Dr Giuseppe Feola is lecturer in Environment and Development in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science. He writes about an historical window of opportunity for Colombian agriculture to overcome its structural crisis, and the challenges ahead.

Out of the radar of most British and European mass media, Colombia was recently shaken by an historical social mobilization that raised important questions on the future of Colombian peasantry, and exposed the unsustainability of market-based rural development models in the country.

For 21 days thousands of farmers across the country went on strike and took the highways including the vital Ruta Panamericana linking the north and the south. This was the extreme measure adopted by several organizations of smallholders to make their objections and petitions heard by the national Government. The farmers were concerned by the high production costs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, transport), and the free trade agreements with the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), which came into force in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These treaties are considered to put smallholder Colombian farmers in open competition with stronger international competitors, for example by reducing or eliminating protectionist barriers, constraining the use of native seeds in favour of certified ones, and facilitating the import of produce at low prices.

The strike had significant effects on the food prices in most of Colombian cities, with produce seeing an increase of up to 150% in the markets of Bogotá, the capital district. The protests were faced with an inconsistent approach by the government. In a 2-week time span, they were first denied, then demeaned, then violently repressed, and, finally, acknowledged with the opening of negotiation talks between representatives of the national Government and of the farmers.

This social mobilization was historical for at least two reasons. Firstly, despite the food price increase, it was widely supported by the urban middle classes. This marked a symbolic convergence between urban and rural areas, which in the last decades have been divided by a growing gap, wealth spreading -albeit unevenly- in urban areas and poverty dominating in rural ones. Secondly, the social mobilization was initiated in regions such as the Andean Department of Boyacá, in which peasant have traditionally known to be characterized by an ethos of passivity, social reserve and scarce aspirations to improve. Moreover, this social mobilization came at a crucial point in the long and sad history of violent conflict in Colombia.

The government of president Santos and the biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are negotiating a peace agreement of which rural development constitutes one of five main axes. If the recent entry into force of the above mentioned free trade agreements, and the current implementation of a governmental sustainable development plan under the slogan ‘Prosperidad para todos‘ (‘Prosperity for all‘), of which agriculture is one of five locomotoras‘ (‘locomotives’), are considered, it is apparent that the current time is a very significant window of opportunity for historic change for Colombian peasantry and Colombian agriculture more broadly.

In fact, the protest and the strike were largely the result of a decades-long crisis, address through  market-based policies that were pursued by several successive governments in substitution of a proper agrarian reform, and accompanied by the demeaning of the social, cultural and economic role that peasants play in the national economy and society. Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, land property rights are often informal and uncertain, and 65% of agricultural workers live in poverty conditions.

The liberalization of Colombian agriculture has been promoted on the assumption that the exposure of local markets to competition from regional and global ones would attract foreign investment, promote innovation and efficiency, and thus favour both the productive sector and consumers. Similarly to what observed in other Latin American countries, liberalization policies have favoured the supply of cheap food to the growing urban middle classes, but have been largely based on abstract and oversimplified neoclassical economic models that do not account for the diversity and specificity of local agricultural systems, ignore the social and cultural value -as opposed to the purely economic one- of particular farming systems, and leave little space for practices that are to not compatible with profit maximization in a competitive market.

What was actually at stake, therefore, was much more than the price of agricultural inputs, or the right to use native seeds. The social mobilization put fundamentally into question the type of rural development that Colombia decided to follow: one in which peasants and smallholders are bound to become workforce in those industrialized agricultural firms that will stand international competition, or in urban industry and services, and in which agricultural land will possibly be used to fuel other ‘locomotives‘ such as mining. However, it is not yet clear how radically the negotiations will tackle these issues. While the Minister for Agriculture recently promised an agrarian reform, the fact that grassroots peasant organization decided not to take part in the talks because not satisfied by the agenda on the table, unlike the well organized representation of more industrialized agricultural sectors, is a sign of the limited scope of the reform to come.

Is there a future for Colombian peasantry? Is there a future for small scale food production which is culturally and socially rooted in a territory, in a growingly globalized and liberalized agri-food system? Will the urban middle class be willing to concretize the symbolic support for peasants, for example by paying an extra price for food produced locally and at small scale, but inevitably at higher cost? Will peasant and smallholders, on their hand, manage to develop practices that are socially and culturally meaningful, but more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient? Most importantly, how radically is the Colombian government ready, or able, to discuss current models of rural development? Will peasants and indigenous populations have a say in this process? Colombian agriculture faces transformative pressures, but it is in the hand of the Government and the interested parties to shape the breath, depth and direction of this transformation.

hijabIn light of the continuing debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a veil in public, Dr Amy Codling (Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading’s School of Law) discusses the findings from her doctoral thesis, which she successfully defended last year. 

In September this year public and political debate in Britain was once again sparked on whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a veil in public. On 15 September, sitting in Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Peter Murphy held that if a Muslim woman who wears a niqab (face-veil) chooses to give evidence in court, she must do so with her face uncovered (although it would be shielded from the view of the general public).

It is not the first time that the issue has been raised in the courtroom. In November 2006, during an immigration trial hearing, Judge George Glossop asked Muslim lawyer Shabnam Mughal to remove her niqab while she made her submissions, claiming that he could not hear her properly. Legal controversy on the veil previously ignited following prohibitions imposed by Headteachers and Governors of state schools on the wearing of a niqab and jilbab (a long cloak-like garment that covers the body except the hands and face) by a teaching assistant and student, respectively.

The legal basis of the claims were either as a form of discrimination in Employment Law or as an infringement of a woman’s human right to manifest her religion. As a result of these claims, both the Employment Appeal Tribunal and House of Lords held that decisions which prohibit the wearing of a veil in schools are legitimate and proportionate to the aims of a liberal democratic society. Several European Governments (such as France and Belgium) have even enacted laws to prohibit veils from being worn in schools and in public. Following recent Judge Murphy’s decision in the Crown Court the question once again has been raised: should Britain enact a law to ban the veil from being worn in public?

For my PhD research, I conducted four focus group discussions with Muslim women who wear a hijab (headscarf) or niqab and live in Britain. The objective was to capture their views and experiences of the practice. This research is important as what is excluded from the current debate in Britain are the voices of women who wear the garments themselves.

Seventeen voluntarily participants, aged between 18 to 36 years of age, contributed to the discussions which were held at the University of Reading and two Muslim organisations in Bracknell and Manchester. All of the participants wore a hijab (with two exceptions, one wore a niqab and the other no longer wore the hijab). The participants were from a variety or family origins (for example, the Middle East, Mauritius and Somalia) and had a range of socio-economic backgrounds (such as being a house wife, contractual negotiator for a finance company as well as students on a variety of courses, including law and psychology). The views and experiences put forward by the participants are not intended to inform a generalizable account of the perspectives of women who wear a hijab or niqab and live in Britain: they simply reflect the personal day-to-day account of these seventeen participants.

Three key findings of the study are: first, the term ‘veil’ is inappropriate in reference to the practice of Muslim women covering their heads, bodies and faces in public. This is because the participants stated that this generic term describes a range of different garments, such as a hijab, jilbab, niqab and burqa (the hijab, jilbab and niqab worn together), and is used by opponents to promote a negative image of the practice (for instance, that Muslim women build a barrier between themselves and the rest of society). Accordingly, it is important that the precise description of a garment is used.

Second, during the discussions participants highlighted the connection between wearing a hijab or niqab and their personal relationship with God. Examples of participants needing to explain their reasons for covering to others, overcomes the assumption that all Muslim women who wear a hijab or niqab are oppressed by male members of their family or community. The way in which participants wore a hijab or niqab in their own particular style, fusing traditional Islamic dress with modern Western fashion trends, points to the existence of a space in which these women exercise freedom and creative capacity to construct their own identities.

Finally, overall, the study participants reported positive experiences of living in British society and following Islam. Britain provides religious tolerance and respect as well as education for women. As the participants reported making their own personal decision to wear a hijab or a niqab, none would remove the garments if prohibited by law.

Due to the findings from the study, my thesis is that no law should be enacted in Britain to ban a hijab, jilbab, niqab or burqa from being worn in public. This is because the existence of diverse religious and cultural identities forms an important part of the modern British collective identity. Instead, these garments should be recognised as Islamic ‘religious law’ and be protected as a human right for its wearer to manifest her religious beliefs.

Can we mend broken hearts?

Professor Peter Kruschwitz is Professor of Classics Mending broken heartsat Reading and a specialist in Latin Language and Literature.

The fence around the University of Reading’s Humanities and Social Science (HumSS) Building is currently decorated with images and captions illustrating Reading’s desire to be ‘asking big questions.’ One of the captions, attributed to Dr Sam Boateng from the School of Biological Sciences, asks: ‘Can we mend broken hearts?’

The caption, a playful curtsy to Reading’s leadership in cardiovascular research, reminded me of a passage attributed to the Latin poet Lygdamus, a love-poet of the first century B. C., who wrote in his Elegies 2.1-6:

Qui primus caram iuueni carumque puellae
eripuit iuuenem, ferreus ille fuit.
durus et ille fuit, qui tantum ferre dolorem,
uiuere et erepta coniuge qui potuit.
non ego firmus in hoc, non haec patientia nostro
ingenio: frangit fortia corda dolor.

‘He who first robbed a young man of his love, and a girl of her beloved, that person was made of iron. Hard, too, was he who could bear such pain, and who could live, with the partner snatched away. I am not strong in that respect, nor is there such endurance in my mind: pain makes brave hearts break.’

The image of heartbrokenness – ancient, yet familiar – begins to intrigue: how can a heart be broken, how can it get broken? Is it just the lack of resilience to emotional strain, one’s weakness, as Lygdamus suggests?

A possible answer can be found in even earlier Latin literature, in an author of the third and second centuries B. C. As far as one can tell from the fragmentary transmission of Latin literature, it may in fact have been the comic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, who first employed it in his comedy Cistellaria (‘Casket Comedy’). In this play, Plautus has a lovesick young man called Alcesimarchus say (Cistellaria 221–2):

‘maritumis moribus mecum experitur: ita meum frangit amantem animum.’

‘He handles me the way the (stormy) sea would do: thus he breaks my lovesick heart.’

Plautus exploits the imagery of a ship exposed to the heavy sea, battered by the waves, lacking direction, and ultimately crushed to pieces by the forces of nature to describe the battles, external and internal, that Alcesimarchus has to face in his quest for fulfilled love.

From here it is only a small step to the image’s predominant use outside the realm of Latin poetry: here, animum frangere is frequently used particularly as an image denoting the ‘crushing of someone’s spirit’ (rather than heart itself – the Latin term covers both facets).

Yet, in Latin writing it does not always have to be debilitating trauma that may result in the proverbial ‘broken heart’. Quintilian, Rome’s first professor of Latin, when discussing the best way in which to design the epilogue to a courtroom speech, suggests in his Institutio Oratoria (11.3.170):

‘si misericordia commouendos, flexum uocis et flebilem suauitatem, qua praecipue franguntur animi quaeque est maxime naturalis: nam etiam orbos uiduasque uideas in ipsis funeribus canoro quodam modo proclamantis.’

‘If they (sc. the judges) are to be moved by pity, (sc. employ) an inflexion of the voice and a whiney sweetness, by which hearts are broken first and foremost, yet which is most natural: for you see parents bereft of their children, and you see widows, at the very funerals, lamenting in that peculiar song-like voice.’

Even this very small selection of Latin usages of the image of the broken heart does show: pain, worries, sorrow (and ultimately: death) are deeply connected to it – and the idea of suffering and even of death due to a broken heart (figuratively, not literally speaking) is not alien to the medical profession.

What is interesting to a linguistic scholar, of course, is how a verbal image that started its life as a poetic metaphor can be appropriated by the language of science – a language that often (albeit incorrectly) is deemed objective and descriptive.

The image of the broken heart that Dr Boateng uses in his big question is by no means an exception in that respect. Instead, it even adds another facet to it: the allusion to the image does not restore a literal facet of the phrase ‘broken heart’ that did not exist in its figurative use – hearts, unless subject to substantial physical force, do not literally break into pieces, like a clay vessel if dropped. Instead, it combines the pre-existing image with that of a broken piece of machinery (an engine, perhaps), thus expanding the metaphoric use rather than restricting it.

Dr Boateng asks a big question: ‘Can we mend broken hearts?’ – and I very much hope he can (or that he will be able to do that one day in the very near future). An even bigger question than this could be: ‘Should we mend broken hearts?’ One must not be cynical when it comes to deeply unsettling matters; yet, the answer to this question, whether for the scientific or the poetic use of the phrase, will have to remain a philosophical one.

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Professor Richard Tiffin, Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading discusses the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security, published this week.

The House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security is a comprehensive and challenging attempt to highlight some of the issues which confront us with this complex problem.

The report highlights: the potential of GM to contribute to food security but recognises that care must be excercised in promoting this as a solution; the importance of agricultural research; the importance of open international markets in protecting against shocks; and that a focus on malnutrition may be as, if not more, important than that of hunger.

However, while the aim of the report is to take a global focus, it is perhaps guilty of oversimplifying the issue of meat production and coming to locally-centred, rather than global, conclusions. It notes that the rate of increase in meat consumption is unsustainable and recommends that meat should be promoted as an occasional product. By highlighting the place of animals in ensuring global food security the report is to be applauded but the reality is that this area is complex and not well understood at the moment.

It is irrefutable that demand for meat globally will grow as populations become richer.  At a local level, it might be sensible for us to reduce meat consumption and the reality is that price increases will probably lead us to do this voluntarily.  At a global level, however, it is much more important to consider how the inevitable increase in demand can be met and what its implications are for human health. We should not solely focus our attention on repelling the tide.

The report correctly states that we need to identify sustainable livestock systems, but it is not necessarily true that extensive pasture-based systems are more sustainable. For example there is evidence to suggest that more intensive feeding reduces the emission of greenhouse gases caused by livestock.  The role played by livestock in providing a route out of poverty for some of the poorest farmers should also not be overlooked.

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Dr Rebecca Bullard from the Department of English Literature asks whether the digital revolution means we no longer have a need for old books? 

Bringing old books to life

In an attack on the censorship of books, the poet John Milton declared that ‘Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’ Milton’s metaphor, taken from alchemy, claims that books store (like a vial, or ‘violl’) the distilled genius of their authors. These books, Milton claims, are kept alive by the elixir of their authors’ ideas. Other writers from the ‘early modern’ period (roughly, 1500-1750) were not so confident that an author’s spirit would be enough to keep a book alive. Jonathan Swift remarked, gloomily, that ‘Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming in to the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.’ Swift imagined books literally torn apart, their pages turned into firelighters, pie-tin liners, and toilet paper.

Research in early modern English literature has sought ways to preserve our printed heritage in ways that would have been beyond even Swift and Milton’s prodigious powers of imagination. A digital turn in humanities research has led to the creation of an array of resources designed to preserve early modern literary culture for current and future generations. Our University Library subscribes to several of these, including the extraordinary Early English Books Online (EEBO), which offers readers digital images of every page of almost every book published in the British Isles from the earliest days of printing in the late fifteenth century to the year 1700. Researchers at Reading are, themselves, responsible for such e-resources as Verse Miscellanies Online, an online edition of some of the most popular poetry anthologies of the English Renaissance, and a database of Italian Academy Libraries that allows users to enter the world of early humanist learning. Digitisation not only has the capacity to keep books alive and in the public domain but also, through functions such as word searchability and image recognition, to generate new avenues of research.

Does the digital revolution mean, then, that bytes store the ‘efficacie and extraction’ of living intellects better than books? Keeping special collections of rare books in libraries is a costly business – one that resources like EEBO might seem to make redundant. If we regard books simply as repositories of words or texts, the answer might be ‘yes’. But both Milton and Swift make it quite clear that books are more than just inert containers for the words that they contain. These authors draw attention to the life (and potential death) embodied, materially, in the physical document that is a book. Many of us in Reading’s English Department are carrying out research into early modern ‘material texts’ which demonstrates that books communicate with their readers in ways that cannot easily be captured in electronic form.

The codex – the folded series of pages that many of us think of, automatically, as the default form of the book – exists not just in two but in three dimensions. It has a depth and, therefore, a weight that eludes the virtual world of digital representation. Think about the last book that you read. You almost certainly made judgements about it based on its size and weight even before you opened the covers. And you were probably conscious of the peculiarly tangible form of narrative progress represented by turning pages. The knowledge that one is ‘104 of 286’ pages through a book – the kind of information imparted by a digital edition – cannot capture an aspect of reading material texts that is determined by the sense of touch more than abstract mental processing.

Perhaps even more significantly, digital texts give the misleading impression that the facsimile of a document that we see on our screens provides the definitive version of the text it contains. It conceals the fact that every early modern text is handmade and therefore unique. In this period, setting type, printing sheets, collation, and binding all took place in separate processes and separate places. No two texts produced in the pre-industrial era are exactly identical. Sometimes the differences can be quite radical. Authors were able to make alterations to the words of their texts (known as ‘stop-press corrections’) in the middle of the printing process. Paper and labour being expensive, no bookseller would withhold the uncorrected version from public view. Consequently, early modern texts often circulated in more than one version, even within ostensibly the same edition. When owners got their hands on books, the differences between texts could become even more striking. Early modern readers liked to scribble in books, adding notes and even blotting out words. An example of this practice can be found in images of the playwright Ben Jonson’s collected works, now held in Reading University Library’s Special Collections, which show the inky assault that one early reader made on Jonson’s plays.

Of course, the existence of digital editions does not in and of itself preclude researchers from consulting material editions of early modern texts. And digital resources like the one used to capture the images of Ben Jonson’s inked-out plays demonstrate that new technology can disseminate information about the unique characteristics of particular early modern documents. I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the digitisation of early modern texts – far from it. I do, however, want to draw attention to the limitations of electronic facsimiles, and to the advantages of carrying out the kind of archival research that leaves the smell of centuries-old paper, ink, leather (and concomitant dirt) on one’s fingertips. It is expensive to maintain archives of rare books, to conserve and catalogue early modern print. But old books bring to life the words of Swift, Milton and other early modern authors, as well as the cultures that fostered and first read them, in ways that cannot be matched by any digital ‘violl’.

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Professor Richard Tiffin from the Centre for Food Security ponders on whether introducing a minimum price per unit will calm our drinking culture.

Introducing a minimum price for alcohol has been back in the news, with claims that the government is planning to back-track on its commitment to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol.  This is perhaps not surprising since the case for its introduction has never been made with any degree of clarity and it is relatively easy to provide evidence for very mixed and perhaps undesirable impacts.  For example it is clear that the tax will have little impact on the price of alcohol sold ‘on-licence’ where the average price of alcohol is already £1.16 per unit.  It’s also unclear whether the tax will target the people who really matter.  Perhaps surprisingly, highest alcohol consumption occurs amongst people who are classified as being in ‘high managerial’ occupations and the lowest levels are amongst the unemployed.  Because the unemployed tend to consume cheap drink however, they will bear more of the burden of the minimum price along with people in the North East, single parents and the over sixties.

There is no doubt that for many individuals alcohol consumption is dangerously high, and that the trend in alcohol consumption is worrying.  Using price to tackle this is attractive because virtually everyone understands the law of demand: price up, quantity down. But the apparent simplicity of this law is deceptive: first because changes in quantity are marginal, people with high levels of consumption continue to drink a lot, just a bit less than before; and second, because people will substitute some of the reduction in more expensive spirits with wine for which the price doesn’t change.

We should recognise that drinking is a deeply cultural activity and for some it is undoubtedly a form of self-medication. Attempts to address the problem should be framed accordingly.  Like smoking, real progress will only be made when it is clear that high levels of alcohol consumption are culturally unacceptable.  Further, increasing the financial pressure on those that are least able to cope with it may worsen the problems that lead to self-medication.

There is no doubt that we should remove the ‘cheap booze’ culture from society and that doing so will save lives.  The question remains however as to whether putting the price up is too simplistic a way of addressing this problem.

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Samuel Beckett

Saturday 5 January marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most important plays of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’.

As the global centre for Beckett research and home to the world’s largest Beckett archive, the University of Reading is playing a leading role in furthering our understanding of the influence of the great Irish playwright.

Professor Anna McMullan from the University’s Department of Film, Theatre and Television is leading the research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Here she discusses the legacy of the play and it’s impact on modern theatre.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot changed the rules of twentieth century theatre. Written in French, En Attendant Godot premiered in Paris, France, at the small Théâtre de Babylone on 5 January 1953, 60 years ago.

Now one of the best known plays of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, En Attendant Godot at first shocked and confused audiences – they had never seen anything quite like it. One French critic (Gabriel Marcel in Les Nouvelles Littéraires on 15 January 1953) recommended the play, but warned that it did not resemble any kind of existing theatre. Sir Peter Hall, who directed the English language premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1955, argued that: “Beckett has changed … the way we act, the way we write and the way we direct in the theatre”.

Godot highlights what French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet called ‘being there’. It has little plot beyond the fact of waiting for Godot, and little on stage to distract the two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir (or the audience) from their waiting. It therefore confronts us with the basic facts of embodied human existence: pain, hunger and sleep, yet conjures lively comedy from the tramps’ apparent improvisations in order to pass the time. It also emphasises interdependence in an unpredictable and unequal world which may offer relief or cruelty. Pozzo’s enslavement of Lucky has become a powerful image of oppression yet dependence: Godot has spoken to cultures in conflict and communities under stress across the globe, from Cape Town, South Africa in 1980, to Haifa, Israel, in 1984, Sarajevo during the siege in 1993, and post-hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2007.

The legacy of Godot continues to influence theatre across the world but what role has it, and Beckett himself, played in shaping modern theatre practice in the UK and Ireland? We know that Beckett influenced playwrights from Edward Albee to Harold Pinter and the African American writer Suzan-Lori Park, but what about the impact of Beckett’s theatre on the many directors, designers, performers, companies and venues that staged his work the length and breadth of these islands?

A scene from ‘Waiting for Godot’

Much is known about Sir Peter Hall’s productions of Godot across the decades, and the Gate Theatre Dublin’s Festival of 19 Beckett plays first launched in 1991, but we want to discover if there were other productions of Beckett that left an indelible mark on those who worked on them and those who saw them. When was Beckett first performed in the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey or the Lyric Theatre Belfast and what and how were those productions received? Did ways of directing Beckett change over the decades?

The project will see Reading, with project partners the University of Chester and the Victoria and Albert Museum, create a database and research materials relating to all professional productions of Beckett’s theatre throughout the UK and Ireland. This will be a pilot for a national performance database holding information about UK past and future performances of Beckett in the UK and Ireland. Once completed, the database will be an important online tool for Beckett researchers worldwide.

Academics and researchers at the University of Reading are continuing to explore the impact of Beckett on twenty first century literature, philosophy, culture and media, visual and performing arts. Indeed 2013 marks another anniversary: the Beckett International Foundation was launched 25 years ago in 1988, in order to further the study and appreciation of the work of Samuel Beckett.

60 years on from the first performance ‘Godot’s influence remains undiminished yet we won’t have to wait long before we uncover more about this seminal play.

Notes

The University of Reading’s Beckett Collection is the world’s largest collection of resources relating to Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). It is home to over 600 items of original Beckett material, including manuscript drafts, annotated copies and corrected copies, nearly 500 editions of Beckett’s work in more than 20 languages and stage files relating to over 680 productions of Beckett plays.

A conference will be held 4-7 April 2013 in celebration of both the anniversaries and will be accompanied by a series of workshops and public

The Met Office confirmed this morning that 2012 was the wettest year on record for England, and the second wettest ever for the UK as a whole. Dr Roger Brugge, from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, analyses the weather records from the University’s own climatalogical station during 2012.

2012 was a year in which precipitation and its impacts were uppermost in the minds of most people. With 821 mm of rain falling at the University of Reading, it was the wettest year since 2000 when 852 mm fell. The only other wetter years since 1917 at the university were in 1951 (when 896 mm fell), 1927 (858 mm) and 1960 (with 841 mm).

In Reading the year began with three dry months, with May also being on the dry side. Worthy of note in March were the 23rd and 24th (when 20.1°C was reached each day) and the 28th (when 21.4°C was recorded). The latter date came close to passing the highest March temperature on record at the University in 1965, when 22.8°C was recorded. Both January and March average 1 degC above normal – they were the only months of 2012 that could be said to be much warmer than normal.

April brought the imposition of hosepipe bans – whereupon it promptly turned wet with 120 mm of rain falling in the month, making it the wettest April locally since 2000. This was followed by a dry May – the eleventh dry month since the beginning of March 2011. With more days reaching 25°C in May than in any other May over the past 50 years hopes were beginning to build of a good summer, albeit with drought restrictions.

But it was not to be. June turned wet with 123 mm of rain falling, making it the wettest June in the town since 1971 with the longest rainless spell lasting just two days. In fact all the cloud in June made it duller than March. But at least by early July all hosepipe bans had been lifted.

July was quite cool and also wetter than average although August was slightly drier than normal. But, again, the perception was of a poor, dull summer. August, despite temperatures being close to average, was the sunniest month of 2012 (with 193 hours of sunshine) – meaning that 2012 was the first year locally since 1988 in which no month recorded 200 hours of sunshine. So maybe impressions were right?

September brought close to normal rainfall amounts, but the final three months of 2012 were wet – with local flooding, especially in December as rain continued to fall on saturated ground. With both October and December recording over 100 mm of rain (with 128 mm October was the wettest month of the year) Reading experienced four months in 2012 reaching this mark – the first time this has happened for at least 95 years.

Early December brought a hint of winter when the maximum temperature on the 12th being just -1.6°C, the coldest December day since 1991.

Overall, temperatures were slightly lower than normal (by 0.2 degC) making it the coldest year since 2010 (which was 0.7 degC colder). Sunshine totals came out at just above average – largely thanks to the sunny months of March and September.

  • Highlights of the weather in 2012:
  • 821 mm of rain made it the wettest year since 2000 when 852 mm fell.
  • The only other wetter years since 1917 at the university were in 1951 (896 mm), 1927 (858 mm) and 1960 (841 mm).
  • 21.4°C on 28 March was close to the highest March temperature on record at the University (22.8°C in 1965).
  • April was the wettest April locally since 2000.
  • May was the eleventh dry month since the beginning of March 2011.
  • June was the wettest June in the town since 1971. June was duller than March this year.
  • 2012 was the first year locally since 1988 in which no month recorded 200 hours of sunshine.
  • The final three months of 2012 were wet with local flooding.
  • There were four months during 2012 when over 100 mm of rain fell, the first time this has happened locally for at least 95 years.
  • The maximum temperature of -1.6°C on 12 December made this the coldest December day since 1991.
  • Overall, temperatures were slightly lower than normal (by 0.2 degC) making it the coldest year since 2010 (which was 0.7 degC colder).
  • Sunshine totals came out at just above average – largely thanks to the sunny months of March and September.

This summary of the weather of 2012, produced by Roger Brugge and Mike Stroud, is based on daily observations made at the University of Reading climatological station. For more details on the observations of 2012 contact r.brugge@reading.ac.uk.

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Do they know it’s Christmas?

Food prices hit low income groups hardest in UK but have a much greater impact in the developing world. Professor Richard Tiffin from the University of Reading’s Centre for Food Security explains why. 

Last week saw the publication of the UK Government’s Family Food Survey for 2011.  The report, which for the first time in some years, includes elasticities of demand estimated by our own Centre for Food Security, highlights the impact of an overall 26% increase in the price of the UK’s food between 2007 and 2011.  Increases in the price of fruit and lamb of 26% and 55% in that period, for example, have resulted in reduced purchases of 10% and 33%, respectively.

It is important to recognise that these price changes do not affect the population evenly.  In the UK we spend on average 11% of our income on food. This rises to 17% when we look at the 20% of households with the lowest levels of income. As a result, changes in food purchases are larger amongst low income groups.  For example, the reduction in fruit consumption rises to 16% when only low income households are included.  Because low income households spend more on food and food prices have increased by more than those of other goods, the inflation rate affecting low income households is higher.  Between 2006 and 2009 the inflation rate for the lowest 10% of households by income was over 13%, whilst that for the highest was just over 11%.

The difference in the proportion of income spent on food is even starker when considering the picture globally.  In Ethiopia, for example, the average household spends 60% of its income on food.  In a world where, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the price of food is one and half times higher than in 2000, the impact on these households is clear.  Increased expenditure is not an option and all that can be done is to trade-down and reduce food consumption.  The factors causing these price rises are complex and include climate change, growth in demand from middle income countries and closer integration between energy and food markets.  What is clear however is that the impact on food consumption in the developing world is potentially devastating.

As Christmas parties rock to the sound of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ it is worth reflecting that almost thirty years after Band Aid, we still have a billion hungry people on the planet and a further billion suffering from malnutrition. A famine not dissimilar to that which prompted Bob Geldof into action is unfolding in the Sahel where cereal production is 26% below last year; Chad and Gambia are experiencing 50% reductions. Prices will rise as supply fails to meet demand and as a result more than 16 million people are officially at risk.

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Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Professor Tim Dixon from the School of Construction Management and Engineering discusses the importance of investigating the social sustainability of housing developments.In an era dominated by climate change debate and environmentalism there is a real danger that the important ‘social’ pillar of sustainability drops out of our vocabulary. This can happen at a variety of scales from business level through to building and neighbourhood level regeneration and development. Social sustainability should be at the heart of all housing and mixed-use development but for a variety of reasons tends to be frequently underplayed, and the English city riots last year brought this point back sharply into focus. The relationships between people, places and the local economy all matter and this is as true today as it was in the late 19th century when Patrick Geddes, the great pioneering town planner and ecologist, wrote of ‘place-work-folk’.

In the current recession, where house-building has fallen to an all-time low in the UK, it is therefore not only important that we build more homes in the right place but that those homes link and integrate with existing communities. Two key questions stem from this: what exactly is social sustainability and how do we measure it?

One way in which social sustainability can be understood is in terms of an outcome of place-making, or designing places that are attractive to live in. So social sustainability can be seen as being about people’s quality of life now and in the future, and describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. Social sustainability therefore combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in and use a space relate to each other and function as a community. It is enhanced by development which provides the right infrastructure to support a strong social and cultural life, opportunities for people to get involved, and scope for the place and the community to evolve.

However house builders have historically shied away from confronting how to measure what is seen by many as a ‘slippery’ concept.  Despite this, the Berkeley Group recently commissioned research to assess and measure the social sustainability of four of its housing developments using an independently developed framework consisting of three dimensions: ‘infrastructure and social amenities’, ‘voice and influence’ and ‘social and cultural life’, which are underpinned by 13 indicators. Data from 45 questions tied into national datasets were used to underpin the indicators, and primary data was collected from face to face surveys and a site survey on the housing developments.

The research is an honest and independent appraisal of one house builders’ new housing developments. In the four developments (which were all in London and the south east) the research found that whilst people in the developments felt they belonged to the community, talked to neighbours regularly and planned to stay in the community, there were also negative feelings about feeling less like they played an important part in things and are less likely to pull together to improve the neighbourhood. Overall though, the developments scored well on well-being and safety compared with comparable places and national benchmarks.

Recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, and the emergence of localism and well-being agendas have started to move social sustainability centre stage, and the next phase of this research is set to examine how new developments impact directly on the communities in which they are located. Long-term stewardship of housing developments is therefore likely to become increasingly important.

 Tim Dixon is professor of sustainable futures in the built environment in the School of Construction Management and Engineering. He also leads the new University of Reading’s Sustainability in the Built Environment (SustBE) research programme and is a research associate of the Walker Institute. His personal research revolves around the interface between the sustainability agenda and its impact on property development, investment and occupation. The research is based on a strong interdisciplinary approach which incorporates policy and practice impacts and futures thinking. The research (carried out by Social Life and University of Reading) on which this blog is based has recently been published by Berkeley Group in their report, ‘Creating Strong Communities’ (www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/sustainability/socialsustainability).

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