Travel: Driving Land Rovers in the Serengeti

Oliver looking the part next to his new toy (Simon John Owen)

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Times

I am pulled over less than 10 minutes into my driving holiday. I’d been cruising along, hands clamped sweatily at ten to two, staring at the road as at a chessboard, in a dictator’s convoy of purring white Land Rovers on the outskirts of Arusha. The Tanzanian highway is not a tranquil place. Crammed and tottering buses, belching lorries, improbably stacked bikes, helmetless motorcyclists, hookers touting on the roadside and no observable speed limit: it’s just like Chelmsford.

A skinny kid in a high-vis vest raps at the window. I feel the Kafkaesque belly-lurch of the African traveller encountering authority, and the non-bribe bribe question briefly leaps to mind: is there a fine I can pay to clear this? The young rozzer doesn’t speak English. He grins and gestures that I’ve done nothing wrong. He just wanted to admire the car.

 ’ve come to Tanzania on a new trip organised by Land Rover and Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end safari merchants who’ve been hauling champagne bottles and stuccoed Kensington families here for wild ass’s years. The idea: you camp in the bush and do your own driving, guided by radio. And, as you trundle along the Chinese-built roads, or over the flayed, grass-whipped mud of the bush track, everyone, from the hotel porter to the nine-year-old Masai boy herding goats, cranes to have a look. That is unsurprising: the machines are sleek and starkly beautiful, with assertive, gurgling engines, buffalo-repelling front grilles and forbidding strips of LEDs shimmering beneath their headlights, all day long.

The true car of Africa, of course, is the Land Cruiser, that clunky, lolling, indestructible Japanese pick-up with a snorkel poking up the windscreen. It looks like a crap provincial zoo to the Discovery’s Serengeti.

I have — to express it with a prizes-for-all generosity — minimal driving experience. A dozen or so hours of kangaroo-hopping with a distractingly handsome Finnish instructor, 25 minutes of mirror-signal-manoeuvring around Dulwich, a rubber stamp and a card in the post, then three years of atrophying muscle memory and theoretical amnesia. How better, then, to rediscover one’s talents behind the wheel than by off-roading around the Serengeti, dodging bull elephants in musth, irate black mambas, face-shredding baboons and slavering lions?

I’ve been on guided safaris before: back-seat wildlife-watching is memorable but pleasantly passive, like watching a very good, very vivid film. Driving your own car, however, brings a safari an urgent, stark autonomy. It is an illusion of partial control over this vicious and deceptive environment, with its endlessly bloody examples of predators and prey.

I MAKE IT to a water hole in the massive, Martian Ngorongoro crater without killing anyone. The soil is streaked with red. I edge my car up a huge volcanic stone that points above the filthy water like Pride Rock, in The Lion King. Below, halitotic hippos squirt glorious mud over their backs, gaping from orthodontic maws, jostling and barking.

“Try not to accelerate and decelerate so much,” crackles the guide over the radio. “It wears out the engine.” Oh, I tried, I promise. Briefly.

On the third day, during a rain-spattered tour of the Serengeti, I hit a deep rut. The path is steep, there is a modest ravine to the right, and the wheels start to spin. The guide tells me to brake and push a button to my left. I feel the machine raise itself from the sodden soil like a maiden hoisting her petticoats.

“Don’t turn the wheel until I say,” he barks. “Firm but steady.” I vroom from the rut as if it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s only once we’re back on the road that the guide tells me the car had taken control. When it thinks you’re losing your way, the Discovery manages the steering for you, in the manner of a patient valet.

One-way traffic: the convoy hits the trailOne-way traffic: the convoy hits the trail (Nick Dimbleby/Land Rover)But it bellows approval when you press the accelerator. After a time, I find myself literally joyriding, clattering across the mud, crossing rattling bridges over crocodile-stalked rivers, only stopping to give a baby gazelle the right of way. Even to an essential nondriver, hurtling down the dirt roads, lurching to a dawdle just to gaze at giraffes, is a fix of speed, of mechanical amphetamine.

After the rush, the relaxation. We’re staying at two campsites: one by the crater, the other deep in the Serengeti National Park, where permanent human settlement is banned and the Masai are not allowed to graze their cattle. But “camp” is a misnomer. This is essentially a vast, airy, transportable hotel — the caravan of a Zulu king. It has a dozen individual guest tents, each covering an area slightly smaller than a tennis court, further tents for the guides and yet more for the numberless support staff. There’s a tent with a dining table and a tent with sofas, books and a bar.

Mine contains a double bed, a carpet, a flushing loo, a warm shower — which a man outside assembles by hoisting a bucket and, disconcertingly, asking repeatedly through the flimsy wall whether you’ve finished — a scented mozzie net, a safe, bedside lights, an “emergency whistle” and a collapsing Ikea-style wardrobe. Wine decisions stretch beyond the binary, and the food is a masterclass in logistical good taste.

On the third morning, we get up at 4.30am — all safari starts are early — and trundle, high-beamed, to watch the sunrise. The head vehicle slows, then stops. To the right stands a lioness. Spectral, blank, she stares for a moment at these bright, silent beasts that have disturbed the night. Then she turns and pads softly into the trees.

In the evenings, the cars are hosed down, vacuumed, filled with petrol, snacks and mineral water, and readied for the next day. After one boozy dinner, I arc a wobbly torch beam over the forest. Pairs of eyes glint back at me like loose change. Zipped in the tent, having checked for snakes, I hear the terrifying gurgle of a big cat and, later, the snicker and yelp of hyenas. Late at night, creatures prowl between the tents, searching for food, smelling the humans, as you lie wondering about the tensile strength of canvas.

The last morning is cold. We have the windows up and our fleeces on when we see an elephant calf, barely three months old, nibbling at a tree. There is nothing in the world so pathetically lonely as a lost baby elephant. A little further on, about 60 vultures flutter and gnaw at something hidden in the grass. With a sick dread, we realise it is the calf’s mother. The guide says it won’t survive another three nights before the hyenas devour it.

It is a chastening reminder that the only thing separating you from being squashed, burnt, stung, starved, bitten or kicked to death in this environment is the car you use to explore it.

Click here to read at The Sunday Times

The bishop abused me: not all of us survived

Cliff James says Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester, had a ‘terrible power’ over those he abused

Cliff James says Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester, had a ‘terrible power’ over those he abused

This feature first appeared in The Sunday Times

Cliff James decided to speak out after his friend Neil Todd committed suicide. In 2012 Sussex police had reopened a historic investigation into Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester and the most senior Church of England figure to face claims of child abuse. Todd, who like James had been abused by Ball as a teenager in the early 1990s, killed himself shortly after Ball was arrested.

“He never had closure,” says James, speaking publicly for the first time. “He never got over it. And he might have if only the church had investigated things properly at the time and not tried to cover everything up.”

Last week 83-year-old Ball changed his plea at the last minute and admitted to offences against 18 teenagers and young men between 1977 and 1992. Under a deal struck with prosecutors to avoid a trial, he will not face charges for the two most serious counts against two boys aged 12 or 13 and 15.

The extent to which the Church of England attempted to protect itself from scrutiny and scandal over the case can now be reported. It has emerged that when Todd first told police about the abuse in 1993, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, sought assurances from the Crown Prosecution Service that Ball would escape with a caution.

“That was unforgivable. Carey should be ashamed,” says James. The late Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, reportedly told Ball to “stop inviting young men” to his house. But when Kemp wrote his memoirs, he described the boys who spoke out about their abuse as “mischief-makers”.

“Like Carey, Kemp’s job as a Christian was to protect the vulnerable,” says James.

“But they only wanted to protect powerful people in the church.”

James was 17 in 1991 when he learnt of an unofficial “youth scheme” developed by Ball, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. The “bishop’s young men” spent a year living with the cleric, doing chores and quasi-monastic work in his opulent house in East Sussex.

“I thought if I became a monk then nobody would ask me when I was going to get married,” says James, who knew he was gay but was too ashamed to act on his feelings. His father attended National Front marches, sometimes taking his son with him.

Ball’s scheme seemed the perfect way out. The bishop, who enjoyed wearing a medieval monastic habit, had taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. James says he lived by none of them: “Ball was an abuser and hypocrite.”

James could not have known that the bishop had engineered his programme to molest dozens of young people. He says he had concerns as early as the first interview, when Ball told him that he would have to have cold showers every morning, supervised by the bishop. “He wouldn’t give way on that,” says James. “I’d never been naked in front of another person and it really scared me.”

But Ball promised him that he might one day become a saint if he did as he was told. The showers duly took place and gradually, says James, the “mind games and manipulation” increased, leading to beatings, always under the guise of religion, and increasingly sexual demands.

“He told me that Christ was humiliated in the Garden of Gethsemane and that entering into the same suffering would bring me closer to God,” says James.

“I would offer to kneel and pray naked in thorns and nettles instead of doing anything sexual with the bishop, but it was never enough. He had a terrible power over all of us.”

After months of abuse James confronted Ball: “He physically recoiled from me: I think he was terrified I might speak to someone. He said he was worried about it all getting into the papers and he kept saying that everything had been consensual.”

Ball promised he would never behave like that again. But shortly after James left the scheme, Todd joined it. “He suffered even worse before he went to the police,” says James.

The disgraced Ball went to live in a large house in Somerset lent to him by Prince Charles. He continued working in the church until 2010 and read the homily at the funeral of the father of Camilla Parker Bowles in 2006.

In the aftermath of his ordeal James abandoned religion and later worked for the British Humanist Association. Surprisingly, he does not want to see Ball imprisoned at the sentencing next month.

“What would it achieve?” he asks. “He’s a frail old man. No one is entirely bad or good: he just had a screwed-up sexuality that was enmeshed in religion. I’m moving forwards now — I just regret that Neil will never have that chance.”

The public schoolboy who left Britain to fight against Isis

'Harry' in London, wearing the uniform of his Kurdish militia

‘Harry’ in London, wearing the uniform of his Kurdish militia

This feature first appeared in The Sunday Times

The fireworks sounded like gunfire. “I froze,” says a man who has asked to be called “Harry”. “I felt no fear, just a surge of adrenaline. There was nothing I wanted more that moment than to be back in Syria, fighting with my friends.”

The 28-year-old had recently returned to Britain after spending six months on the front line against Isis. Revolted by the group’s barbarism, and exasperated with what he sees as the British government’s inadequate response to the threat, he left a comfortable job last December to join the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia.

Softly spoken and passionate about the Kurdish cause, Harry had no military training and his parents believed he was miles from the fighting.

“I was on the phone to my mother one day and heard a mortar whistling overhead,” says the former public schoolboy. “I quickly said, ‘I’m running out of signal, I’ll talk to you soon,’ and hung up before it exploded. Whenever I spoke to them, even on the front line, I’d chat as if I was going down the shops.”

Allowing himself to be captured, he says, was never an option: “Isis would torture me, cut off my head and film it for propaganda.” So he always carried grenades.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this because it will upset my family,” he says, sitting in the tiny London house he shares with his brothers.

“I promised myself that if I was shot in the spine, say, and unable to walk, with the Islamic State coming to capture me, I would shout, ‘Please don’t hurt me, I’m an American.’ I would let them get close, then pull the pin and kill us all.”

That sounds a bit Rambo-ish, but Harry comes across as modest and intellectual. He has stood as a Tory councillor and was working in finance until last year. He wears glasses and a Sloaney blue shirt
until the photographer makes him
put on his uniform.

Tweeting under the nom de guerre Macer Gifford, Harry is one of perhaps 100 westerners who have gone to fight Isis in Syria and Iraq.

In his tabur — or unit — of 40 soldiers of both sexes, he fought alongside Americans, Canadians, Germans and Portuguese as well as Kurds, but also says he met people from Ireland, France, Australia, New Zealand, Greece and Estonia.

Most are ex-military and perhaps not all are as motivated as Harry by Kurdish politics and notions of good and evil. Some of them just really like fighting. Against them are massed the 20,000 or so foreign militants who have joined the self-proclaimed caliphate and the might of the richest terrorist group on earth.

This time last year he was working as a currency broker, with a job lined up at a leading bank in the City.

“I was sitting at my desk,” says Harry, “watching Isis’s videos and realising that my government was failing to do anything, reading what these people were doing to the Yazidis, learning about the sex slaves, the butchery.

“I saw there was no possibility of negotiating. You had to use force.”

He had a girlfriend and planned to
buy a flat. But the relationship ended: “She was determined to make me
stay — it was one of the sacrifices
I had to make.”

Harry considered working for a charity, but then learnt that the YPG was calling for foreign volunteers. He contacted the group on Facebook and within a few weeks was on a plane to Istanbul. Someone brought him to a safe house and then smuggled him
into Syria on New Year’s Eve. After a fortnight’s training, he was posted to the front line.

“I’m not a soldier, but I believed I could support the Kurds fighting for peace and democracy, and then raise awareness back home,” he says. “Our government needs to do so much more for these people — we could win this war without a single British boot on the ground.”

Harry says he took part in at least a dozen gun battles, across two big operations, with the result that an area of Syria the size of Wales was liberated from Isis control. He claims to have seen more than 1,000 Isis fighters killed as well as many of his friends, including the Briton Konstandinos Erik Scurfield; Harry shook Scurfield’s hand the day before he died.

A television crew of former British soldiers filmed one bloody battle and their gripping footage helps to corroborate his story. One night, Harry’s tabur attacked a village called Tel Nasri. He found himself pinned down in a field, bullets flying over his head.

“I could hear Isis fighters gleefully yelling,” he says. “They knew they were going to kill dozens of us. I was firing back but they were coming from the front and on both sides. I’ve never been closer to death.

“Then they brought out a tank, and the fire slackened just enough for us to run away. They were jeering, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. It was humiliating.

“A couple of weeks later, though, we retook the village, and I finally managed to get some body armour.”

Harry appears to have acquitted himself well in battle and says he was promoted to lead a group of foreigners that included former American marines.

“I’m possibly more of a diplomat than the average soldier,” he says. “A lot of Kurds grew to like me.”

His parents learnt the truth only when he returned. “They believe in the Kurdish cause as much as I do. I hope they’re proud. But of course they worry, and I don’t think they’ll ever completely forgive me.”

He was questioned at home by counterterrorism police and could in theory have faced prosecution for travelling to Syria. But for now, the British security services appear to be quietly ignoring volunteers such as Harry.

Many people, I say to him, would argue that Britons can’t fly off to fight in whatever war they fancy. If you want to fight for your country and its values then join the army.

“The army is stuck in barracks in the UK,” he says. “They are desperate to fight.”

Whether they do so or not is a political decision, I say, adding that it has to be, because only then can the British people help to determine actions taken in their name.

“But the government is simply avoiding the Middle East,” he replies. “Cameron is more concerned with domestic politics. The Islamic State is exceptional: I would never take up arms against any other country or fight in any other conflict.

“This is not a Syrian civil war, it’s not even a religious war — it’s a war against fascism.”

He says he plans to return to Syria within months, and he seems unconcerned at the prospect of becoming a target at home before he goes.

“These people deal in fear,” he says. “You can’t give in to that. It’ll be hard for them to find me, and I let my photograph be published only because it helps get the message across.

“Anyone who comes into my house is going to receive a very hard time.”

Book review: Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern

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This originally appeared in the Culture section of The Sunday Times

On November 25, 2010, six months into government, David Cameron assembled a large group of journalists and commentators in the Treasury for a speech on national happiness. Flanking the prime minister was John Helliwell, a Canadian economist who has previously exhorted policy makers to sing, claiming a scientific justification, If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands at the start of meetings. David Halpern, the author of this intriguing book on a “quiet revolution” working through British politics, reveals that he stopped Helliwell from asking Cameron to croon just hours before the speech. “I apologise to posterity for this YouTube sensation that never was,” he writes.

Halpern is the director of Cameron’s elite Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) — also known as the Nudge Unit — which has brought an understanding of psychology to policy-making, communication with the electorate and, it turns out, the government’s ability to increase our contentment. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (2009) outlined the theory: Halpern details its application in British politics.

Nudging, which recognises that humans are nowhere near as rational as traditional economic models have assumed, appears to have been a success of modern government. Few predicted this. As Halpern, a former Cambridge psychologist and sociologist, says: “It was a high-risk programme: a small team; a new idea [and] a crazy challenge”: to deliver at least a tenfold return within two years. Expecting or willing it to fail were “parliament; the 70,000 civil servants around Whitehall; 450,000 civil servants across the UK, 5m public servants; and of course the media and public”. Worse, one of its key supporters was Steve Hilton, Cameron’s controversial “blue-sky guru” and a man with enemies in cabinet and the civil service.

However, Halpern claims that nudging has, among other things, led to tens of millions of pounds in tax being collected that would have otherwise remained unpaid. The secret was for HMRC to change the wording of its letters so that recipients were told most people in their area had already paid. This affected what Halpern calls the “social” aspect of our subconscious, which means that, generally, we aim to follow our neighbours. He claims that the rewording led to a 16% increase in payment, at negligible cost.

Interestingly, people with the largest 1% of unpaid tax bills (those owing at least £30,000 a year) were most likely to pay after reading: “Not paying tax means we all lose out on vital public services like the NHS, roads and schools.” Realising that their contribution could pay for a teacher or nurse’s salary seems to have jolted the rich into getting out their chequebooks.

Nudging’s other successes include: 100,000 additional organ donors signing up to the national register each year; 20% more people considering changing energy provider, increasing the efficiency of the privatised market; a doubling in the number of army applicants; and more than 5m British workers saving for a pension. The key has often been to “remove friction”: it turns out that people will have their homes insulated if it comes with loft-clearance, irrespective of cost. Subsidies and tax-break proved insufficient: the hassle mattered more than the money.

Nudging, it seems, is here to stay. The BIT employs many more people than it did five years ago, and a sceptical public and press have been largely convinced. But as a century of economics-based policy-making is reconsidered, a new question surfaces. Where else are we and our leaders getting human nature wrong?

World leaders’ holiday photos are strangely revealing

Silvio Berlusconi and Tony and Cherie Blair, Sardinia, 2004

Silvio Berlusconi and Tony and Cherie Blair, Sardinia, 2004

David Cameron on a Cornish beach

David Cameron on a Cornish beach

The Milibeard

The Milibeard

Putin descending into the Black Sea

Putin descending into the Black Sea

The image that may best distil Tony Blair shows him grinning beside Silvio Berlusconi in 2004. The then Italian prime minister had invited Blair to his 68-room Sardinian bunga-bunga palace, which features a manmade volcano and is reportedly being sold to Saudi Arabia’s royal family for £350m.

Berlusconi held an estival party at which a fireworks display scribbled “Viva Tony!” in the night sky; the Blairs “clapped enthusiastically” at the sight. Cherie Booth, a leading human rights lawyer, later said it was her best-ever holiday. In subsequent years, further summer photographs emerged of TB strumming his guitar at Cliff Richard’s Barbadian villa: all utterly Blair.

The holiday snaps of semi-naked world leaders betray the true identities of the politicians. Invariably they amplify what we had already suspected: Angela Merkel hiking Teutonically through Italy; Obama and family promenading photogenically in the Hawaiian surf; Nicolas Sarkozy on Cap Nègre, stretched and de-lovehandled by photo-editing software: you could have predicted all of them.

Once a year, from behind the trust-me summit suits and shirts, emerge the wobbling moobs, outy belly buttons and weirdly shaped nipples of the political elite. Which brings us to Vladimir Putin, who has turned his holiday snaps into a uniquely smug and homoerotic version of the round-robin Christmas letter.

This year Dr Evil boarded a bathyscaph to examine an ancient shipwreck in the Black Sea off freshly annexed Crimea. His previous photo ops have included tranquillising a siberian or amur tiger in a nature reserve (“borrowed” from a zoo hundreds of miles away and later said to have died in the ordeal), piloting a hang-glider to encourage cranes to fly south, extinguishing wildfires and, most memorably, riding a horse while shirtless.

“The terrible thing is that Putin does all this physical stuff, but when he stands next to the other world leaders he looks like a shrimp,” says the commentator Peter York.

“Cameron might seem a bit silly or podgy on the beach, but he doesn’t take anything like the same level of risk.”

Ah, yes. This year our prime minister couldn’t munch a small cylinder of easyJet paprika Pringles without being filmed by a fellow passenger, Ashleigh, 16. (“I found the experience humbling,” she revealed.) Like most Conservatives, the chillaxer-in-chief often does well from holiday photos: both the staged “Dos cervezas, por favor” ones and the less forgiving telephoto shots.

Two years ago Cameron even managed to change publicly into his swimming trunks by using a deft towel-as-makeshift-beach-hut manoeuvre and looking relatively patrician throughout.

“Semi-upper-class people like him have quite a bit of confidence about that sort of thing,” claims York.

Labour leaders, however, often struggle. Gordon “Arctic Monkeys” Brown was simply lost during the parliamentary recess. When photographers arrived to record the then prime minister’s Suffolk “holiday” of 2008, they found that his solitary concession to leisure had been to swap his dark jacket for a beige one. Neil Kinnock couldn’t walk along a beach without falling into the sea.

Fraught with questions of class and personality, leaders’ holiday pictures can easily destroy them. And they are politically fraught: when The Sun ran its notorious “Bumdestag” headline beside a swimming-pool shot of Merkel, it prompted a minor diplomatic row. These pictures are supremely difficult to spin, which is why American politicians — typically more comfortable in their evenly bronzed skin — are better at the photo ops than British ones.

George W Bush, for example, hauling cedarwood at his Texas ranch, Hillary Clinton papped while reading a book on a Caribbean beach, Obama fist-bumping on the golf course — each exudes a certain stylish continuity. The unspoken holiday photo ambition of all American legislators is to exude the easy glamour of JFK on a yacht with Jackie.

This year saw a late entry from Ed Miliband, who emerged for a selfie at Brisbane airport sporting a Jeremy Corbyn-esque “milibeard”. This should be removed at once: the last thing voters want to see in a politician’s summer photo is any hair in the wrong places.

Book review: Cyberphobia by Edward Lucas

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This first appeared in the Culture section of The Sunday Times

In the early days of the internet, security was barely a concern. Today, more than 3bn people are online and that vast space is becoming less and less safe. The central message of this alarming book is that “our dependence on computers is growing faster than our ability to forestall attackers”.

Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, makes a convincing case that hacking will become increasingly common, not least thanks to the expanding “internet of things”. Fridges and televisions have already, it turns out, sent nearly 1m spam emails. Last year’s attack on Sony Pictures, which saw at least five films leaked, plus the personal information of almost 50,000 current and former employees, might merely be a taste of what is coming.

Lucas highlights the widening disparity between security measures in the real world and their piecemeal equivalents online. Criminals take up to 20% of the $3 trillion online economy: if a physical industry were being exploited like this, there would be uproar. “In all other walks of life we trade off freedom, security and convenience,” Lucas writes. “Our dealings with computers and networks should be no different.”

This book will thus delight the intelligence agencies, plaudits from whom bedeck the jacket. Those who champion the internet’s lawlessness, for noble or nefarious purposes, will not relish its call for constraint.

How I learnt to scythe

Spot the difference

Spot the difference

This feature first appeared in The Sunday Times

It’s all thanks to a torso. When Aidan Turner stripped to his brown breeches and scythed a Cornish field in the television series Poldark, he prompted a flurry on social media. Rippling of abdomen, tufty of chest hair, baby-oiled and mahogany, flashing his big bendy knife on a stick, Turner double-handedly sparked a scything revival.

Last week it was suggested that Prince Charles, too, has considered scything à la Poldark. (The prince was in Romania, admiring the burly men there who still swoosh them through the fields.)

And a couple of weeks ago more than 50 people, bored with ride-ons and Victas, travelled to Walthamstow Marshes to learn how to scythe. This is near Hackney, east London, one of the most ethnically diverse places in Britain, and the enthusiasts reportedly included young families, Germans, Indians, passing Poles (often expert scythers) — and, most curiously, bearded urban hipsters.

And so I find myself in a Berkshire meadow, barefoot, green-shorted, moobishly un-Poldarkian, trying not to amputate my feet.

“Do it right and it’s like tai chi,” moos Clive Leeke, professional scyther and “countryside conservation contractor”.

“Bend your legs and twist your upper body. That actor feller was doing it all wrong. The blade never goes above the waist. Scything is gentle, rhythmic, relaxing — not hacking angrily at the grass.” Leeke twirls in elegant semi-circles; the clover falls. I step back.

Beth Tilston is another scything expert. “I’ll happily teach you,” she said when I called her, “although I’m 39 weeks pregnant.” I undertook a mental risk assessment and declined.

Are you going to teach your baby to scythe, I asked.

“Ooh, not before it’s five years old.”

Tilston added that you should properly scythe barefoot. So when I meet Leeke, I fling my shoes off and immediately stand on a nettle.

Leeke learnt to scythe seven years ago after a man who imports the tools told him that demand had surged. Until late 2010 almost nobody typed “scything” into Google. Then suddenly plenty of people did, with spikes whenever Poldark was on or gardening programmes got excited about it. Several local authorities have now abandoned strimmers for scythes. The blade is cheap, lasts a lifetime, and is more accurate and nimble than a lawnmower, less expensive to maintain and almost silent.

But not entirely so. When I at last find the knack, after much soily, hopeless slashing, it’s the sound that hypnotises. Drawing a scythe true through the grass, its whetted blade glinting upwards, makes a delightfully tinny whoosh. The muggy summer air grows thick with chlorophyll and the scent of hay. The act turns meditative.

I learn with some surprise that it’s actually quite hard to chop your own feet off. Hand injuries are most common, caused when people “peen” or sharpen the blade. And other people are more at risk. “You could easily take someone else’s foot,” Leeke hoots, “although I haven’t seen it happen yet.”

Perhaps the best thing about the scythe is the way that it works alongside nature instead of against it. Since the 1930s Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows: this is thought to be one of the main reasons bee populations have collapsed. The meadows have typically been replaced by intensive, often monocrop farms, with the result that 60% of native British wildlife species are now in decline and one in 10 is heading towards extinction. Scything, because it cuts grass longer than a strimmer, is kinder to tim’rous beasties.

Anyway, this is the scythe’s continent. Africans wield the machete, which is better for high grasses and jungle; in Asia they swish the disc-slipping sickle. To pull an English scythe — curvier and heavier than its counterpart across the Channel — is to feel a tactile connection to the agricultural history of these islands, to farm and sward and tepid cowpat squishing between the toes.

We are discovering as a society that many of the things we snatched for convenience and modernity are inferior to traditional methods and tools. Anyone can shunt a lawnmower or flick the switch on a microwave. Scything, like cooking, is a skill — and when you start, you usually fail. Ability confers satisfaction.

It had been only a few hours. But when I returned to the city I could still smell the sour English grass on my lightly muddied feet. My shoulders ached in contentment and I realised what the hipsters had discovered: the strange and fleeting peace you feel when you go to mow a meadow.

The woman who wants to let you delete yourself from the internet

The Bridget Jones director Beeban Kidron wants children to have more rights online

The Bridget Jones director Beeban Kidron wants children to have more rights online

This feature first appeared in The Sunday Times

What was the worst thing you did or said as a teenager? Does the memory make you blanch? Then how would you feel if its details pinged to the top of the search list whenever someone Googled your name?

Young people are sharing more and more of their lives online — and what happens on the internet tends to stay there. Every terrible haircut, rash opinion, venomous snippet of cyberbullying, sext, “nood” or lovelorn letter to Zayn Malik remains accessible in the misnamed cloud. For ever.

Wouldn’t it be great, some people wonder, if we could wipe away these embarrassments, or even (as one Minnesota dentist is presumably wishing) delete ourselves from the internet altogether? The 20-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black once tweeted she “f****** hates” Celtic football club and, on another occasion, revealed she had “woken up beside half a can of Tennent’s … I call that a night”.

The chance to send toe-curlers such as these down the memory-hole is at the heart of iRights, five new guidelines for the digital world, pioneered by the cross-bench peer and Bridget Jones director Beeban Kidron. The initiative has been endorsed by the government, business leaders and children’s charities.

“I’m a middle-aged baroness with a bee in her bonnet,” says Kidron. She points out the inconsistency between real-world rules to protect young people — TV watersheds, film certificates, sex-shop licences — and the “Wild West” of the internet.

“We need,” she says, “a culture that delivers online what we already deliver offline. You wouldn’t chuck an 11-year-old into the street saying, ‘Go on, off to school’ without showing them where the zebra crossing was.”

As well as the right to delete or edit any digital content you have created, the iRights would allow children to know who owns their data; protect young people from “illegal practices” online; support them when they “disengage” from the net; and teach them to harness the technology.

Kidron decided to set out the iRights after making a 2012 documentary called InRealLife. For its opening scene, two 15-year-old boys described what they enjoyed in online porn. The words they used could not be printed in this newspaper: it was a conversation that brought home to some people how explicit porn had become and how easy it was to find.

She then embarked on a three-year tour of schools in Britain and around the world, during which, she claims, hundreds of young people told her about the negative impact that technology was having on their lives. “Perhaps their biggest anxiety online is the need to respond to everything,” she says. “It’s rude not to reply, but replying can then take over. Girls struggle with the representation of women and everything is sexualised. One young man said to me, ‘We’re just rats in the lab of Google.’”

The notion of the internet as lawless and ungovernable may indeed be on the wane. Last week, David Cameron announced more plans to restrict access to online pornography. In future, he said, porn sites hosted in Britain would need to have effective age-verification measures or face closure. (Britain hosts 7% of the world’s porn sites. There are no plans to enact similar legislation in America or Holland, which together host 86%.)

Some people have expressed doubts about the feasibility of implementing the first iRight. Tweets are retweeted; pictures are copied; a screenshot takes only an instant. Taking these down is difficult.

A 2011 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that 84% of 18- to 24-year-olds wanted the “right to be forgotten” enshrined in legislation. The EU law on the subject, which allows people to challenge unflattering articles, has been criticised amid concerns over free speech. Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder, called it “deeply immoral”, while Index on Censorship said the ruling was “akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books”.

Kidron insists that the “right to be forgotten” is different from what she is advocating — the right to delete data you have published yourself. She says it is easy to delete your content on Facebook but admits that Twitter, which is designed to disseminate information widely, would be a more difficult case.

After we met, I thought about the 15-year-olds in her film, who spoke so brazenly about their tastes in porn. What if they decided in a few years’ time that they regretted what they said and wanted to erase it? That is not an option to them; their children may one day watch the interview.

The YouTuber and BBC Radio 1 presenter Dan Howell, who at 24 has millions of online subscribers, told his audience recently it was important to “own” your digital past, not to shy away from it, and to accept it as part of who you were.

Until Google endorses the iRights, Kidron may find it difficult to enshrine an effective “right to remove”. But she is working with developers and hopes to shape the next WhatsApp or Facebook so it better serves the interests and welfare of young people. “There’s only one thing we know for sure,” she says. “Empires fall. So it’s worth investing in the future.”

My daughter died on 7/7. I will never forgive her killer.

Julie Nicholson says she will never get over her grief for Jenny (Julian Andrews)

Julie Nicholson says she will never get over her grief for Jenny (Julian Andrews)

Tuesday will mark a decade since four Islamists detonated homemade bombs on the London transport system, murdering 52 people and injuring more than 700. Julie Nicholson, whose 24-year-old daughter Jenny died at Edgware Road station while travelling to work, wrote a fraught and fluent book about the atrocity, Song for Jenny, which has just been adapted into a film starring Emily Watson.

Nicholson, who was a vicar in Bristol at the time of the attack, has agreed to discuss life after 7/7 in a restaurant near Tavistock Square, the scene of the final bombing. The anniversary weighs on the encounter. Nicholson speaks with priestly, measured warmth but barely touches her food or glass of white wine.

We are conditioned to look for redemption in tragedy, but neither the book nor its film suggests any. I wish I could write that Nicholson has somehow recovered — she hates the phrase “moved on” — but her life remains overshadowed and enveloped by bereavement.

On July 7, she says, “the staff at Edgware Road will secure an area for the families, put out fresh flowers and try to make everything as quiet as a busy Tube station can be”. She is looking forward to seeing, among other people, the man who found and covered Jenny’s body. “It preserved her dignity,” she says. “For me and our family that was an enormous gift.”

The victims’ families, she says, are “a club that nobody wants to be a member of”. Nicholson has grown close to Hazel Webb, whose daughter Laura died on the same train as Jenny.

“We’re part of a sisterhood: our friendship goes beyond what happened. There are some things we would only say to each other: the common bond of what it is to lose a child and to know that a part of you has gone with them.”

The murder upturned everything in Nicholson’s life. She admits with candour that she struggled to be a mother to her other children, Lizzie and Thomas. “Not only did they lose a sister,” she says, “but they lost their parents to grief.” The children were “knocked off course” by the attack: Thomas, at 27, has only recently started university.

Nicholson quit the priesthood a few months after the bombings, saying later she was “too hurt to carry out its functions . . . I could not have stood in front of a young couple and married them without thinking: you should be my daughter”.

Does she still pray? “It depends what you mean. I sometimes stand at the window gazing out with my thoughts — is that praying? But do I kneel down every morning and say, ‘God, hear my prayers’? No.”

Her marriage, too, ended soon after. Although both the film and the book imply that it was already struggling, Jenny’s death seems to have catalysed its collapse: “When something like that happens, it’s make or break — and for us it was break. I think there are statistics that show the number of marriages that survive something like this. I don’t believe many do.”

Has she had a relationship since? “My relationships have been about rebuilding and reconstructing my life and my energies have gone into renewing my relationship with Lizzie and Thomas. I’m not closed off to the idea, but I don’t feel the need to seek it out.”

I am left with the sense that in many ways Nicholson’s own life stopped that day. Faith, career and marriage all ended soon afterwards and for years after the bombings she would take the train from Bristol to London, travel to Edgware Road Tube station and stare into the tunnel where her daughter died.

She says she will never forgive Mohammad Sidique Khan, her daughter’s killer. How does she feel when she sees a picture of him today?

“There’s a moment in the film when Emily Watson, as me, throws a bottle of wine at the television screen when his face appears on it. I feel that I could still throw that wine.”

Early in our conversation, while discussing her writing and what it has brought her, I clumsily use the word “catharsis”. Nicholson interrupts: “I wouldn’t call it that. After catharsis there is a sense of renewal and I don’t feel renewed. I’m still grieving deeply. I will be until I take my last breath.”

Interview: James Fenton

James Fenton has run a prawn farm in the Philippines and been kidnapped by the IRA (Francesco Guidicini)

James Fenton has run a prawn farm in the Philippines and been kidnapped by the IRA (Francesco Guidicini)

Two weeks ago, when James Fenton received the PEN Pinter prize for championing free speech, the judges said he had “spoken truth to power, forcefully, fearlessly and beautifully”.

They were right, but it’s hard to square those adverbs with the shy and rumpled figure hunched before me in a south London beer garden. He has a claim to be the best living English poet and the successor to WH Auden, but Fenton barely makes eye contact for the first half-hour of our interview. He only relaxes a little after drinking most of his second double gin and tonic. (“Fever-Tree, eh? Not seen that before.”)

Several questions — on Isis, why he gave away his TV, who he is having dinner with that evening and how often he sees his old friend Martin Amis, now that both live in New York — he dodges or nervously rebuffs. He talks so slowly and quietly that when I listen to my recording of our conversation, I have to speed it up and raise the volume to levels that would make most speakers unintelligible.

“Ah, that domed and sapient head!” wrote Christopher Hitchens, and Fenton’s baldness is indeed striking and headmasterly; the lisp and wonky British teeth confer a curious vulnerability. It takes an effort of will to recall what a swashbuckling life he has led. Now 66, he was raised by two aunts, having effectively lost both parents by his teens (mother died; clergyman father ran away with another woman). At Oxford, he shared a house with Hitchens and won the Newdigate prize for poetry, then they both worked for the New Statesman, where Amis was literary editor.

As a foreign correspondent in the lyrical mode, he rode the first North Vietnamese tank through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and pilfered Imelda Marcos’s monogrammed towels in Manila. He lost “a lot of money” running a prawn farm in the Philippines and was kidnapped by the IRA in Belfast. His nine captors apparently voted on whether to shoot him — the vote was 5-4 against. For years, he was this paper’s theatre critic; meanwhile he wrote slim, sporadic volumes of mesmerising poetry.

Fenton scorns the 200 writers, including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Joyce Carol Oates, who rebuked PEN, the writers’ association, in April for honouring the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo, at whose offices 12 people were killed by Islamist fanatics in January.

“I saw Martin [Amis] at the ceremony. He agreed that it was clear: if PEN hadn’t supported Charlie Hebdo you’d wonder what on earth PEN was for. I had less than sympathy for the position that the magazine was puerile — it had a right to be.”

He is in London to attend a workshop on an adaptation of Don Quixote he has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company. A cruel book, I say. “Oh yes,” he says. “Have you read Nabokov’s lectures on it? Very good fun. But [he] compares the number of combats Don Quixote wins to the number he loses and makes it about even.”

Poets aren’t meant to be rich; this one is. Fenton was once commissioned to write a libretto for Les Misérables, and though he never finished it, the deal he signed granted him 0.5% of box-office receipts, which have so far exceeded £1.5bn. He earned enough to buy a huge run-down property outside Oxford — Ian McEwan nicknamed it “Scene-of-the-Crime Farm” and said it was somewhere that “a body might be found in an advanced state of decomposition”. Fenton became an obsessive and extravagant gardener, filling its acres with rare orchids and at least 250 varieties of rose.

Yet he and his partner, the writer Darryl Pinckney, moved to New York five years ago “at my insistence”, Fenton says. They have been gradually renovating a mansion in Harlem, one of the biggest in Manhattan and originally built for the Arm & Hammer mogul John Dwight. What do the Harlem locals make of a mixed-race gay relationship, I ask.

“Well, at the end of our street there’s a crazy church that puts up signs saying: ‘Get the sodomites out,’ ” he says. “You might think that’s somewhat offensive, but I’ve never felt threatened by it.”

He and Pinckney have faced “back talk” and “mumblings”, he says, “but not necessarily from African-Americans. It might well come from a West Indian.”

What do they say? He pauses and then whispers: “Oh, you know: ‘Faggots go home. You’re not welcome here.’ But it’s not the general attitude — America has changed.” He wouldn’t walk down the street holding hands with Pinckney, because, “We’ve been together for 25 years. That demonstrative behaviour might have occurred before, but not today.”

He say they will marry for “legal reasons: tax, property and so on”, but not for love. “It’s a generational thing. We both felt that we belonged to a kind of bohemia, and that thoroughly bourgeois settling-down was not what we signed up for.”

I say it’s interesting that many in his set — Hitchens, Amis, Salman Rushdie — left for America but continue to comment on Englishness from abroad.

“It’s true we did, but for different reasons. Christopher wanted to be Alexander Cockburn [the Scottish-born journalist and gadfly of The Nation magazine]. He found exactly that kind of fame. Martin’s wife is American. Salman had his reasons.”

By the time he died in 2011, Hitchens was one of the world’s most famous atheists. “I had probably been one for longer and in a more considered way than he had,” says Fenton, and laughs. “It was very real to Christopher when he discovered that his mother had been Jewish and that therefore he was too. It had an explicatory significance: he’d always had a recurring dream about Judaism. If someone told me my mother had been Jewish I’d think it was interesting, but it wouldn’t change me.”

Fenton is getting nervous and fidgety by now, and the interview ends on a strange note. I mention that I was reading Auden that morning and rediscovered The Platonic Blow — his most explicit gay poem. Fenton looks terrified.

“My goodness, where were you reading that?” he cries. Online, I say. “Yes, well, it’s the sort of thing that is found online,” he sniffs. “I guess I’m not too happy about it — it was a rather peculiar thing to have done. Anyway, I’m not going to start criticising Auden. Where’s the photographer?” He arrives as if on cue and this brilliant man seems relieved that our time is up.