Didcot Power Station gallery

[Didcot Power Station photo gallery thumbnails]

Didcot Power Station was completed in 1968. In 2013, it was closed down. At the end of July 2014, the first three of the cooling towers are due to be demolished. As a tribute to this fixture of the south Oxfordshire skyline that has become synonymous with the town, I have chosen 28 of the best photographs from my collection, taken over the last eight years. As with all my photo galleries, the images are accompanied by a few facts and some trivia about this monument to 20th century industry.

Springfield, Oxfordshire

Opening frame of "Come home to the Simpsons" showing Didcot Power Station

A few years ago, Sky Television ran a viral advertising campaign that featured a live action version of the famous opening sequence from The Simpsons, filmed at various locations in the UK, promoting Sky One as the home of The Simpsons on British television. The animated version begins with the camera swooping over the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. In the live edition, the opening frames actually show not a nuclear power station, but the coal-fired Didcot Power Station. The power station is seen briefly again half way through the clip, as “Homer” swerves across the road in his car.

In just under four weeks’ time, the three cooling towers shown at the start of the film are to be demolished in a controlled explosion. They haven’t produced steam, as seen in the video, since March last year. The remaining three cooling towers, to the north-west of the site, will be taken down at a later date, probably by mechanical means, for unspecified reasons, which may be that they are too close for comfort to the still-operating Didcot B gas fired power station.

Mill House, Sutton Courtenay

Mill House, Sutton Courtenay

But is there actually any link between The Simpsons and Didcot? Perhaps there is one rather tenuous connection. The music that accompanies the title sequence was written by Hollywood composer Danny Elfman. He is best known for his collaborations with director Tim Burton. What is probably less well known is that Tim Burton’s country residence lies in the shadow of Didcot Power Station. The house once belonged to his partner Helena Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather, prime minister H. H. Asquith. Perhaps that’s not much of a link to The Simpsons, but then the house is called Mill House

The uncertainties of independence

The Union Flag and Scottish Saltire flying in front of the Scottish Parliament building, EdinburghYesterday, all three of the main UK political parties came together in a rare show of consensus to indicate that Scotland would not be able to enter a formal currency union with the rest of the UK in the event of Scottish voters choosing independence in September’s referendum. That means if Scotland continued to use the pound, it would have no say in decisions affecting the currency such as interest rates.

Unsurprisingly, Alex Salmond has hit back and said that the UK government would soon change their tune once a “yes” vote had actually been achieved. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.

The main point here isn’t so much that of the currency – important though that is – but rather the huge uncertainty that surrounds many of the SNP’s policies following a hypothetical referendum win. They present everything as a done deal: vote for independence, and this is how things will be in Scotland. Yet they are actually merely the SNP’s aspirations of how they would like things to be. In fact, nothing is certain other than that the UK government would respect the referendum result and Scotland would become an independent country.

The SNP have already decided to fix the date on which Scotland would become independent in March 2016, barely a year and a half after the vote. In that time they would have to successfully conclude negotiations not only with the UK, but with organisations such as the EU (and all the other EU countries) and NATO. Surely the knowledge that the deadline is fixed gives those other parties the upper hand? Salmond wants Scotland to enter a Eurozone-style currency union with the rest of the UK; to join the EU on the same terms as now; to join NATO but be resolutely opposed to nuclear weapons. There is a good chance some or all of those won’t be achievable. The chances would be improved if the date for independence was left open. They could take their time to find the best settlement for all parties. What’s the hurry? Scotland has been part of the UK for over 300 years. What’s wrong with waiting a few extra years, safe in a knowledge that independence is secured, if it means a better deal for the people of Scotland?

Perhaps the answer is that elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2015. I don’t know if these would still take place following a “yes” vote, but maybe Salmond is afraid that if he left it too long, he might no longer be the First Minister, and it would be someone else’s name that would go down in history as the one leading the country to independence.

It’s clear that a vote for independence would mean a huge amount of uncertainty for the people of Scotland. No-one knows what the result of complex negotiations and legal arguments would be, and trying to finalise everything in 18 months makes it highly unlikely everything the SNP’s blueprint contains would come to fruition. It’s difficult to see why anyone apart from those with a strong ideological view of Scottish independence would vote “yes”.

No reason not to ban smoking in cars with children

Baby on board sticker in a car window - Photo by Steve and Sara Emry on Flickr, used under terms of a Creative Commons LicenceOver 700 health experts have urged MPs to vote in favour of a ban on smoking in cars where children are present. The debate is notable for the fact that everyone agrees that smoking in a car when accompanied by a child is wrong, and shouldn’t be done under any circumstances. Yet some people still argue that it shouldn’t be made illegal. One of the most prominent is Nick Clegg, a smoker, who takes exactly this line.

If something really is such a terrible thing to do, and people shouldn’t be thinking about doing it under any circumstances, why would they not want it banned by law? If decent, civil, law-abiding person would never carry out a particular activity, what’s wrong with making it illegal? The only people who would be disadvantaged by the new law are people who are irresponsible, reckless and intent on damaging a child’s health. The only reason I can see for opposing a ban is because the opponent – Nick Clegg, for example – would actually put the so-called “rights” of an adult smoker ahead of the health of a defenceless child. The argument that a ban is illiberal doesn’t hold water. If it’s something that no decent-minded person would do anyway, what rights or freedoms it is taking away? Otherwise, one may as well propose abolishing laws against murder on the grounds that murder is wrong and no-one should do it anyway.

The other argument is that the law shouldn’t be introduced because it can’t be enforced, and that education alone will suffice. It’s interesting to compare this proposed law to the law on wearing seatbelts, where enforcement has much the same challenges. It’s rare now for people in the UK to fail to wear a seatbelt, but that’s due both to public education campaigns and to laws mandating the wearing of seatbelts. No one with a driving licence should be in any doubt that they are responsible for ensuring any children in their car wear seatbelts as it’s clearly spelt out in the Highway Code. A reminder that they should prevent adults from smoking in their car would be useful too. Opponents of the law on banning smoking in cars should logically oppose the law on seatbelts too, but how many of them would actually do so? In the future, we’ll look back and wonder why smoking was ever allowed if a child was present in a vehicle, just as we would find it hard today to imagine the wearing of seatbelts not being compulsory.

Nobel prize for prestige not profit

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

In recent months there have been reports that the Nobel Foundation, the body responsible for awarding the world famous Nobel prizes, has been concerned that the prize money they offer may begin to fall behind other prizes awarded in similar fields of science. They are concerned that this will reduce the importance of the Nobel prizes, and as a result are said to be considering accepting donations or sponsorship in order to increase the value of the prize fund.

Due to performance of stock markets in the last few years, the Foundation’s investment fund now has a value in real terms of only 1.8 times that originally bequeathed by Alfred Nobel at the end of the 19th century. In 1999, the fund stood at 3 times its original value. Because of this, the Foundation had to reduce the value of the Nobel prizes this year from 10 million to 8 million Swedish kronor (£750,000). This is in the face of new prizes set up in recent years offering large prizes, for example the Fundamental Physics Prize, which offers a prize of $3 million (£1.8 m).

But does it really matter if the monetary value of a Nobel prize falls, or that there are other prizes offering more cash? I think not. The Nobel prize is the only one that the man on the street is likely to have heard of, yet the public would have no idea what its financial value was, or even that it was accompanied by a large amount of money. Likewise, scientists do not choose their field with the aim of becoming rich. If that was their concern, they would choose a different career. It is the prestige that makes the Nobel prizes special. Academic institutions are sometimes ranked by the number of Nobel laureates they have produced. The pinnacle of a famous scientist’s career is receiving the Nobel prize. That isn’t going to change just becasue the value of the prize is slightly lower.

The last thing the Nobel Foundation should do is go down the sponsorship route. That would be most inappropriate, and lead to the sort of situation that saw a prize for women’s fiction become the Baileys Prize this year. That would destroy the true value of the prize far more than any loss in financial value. Besides, there is something enigmatic about a 19th century chemist and businessman, the inventor of dynamite, leaving a large amount of money with the instruction that it be used to award prizes across a wide range of fields. The Nobel prizes will always stand apart from any others that may be introduced, and the way they are awarded and funded should be left as Alfred Nobel wished.