming here. You wouldn’t have wanted the people returning when the water dropped, would you, to see what they’d lost? It would be too much. Perhaps it was better just to bury those memories.”

How the postman might save your elderly mum

Joe Dickinson greets a pensioner on a Jersey doorstep. He mobilised the island’s postal workers to call on vulnerable people — an idea that won The Sunday Times Change Makers (Katie Patterson)

Joe Dickinson greets a pensioner on a Jersey doorstep. He mobilised the island’s postal workers to call on vulnerable people — an idea that won The Sunday Times Change Makers (Katie Patterson)

To mark Impact Journalism Day, The Sunday Times set up the Change Makers competition. I spoke to the winner, Joe Dickinson, who explained how his idea helps other people

Imagine you’re old, lonely, vulnerable. Most of your friends have died. Your children live far away; the phone rarely rings. What if you fell and broke a hip? How long might you lie, waiting for help? And what if that help never came?

These are dilemmas that the Lancastrian Joe Dickinson, a former IT consultant now living in Jersey, was thinking about a few years ago. He was working for Jersey Post, the island’s equivalent of the Royal Mail.

Dickinson had suffered a stroke a few years earlier. “That was my watershed,” he says: it made him think more carefully about vulnerable people. “I realised the postal service was already on the street. Only it had the infrastructure to visit every home in Jersey, or in Britain, every day.”

So he developed a scheme — genius in its simplicity — for postal workers to call and check on elderly or vulnerable people. That scheme has made him the winner of this year’s Change Makers campaign, the search by The Sunday Times and its partner, the Media Trust, for the best ideas having a social impact around Britain. Dickinson, 64, was nominated by a friend and had no idea he was even being considered when he received the call telling him he had won.

“Many people don’t want to be visited by social workers or carers,” he says. “But everyone talks to their postman. He can ring the bell and make sure the older person doesn’t need any help — medical or social.”

The Call and Check scheme now operates in four areas of Jersey, serving more than 100 elderly and vulnerable people. It will be expanded across the island early next year. Dickinson believes it could eventually save governments millions.

“On Jersey, the proportion of over-65s is set to double in a few decades,” he says. “These people need to be kept at home for as long as possible — hospitals and care homes are expensive.”

Call and Check, he says, will defer entry into hospital and prevent missed appointments with the GP.

One of the Change Makers judges, Camila Batmanghelidjh of the charity Kids Company, said of the idea: “Very clever, good use of ongoing services. A gem.”

As well as receiving £1,000 to continue developing his scheme, support and mentoring from The Sunday Times and the Media Trust and coverage in 40 newspapers around the world, Dickinson will now be profiled on television.

By harnessing existing networks, and thanks to his innate compassion, Joe Dickinson is a worthy winner.

Link to original article

The last place in Britain with affordable housing

Gareth and Haylee McCarron outside their six-bedroom, £275,000 home

Gareth and Haylee McCarron outside their six-bedroom, £275,000 home

This originally appeared in The Sunday Times

The road out of Whitehaven lurches and corkscrews through the west Cumbrian hills. These are steep and largely treeless, smoothed by prehistoric ice, pilled with sheep and webbed with dry stone walls. It is the land of Withnail and Wordsworth: the daffodil-prancer was born in Cockermouth, lived with his mother’s family (he loathed them) in Penrith and bounded roe-like over the mountains of Keswick.

Behind a grey council estate on Whitehaven’s southeasternmost edge, in the borough of Copeland, sits a clutch of new houses. One of the biggest is a six-bed with precipitous stairs, its garden ringed by the green landscape. In Surrey you would need to be rich to buy somewhere like this, but Haylee and Gareth McCarron are not millionaires.

The house cost £275,000 and they moved in three weeks ago. It smells, like all new builds, of expectation and the promise of memories. The McCarrons earn about £90,000 together and proudly say it took them only six months to sell their previous home. In London their money might buy a one-bed former council flat in the East End; new builds there often sell within 48 hours.

Last week Copeland emerged as the last scrap of England in which houses are still affordable — where the average home costs less than three times the median wage. In Kensington property costs 30 times what people typically earn, and even elsewhere in the Lake District you will need eight times the median wage to buy a home.

Like almost everyone in Whitehaven and environs, the McCarrons owe everything to Sellafield. It will take another 120 years to dismantle the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, which closed in March 2003 but still stockpiles almost all the country’s plutonium. About 12,000 people continue to troop to the site every day, and 10,000 more work for it indirectly. Shops, restaurants, pubs, car dealerships and almost every other business depends on the plant. The council and the NHS employ just a few hundred people locally; there are few other jobs.

The McCarrons have worked there for generations. “My dad is 35 years at Sellafield now,” says Gareth. “Me grandpa worked 40 years there.”

“If you don’t work for Sellafield,” says Haylee, “the only option is to move away. A lot of friends finish university and can’t get a job — they come home and Sellafield is on the doorstep.”

Would you want to live here? During the Second World War, TNT was made near Sellafield precisely because it was so far from anywhere. Carlisle, the nearest city, is a good hour away by car. A decent shopping trip means a two-hour schlep to Newcastle. And a huge and ageing nuclear facility runs the risk of accident and terrorism.

Whitehaven’s buildings are cracked and dirty; weeds sprout from empty shopfronts. A once-handsome 1930s building is now Chattanooga Kebab and Pizza. Every other shop seems to be flogging donated second-hand clobber; the rest are hairdressers and cheap clothing shops such as Shooz’n’Sox.

The streets trundle and squeak with harried, spotty kids pushing hand-me-down prams. Half a dozen minicab drivers mooch on Duke Street. For all that the McCarrons are athletic fell walkers and say their kids are “crag rats”, Copeland was recently confirmed as the fattest borough in England.

I meet a man from Sellafield’s press office in a pub by the harbour. “This is England’s best-kept secret,” he burrs, and then adds: “If it was in St Tropez you’d be paying a lot of money.” A few boats bob morosely in the grey autumn light, but it’s going to be a long wait for the superyachts.

This is a hard-hewn part of England — graft and chemicals, the worked-out seams of old communities. Whitehaven has stapled its expectations and desires to a single crumbling piece of 1950s expediency, born of distrust and fear.

But despite the deprivation and the dangers, I envied the McCarrons not just for their beautiful home and the sublime landscape it looks over, but for the strength of the bonds they feel with this place. Theirs may be some of the most affordable housing in the country, but there is nothing cheap about that.

Cooking with Sorted Food

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A feature that originally appeared in The Sunday Times

‘I couldn’t get the non-minty stuff,” says Jamie, stretching a stubby piece of dental floss through a supermarket slab of brie. A girl is wearing a hoodie back-to-front, its hood stuffed with popcorn. The kitchen surface is splattered in tomato seeds.

This is the north London kitchen of Sorted Food, one of the most popular cooking channels on YouTube. Ben Ebbrell, Mike Huttlestone, Jamie Spafford and Barry Taylor founded it four years ago, when they were all in their early twenties. They now have more than 800,000 subscribers and 60m total video views, and people around the world spend at least 9,000 hours a day watching these four ordinary but good-looking lads messing about in their Kenwood-sponsored kitchen.

Their new food-based social network — in the guise of an app — contains 500 recipe videos for users to access, the most on any recipe app, and is now in the top five in the food and drink category of the App Store in more than 20 countries.

Their audience will post recipes and photographs, chat about their favourite food and videos on the Sorted channel and generally interact in a space that isn’t controlled by Google, which owns YouTube.

This is the future. Television is struggling and Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Nigella — whose YouTube channel languishes with a rather pitiful 1,000 subscribers — are all trying to establish presence on the site as well. (Sorted has almost double Gordon’s numbers.) To many teenagers, even people under 30, the idea of scheduled programming seems counterintuitive, limited and quaint.

Ebbrell is the only trained cook: the other four hold the cameras, edit, market, work on collaborations and arrange sponsorship deals. The channel now generates enough cash to support its four founders as well as four other staff, who help with editing, camera work and running the office.

I’ve come to help them make a Food Life Hacks video: the first one, filmed last spring, has had more than 300,000 views (that’s nothing: others made subsequently have more than 1m.) These hacks, kitchen tips, really, have ranged from the gimmicky — separating an egg by sucking up the yolk through a bottle — to the relatively useful: using frozen grapes to chill a glass of white wine.

I watch Taylor and Spafford josh and grin. There’s an affecting hamminess in their interactions with the camera: they have a sweetly amateurish way of taking turns to hold the camera and of making triumphant or disappointed faces.

Ebbrell has a gift for finding shortcuts and compromises: one of the most popular videos is a microwaved “cake in a mug”, ready from start to finish in four minutes.

“A typical member of our audience might be a twentysomething woman in LA or London,” says Spafford. “Jamie Oliver’s audience tends to be a bit older and a lot of the most active users on YouTube are still young.”

Collaborations are key to building a successful YouTube channel: filming videos with other successful YouTubers so you can pool your audiences. It is no accident that Sorted’s second most-popular video was filmed with the YouTube star Jenna Marbles, a 27-year-old Californian with more than 1bn views, her own range of branded dog treats and a net worth of millions of dollars.

To hang out with Sorted for the morning is to feel like you’re witnessing a pronounced change in the dynamic between audiences and performers, or “content creators”, as the modish and unlovely phrase has it. After we wrapped — though nobody used that word — and I went out into the sunshine of Islington, Sorted were busy planning a trip to America and then, I am sure, to greater success.


Tourists and memories at the oldest tree in Britain

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This originally appeared in The Sunday Times

Defynnog is a low-slung village set beneath the treeless, undulating scrub of the Brecon Beacons. A dozen or so houses, wedged between two A-roads, a disused school and a whitewashed, 17th-century church, St Cynog’s. Moses Williams, who translated the Bible into Welsh and thus helped to savethe language from the fate of Cornish, was vicar here. He preached under the vertiginous belltower.

In summer, the churchyard is bright with orange hawkweed, dandelions and plastic mourning flowers strewn among the listing stones. Nearby, casting a sullen shadow, stands a magnificent yew. The same kind of tree probably grows in your nearest cemetery. Nobody knows why yew trees were planted by churches: whatever your history teacher said, it has nothing to do with medieval longbow production. Many of these yews predate their churches in any case. This one is older than Christianity itself.

Last week, a group of experts identified the Defynnog yew as the oldest tree in Britain, perhaps in Europe. The best estimates say it is about 5,000 years old, which means that it sprouted around the same time that people began constructing Stonehenge. The Egyptians were mummifying their dead by 3,000BC but would not start building the pyramids for hundreds of years.

Dating yews is difficult. They are not like the vast and silent redwoods of California, whose trunks add neat, numerical rings every year. Yews morph and shapeshift across the centuries. The oldest parts die and rot, and the plant then feeds on them, renewing itself from its own death. That’s another reason it grows in churchyards — as a symbol of resurrection. Storms and lightning, or the few parasites unaffected by its poisonous leaves, can split or seek to strangle a yew tree, but it will push out new roots and saplings. A fallen branch can embed itself in the soil and become a new tree.

Paul Wilding has been the vicar at St Cynog’s for 26 years. He is a gentle man, wet-eyed and softly spoken, wearing sober socks and a fraying dog collar. “We’ve always known the tree was old,” he whistles. “Some of the oldest people in the village still remember playing hide-and-seek in it as children.”

Defynnog gets few visitors, but this story has been popular. Wilding seems unsettled by the Australian accents and the sensible American travelling shoes suddenly clambering over his tree.

On the ground, it looks like two yews, standing about 10ft apart. DNA testing recently confirmed they are the same organism. Between them, sheltered from the rain, chiselled stone slabs commemorate pious Victorians. The larger trunk has split into three or four parts. Over the centuries, these have put out new shoots that have fused, knotted and furled on the ancient wood, a “growth of intertwisted fibres serpentine”.

On the easternmost side, half-hidden by the poisonous leaves, grows a branch in yellowy white. A golden bough, a genetic anomaly; shocking and luminescent under the dark green canopy. Red-brown needles pattern the grassless earth. The tree’s roots have shoved a flimsy, rusted sheet of corrugated iron, which once lined a grave, up to the surface.

“Put your hands here,” whispers a slender, spectacled Canadian. He tells me he is an artist who specialises in drawing yews, and his wife says the tree is “the mother lode” for him. He shows me a gnarled, cobwebbed cavity in the trunk. “You can feel his energy, can’t you? That buzzing?” I touch the oddly cold wood, close my eyes and concentrate, but the main thing I feel is a squirming English embarrassment.

Some people say this tree was planted for a Celtic druid, a Silurian, one of the pugilistic tribe defeated by the Romans in the 1st century AD. We know almost nothing about what druids and their illiterate flock believed. What little evidence there is suggests they expected to be reincarnated, and practised human sacrifice by burning people alive in Edward Woodward effigies.

In the 1960s, someone dug up a tall, carved stone near this tree, covered with inscriptions in Celtic, Latin and Ogham, a predominantly Irish script used between the 5th and 10th centuries. The stone commemorated a man named Rugniatis, and the tree was already 3,000 years old when this forgotten Roman lived. Much later came St Cynog himself, a 5th-century Welsh prince martyred by marauding bands in the Brecon Beacons.

Now Cynog’s religion is dying too. Wales is losing its faith faster than anywhere in England — a 14% fall in the last census. The yew has seen many faiths flourish and die, and it may still be standing after the last Welsh Christian is under the sod.

When the tourists, Wilding and the church’s PR have dispersed, I return alone to the Defynnog yew. I clamber up the roots, and sit for a few minutes under the silent canopy. It hangs as heavy as history. Priests of different stripes, peasants, travellers, a thousand villagers, have all sat in the same spot, sheltered by the same life. Underneath, unseen, it wraps its roots around their bones.

I drank coffee costing £300 a cup

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Thorstein Veblen was the twinkly eyed 19th-century economist who coined — an appropriate word — the phrase conspicuous consumption. He thus gave name to one of the defining traits of any era: the tendency for the rich, the aspirational and the indebted to use expensive tat as peacock semaphore for their real or desired status.

Veblen goods are items — caviar, a handbag, wine — whose demand rises along with their price, the opposite of the rule that generally applies. And now a new company called Bespoke Beverages, founded by Richard Hardwick, a former rugby player turned musical theatre actor, is about to start selling the ultimate Veblen good: coffee costing £31,000 a kilo, or £300 a cup — almost certainly the most expensive ever made.

Kopi luwak, civet coffee, is sieved from caffeinated cat crap. The wide-eyed and ferrety Asian palm civet, a vicious viverrid, eats raw coffee cherries and squeezes out the pips, or beans, which the farmer harvests and washes before they’re packed and sent to be roasted, ground, brewed and drunk by the rich.

Supposedly, enzymes in the animal’s digestive tract denature proteins in the beans and improve the flavour. The coffee usually costs about £400 a kilo, but Bespoke Beverages has gone rather further by packaging the stuff in a handmade carbon-fibre and white-gold box and by Veblenishly limiting the supply.

The company lets me try its KL Diamond at a breakfast at Mossiman’s in Belgravia, central London, a private club beloved of royals. I watch two men measure the grounds into a little beaker, like cardinals handling the powdery relics of a long-dead saint, before dropping them into elaborate Breaking Bad siphons. When the pressure reaches the right level, the coffee gurgles up into the jugs.

The drink is thick and murky and smells of tar, pine sap and, more persistently, the unswerving Nescafé punch of its robusta beans. The flavour is different from that of any coffee I’ve tried, with tart tangs of lemon, a tongue-smearing smoothness, no bitterness and a thick, intestinal savour reminiscent of gutting pheasants. The discerning woman opposite me — an expert in the ways and foibles of the rich — insists the overriding flavour is broccoli. It is delicious, in its strange, blunted and bitterless way, but at well over a pony a sip, it is impossible to justify.

It has taken the company a couple of years to get this product to market, and the launch could not be coming at a worse time. Last autumn hidden-camera documentaries by the BBC and the animal-rights group Peta found civet cats pacing dementedly in stifling cages, their fur falling out.

Tony Wild, who claims to have introduced kopi luwak to Britain in the 1980s, told me: “In the wild the beans are only a tiny part of the civets’ diet. This is like a human drinking more than 100 cups of coffee a day. The animals are so stressed, cramped and over-caffeinated they can start chewing their own legs off.”

Hardwick, however, insists that his company uses only wild civets in Indonesia. “We treat our beans like diamonds. To cage an animal for them is crazy,” he says.

None of this is likely to matter to Bespoke Beverages’ customers in seven-star hotels, rococo gastrotemples, dry Middle Eastern palaces and dachas on the Black Sea. There, they know more about price than they do about pleasure, and could do with reading their Veblen.

This originally appeared in The Sunday Times

A cat, a dog, and two ex-junkies

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 13.09.17Bob and George have never met, and their first encounter has been arranged and policed with all the fraught intensity of a summit between warring nations. George is a dog, one of those stout urban canines that dutifully and stupidly accompany their owners around every British city. Bob, a cat, is more special: a creature of almost magnetic tranquillity and poise.

This meeting has not been a case of herding cats so much as herding a cat, a dog, four or five publishers, a diary manager, journalist, photographer, gallery manager, various tense assistants and two former junkies — who tend to get up late.

Bob and George have been brought to Regent’s Park in London because they have rather a lot in common.

Last weekend this paper told the story of George’s owner, John Dolan, a career criminal and a former crack cocaine and heroin addict, who adopted George “for the price of a strong can of lager” a few years ago, and later began drawing him.

Sitting on the street, outside a petrol station, Dolan sold sketches of the animal and of the grubby East End landscape for perhaps a tenner apiece. A local gallery owner spotted his ability and the artist now sells his paintings for £2,000 a time. He is also the author of John & George, a book about his relationship with his pet.

You might have heard of Bob. His owner is James Bowen, another former addict and a busker who rescued a wounded ginger cat, returned him to health and has since written a series of bestselling books (1m copies sold in the UK alone), about how his pet saved his life.

This paper arranged the first meeting, although the human encounter proves more successful than the animal one.

Bob’s body tenses and his green eyes widen as George trots towards him, straining on a tight lead. When the dog comes closer still, Bob arches his back, hisses and bares his teeth. George retreats, flat-eared, and the two snatch gimlet-eyed glances at each other for the rest of the afternoon.

The men, however, find an instant bond. They go off together, insisting on being alone, roll what they call a “billy bifter” and savour it while sitting under a tree. One of George’s entourage takes him for a walk around the park, while Bob lies beatifically on Bowen’s jacket. The rest of us hang around like teenagers outside a pop star’s hotel.

Finally, Bowen, Dolan, the menagerie and I all sit together under a tree. The men’s stories may be moving and redemptive in the abstract, but seen up close they have a harsher intensity. The bad backs, arthritic legs, bruises, sores, track marks and self-harm scars, and the hard life of street skimping, have etched themselves in their faces and bodies. Bowen slurs a little, which he puts down to the painkillers he is taking.

I ask Dolan how it feels suddenly to have fame and money. “Overwhelming,” he rasps. “I’m still getting used to it. I was a — woss the name? — habitual criminal, and now my paintings sell for thousands. It’s a lot to take in — that’s why I wanted to meet James.”

They chat easily, debating the effectiveness of the 12-step rehabilitation programme, swapping tips on methadone and castigating beggars who “one-book” — that is, take a single copy of The Big Issue and pretend it’s their last one.

“It’s better to just beg — at least that’s honest,” says Bowen. Both men havegiven great chunks of their newfound money to charity — to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home or places that help addicts and the homeless.

Their stories may look similar but are in fact very different. Bowen and Bob are special. Gentle and devoted, Bob is the most dog-like cat I’ve ever seen. Dolan never went to the Slade or Central Saint Martin’s. He hasn’t studied perspective or composition. But his work has a lucid sensitivity: the skin-hugging fur on his moulting dog or grey London light reflected on Tube train windows. His is a genuine, unfettered talent and it is a tragedy that he spent 12 of his 42 years letting it rot in prison, instead of being allowed to nurture it.

Dolan hands Bowen a framed painting of George, a gift that makes Bowen’s glazed eyes seem to water. The two men shuffle over to a copper beech tree. For a few moments I watch them chatting in the warm, dappled light. Then Bowen stoops. He reaches forward and gives the other man a shifty, heartfelt hug.

This originally appeared in The Sunday Times

Interview with Ben Sullivan, the Oxford Union president accused of rape

Ben Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two young women (Francesco Guidicini)

Ben Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two young women (Francesco Guidicini)

This originally appeared in News Review, The Sunday Times

Ben Sullivan looks tired and jittery as he lets me into the poky garden of the Oxford Union. The past few weeks have been tumultuous, he says. In May he was arrested in a dawn raid on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two young women. That became an international scandal when he refused to resign as president of the union, the university’s 200-year-old debating society and a truculent sandpit for toddler prime ministers.

Things got nasty, quickly. Speakers booked at the union, including the secretary-general of Interpol, a Nobel peace prize winner, a Dragons’ Den star and the UK director of Human Rights Watch, cancelled upcoming appearances or demanded that he resign. But some disagreed with the boycott, including the philosopher AC Grayling, several national newspaper columnists and the senior independent MP Nigel Evans.

The publication of his name and picture — decked out in his presidential white tie — throughout the world’s media inflamed a growing debate on whether defendants in sex cases should share the right to anonymity that their accusers enjoy. Sullivan was also accused of previously misusing union funds to “gag” news outlets, and other officers at the society staged vigils and walkouts in protest against him.

The spite of the battle is inversely proportional to the size of the battlefield. On Wednesday, six weeks after his arrest, the police told the 21-year-old they would not be charging him.

“It’s been a difficult time for me and my family,” he says at an outdoor table, sipping mineral water. A kitchen extractor honks stale chip-oil air around the red bricks and Gothic windows. Sullivan speaks quickly but deliberately, fiddling with his BlackBerry as his lawyer, parents, union colleagues and print journalists all scramble to talk to him. There is something of the young Tony Blair about Sullivan in the high-pitched, fluent voice, the slightly delicate manner, the shifty confidence.

His arrest was “not a complete surprise”, he says, “although I was confident it would eventually go my way”. By the time he left the police station, a few hours after his arrest, his story was blaring from the website of a leading tabloid. How did it get there? “I don’t know,” he says, although I suspect he does.

Journalists were parked outside his family home in London and stayed there for days; Sullivan waited almost a week before venturing outside.

He is a type to whom many people seem to have taken an instant, second-hand dislike. After St Paul’s School, the banker’s son went to Christ Church, one of Oxford’s grander colleges, where he joined a group calling itself the Banter Squadron and, far more embarrassingly, became president of the union.

The Banter Squadron memorably glosses itself as an “elite Christ Church drinking society founded in 1304 by a group of libertines with exceptional chat”.

“That was clearly a joke,” says Sullivan. “Christ Church wasn’t even founded until 200 years after that. In the first year, one of our friends started calling our group the Banter Squadron. It’s not some laddish drinking society — one of us doesn’t drink at all — and we don’t have a uniform of any sort.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the name did not help: it confirmed prejudices some people hold about privileged young men, and allowed him to be painted as a boorish oaf.

Sarah Pine, vice-president for women at the Oxford University Student Union — different from the Oxford Union — co-wrote an open letter, urging speakers to boycott the union unless Sullivan stood down. (He says he would have resigned if police had charged him.) Prominent figures, including the left-wing journalist Laurie Penny and the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, signed the letter, and it was widely published, but is now strangely hard to find. Websites including those of the New Statesman and Cherwell, an Oxford University student paper, have pulled it.

“A couple of weeks ago, I asked Sarah Pine for a full copy with a list of the people who had signed. She told me they had taken it down,” he says.

Jennifer Perry, an expert in cyberstalking, refused to join the boycott, saying the campaign against Sullivan was “ill-conceived” and “absolute folly . . . Muddying the waters as much as they did made the whole process much more difficult . . . I refused to cave into their intimidation.”

Sullivan admits he used union funds to “gag” The Tab, an online student paper, when it sought to publish a story claiming he had tried to stop a new anti-harassment policy becoming part of the union’s rules. The union is supposed to be a place where free speech means something, I say. How could it possibly have been right to use members’ money to silence a story? “Yes,” he says. “But we also have strict rules in the chamber about people making libellous and defamatory comments. I’d actually helped to write that anti-harassment policy.”

Is lad culture a problem at university? “It is.” So what’s the worst example you’ve seen? Sullivan pauses; he is being careful. “You do see it around. For example, one of my good friends in the union told me about a group of third-year boys who are always taking groups of first-year girls out, forcing them to drink and sconcing them [an arcane Oxford drinking challenge] to say what their favourite sexual position is. That needs to be divorced from sexual violence: just because someone sconces a girl in that way doesn’t make him a rapist. But I do think that this culture is a problem, and I worry it may change the way some people view relationships, view women, view sex.”

Universities — and certainly their debating societies — are supposed to be places where young people can play at being grown-ups and, by and large, make mistakes out of sight. But now Google will inform any future employer, acquaintance, colleague or girlfriend of Sullivan’s that he was once arrested for rape and attempted rape. That he was never charged might as well be small print.

I ask him how he can hope to live it down. “It will be very difficult,” he says. “Hopefully, people will accept that no charges have been brought against me and the investigation is finished, and I’ll be able to move on. But these were poisonous accusations and there will be people out there who will think I’m guilty for ever.”

Do you deserve an apology from the people behind the boycott? “I think this could have been gone about in such a way that I didn’t deserve one, but I do feel like the personal and the general were confused. For example, last Friday, I was in the loo, in a cubicle, and two of the organisers of the campaign against me came in. I heard them greet each other as ‘comrade’, and then they said to one another at the urinal, ‘Don’t you wish there was a picture of Ben Sullivan at the bottom of this?’”

Overall, says Sullivan, the union has a “very unhealthy culture. What people are willing to do to get to the top is concerning.”

The Oxford term finished yesterday, and with it Sullivan’s presidency. Having taken a year out to be president, he will return to Christ Church in January to finish his history and politics degree. And then? “I don’t know. Your perspective changes after something like this. I wanted to be a management consultant before, but the union puts you off things — politics being one of them. I’d had enough of climbing greasy poles even before all this. The thing is, it was incredibly difficult to see myself tossed around for a cause I actually have a lot of sympathy for. I didn’t feel it was appropriate — or right.”

Original article at The Sunday Times

War between Uber and the black cabs

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Uber is young and rich. In five short years the tech-taxi company has built a presence in 36 countries and 124 cities including London and Manchester. Two weeks ago it was valued at $17bn (£10bn), up from $3.5bn last summer. Its backers include Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Goldman Sachs. The company’s British chief — a fierce former management consultant — says she wants it to operate in every UK city before long.

It’s beguilingly simple to use. You order a taxi with an app on your phone and watch a little car icon drive through the streets to reach you. Payment is via a pre-stored credit card so there’s no stopping at cash machines. Much of the time it’s cheap although when demand is high and supply is low, or perhaps whenever it feels like, Uber will suddenly hike its prices — on one occasion by at least 7.75 times — in an exercise called “surge pricing”.

Around the world Uber is snatching business from established cab firms, leading to violence, protests and lawsuits in several cities. And now, perhaps, here.

On Wednesday about half of London’s 22,000 black cabs will “gridlock” the area around Trafalgar Square, the houses of parliament and government buildings on Whitehall, according to one driver I spoke to. They will be protesting against Uber and specifically against its regulator, Transport for London (TFL).

Steve McNamara, who leads the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) union, says: “I’ve spoken to drivers in Liverpool and Manchester and they’re as concerned as we are about the money and influence that Uber brings with it. If it can make TFL kowtow to it in London, then what chance have they got with the little local councils that run the taxi services up there?”

In most parts of this country only black cabs are allowed to have meters; minicabs have to quote their fares in advance. Black-cab drivers claim Uber is running an illegal metered taxi service and thus breaches the licence given to it by TFL. Every Uber car has a modified iPhone containing software that tracks the car’s location, times the journey and calculates the mileage. This information is used to work out the fare.

Uber insists its modified phones are not meters and several legal challenges are now pending in British courts. Results are expected in a few months.

Uber offers three grades of car and says its cheapest costs less than black cabs and probably less than minicabs. Black cabs say they move people faster and more reliably than the competition. I live about eight miles from my east London office. To test the claims, I took a black cab to the office and came home in an Uber taxi. Lloyd Baldwin picked me up at 8.21am.

“It took me three years and three months to do the knowledge,” he says, referring to the gloriously bonkers and increasingly anachronistic cabbie rite that sees them memorise every street, landmark and important building within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “My wife did ironing jobs and we went into mortgage arrears. We were on the breadline.”

As he hurtled us down Park Lane, he said that TFL “are bending over backwards for Uber — they’re kowtowing to their money”. We reached The Sunday Times’s offices at 9.08am, a rush-hour journey of 47 minutes, after a minor traffic jam on the Mall. The fare was £44.

“We were in a meeting with Boris Johnson [the capital’s mayor] a few months back,” says McNamara. “Boris sticks his head up and goes, ‘Uber? Uber? Downing Street likes Uber.’ TFL’s chief operating officer Garrett Emmerson was holding his head in his hands. He told Boris that Uber wasn’t using a meter: Boris turned to him and said, ‘Of course it’s a bloody meter!’ ”

Emmerson says the LTDA is “trying to make hay out of an informal conversation. TFL’s and the mayor’s view is that this is a matter for the law to clarify.”

My Uber driver on the journey home spoke little English. Where Baldwin’s route had been smooth and sensible, his was meandering and weird, dragging us through the West End into innumerable traffic jams and pootling down little lanes. I watched his TomTom sat nav continually revise our estimated arrival time, minute by minute, from 7.01pm to 7.10pm and then to 7.20pm.

Like every Uber driver I’ve spoken to, he had nothing but praise for the company: for the flexibility it gives him and the money he makes (£100 daily profit during the weekend, less during the week). Only the Westway, a hideous 1970s flyover in west London, saved him from annihilation by the black cab as it sped us home for the last couple of miles. We pulled up outside my flat at 7.24pm, 48 minutes after setting off and a minute slower than the black cab.

Before we set off, Uber had estimated a fare of between £22 and £27. The final sum was £24, about half that of the black cab. (Addison Lee, a leading minicab firm, had quoted £31 for the journey, while another operator, Swiss Cottage Cars, wanted £21.)

Who can muster much sympathy for black-cab drivers? They are mostly an unlovable bunch: embittered and tetchy (except Baldwin, of course). In cities where they have a monopoly over meters it can be prohibitively expensive to travel by black cab. At one level Uber is simply a new, efficient and — when not trying to stiff you with surge pricing — cheaper service.

Like other massive American companies born of the internet and shoring up their presence here, it is by no means a public service. (Black cabs, with their special privileges and regulated in the way they are, may be.)

You book an Uber driver in Manchester, say, he takes you to an address a few miles away and your card is charged. The revenue has been generated in Britain and yet your transaction is with a Dutch outfit, presumably so Uber can pay less tax to the Treasury. McNamara says: “Uber is not about competition. It’s an American monster coming here, turning everyone over and not paying a penny in tax.”

Jo Bertram, UK general manager for Uber, says paying money to a Dutch company is an “administrative function”, adding that “Uber is fully compliant with tax legislations in all of the markets in which it operates”.

In Brussels the authorities banned it. In Berlin the taxis won an injunction against it. In France the authorities are said to be considering a ban and Uber drivers have been attacked. In Chicago, Boston, New York and Detroit, and in Melbourne, Madrid and Toronto, the company has faced legal challenges or protests.

All this may be a product, as Bertram claims, of the fact that “new competition can always cause discomfort for incumbents”. Arguably, Uber is a powerful example of market forces operating efficiently: it has worked out a way to do something cheaper than the competition. So why shouldn’t it charge more when it’s snowing? That said, it’s hard to feel much love for either side in this fight.

Additional reporting: Anna Fleck, Olivia Lace-Evans

I met a man who hasn’t showered in 12 years

Excessive cleanliness may reduce people’s ability to fight off allergies (Camila Massu)

Excessive cleanliness may reduce people’s ability to fight off allergies (Camila Massu)

A feature for News Review

David Whitlock, a donnish, Einstein-haired chemical engineer, hasn’t showered for 12 years. “I may be crazy,” he tells me, “but I’m not stupid.” Instead, Whitlock spritzes himself daily in millions of bacteria, called AOB (ammonia-oxidising bacteria), that normally live in the soil, rivers, lakes and the sea. As a result, he claims, his skin is smoother and probably healthier. (An occasional wipe with a sponge serves to “wash away grime”.)

Whitlock, and his colleagues at AOBiome, a startup based near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are optimistic that AOB might represent the next “blockbuster” breakthrough in medical treatment that they hope to pioneer.

Twelve years ago, Whitlock says, he was staying on a farm,“dating this woman, trying to impress her, and she asked me why her horse rolled in the dirt in March. I said it might be to get rid of insects, but she told me it was too early in the year for that.”

He had a hunch that horses would not have developed the behaviour without sound evolutionary reasons.

“Eventually, I figured out that it was to get the right kind of bacteria on their skin so their sweat wouldn’t putrefy over the summer.”

David Whitlock

David Whitlock

If it worked on one mammal, why not on us? Human sweat breaks down into ammonia. AOB can “feed on” or oxidise this ammonia, but detergents in shampoo and other cleaning products will kill them far faster than they can replicate. Whitlock tested himself for AOB and found none on his body.

“A lifestyle of bathing every morning and doing the various things normal people do had wiped them out,” he says.

“I tried not bathing for a while, but still none showed up.” So he visited an organic farm and took soil samples from the pigsty, cowshed and chicken coop. He cultured the AOB from the samples, made sure there were no dangerous or pathogenic bacteria among them, then “took a final shower, rinsed myself thoroughly and started applying the bacteria”.

What did his friends and family make of this? “I was living alone at the time.”

Julia Scott, a New York Times writer, recently visited Whitlock and his colleagues — some of whom have severely reduced the number of times they wash and use shampoo and deodorant — at AOBiome. “I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being ‘unclean’ in either the visual or olfactory sense,” she wrote.

Whitlock continues to wash his hands with simple soap for food preparation and after using the lavatory.

In a recent pilot study, people who spritzed themselves in AOB for several weeks reported positive results. Scott used the product for a month and said her skin “became softer and smoother . . . and my complexion, prone to hormone- related breakouts, was clear”.

James Heywood, director of AOBiome, believes the bacteria “increase health resilience” in humans. The company now plans to study conditions that AOB may help, including eczema and skin allergies. Heywood claims the bacteria have healed wounds in diabetic mice quicker than usual.

We live in an era that places an extraordinary and historically untypical emphasis on physical cleanliness. The so-called hygiene hypothesis states that a lack of childhood exposure to infectious agents, parasites and “good” micro-organisms — including those that live in the gut and on the skin — has helped to cause a spike in allergies and auto-immune diseases today.

One study found that the rate of eczema among Swedish children in cities is about 12%, but 7.6% among those on farms (who probably come into contact with soil, and AOB, more often). Among American Amish children, who use no chemicals or technology, eczema rates are as low as 1%.

“We live in abnormal environments,” says Heywood.

“We’ve disconnected ourselves from physical work and the biodiversity we evolved in as hunter-gatherers. In some ways, it’s a wonder we’re not sicker. The next class of blockbuster drugs will fundamentally restore resilience and balance to human health.”

Years of antibiotics did nothing for my teenage acne; only a lengthy course of the aggressive drug Roaccutane had some effect.

How strange it would be if the cure, all the while, was lying right under my feet.