Category Archives: UK news
YouGov poll shows rise in proportion of people who believe British Muslims pose a threat to democracy
Nearly two-thirds of people believe there will be a ‘clash of civilisations’ between British Muslims and white Britons in the wake of the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, a new poll shows.
The number of those who believe such a clash is inevitable has increased by 9% from last year.
There has also been a small increase in the proportion of people who believe British Muslims pose a serious threat to democracy, up to 34% on Thursday and Friday from 30% in November 2012, according to the YouGov survey of 1,839 adults.
The poll will fuel concern of an explosion of race hate, with one interfaith charity reporting a huge increase in anti-Muslim incidents since the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in south-east London on Wednesday.
Faith Matters, which runs a helpline, said they had received 162 calls since the attack, up from a daily average of six.
A number of people have also been charged by police after allegedly offensive messages were posted on social media websites. These include a 22-year-old man from Lincoln, a 28-year-old man from London, a 23-year-old woman from Southsea, and a 19-year-old man from Woking.
The BNP has also announced it will be demonstrating in Woolwich. National organiser Adam Walker claims the brutal murder meant a “line has been drawn in the sand and it signals the beginning of the civil war we have predicted for years”.
However the YouGov poll provides evidence that Britain does remain a tolerant country and that the far-right support remains at the margins of society. Nearly two-thirds (63%) believe the vast majority of Muslims are good British citizens, up by 1% from last November.
There has also been an increase from 24% to 33% in the proportion who believe Muslims are compatible with the ‘British way of life’. Around two-thirds (65%) said on the whole most people tend to get along well with each other.
Half of respondents said they felt positively about demonstrations being held against last week’s terror attacks.
However, two-thirds said they felt negatively about such protests led by the BNP or English Defence League (EDL). Asked if they would join the EDL, 84% said they would never do so, although there has been a 9% increase in the proportion of respondents who had heard of the far-right organisation.
Dr Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham university, who commissioned the poll, said: “Compared to last year, when we ran the exact same survey, today people are either just as likely, or more likely, to endorse a series of more positive statements: that Muslims are compatible with the national way of life; are good citizens; make important contributions to society; and share British culture and values.
“In fact, while far right groups were pointing to the murder as evidence that Islam poses a fundamental threat to modern Britain, the percentage of respondents who view Muslims as compatible actually jumped by almost ten points, to 33%.
“Clearly, the numbers remain low, and point to wider challenges facing government, and our local communities. But in the aftermath of events that could well have triggered a more serious backlash, the direction of travel remains positive, and suggests there has not been a sharp spike in prejudice.”
The underlining tolerance appears to back up the prime minister’s statement last week in which he said the murder of Rigby on a Woolwich street was “not just an attack on Britain, and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to this country.”
On Saturday a demonstration by the EDL in Newcastle was met by a anti-fascist protest, chanting: “Nazi scum, off our streets.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said groups such as the EDL were fuelling division and helping those behind terror attacks. She said: “Anyone who seeks to divide our communities is doing the work of the extremists they say they oppose.
“Mindless acts of violence against any of our communities serve no-one. Some people are trying to use the vile attack in Woolwich as an excuse for more hatred, violence, and extremism. We must not let them.
“The police, security services and all right minded people in this country will do everything they can to make sure any act of violence and intimidation is dealt with robustly and quickly.
“The clear message from the overwhelming majority of British people is ‘not in my name’. We stand together against violent extremism, intolerance and hatred – whether it comes from Islamist extremists, the EDL, the BNP, or extremists of any kind.”
Anti-Muslim incidents, online and in person, increase from a handful to 150 since Wednesday as arrests are made across UK
Anti-Muslim attacks in Britain have soared since Wednesday’s murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
Faith Matters, an organisation that works to reduce extremism, said it had been told of about 150 incidents in the last few days, compared to between four to eight cases before Wednesday.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, said incidents were happening on the streets and online. “What’s really concerning is the spread of these incidents. They’re coming in from right across the country,” he told the BBC.
“Secondly, some of them are quite aggressive; very focused, very aggressive attacks. And thirdly, there also seems to be significant online activity … suggesting co-ordination of incidents and attacks against institutions or places where Muslims congregate.”
Police have reported several arrests since Wednesday. Benjamin Flatters, 22, from Lincoln, was arrested on Thursday after complaints were made to Lincolnshire police about comments made on Twitter that were allegedly of a racist or anti-religious nature.
A second man was visited by officers and warned about his activity on social media, according to the police.
The charge comes after two men in Bristol were arrested and released on bail for making alleged offensive comments on Twitter about the murder. A 23-year-old and a 22-year-old, both from Bristol, were held under the Public Order Act on suspicion of inciting racial or religious hatred.
Detective Inspector Ed Yaxley of Avon and Somerset police said: “These comments were directed against a section of our community. Comments such as these are completely unacceptable and only cause more harm to our community in Bristol.”
Two men will appear at Thames magistrates court on Saturday charged with religiously aggravated threatening behaviour over an incident in an east London fast food restaurant on Thursday.
Labourer Toni Latcal, 32, and plasterer Eugen-Aurelian Eugen-Beredei, 34, both from London, were arrested following the incident at 9.15pm on Thursday. Latcal was charged with religiously aggravated threatening behaviour and causing criminal damage, while Eugen-Beredei was charged with religiously aggravated threatening behaviour.
In Hastings, Adam Rogers, 28, of Kingsman Street, Woolwich, was arrested on Friday and will appear at Brighton magistrates court on Saturday accused of sending an “offensive, indecent or menacing message” online.
Labour pays tribute to former member for Glasgow Provan and Glasgow Baillieston, describing him as ‘formidable’
The former MP Jimmy Wray has died following a long illness, Labour has announced.
Wray, who died on Saturday morning aged 78, served as MP for Glasgow Provan and Glasgow Baillieston for 18 years. He stepped down in 2005 after a spell of ill health. He is survived by his four children.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “I remember Jimmy fondly for his personal kindness and generosity but most of all for his love of the Labour party, which he served with distinction for a great many years. Even after he stepped down as an MP, he continued to support the party in any way he could.
“Jimmy was a formidable man, growing up in the Gorbals and known to be a good boxer. He never forgot his roots and used his experience to fight hard for those who needed someone to speak up for them.”
Guests were left with burns, in tears and without food and drink following event jointly organised with a Cambridge college
It was supposed to be a night of “decadence, debauchery, and indulgence”, but instead guests of an Oxford and Cambridge University end-of-term ball endured a “catastrophe” with some left with burns, in tears and without food and drink.
Guests at Last Ball at Somerville College, Oxford, paid up to £150 for tickets but found that entertainers that were advertised did not turn up and almost all the alcohol had run out before 1am, five hours before the end.
May balls are a tradition at Oxford and Cambridge and other universities. They are normally extravagant and usually well managed by student committees.
The organisers of the ball – planned jointly by Somerville College and Jesus College, Cambridge – had great ambitions; they had planned to exhibit a live shark until they were inundated with complaints. In the event, the ball descended into farce with guests questioning what the organisers had done with the money paid by 1,000 guests.
The Cambridge Tab reported “Food ran out early on in the evening, with only one food stand to cater for 1,000 people. Vegetarians went hungry, with pita bread and cupcakes acting as measly substitutes for the previously mentioned hog roast. What’s more, all the alcohol (with the exception of rum) had run out by 1am, and by 4am even that had run out.”
Cherwell, the Oxford University magazine reported: “Somerville-Jesus ‘Last Ball’ goers are ‘ripped off’. A ‘violent scrum’ for food, misleading advertising and ‘unprecedented prices’ criticised by students and alumni.”
Guests using the maze got stuck in bottlenecks and some were injured when it was left unstaffed.
Guests set up a Facebook page to list complaints. Some posted pictures of burnt skin and dresses, caused by crowds waiting around the hog roast for up to an hour. One guest complained that he had to pick up tickets in person despite paying for postage. The same guest had to wait for an hour for a pork roll and suffered bruising in the melee to get food before it ran out.
Another student described how she was prevented from going to bed by overzealous security guards. “I’m a Somerville student and felt ill at about 2am on the night of the ball. Being cold, hungry and having drunk a fair bit I asked to be allowed to go to bed. I spoke to security and a member of the ball committee and when I wasn’t allowed to go to bed I burst into tears and explained that I was feeling ill and suffer from depression. I needed sleep but was instead sent to the first aid room,” she wrote.
She also noted that other Somerville students were not allowed to go to their rooms to pick up possessions such as asthma inhalers because of “security reasons”.
Some of the ball organisers posted a letter apologising for their failures and denying charges of embezzlement. They blamed their failings on their inexperience and the small numbers of committee members. They blamed the injuries sustained at the maze on “some of the maze staff going rogue; a handful of maze actors attempted to leave their positions and sneak into the ball as guests.”
Michael Adebowale, who remains in hospital, was caught up in incident in which fellow victim was ‘cut to pieces’
One of the men arrested for hacking to death a soldier in a London street witnessed a murder and was himself stabbed in a frenzied knife attack five years ago, the Guardian has learned.
Michael Adebowale, who was pictured holding a blade minutes after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich on Wednesday, had been caught up in an earlier fatal incident in January 2008 when he was 16.
One person was murdered in the bloody episode, having been “literally cut to pieces” by an assailant wielding a 12-inch knife, according to the judge at the trial that followed the incident, which happened on a housing estate in Erith.
Adebowale is now in a London hospital, under guard, after being shot by police at the scene where Rigby’s body was found, stabbed with weapons including a knife, a cleaver and a machete. He and another man, Michael Adebolajo, have been arrested in connection with the murder.
Background information about Adebolajo, 28, was circulating soon after Wednesday’s gruesome murder but it took a day before Adebowale’s name began circulating in public. Relatively little has been known about his background until now.
A Greenwich neighbour of the 22-year-old said that after the earlier knife attack Adebowale disappeared for a year and converted to Islam, and that his character appeared to have changed.
The 2008 attack which Adebowale witnessed and suffered gives an insight to a life in chaos. It led to a trial that saw Lee James, 32, convicted of murdering an 18-year-old, Faridon Alizada, stabbing a 16-year-old in the neck, and stabbing Adebowale in the shoulder and hand.
According to information released by the Metropolitan police after the December 2008 trial: “Faridon Alizada was inside the flat with two friends (victims 2 and 3) when James entered the flat on the pretext of buying drugs.
“Having armed himself with a knife before going to the flat, he then attacked the three teenagers, fatally stabbing Faridon. Faridon died of his injuries at the scene.
“A postmortem later revealed two stab wounds to the chest over six inches deep, either of which would have been fatal.”
According to a report in the local newspaper, the News Shopper, James went to the flat on the Larner Road estate from where drugs were sold. He visited it daily and was planning to rob those inside. Faridon was in the flat with the two 16-year-old friends when James entered at 3am, with another man. He was carrying a 12-inch knife hidden under his jacket and bought and smoked crack cocaine.
Sentencing James to life imprisonment, Judge Anthony Pitts said Faridon had tried to save the others, even after being stabbed. “He was literally cut to pieces by Lee James who went on to stab a third man, fortunately not so seriously.
“The murder was in the end only of one person but that was sheer chance. [Another victim] was wounded very, very seriously and was extremely lucky not to have been killed or incapacitated for life.
“Faridon had the extraordinary courage it seem to me to attempt to confront Lee James, not only to protect himself but also to protect the other 16-year-old. It was, of course, a hopeless mismatch.”
The trial at Southwark crown court heard that James, a former bare knuckle fighter, accused Adebowale and the other youths, who were Afghans, of being members of al-Qaida and plotting to carry out explosions. The court heard claims that James was suffering from a drug-induced psychosis during the attack.
Madeleine Edwards, a family friend who lived in the same block of flats as Adebowale in Greenwich, south London, said he had been involved with a local gang – the Woolwich boys – when he was a young teenager and had been in “some serious gangland trouble”.
She said he had been a witness in a high-profile murder trial and that his mother had said he had to “disappear for a while.” He left for about a year and when he came back he appeared to have converted to Islam and had become distant. “He could see my disdain at the direction he had gone in,” she said.
Police investigating Adebowale raided a flat on the fourth floor of a block in Greenwich on Thursday, about four miles from the site of Wednesday’s attack.
Neighbours at the scene said the small flat in Macey House was the home of Adebowale, who they said lived there with his mother, although this has not been confirmed by police.
“I was so shocked when I saw his picture on the television,” said Jonathan Ackworth, 42, who lives in the block. “I used to see him coming and going and would say hello – he seemed perfectly pleasant. Everybody is in total shock.”
Ackworth said he had seen both suspects around the block of flats and the second attacker had lived at the address with his mother for several years and attended a local college in Greenwich.
Another neighbour, 22-year-old student Alexander Sargent, said: “I knew him mainly by sight. We’d see each other in the lift and say hello. He dressed quite ‘street’, if you know what I mean. I’ve not seen him around for a few months.”
On video of the attack on Rigby on Wednesday, Adebowale can be seen carrying a knife, talking to passersby.
Footage shows him rushing at armed police when they arrived on the scene and being shot.
Adebowale and Adebolajo remain at separate hospitals where they are still too ill to be interviewed.
Schoolboy is too young to be prosecuted after burglary at home in Hartlepool that led to thousands of pounds worth of damage
A boy aged nine has admitted burgling a house and stealing the keys of a car that crashed moments later, police said.
The child is too young to be prosecuted because he is under the age of criminal responsibility.
Cleveland police investigated a break-in at a house in Hartlepool on 16 May, after reports that a red Vauxhall Vectra had been taken and crashed soon after with a parked white Renault Megane.
A force spokeswoman said: “A nine-year-old boy has admitted taking the keys from the property and enquiries are ongoing into the incident.”
The Vauxhall owner, who was not named, told the Hartlepool Mail newspaper: “It is unbelievable what has happened, but it doesn’t look like anything will happen apart from probably a slap on the wrists.”
The owner said hundreds of pounds worth of damage had been caused to his car, and the other vehicle suffered worse damage.
Car was involved in collisions with four vehicles on the southbound carriageway in Somerset
A woman has died after driving her car the wrong way up a motorway in the early hours of this morning.
The woman, aged in her late 20s or early 30s, died after her Ford Ka collided with four vehicles on the M5 in Somerset.
She drove the small blue car north up the southbound carriageway from Weston-super-Mare towards Clevedon at 12.30am.
“It was involved in separate collisions with two vehicles and was left stationary when it was hit by two more vehicles,” a spokesman for Somerset and Avon police said. “Unfortunately the driver of the Ford Ka, a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, died at the scene.”
The road, a tourist route in the West Country, was closed while the emergency services dealt with the incident and police officers investigated the crash. It was reopened by 7.30am.
In my lifetime our wonderful wildlife has been decimated. We need to up our game and mobilise the millions who care
I never imagined being 52. As I grew up catching lizards and newts, rummaging through hedges to find birds’ nests, or prodding flattened hedgehogs with my scuffed Clarks lace-ups, the world was ripe with natural riches. Every scrap of wasteland revealed yet more gems: tadpoles, fox cubs and a confetti of butterflies. And when at the weekends the family Ford Anglia trundled off to the countryside, I strode in shorts into a wildlife nirvana, a utopia, and I explored what I imagined would be a never-ending world of beautiful and exotic creatures.
Well, I made it. On a cold, rainy day in May the cards arrived and, after reading and wincing at the birthday wishes, I went out with my binoculars. And that world wasn’t there any more: in my lifetime that paradise has been lost – the wonderful complex of creatures has all but vanished. I rambled with the same fervent curiosity I had as a child, but with only a fraction of the rewards. I looked for a Brimstone butterfly to brighten the naked glades, I trod the edges of tadpole-less ponds, I listened for a cuckoo but heard none. Today, the British countryside is pretty vacant.
And just in case you think these are the subjective and maudlin mumblings of a nostalgic naturalist, an amalgam of our finest nature conservation bodies this week published a report entitled State of Nature. It is a frank audit of the UK’s wildlife in 2013 and an account of its misfortunes over the last 50 years. And it’s accurate – the result of rigorous data-collecting from our finest naturalists and scientists, followed by clear and concise analysis. If you have even the tiniest interest in nature, I strongly urge you to read it. Because it needs to achieve its objective: to shame us over our disastrous disregard of the horrifying decline that it documents; and shock us into some urgent action to stem or redress it.
In precis, the population and distribution trends of a representative set of 3,148 species across the UK’s major habitat types show a catastrophic 60% decline over the last 50 years. Of these, 13% are in danger of extinction. Regarding butterflies, 72% have declined over the last 10 years. We have lost 44m pairs of breeding birds since the late 1960s; and destroyed 97% of our meadows, 90% of coppiced woodland, and 80% of heathlands.
There are optimistic elements peppering the dismal downward-sloping graphs, but for once in too long a while the conservation community have summoned the courage to concisely tell it like it is, not hide behind the isolated tales of success that typically crowd the covers of their membership quarterlies and sow cosy contentment. This is a brave and damning indictment of our continued abuse of wildlife and it puts the ball firmly in the conservationists’ court, because for the moment at least it’s up to us to sort this out. We have weighed it, measured it and found it wanting. But can we fix it?
Yes we can. Because neatly listed alongside this abject catalogue of woe are the reasons for it. We know how, why and where species have vanished, and we also have an arsenal of tested abilities and technologies to recover or reinstate them. In practical terms, we have turned carrot fields into reed beds brimming with birds; we have reintroduced raptors and rails; we can captive-breed and release dormice and water voles, and re-seed rape fields with wild flowers. And thus I, and all the others who set their alarm clocks to rise and scour the ruins of our land for the things that make our hearts skip beats, can be fuelled by an optimism that we can really still make a difference. Indeed, the fundamental mantra for the BBC’s Springwatch series is to say to our 3 million viewers: this is beautiful, brilliant, and in your backyard; look at it, love it, don’t lose it.
However, while our wildlife is free to access, the problem is it’s not free to keep. In fact, it has become very expensive, way beyond the budget of conservationists, way beyond the scope of our piecemeal projects and statistically insignificant progress. The critical missing ingredient is the political will and courage to radically reform agricultural, forestry and fisheries policies and practices. The financial costs would have to be borne by us all too, so it is crucial that we generate a real sense of value in our wildlife so that when the bill comes, we don’t wince at the price.
Achieving a sea-change in governance through better-informed and genuinely motivated decision makers is a challenge, and to date the meek and passive approach of conservationists has failed to make significant progress. We need to up our game, exercise our muscle, and mobilise the millions who care. If we don’t face the grotesque reality of our failure, our grandchildren will never hear a cuckoo, and one swallow will have to make their summer.
This week it was revealed that the government’s advisory body, Natural England, granted a licence to destroy buzzard nests and eggs in order to protect pheasants. The buzzard has full legal protection and is making a sustained recovery after years of persecution and pesticide poisoning. The pheasant is a non-native bird, artificially introduced, and 38 million are bred annually to satisfy the shooting fraternity. In terms of our grandchildren’s ornithological ambitions, I think we have a tough job on our hands.
Sarah McClay died at South Lakes Wild Animal Park after ‘inexplicably’ walking into tiger enclosure, where she was mauled
A zoo keeper who was mauled to death by a tiger had no reason to be in its enclosure, according to the animal park’s owner.
Sarah McClay, 24, was attacked by a Sumatran tiger at South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, on Friday afternoon. She was taken by air ambulance to Royal Preston Hospital but died later from her injuries.
Cumbria police said the tiger was locked in its enclosure following the attack and that members of the public were not at any risk during the incident. Police and Barrow borough council are investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident.
David Gill, the owner and founder of South Lakes Wild Animal Park, said McClay was very experienced in looking after big cats and he had no explanation as to why she had entered the enclosure.
He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “After investigation by the authorities here and the police, it does seem that she just basically failed to follow the correct procedures.
“For some unknown reason, an inexplicable reason, because there is no reason for why she did it, she opened the door and went into the tiger enclosure and straight into the tigers, and now we’ll never know why.”
Gill said McClay, who was from the Barrow area, had worked at the wildlife park for a number of years and was “very proficient” in her work with big cats.
He said that it was against strict safety protocols to walk into the tiger’s cage, adding that the zoo had passed a major inspection on Monday, in which it was praised for its safety standards.
Gill said: “An emergency call went out over the radio and we responded immediately. I was on the scene within 30 seconds.
“It was just unfortunate that everything happened so quick. It’s so difficult to talk about because it was so upsetting.
“We moved all the public back of course. I think one member of the public did witness a part of the attack but I don’t think there was anyone else who saw that.”
The incident happened at about 4pm, when staff were working as normal and the park was open to the public.
Emphasising that at no point was there any threat to the public, Gill added: “It just seems quite inexplicable. None of us have been able to come up with a really reasonable conclusion.
“All we know is that no one else was involved, there was nobody with her, and for some unknown reason she opened a door and walked straight into the tigers.”
Gill described Ms McClay as “a very passionate girl, very enthusiastic” who was “extremely good at delivering conservation talks. A very valued part of our team. A very bubbly character, a very happy girl.”
He said that McClay’s death was the second tragedy for the park this month, after another employee was killed in a road accident.
He told the BBC there were no plans to have the tiger put down, which has been at the park for 10 years since it was a cub.
Gill said: “He didn’t make the mistake. He was just there. It’s so difficult because we don’t blame him for what has happened.
“It would be very much a tragedy for him. He’s one of the rarest animals in the world, a Sumatran tiger, and it’s something we don’t want to do.”
Following McClay’s death the staff felt they wanted the park to carry on, Mr Gill said.
“There was a huge consensus of opinion that we should carry on,” he added. “It’s not the park’s fault if you will. It’s not going to do anybody any good if we closed.”
Police said McClay’s family were “very shocked and distressed” and had requested privacy to grieve.
Visitors were asked to leave the wildlife park before it closed early following the incident. It is expected to reopen as normal on Saturday.
It’s been quite a week for Britain’s first official astronaut. Meeting the prime minister, a press scrum at the Science Museum; and an agonising interview with Jeremy Paxman. How did he cope?
There is something about human space flight that simultaneously feels both entirely futuristic and of the past; a future written into stories and dreams of the mid-20th century, rather than of the 21st. Britain’s first official astronaut, after all, was born two years after the moon landing in 1969. “Eugene Cernan was the last person on the moon,” adds Major Tim Peake, who was chosen this week for a mission to the International Space Station in November 2015. “And that” – 1972 – “was the year I was born.”
Behind him, in a picture on the wall, sails the space station, the Earth a blurred blue curve below it. The European Astronaut Centre, where Peake is being trained, and where we meet, is in the far corner of a huge lot on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany, which is also home to the German Space Agency, where that future-past tension persists. The long, low prefab buildings, set among birch trees and wild flowers, feel like a throwback to the 60s. It has, however, been a valued part of the German economy – in distinct contrast to Britain, which cancelled its space programme in 1971 because it was too expensive, and, under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher, deemed a waste of money. In 2010, however, in the dying days of the Brown government, the UK finally acquired a space agency; and the UK space industry, as science minister David Willetts has been only too keen to point out, is growing at a rate of 8% a year. Last November, the coalition joined the ESA with a one-off contribution of £16m. The Treasury estimates that for every one if those pounds it will get four back in commercial activity.
Today, the astronaut centre itself is eerily under-populated – but that is only because almost everyone is in Houston or Kazakhstan, preparing to send the first of Peake’s class of six into space on Tuesday. They are, in turn, the first class of astronauts to be trained by the ESA.
There was huge excitement when Peake was first chosen. This week, when his first actual mission was announced, he found himself meeting the prime minister, facing a press scrum – and, much worse, dealing with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (pictured below), who was sticking with the Thatcher memo about it all being ridiculous and a waste of money. “What’s the point?” he wanted to know, in a self-parodying sneer. “You’re just drifting around, aren’t you? It’s not what many people would recognise as a taxing job.”
Peake (proving, on the way, a few of the qualities that helped him beat 8,400 people to his job) was unflapped, telling Paxman about experiments in microgravity and Commander Chris Hadfield’s recent record for the most experiments done in space (when he wasn’t singing Space Oddity). “I mean it’s fine, isn’t it,” he says now. “If anything, sometimes when people ask you more intelligent questions, it’s harder to answer.” Ouch. “When people aren’t really asking you a question, it just gives you the opportunity to talk and say what you want to say.” But he accepts Paxman’s contempt isn’t unusual. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Yes it’s expensive, but it’s not that expensive. In the Apollo era, it was 5% of the US GDP – it’s nothing like that these days.” The German space programme, says Peake, the biggest in Europe, costs Germans €1 a year each. “And money spent on space is not spent in space. Money spent on space is spent here on Earth, it’s industry and it’s jobs.” It’s also research into MRSA, salmonella and osteoporosis; space exploration has given us the CAT scanner, the computer microchip, the smoke detector, domestic water filters, cordless power tools, shoe insoles …and it could even guarantee our very survival.
“There is no future for us here on Earth,” says Peake. “If we survive as a human species, it’s inevitable – we are going to have to leave the planet. Now that’s an awful long time away, we hope, but at some point we have to make the leap, and we have to find other resources in the universe – and that starts now, I think. To me it’s an insurance policy for the future. It’s also all about exploration – it’s in our natural psyche to want to explore, to push the boundaries and take the next steps.”
The latter obviously come naturally to Peake, the second child of a midwife and a local journalist who then worked for Zurich Financial. He was born and grew up just outside Chichester, where his parents still live – “a very ordinary upbringing, a very stable upbringing”; he went to the local comprehensive. He always had huge amounts of energy, taking himself off on cross-country runs to burn it off. Eventually he joined the cadets: “It was Duke of Edinburgh award schemes, it was Outward Bound adventure training, it was flying in helicopters, it was being winched up and doing crazy stuff – for any teenage kid it was just a fantastic outlet.” He joined the army because he wanted to fly, went to Sandhurst, and eventually became a helicopter test pilot, pushing the boundaries of army machines – how they behave under unusual circumstances, finding out where speed and height tip into mortal danger; what’s possible and what to avoid. He served in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan – what was his experience there? “I can’t talk about Afghanistan. At all.” Why? “Because of what I went out to do”. He suffered rotor failure flying at night in formation on the New Mexico border, carrying extra fuel tanks; he stayed calm, remembered his training, and survived.
Part of the year-long weeding-out process that began with 8,400 applicants and ended with six was exhaustive psychological testing – literally thousands of questions, he says, often the same questions repeated in many different ways. “Honestly, the process is so long, and it’s so varied and so diverse that you just have to be yourself – you are who you are, and they’ll find out who you are by hook or by crook.” There was complex situational role-play, in which winning for yourself was deliberately set against winning for the team, forcing you to balance the two for the best result. In a cave in Sardinia, during training after they were chosen, they conducted experiments on air and water and microbiological life forms, but they were also deprived of their watches and of sleep and, for three days on a different trip, of food: the test being not only that they could continue to function under such conditions and do the jobs they had to do, but that they could do so calmly, as a team. Modern astronauts, it transpires, are a different breed to those Kennedy sent to the moon. “In the early stages they went for the Mercury 7, alpha male, fast-jet test pilots – they were on a very aggressive programme, very experimental machinery, very pilot-oriented spacecraft. [The point was] to get to the moon and back.” Now that the missions are long-duration, personality is at least as important as being able to manoeuvre a spacecraft in six planes (which Peake says he found a lot easier than some of his colleagues). The astronauts have to be able to get on with their colleagues, stay focused under extreme pressure, work together as well as lead, be able to be away from their families for long stretches (Peake’s wife worked in the army, in logistics, before she became a schoolteacher; they have two young boys). They have to manage loneliness and (a distinct risk on these missions) overwork and burnout. All those qualities, plus, as Gerhard Thiele, the head of the astronaut division, once said evocatively, a far rarer one: “humility”.
In fact, talking to Peake, who is unfailingly polite, boyish, enthusiastic, but with the unmistakable steel of an extremely high critical intelligence, you begin to realise, with a different kind of humility perhaps, what being chosen as the best and the brightest, to coin a cliche, might actually mean.
He has to learn Russian. The day we meet he has just had a four-hour lesson; it was one of the first things their class of six did, in Bochun, “which is about an hour-and-a-half up the road. It’s a bit of a concrete jungle, and it was autumn and it was raining and it was dark and we were learning Russian and we were struggling and it was all very depressing and so when you get like that you start playing practical jokes on each other. We were there for a month, and it was only after a few days that the practical jokes started escalating, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the name for our class – The Shenanigans’.” Apparently they’ve called themselves this sweetly old-fashioned name ever since.
He has to be utterly healthy, and fit. In space he will age, losing about 1% of his bone density every month (it will, says Simon Evetts, the ex-infantry commander in logistics and special forces who now runs the medical support office at ESA, take years to get it back). He may experience space-motion sickness. And, if he spends too much time looking at the view, a particularly brutal form of jet lag: the ISS circles the Earth once every 90 minutes or so, which means you get dawn and dusk every 40. He will lose aerobic fitness, muscle, motor control (these are some of the things, in fact, the team will be observing, hoping to use the results in treatments for, for instance, osteoporosis). In order to keep the worst of it at bay, he will have to spend hours exercising in specially adapted machines, where vacuums stand in for gravity. When Chris Hadfield and his colleagues touched down in the tiny 1960s-designed (but subsequently modified) Soyuz capsule a week ago, it was striking that they lay half-reclined, covered in blankets, looking frail. Evetts says this is because if they stood up, blood would pool at their feet and they would instantly faint.
If a medical emergency does occur, Peake and the others will, with guidance from the ground, have to deal with it. “I think probably the worst thing that could happen to an astronaut up there would be appendicitis,” says Peake. “That would really be a bad day in the office.” On the ground, they simulate as many possible disasters as they can; this week it was a toxic spill, floating in the air. It becomes clear that what test pilots and space engineers have in common is, counterintuitively perhaps, an extremely conservative attitude to risk.
He has to be able to strip a computer down to its bare elements and put it back together; he has to understand complex robotics and, of course, be able to do work like this and spacewalk at the same time. All day every day, after a 15-minute conference with the ground team, they will have to conduct experiment after experiment, using dedicated racks, each the size of an average door – a rack for fluid physics, another for physiology – experiments designed by scientists from all over the world, but also by college students and school children. They have to understand enough of the science behind them to explain it to others, all over the world. They have to manage the media – this is a distinct part of their training – and they have to be able to advocate, tirelessly: to tweet and blog and answer questions and generally bang the drum, because they are also charged with a mission to inspire, to make it possible to go deeper, higher, further. Mars? A pause. “Not right now, because I’ve got two small boys – but ask me that in a couple of years time, then absolutely, yes of course. It would be fantastic.”