Storytelling in the news ….

Of interest to the narrativists amongst you maybe ….
1. An narrative approach to a key UK environmental disaster zone ….
Davies, Hunter (2012). Sellafield Stories: Life In Britain’s First Nuclear Plant. Constable
(see bottom of page for more on this item).
2. An new oral history project: eavesdropping in our times
“How the art of eavesdropping is fuelling boom in oral history”

The next time you overhear an entertaining conversation in the pub, write it down: it may find its place in a boom in oral history that harks back to the great days of mass observation.

Last week the British Library announced it is to work with local BBC radio stations to set up The Listening Project, a Radio 4 programme that will create an oral survey of the nation by putting together thousands of recorded conversations from across Britain. Selected daily excerpts will be broadcast on Radio 4 before news bulletins from the end of this month and an omnibus edition will be aired at the weekends.

Although contributors will be able to select the kind of conversations they send in for consideration, Radio 4’s controller Gwyneth Williams hopes that submissions will add up to more than a barrage of banal small talk. “I would like to invite listeners to help us catch, broadcast and archive for the nation those rare exchanges that really matter, those conversations that can change the course of a life, that are utterly memorable, that we have all had and never forget,” she said last week.

Listeners will be able to submit their conversation through the project website, launching next week, and the British Library, which already holds a wide oral archive, will create a permanent home for the majority of the conversations that are sent in.

The social historian David Kynaston was one of the key authors to develop the oral history approach, while Simon Garfield’s popular treatments of the experimental mass observation projects of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have also given increasing weight to the voice of the common man and woman in history.

“My book Austerity Britain actually starts with some overheard conversation in a shop on VE Day,” said Kynaston this weekend. “People were heard complaining that it had all been arranged so hurriedly and asking why no church bells had been rung. Because the people are speaking so unselfconsciously, it takes you right there.”

Kynaston said he backs new initiatives aimed at preserving contemporary conversations, both those overheard and those deliberately recorded, for posterity. It is important though, he added, for readers and listeners to be provided with the full context. “There is obviously a difference between retrospective oral history, a reminiscence recounted for recording, and a contemporary note of a conversation,” he said.

The BBC’s move into oral history follows the critical success of Craig Taylor’s book about the capital, which has put the testimony of a rickshaw driver, a council registrar, a city planner, a dominatrix and a market trader on an equal platform and then used them to create a wider picture of London. Over five years Taylor interviewed more than 200 people.

Storyvault, an online video repository for memories, is another response to the new thirst for hearing from the people who really experienced things.

“How often have you heard a person speaking and said, ‘someone should record this before it’s too late?'” the site’s home page asks, urging readers to preserve “fascinating memories from ordinary people which should not be allowed to be forgotten”.

Although technological developments, such as smartphones and internet archives, have boosted interest in contemporary oral history, it is a tradition which has long had advocates in Britain. The mass observation movement was a research organisation set up to balance what was seen as partial reporting of national events. It began in 1936 after Edward VIII’s abdication and concentrated on documenting public feelings about the coronation that followed by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews.

In some ways Rob Perks, lead curator of oral history at the British Library, is carrying on the movement’s work. It will be his job to curate and archive the BBC’s Listening Project.

For Kynaston, the new urge to record and preserve a record of our own times is an interesting social indicator. He wonders whether the speed of modern living, coupled with the number of competing distractions, has somehow set up a psychological need for society to shore up its fragments and protect them.


Sellafield: ‘It was all contaminated: milk, chickens, the golf course’

Six decades after Britain’s worst nuclear accident, an oral history of Sellafield reveals what it felt like to live near the plant

 The Observer,

The Windscale Piles produce plutonium at Sellafield

The Windscale Piles produce plutonium at Sellafield. Photograph: Robert Brook/Alamy

I t says something for how Britain’s nuclear establishment worked from the start that when Windscale No1 Pile caught fire in October 1957, it was hushed up so well that even with 11 tons of uranium ablaze for three days, the reactor close to collapse and radioactive material spreading across the Lake District, the people who worked there were expected to keep quiet and carry on making plutonium for the bomb.

Sellafield Stories: Life In Britain’s First Nuclear Plant by Hunter Davies



This was Britain’s worst-ever nuclear accident, but no one was evacuated, no iodine pills were distributed, work went on and most people were not even told about the fire. But, thanks to Sellafield Stories, a book of interviews with nearly 100 people who worked there, lived nearby or whose lives have been linked to the vast West Cumbrian nuclear complex, we know more now about how people really reacted.

Union leader and ex-Commando Cyril McManus says he thought the fire might mean the workers got a day off; Wally Eldred, the scientist who went on to be head of laboratories at BNFL, says he was told to “carry on as normal”; and chemist Marjorie Higham says she paid no attention. “Things did go wrong so you just didn’t take any notice. The less you know about it the less you can tell anyone else.”

“You kept quiet. But you know you were scared stiff really. Those who were working there… didn’t want to be seen against the thing,” says Mary Johnson, now in her 90s, who was born on the farm that was compulsorily purchased to become the site of Sellafield.

But we also know from the interviews that it was largely thanks to the courage of deputy general manager Tom Tuohy that the Lake District is still habitable today. When all else had failed to stop the fire, Tuohy, a chemist, now dead, scaled the reactor building, took a full blast of the radiation and stared into the blaze below.

“He was standing there putting water in and if things had gone wrong with the water – it had never been tried before on a reactor fire – if it had exploded, Cumberland would have been finished, blown to smithereens. It would have been like Chernobyl… there was contamination everywhere, on the golf course, in the milk, in chickens… but it was quickly forgotten about,” says McManus.

Everyone in West Cumbria has a relationship with Sellafield. Every family has someone who worked there or has somehow benefited from it. The book includes interviews with Sellafield foremen, scientists, managers, farmers, labourers, anti-nuclear activists, the vicar, the MP and bank manager, policemen, physicists, welders and accountants.

My relationship began at 13 when I went to school at St Bees, just three miles away. We ran punishment runs past it, danced at Calder girls school, kissed the daughters of the scientists, were jeered at by the workers for wearing shorts and we got shown round it, I am almost certain, by Tom Tuohy, whose son was at school with us. I remember my dad saying the nuclear scientists thought they were “little gods” and my mum demanding that our medical records include the fact we were at school so close to the reactors.

What emerges is the intimate, honest, sometimes ugly story of how a wartime bomb factory was dumped in one of Britain’s most cut-off areas, turned to producing plutonium for the atom bomb, then nuclear electricity and is now a American-led multinational corporation decommissioning the mess that it largely created.

But how did Sellafield become Europe’s nuclear dustbin and the target of so much hostility to nuclear power? Its roots in weaponry explain the high security and the arrogance of its inward-looking early management. The fact that much of the workforce was drawn from the declining local iron ore and coal mines may explain the camaraderie of the workers and the vibrant community. But, the book suggests, its sheer physical isolation may have been responsible for some of the deep fears that people have of nuclear power.

The stories, edited by Hunter Davies, suggest that much of what happened then is inconceivable now. Management, profligate with money, was criminally careless with safety and ecology. It thought nothing of trying to block Wastwater lake to get more water or trying to mine the national park for a waste dump. It recklessly dumped contaminated water out to sea and filled old mines with radioactive waste.

It was useless with people, too. “I used to get very cross with their housing policy. The place was set up very much like a War Department settlement. If you lived on a certain street, you were of a certain status within the works. It was just bonkers,” says Alan Postlethwaite, the truculent vicar of Seascale, who was accused of being a crypto-communist for even thinking the plant might be linked to cancers.

“What aroused my anxieties was within 12 or 18 months I conducted the funerals of thee children who died of leukaemia. And that put the frighteners on us because we had small children. When you asked, ‘How many would you expect in a community of 2,000 people?’ and were told, ‘Perhaps one in 20 years’ and you’d had three in a year… that’s something to bother about. No, I am not anti-nuclear, but my goodness, I think they could have made a better fist of it if they’d tried harder,” he says.

Seven rare cancers were found in the small Seascale community between 1955 and 1983, yet the authorities “proved” this was due to the natural movement of people. “I often think there will have been a Seascale cluster of leukaemia because that’s where the fallout from the big chimneys was closest. These people have pontificated about bringing the stuff in from outside systems and that would give the kids leukaemia. Now I look back and think, no, we caused that,” says McManus.

McManus suffered, too. “It was a great job. Don’t get me wrong. I left in 1990 a free man but plutonium-exposed. They told me I had a lung burden and that was an accumulation from the 30-odd years I’d worked at Sellafield. I was a radiation leper. I was a non-desirable person on site.”

But some folk could laugh it off. “I could always tell when my husband had been irradiated… because… his hair was standing on end when he came home,” says Pam Eldred, wife of Wally.

The plant has changed. The bunker mentality has eased and the safety systems are better. But the economy of the region is more dependent on nuclear than ever before; the MP, Jamie Reed, is a former press officer for Sellafield and no one dares say anything critical if they want to keep a job.

Instead of bumbling, British, gung ho pioneers, Sellafield is now run by corporate PR folk and slick American businessmen. Here’s Dick Raaz, the outgoing head of the waste depository: “The good news about radioactive waste is it self-destructs, if you just give it long enough.” The bad news from the new management? Well, from the interviews with Raaz, Reed and former Sellafield boss Barry Snelson, there isn’t any. The future is rosy. Just like in 1957.



  • Richard Fay

    And a final one. Once you start looking, the news is full of storied insights into things that matter to people.

    Teenagers born with HIV tell of life under society’s radarHIV-positive youngsters who were infected before or at birth reveal their secret lives
    Amelia Hill, Sunday 11 March 2012 16.05 GMT Article history

    The HIV virus under a microscope. Photograph: Institut Pasteur/AFP/Getty Images
    Clive was nine years old when he discovered he was HIV positive. The devastating news that his mother, doctors and support workers had spent years preparing to break to him in the gentlest manner possible, was blurted out by a careless receptionist at his local hospital.

    “My mum had bought me to see the doctor because I had earache, and this woman just read it out loud from my notes as she was typing my details into the computer,” says Clive, who celebrated his 18th birthday last week. “I remember standing there, with my mother’s hand around mine, as these feelings of complete confusion and fear washed over me.”

    Clive credits the medication given to his mother during her pregnancy for protecting him then from her HIV infection. But, he says, something went catastrophically wrong at the point of delivery, and the infection was passed into his own bloodstream.

    After that day at the hospital, however, Clive refused to take medication on his own behalf. “I suddenly realised that the pills my mum had been giving me every day – that I had thought were sweeties – were medicine,” he says. “After that day at the hospital, I would lock myself in the bathroom when my mum took them out of the cupboard. Or I’d pretend to swallow them, then throw them away.”

    Clive’s resistance to taking medication became more deep-rooted as he grew up. “The medication makes me feel sick – I was sick every time I took it from 10 to 13 years old. Other times, I just don’t want to remember that side of me. I want to be normal.”

    He shrugs sheepishly. “The last time I stopped taking them was because I broke up with my girlfriend and I had other things on my mind.” Clive takes his pills sometimes, he says, but then stops for months at a time. “I know I’m killing myself,” he says truthfully, but with studied nonchalance. An exuberant teenager, full of life, he laughs at my shock. Pulling his homburg hat to a jaunty angle, he throws a caricatured “oh, poor me” puppy dog stare.

    But there’s nothing funny about Clive’s attitude towards his HIV status. A decade of sporadic adherence to his drug regime has stunted the teenager’s growth. It has left him close to death three times, and caused him to develop resistance to a number of the drugs that could have almost guaranteed him a long and healthy life. “I was in hospital again in January,” he says, absently drumming a jazz riff on the table in front of him. “But my hospital visit before that was the worst: I got pneumonia after stopping taking my meds. My CD4 count [cells that help fight infection] was down so low that I was basically dead.”

    There are around 1,200 children like Clive in the UK and Ireland: young people living with perinatally acquired HIV, contracted from their mother in the womb, at the point of delivery or shortly after birth, while being breastfed.

    They are a hidden group. Fiercely protected by a medical profession that never expected them to grow from babies into children, much less teenagers, they seek to exist under society’s radar, to avoid being branded by the stigma that it attaches to HIV. Over a number of months, however, many of these young people – and HIV-positive women who have had children of their own – told the Guardian their stories for the first time.

    This group of young people are a singular demographic produced in the few years before medical innovation had caught up with real life. The breakthrough in the 1980s of Haart – highly active antiretroviral therapy – gave these children the chance of a normal lifespan. It also reduced the chance of women with HIV passing the disease on to their babies from around 20-30%, to under 1%. Today, says Pat Tookey, who manages the National Study of HIV in Pregnancy and Childhood (NSHPC), the comprehensive, anonymised surveillance of all obstetric and paediatric HIV in the UK and Ireland, there is “a vanishingly small chance giving birth to an HIV-positive baby, if medication is taken from the point of conception and all interventions are followed”. “Thanks to the fact that an HIV test is routinely recommended to all pregnant women during their antenatal care, most with HIV are diagnosed in time to take up interventions,” she says.

    But there was a time lag before Haart reduced the likelihood of transmission between mother and baby so dramatically, and when infected babies were still being born. The seismic shift that happened in these few years was that these HIV-positive babies were, for the first time ever, being born into a world where they were able not just to survive, but to thrive.

    “In earlier days, most babies with HIV had a short life and our task was to make the quality of that life reasonable,” said Diane Melvin, a consultant clinical psychologist at St Mary’s hospital in London. “We never expected these babies to live. They were certainly not expected to survive adolescence.”

    But that is exactly what they are now doing. Of the 1,200 children born with HIV and living in the UK and Ireland today, just 60 are under four years old. Around 400, in contrast, are aged between 10 to 14, and another 300 are between 15 and 19. Contrast this to the 1980s, when the first infected babies were born. “There was no treatment in the early days,” remembers Tookey. “The babies used to turn up with a symptomatic disease and die.”

    For the first time, doctors are daring to hope that children born with HIV can have a normal life expectancy, provided the drugs work and any issues around resistance are solved. “But this is just an assumption,” warns Tookey, “We can’t be sure of the future because the virus is good at developing resistance to specific drugs, and none of these children have ever lived into middle – or older age.”

    Despite medical caution, however, the first cohort of teenagers born with HIV shows every sign of rude health. In what must be the most under-celebrated triumph of modern medicine, in the last two years, the oldest survivors of childhood HIV have grown into young adults.

    It is a group that comes in all shapes and sizes: some have problems, some are doing well, some are even starting on their own families. What they all share, however, is the desire to live as normal a life as possible.

    “Society forces me to live two lives, one of which – the one where I’m honest about my status – I have to keep completely secret from the other one,” says Clive. “It angers me that HIV is considered such a dirty thing by so many people. Why are people more sympathetic to those with cancer than those with HIV? It’s partly because I have to live this life of shame and secrecy that I find it so hard to take my meds.”

    Other young people admit that the stigma of their disease exacerbated their teenage predilection to risk-taking behaviour. “From the age of five to 17, I had to take 23 tablets a day, and I had to do it in secret because of the ignorance in school and society as a whole,” says Pauline, now 24. “I got to a point where I had just had enough. I just wanted to block HIV out of my life. I didn’t take my meds for a year and a half. Eventually, I was ill for four months, then I lost a stone in three days and couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t breath, my heartbeat was crazy. I thought that was it.”

    Pauline alerted a friend, who drove her to hospital, where she spent a week in intensive care. Pauline, who has a young – and uninfected – son of her own, is now a mentor for other HIV-positive children. Asked about the problems faced by children growing with HIV today, she angrily says that, “from what the young people tell me, the situation around HIV in schools and society in general hasn’t improved at all.

    “It doesn’t occur to people that you can be born with HIV and live a normal life,” she adds. “The result is that some of these children go down the same spiral I did and end up in hospital.”

    Other teenagers with perinatally acquired HIV, however, refuse to let the disease define them. They take their meds and forge ahead, living confident and strong lives.

    Cheerfully tucking into cheesecake while describing her plans for the future, Martha makes a claim that is barely believable. “If I could live my life again and not be positive, I wouldn’t want to,” the 20-year-old announces, giggling at the astonishment – and disbelief – that I fail to wipe quickly enough from my face. “It sounds weird, I understand that,” she acknowledges. “But I’ve achieved more things by being positive than I would have if I had been born negative. It’s made me a much more educated person and put some amazing experiences in my path.”

    Martha reels off a windfall of opportunities that have come to her, courtesy of her HIV status. “I have spoken at three international Aids conferences, presented at three Children’s HIV Association (Chiva) conferences, met MPs, been a mentor to other young people born with HIV, and have written magazine articles for Positively UK [a peer-led support group for HIV-positive people across the UK].” She pauses for breath. “If someone offered me a cure, I might take it,” she concedes. “But not definitely. HIV is a really small part of my life. I have HIV; HIV doesn’t have me.”

    Even Martha, however, admits that children born with HIV struggle against far greater odds than those growing up with other perinatally acquired diseases. “I’m angry about the stigma in society that makes me have to lie about my status,” she admits. “It should be like having a heart disease or high blood pressure. What I want people to know is that we’re living normal, healthy lives. We’re alive: we were not supposed to be.”

    The continuing fear and ignorance about HIV in society, however, continues to make it necessary for young people to lead double lives, despite the damage that can it do to them.

    A recent survey by the National Aids Trust found that one in five adults do not realise the disease can be transmitted through sex without a condom. Fewer than half believe it can be passed by sharing needles or syringes. Around 10% believe it can be transmitted through kissing and spitting – an increase of 100% since 2007.

    The stigma that society places on HIV has another, even nastier knock-on effect: it means that children cannot be told of their diagnosis until they are judged to be able to keep it confidential.

    The consequence of this is that unlike other childhood diseases, children born with HIV often learn of their diagnosis after they have already absorbed the fear and believed the lies about the disease that swill around society. The trauma can be deep and long-lasting.

    In one comprehensive survey, a third of children with perinatally acquired HIV admitted to having considered killing themselves. There can also be a direct impact on a child’s lifelong adherence to medication. And this, of course, affects others: statistics show that young people with chronic conditions are more likely to report three or more than four simultaneous risky behaviours than healthy teenagers, including unprotected sex.

    But even for those children who adjust well to their status, taking medication is not simple. Nor is hiding it from others: some young people have to take 12 different pills, three times every day.

    It is a programme to which they must adhere with relentless precision. “For treatment to be effective, you need 97% adherence – to within two hours of taking the pill at the same time every day,” says Nimisha Tanna, from Body and Soul, a pioneering charity dedicated to transforming the lives of children, teenagers and families living with, or affected by HIV. “It is very important,” she adds. “Otherwise the virus wakes up, mutates and can become permanently resistent to the treatment you’re taking.”

    Persuading adolescents to take their treatment seriously, however, isn’t easy. Just like any other teenager, their health is not their first priority nor organisation their strongest suit. Clinics dedicated to young adults with HIV are springing up to try to help this group.

    But, says Dr Caroline Foster, a consultant in adolescent HIV at Imperial College healthcare NHS trust, problems can occur when such facilities are not available and 18-year-olds find themselves ejected from the paediatric care facilities they have attended since they were born into an adult facility, ill-adjusted to their specific needs.”Adolescent survivors of HIV are a new and challenging population,” says Dr Steven Welch, a consultant paediatrician at Birmingham Heartlands hospital. “The challenge is that, having got to the stage when we can enable young people to survive with HIV, we can also give them the quality of life to go with it. But this is entirely new territory for us all: paediatric HIV consultants have never had to deal with adolescents, or their parents. And how do we help a young person, for example, who is about to have their first sexual experience but already has a sexually transmitted disease?”

    These are challenges the medical profession must surmount, however, because although about 98% of diagnosed pregnant women now take antiretroviral therapy, there are still at least 40 infected babies born in the UK every year.

    It happens, says Tookey, for a range of reasons: the mothers sometimes lead chaotic lifestyles or have long-standing undiagnosed infections. Or they get infected during pregnancy, a time when few women would think to use a condom. There are also women who get infected after they have given birth to a healthy baby but while they are still breastfeeding.

    “It’s probably unrealistic to say we can get that 40 down to zero,” admits Tookey, whose study follows all infants born to women known to be HIV-positive at delivery in UK or Ireland. “But we should be able to get it down to 10 a year if we can make sure women have every opportunity to take the test, and if positive, have as much support as they need to enable them to take up the treatment in pregnancy, and avoid breastfeeding.”

    That would, of course, be a medical triumph – but those living with HIV are equally concerned that there is a social breakthrough too.

    It is because society stigmatises HIV with such “vicious ignorance”, says Pauline, that she dreads the moment she has to tell her young son about her own infection. “I got pregnant because I was too scared and ashamed to tell the nurse who gave me my ‘morning after’ pill about my HIV status. I didn’t realise that my medication made a difference to how well the contraception would work,” she says. “I’m hoping that, by the time my son needs to learn about my status, the stigma will have come down and people will be more comfortable talking about HIV. I’m hoping that by then, we won’t have to hide any more. That learning of my status will be the same as telling him I’ve got any other manageable disease.”

    She pauses, an elegant young woman with long, immaculately lacquered nails at which she anxiously picks and tugs. “The fear that my son will judge me for having this disease is something I can’t begin to worry about now. Why should he blame me for being born sick? Why should anyone judge me for that?”

    Names have been changed

    • This article was amended on 12 March 2012 to correct one reference that said there are 12,000 children living in the UK and Ireland today who were born with HIV. Elsewhere the article specified the correct figure, 1,200.

  • Richard Fay

    And another one:

    A drought in the spring will hit Britain’s birds, beer and potatoes – Some of the people most affected by worsening water shortages talk about how drought is impacting on their livelihoods
    John Vidal and Fiona Harvey, Monday 12 March 2012 12.32 GMT Article history

    The conservationistsThe three main springs at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, near the Wash in north Norfolk, have run dry. For the first time in 30 years, and possibly longer, fresh water from deep underground is not filling the ditches and reedbeds of the 40-hectare reserve known for its bitterns, water voles and marsh harriers.

    “The cornerstone of the whole reserve is fresh water. So far, we have just about managed by letting less water out to sea, but if it does not rain heavily soon it will all start to go very wrong in April and May when evaporation starts. Then the water levels will reduce, impacting on fish and wildlife,” says Robert Coleman, the site’s senior manager.

    If the drought continues to May, there will be fewer insects, and the breeding birds will have less to feed on, he says.

    “By June the water levels will have dropped further and the wet areas will have started to dry out. By then the water voles will find it hard to get round the ditches and the moths and insects will be suffering. That will impact on the fish that feed on them and the birds, like the bitterns, which eat the fish.”

    If the drought goes through to July, then Titchwell and much of the natural environment of eastern and southern Britain will be in trouble. If the ditches dry out, the fish will die and the birds will migrate or not breed.

    “Birds who use the reserve as a stopover to and from Africa or the Arctic would cease to come, might not breed and would possibly not return for years. It could take years to recover,” adds Jasmine Atkinson, who works at the reserve.

    Other reserves in East Anglia that depend on winter flooding of land are already being hit worse than Titchwell, Coleman says. “A lot of these birds are already under threat. It’s only February, and we’ve had two dry winters running. It could be catastrophic.” John Vidal

    The well driller
    Tony Brown, a borehole driller, is having a good drought. “We’re rushed off our feet. Droughts, like this one and the ones we had in 2006 and 1992, are good for business. They focus people’s minds and we’re definitely getting an upturn in the number of inquiries.”

    For £3,000-£15,000, Tony (left), his son Harry, wife Angela, and two others will take their bore-drilling machinery and almost guarantee to find water under East Anglia. Based in Haverhill, Suffolk, they have been drilling boreholes for 26 years and know the geology. In 99% of cases they find water. This week they’ve been in Royston, replacing an old borehole, and in Elstree drilling a new one for a small estate that wants a private water supply.

    In the past few years, they have drilled boreholes for polo and cricket pitches, stables, and people who want their own supplies. Some are motivated by wanting independence from the water companies, others by money. Water from the mains costs about £1 a tonne. From one of Tony’s boreholes it’s 5p.

    “Yes, there’s a drought but there isn’t a water shortage. I’d say 90% of the water is lost in runoff. The problem is that the water companies have not invested in infrastructure. There’s plenty of water around but they are not good at catching it when it rains. They mainly want to keep their shareholders happy. If the government wants to save water it should make the companies reduce their leaks. Twenty per cent of the water is just wasted.”

    One of the boreholes Tony services is 8 metres lower than normal, but most are down 1 to 2 metres. “If the drought goes on, it will be serious andthe Environment Agency will turn the screw on the big users. It won’t affect small boreholes like ours. What they take out is infinitessimal compared to the big users.” JV

    The farmer
    Potatoes are a thirsty crop. They need water right through the growing season, and in dry weather become vulnerable to unsightly conditions such as common scab, which retailers will not stand for.

    Richard Solari, farming 485 hectares in east Shropshire, should in theory be less affected by this year’s drought than farmers in the east of England who have been officially under drought status since last year. But his farm, with a light sandy soil, has been suffering – the soil moisture is not what it should be, and with the likelihood of little rain in the coming weeks, he is worried for his potato crop.

    “Last year was the longest irrigation season in my memory – we had to irrigate from April onwards and did not finish until October,” he recalls.

    Although Solari keeps two full reservoirs on his farm, holding 10m and 12m gallons each, and three smaller water storage units, he still had to pump water from the local rivers to offset the dry conditions.

    This year is shaping up to be even worse. After the second dry winter in a row, water levels in rivers are running low and the amount stored in Solari’s reservoirs – plenty in normal years – will not be enough for his crop if the low rainfall continues.

    Although he operates a highly efficient irrigation system, Solari says he might have to look at changing it altogether from a targeted spray system to “trickle” irrigation from pipes under the soil. This system would be much more expensive but could be the future for farmers if, as the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, has warned, drought becomes “the new norm”.

    Normally, potatoes turned down by retailers for their poor appearance could be processed and turned into crisps, frozen chips or other products. But potatoes deprived of water during their growing season make crisps and chips that are darker in colour than the pale gold consumers are used to, and so are rejected by food companies. Then the only option is to sell them for animal feed.

    “That’s the worst-case scenario,” says Solari. “It would be horrendous. If all our crop had to go to feed, I’d go out of business.” Fiona Harvey

    The brewerAn artesian well stretching down to an aquifer below Faversham in Kent has been supplying the Shepherd Neame brewery since 1507, and has never yet run dry. Nevertheless the brewers have still been doing their best to conserve water. Two dry winters have lowered river levels and the government bestowed official drought status on the county this month.

    Breweries are among the most water-intensive food industries in the UK, needing more than five pints of water, on average, to produce a single pint of beer – and that is just for the brewing process. As a consequence, breweries are among the UK’s most water-conscious companies.

    Shepherd Neame already boasts a Queen’s award for sustainable development, and uses less water than the industry average for its beers, according to the company’s spokesman, John Humphreys.

    Although many breweries have their own boreholes, or other water sources, as Shepherd Neame does, they are still vulnerable to the drought as barley and hops are likely to rise in price.

    Kent, one of the sources of hops for British brewers, has begun to be badly hit by the drought and that could spell trouble for brewers and beer-drinkers. David Wilson, of the British Beer and Pub Association, says that rises in hop and barley prices are likely if the drought continues, and these would feed through into higher prices for beer drinkers. FH

    • This article was amended on 13 March 2012. The original referred to the well digger and borehole digger. This has been corrected.

  • Richard Fay

    And another one (see especially the final chunk):
    The struggle to finish school in MalawiRachel Williams reports from Malawi on why the country is unlikely to reach the millennium development goal for education
    Rachel Williams, Monday 12 March 2012 20.00 GMT Article history

    Loveness Sitima had agreed to marry the man who proposed to her one day as she was selling bananas, when she was older, at least – she had only just turned 13. But as soon as she said yes, he started pestering her to sleep with him. One night she found the 20-year-old waiting for her in the dark. This time he told her he was going to have sex with her whether she liked it or not. But it wasn’t rape, she says – she gave in.

    Loveness knew nothing about contraception, and didn’t understand why she missed her period that month. In Malawi, a girl who is pregnant can’t go to school. Nor can she go back afterwards, unless a relative takes care of the baby. Loveness moved in with the man, but he beat her, denied her food, and dumped her clothes in a pit latrine when she left him.

    Now she and her two-month-old daughter, Martha, are back in her home village of Simaewa, near Salima in the country’s central region. But last month her mother remarried and moved away. Loveness, now 14, must support her baby, her 12-year-old brother and her sisters, aged 10 and six. She is certain she will never return to school. “I was very hurt when I found out I was pregnant,” she says, “because I knew my future was doomed. And it’s just because I’m a girl.”

    Loveness was doing better than most children of her age in Malawi. In completing primary school – eight grades or “standards” for six- to 13-year-olds – she achieved something that as little as 40% of her peers manage, according to the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education (CSCQBE). There are nearly a quarter of a million children aged six to 11 who’ve haven’t even been enrolled in school.

    Malawi is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, where over 40% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, even after years of growth. And now the “warm heart of Africa” is in economic and political turmoil. Anti-smoking campaigns have fatally weakened its biggest export crop, tobacco; chronic shortages of foreign exchange and fuel cause long queues for petrol; and human rights activists say they have been assaulted and intimidated.

    The president, Bingu wa Mutharika, vehemently denies accusations of creeping dictatorship. Last year he expelled the British high commissioner, after a leaked cable revealed Fergus Cochrane-Dyet had described him as “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. Britain later suspended some of its aid to Malawi, worth £19m a year, citing concerns over governance and economic management. Other donors have done the same.

    Officials from Malawi’s education ministry admit the country is unlikely meet the millennium development goal of ensuring every child completes a quality primary education by 2015. Enrolment numbers are rising – from 78% to 83% between 2005 and 2009 – but dropout rates, though improved, remain high. The proportion staying to standard eight is 53% for boys and 45% for girls.

    Primary education has been free since 1994, but the system was ill-equipped to cope when attendance rates increased by more than a million in a year. Nearly 20 years later, the struggle to meet demand persists, with chronic shortages of both teachers and classrooms. The average class size is 90 – compared with 40 recommended by the Global Campaign for Education – but reaches several hundred in some schools. The ratio of qualified teachers to pupils has been worsening since 2004, and there is a particular shortage of female teachers. Tens of thousands of new classrooms are needed – those provided by Madonna’s renewed interest in education in Malawi would be a drop in the ocean. Toilets are primitive; female pupils, who use only pieces of cloth for sanitary protection, simply stay away when they have their periods. Some schools lack clean water.

    Children speak of being too hungry to go to class, or of their clothes being too dirty. Hidden costs – uniforms, pencils, notepads – often prove too great for struggling subsistence farmers. Legally, a uniform isn’t compulsory but children are often turned away if they come without it.

    In Mdwele, a sprawling village of 1,000 homesteads, it is a common complaint. Mphatso Njovu, 12, left school at eight for that reason. His mother is dead, from HIV-related illness – 20% of the village’s children are Aids orphans – and he lives with his grandparents, working in the fields and weaving palm mats. He knows what he is missing by not going to school. “Organisations come to our villages to support us in development work,” he says, “but most of them want people who can read and write. If you can’t, you’re out of it completely.”

    Other schools enforce contributions to “development funds” that can be as costly as fees, says the CSCQBE’s director, Benedicto Kondowe. Sometimes headteachers withhold exam results for pupils who haven’t paid up. Parents may be poor but they are not undiscerning. If they can see the education their children are getting is of low quality, they are less likely to see it as a worthwhile investment. And if the children are girls, that investment may be deemed unnecessary. “It’s generally considered that girls are made for marriage,” says Kondowe.

    That, and helping in the home and the fields, says Alepha Mwimba, who heads the charity ActionAid’s Salima office. “It’s common for a girl of nine or 10 to be given her own plot of land to cultivate,” she says. “If there’s a proposal and the girl refuses it, the mother will be saying ‘please say yes’.” Brides can be as young as 13.

    Chikowa primary school had 1,271 pupils in January. Of these, 485 were in standard one. Standard two had fewer than half that, at 204. And standard eight had just 24 – only six of them girls. Zainabu Malenya is one of them. “From standard two to standard four my parents tried to make me stay at home to look after my siblings,” she says. “I just persevered. But when I got home I’d find there was no food left for me.”

    There are six classrooms at the school, but one is used as a storeroom. Standards one to three learn outside. The higher grades are crammed on the floor in the mouldering classrooms. Only standards seven and eight have desks.

    Some progress has been made. Significantly fewer girls have dropped out since ActionAid helped set up a mother’s group and a girls’ club at the school, says the mothers’ group’s chair, Emily Million London. The charity has also built two houses for women teachers. But the headteacher says much more is needed.

    In the cities, children who are not in school must find other ways to make money. Until recently Stanwell Mwanza, 13, collected scrap metal, grubbing around in piles of junk for the odd piece of filthy treasure. Now he is being helped by the Chisomo Children’s Club, whose staff work with under-14s who live or beg on the streets, trying to rebuild their family relationships and get them into education.

    “A hope and a future” says the sign outside the club. But it’s a brutal, often sexualised, world these children have become used to, says senior social worker Irene Ngomano. Girls often end up in prostitution. Other street children spend nights in video bars that show pornography.

    “We’re putting in every effort but there are also a lot of challenges,” says Malawi’s deputy education minister, Wictor Sajeni. One of the biggest of those is still parents’ attitudes to education, he says.

    Education has received a greater proportion of state funding in recent years, but the resources available will never be enough. Sajeni suggests the freezing of some UK aid will affect education; the Department for International Development insists this is not the case, as it will provide the same amount of money but bypass central government. “Britain now uses other means … to ensure the poorest people of Malawi do not lose out,” says the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell.

    In the mornings Loveness goes out looking for work, for which she is paid mainly in maize flour. Two hours’ labour will get her enough to prepare nsima – Malawi’s doughy staple dish – for the family’s lunch. In the afternoons she goes out again, to earn enough for the evening meal. A calendar, untroubled by future engagements, hangs on the wall of the cell-like room where she sits on the floor. Next to her is a well-used Bible. Loveness describes her favourite verse as the one that says: “Don’t lose hope, just believe in me.”

    • Rachel Williams’s trip was funded by the Global Campaign for Education and the NUT. Form More information go to

    Student ambassadors have real-life stories to tell

    For Eilidh Naismith and Billy Davidson, visiting Malawi was about being challenged: taking on complex issues, understanding lives entirely different from their own, and seeing the kind of poverty most British 15-year-olds would only see on television.

    The pupils from Hutchesons’ grammar school in Glasgow, who are this year’s young ambassadors for the Send My Friend to School campaign, will now work encouraging more UK pupils to join them in reminding world leaders of their millennium promise to make sure every child can go to school by 2015. There are still 67 million children missing out around the world.

    “The trip has given us real focus,” Billy says. He hopes having real-life stories to tell will help grab new audiences’ attention. Eilidh was impressed by a group in which Malawian children tried to come up with their own solutions. “Having seen everything I’ve seen, I want to spread the word,” she says.

    The two students were the winners of this year’s Steve Sinnott award for young campaigners. RW

    • This article was amended on 13 March 2012 because a name had been misspelt.