Just Above Sunset
December 18, 2005 - Roasting Chestnuts, and An Open Fire

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill - born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers. Of course in the new year he will be leaving these pages to join The Scotsman full time. Drat.

The week began with a bang, or a series of bangs. In the early hours of Sunday morning, Britain's fifth largest oil depot went up in flames.   As one tank after another yielded to the inevitable, the explosions at the Buncefield depot in Hemel Hempstead could be heard as far away as the Netherlands. Firefighters had to wait 24 hours for the sheer white heat to abate before they could even attempt to tackle the flames, using crews and resources corralled from several neighbouring counties.


The authorities were much swifter to issue a statement insisting the explosion was not an act of terrorism, though it is to be presumed that most of the evidence has simply vanished into thin air, burnt up by the largest fire in peacetime Europe. One piece of evidence that slipped through the official cracks and found its way into the tabloid press instead was a photograph, taken by a young schoolboy on a coach trip passing the depot several days before. It appeared to show protective foam being sprayed on a leaking oil container. (Some spectacular amateur photography of the blaze is available here.)


Amazingly, no-one was killed in the explosions, though several homes in the region now boast huge holes in their walls and ceilings, through which one can make out the remains of charred Christmas decorations and presents now destined never to reach their intended recipients. The explosions themselves seem to have been regarded as an extraordinary (rather than tragic) event, and certainly the live television coverage of the blaze gave rise to some of the year's most compelling, bleakly beautiful images, turning a small and generally sleepy town in South-East England into a place you could easily mistake for Iraq on a bad day.


One interesting bit of phraseology resulted from the fire: something described by the authorities as "the weekend effect". This was the term applied to the inevitable downscaling of safety that results from having fewer workers on duty on Saturdays and Sunday - that, simply, there are fewer pairs of eyes around to maintain vigilance.


"The weekend effect" is a wonderful roundabout way of admitting that standards in industry can sometimes slip, but the fire raised serious questions about New Labour's recently announced plans to boost nuclear power production in the UK. We got lucky with the oil fire, is the lesson to be learnt from the last week; were there to be any similar slippage with nuclear power, luck probably won't come into it.




While the Buncefield fires were being dampened down, the flames were gathering ever higher under Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.  Known for his love of a good drink and his media-friendly persona, "Chat Show Charlie's" leadership was being reappraised in the light of the appointment of David Cameron as Conservative leader.


The Liberal Democrats' position in the British political spectrum isn't quite that of such third-party candidates as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader's Green Party in their American equivalent. I wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to describe the Lib Dems as the Gretchen Mol or Colin Farrell of British politics: young, sometimes sexy, even occasionally appealing upstarts who've somehow never quite fulfilled their promise.


Though their good-natured cheeriness can always be relied upon to steal the odd seat here and there (usually away from the Tories, and usually in such laid-back areas as Devon and Cornwall), the Liberal Democrats haven't really made the inroads into New Labour's majority that they perhaps would have liked, and that once seemed very possible at the 2001 General Election. Sure, they've been more potent than the Conservatives in offering some sort of political opposition over the past few years, but then, frankly, who wouldn't have been?


The Lib Dems were (and remain) the only party to consistently oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but they did so in the politest, meekest manner possible: rather than lying down in front of the tanks, Kennedy's men and women had a good lie down on their beds, put the Dido album on, and had a bit of a sulk about it. The sense the opposition parties would rather squabble amongst themselves than take any fight to New Labour hasn't exactly been dismissed by David Cameron's call this week for Lib Dem MPs to defect to the Conservatives, another sign of the Tories' new-found confidence.


But the pressure building on Kennedy in the wake of the Tories' renaissance has increased. If the appointment of Cameron made Blair seem a little old-hat, it's made Kennedy - who's been noticeably quiet of late, anyway - appear positively geriatric. There is now, for better and worse, a perceived need for novelty in British politics, especially in the dusty locale of the Commons, where any idiosyncrasies - think David Blunkett's guide dog, or independent MP Martin Bell's symbolic white suit - stand out all the more. Politicians should be about more than novelty value, that much is a given, but being first, or freshest, or youngest, is bound to appeal at this moment in time to opposition parties looking for a shortcut to the nation's hearts and minds.


Kennedy, for his part, insisted his party would be "united" and "thrusting" in 2006, when pressed on the issue of his leadership. I know such language is intended to summon up images of youthful sexual potency, but given the stains previous politicians have left on the clothing of others - not to mention on their own consciences - surely I'm not alone in finding that second adjective more than a little disconcerting?



Mike McCahill

December 16, 2005







Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm



Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.





Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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