River Safety – No Simple Solutions

River safety has been a hot topic in Durham recently, with three students killed and now another rescued from the river in the middle of the night. Understandably, conversations have turned to how to prevent this happening again in the future, and a petition to “install CCTV cameras along the river banks, add some lighting for the safety of the public and/build a railing to ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore. “ These events are tragic, and have been deeply upsetting to the residents of Durham. There’s no wonder that people are demanding that something, anything, be done by the University, the Police or the County Council.

But there’s a need to be sensible about how we go about it. This isn’t just about the river, it’s about people as well. In general the idea of additional lighting and CCTV cameras in the area isn’t a bad one, at the very least the worry and uncertainty of not knowing what has happened will be reduced. I applaud the people who signed that petition for wanting to take steps to prevent deaths in the river. But these suggestions are just treating the symptoms of a much worse underlying problem. Ignoring for the moment the costs and practicalities of some of these measures (and not even bothering to address the ridiculousness of staffed or locked gates being installed to stop access at night that others have raised), we are still facing an underlying issue which people do not want to acknowledge.

The fact is, that people do not just fall in the river for no reason. Nor is it a malevolent force which has to be guarded against. The paths are, for the most part, not dangerous or crumbling. The world is inherently dangerous – we face dangers every day. However for the most part we avoid these dangers by awareness and care. This is not the case when people are impaired by alcohol.

It is abundantly clear at this point that alcohol is playing a major role in these incidents. The Police have pointed this out, and the University response to the situation is very aware of this. This is not intended as victim blaming. These incidents remain tragic accidents, but we have to acknowledge that alcohol significantly enhances the probability of being involved in an accident. People who are drunk make poorer decisions, are less able both physically and mentally to respond to dangerous situations, and are generally more vulnerable to conditions such as hypothermia. These particular accidents all ended with the river, but the individuals concerned were in danger long before that. All of the barriers and cameras in the world can’t change this. If it wasn’t the river then we would still be having problems with hypothermia, car accidents, violence and muggings involving individuals in this condition.

There are no simple solutions to this problem either of course – if there was we’d have solved the problem long ago. There are sensible, practical steps we can take though. These can be implemented at every level: the university could stress safety in its induction process, colleges could encourage students to stay there, the DSU could step up and actually be an active force in student’s lives (holding events where alcohol isn’t the main focus), Team Durham and sports groups could encourage socials which are not centred solely around drinking – and so on. Some of these solutions may end up being counter-intuitive – keeping college bars open later so that students pace themselves is an example of this. It isn’t going to be easy, drinking is heavily ingrained into student life, and it is far from easy to change a culture. The solutions aren’t simple, and you can’t solve this by throwing money or personnel at the problem. Fence off the entire river, and all you’ll find is people climbing over the fence or taking a shortcut through traffic instead. The University, the Police and the Council can do things to help, but they’re complicated, hard and might not always work. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

Most importantly, at the very end of the day, it does also need to come down to personal responsibility. Look out for yourselves and look out for your friends. The University, the Police and the Council aren’t there to protect you from yourself.


Bob Mooches Around the Free Fringe

I love the Edinburgh Fringe. Sometimes.

Last weekend I made the arduous journey northwards through the signal-less wastes of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders to visit one of my favourite cities. I adore Edinburgh; it’s the nearest major city to the town I grew up in, so I have a lot of fond childhood and teenage memories of visiting the place. Oddly though, we never used to go to the Fringe. I really don’t enjoy crowds, the last bus home was too early, and I wasn’t really into stand-up comedy before starting uni. These days though I seem to end up in Edinburgh about once a month visiting one of my best friends (Jono – more on that mess later), and I’ve started a bit of an annual tradition of popping up for a weekend and going to free fringe shows with my good friend Robbie.

This year I decided to go up on the Friday night and stay until lunchtime on Sunday – a good couple of evening’s worth of shows and crashing on Robbie’s inflatable mattress, ideal. Then on Thursday morning a Facebook invite pops up for a Pizza Party at Jocelyn’s place on the Sunday evening. Never one to pass up the perfect foodstuff I decided to change tickets, extend my stay, and crash on Jono’s futon on the Sunday night.

Rookie error. I won’t go into the details, but Royal Mail’s “special delivery” which is “guaranteed by 1pm” is none of those things and nearly resulted in me being trapped in Edinburgh. Fortunately East Coast’s customer service is top notch and they sorted spare tickets out for me. An argument for nationalisation if ever I heard one. But let’s move on.

Day 1: Friday – Glitter and Puppets and Drag Queens, Oh My!

No sooner have I dropped off my bag at Robbie’s than the phone rings with Jono encouraging us to go pre-drinking at Katie’s. This is the point where I realise that my plans for a couple of quiet pints have already been dashed against the rocks of Jono’s agenda for the evening. Two pints later and sure enough the four of us are on our way over to a 20 act free show extravaganza at Dive at the Forest Café (“a volunteer run, not-for-profit arts and events space masquerading as a groovy veggie café in the heart of Edinburgh”). The following few hours are something of a glittery blur, but based on the Facebook timings I think these are the acts we saw:


TWONKEY’S PRIVATE RESTAURANT – “**** a surrealist’s wet dream”

BORIS AND SERGEY’S ASTONISHING FREAKATORIUM – highly acclaimed freaky puppet clown artistry

ADRIENNE TRUSCOTT – winner malcolm hardee award 2013

LEAH KALAITZI – shhh! deaf stand up with bsl interpreter.

EAST END CABARET – winner best cabaret adelaide fringe 2012

OPHELIA BITZ – “voice of an angel…mouth of a filthy gutter-slut.” time out london

LAURIE BLACK – filthy songstress

MCGINN – Songs For Glitter Fetishists

MARKEE DE SAW – musical saw-ceress

BLUDSLUGS – chick raaawwwwwwk!!

CHERRYFOX – burlesque fascinatrix and ‘sing-and-fling’ show grrrl

FIGS IN WIGS – Abstract, hilarious, surreal performance with dancing

LAKE MONTGOMERY – award-winning singer/songwriter from Paris, Texas

COLIN MAGUIRE – spoken word in spandex and a shopping trolley

LACH – antifolk guru and star of BBC radio 4

Of these my top picks are probably The Bludslugs, Boris and Sergey’s Atonishing Freakatorium, and Lake Montgomery. Bludslugs are the Dive house band who rocked pretty hard in (inexplicably) outfits made from carrier bags. Their Soundcloud is here, but they’re a lot better live. B&S’s AF are an improv puppet show – which is a lot better than it sounds. Here’s a sample, although what we saw was substantially more x-rated, and had voices, and puppet sex. Lake Montgomery does really good acoustic music stuff – she has a great voice and is well worth checking out. The rest of the acts were all pretty decent too, and we managed to satisfy Jono’s drag queen quota for the weekend. The compère for the evening was also really good, and performed some cracking Cabaret numbers. Forest Café is a really cool little intimate venue, well worth checking out, and I get the sense that Dive is pretty popular monthly event outside the festival as well. I can see me and Jono ending up there at some point in the not too distant future.

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Day 2: Saturday – Serial Killers, Dildos and a massively racist Japanese Man

Festival top tip: Embo Café/Deli on Leith Walk makes a gorgeous breakfast wrap thing. Also, since it’s on Leith Walk it’s a tourist free zone.

Our plan for Saturday was to just set up in a free venue for the entire afternoon and check out whatever free acts we fancied. Jekyll and Hyde has long been one of my favourite pubs in Edinburgh, and hosts a whole load of Laughing Horse Free Fringe Events. We managed to get a good group of a dozen or so people up for this (including 6 Durhamers!), so we hogged a big table as people dipped in and out of events.

All the Fun of the Fairburn

Rachel Fairburn’s stand up was our first show of the day, and as usual we had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. What followed was an hour of pretty solid stand up about (amongst other things) the family curse, family funeral parlour and her slight obsession with serial killers. Best part? Free serial killer colouring book at the end. The audience was a little disappointing for this show, but I think that’s par for the course at a free event at lunchtime.

Freddie Farrell & Friends

This was one of those free stand up shows which are actually adverts for comedian’s real shows. Short sub-10-minute sets from 6 different comics trying to get you to come along to their own shows. Varying quality, but mostly quite good – these kinds of shows are never a bad idea if you’re looking for things to go to later on. Alex and Mark went along to one of their shows later (101 one liners) and claim it was pretty good.


This was a show I was excited about from the moment I saw the description. Which I’ll include in its entirety below:

Nymphonerdiac: one’s a nymph, the other’s a nerd and here’s where the twain shall meet. When sex-crazed pole dancing Carmen Ali, and Neanderthal expert Ella Murray first met, Ali offered Murray a threesome, which surprised Murray because she barely gets invited to twosomes. First impressions of each other aside, this year they bring you a stand-up show where their worlds collide like never before, like two atoms in the Hadron Collider, or when cum hits you in the eye. Come along … unless you’re under 18.”

This was right up me and Jono’s alley – because frankly “one’s a nymph, the other’s a nerd” pretty much sums up our friendship. The show itself didn’t disappoint at all. Ella Murray had a some really funny material about jawbones and her (slightly concerning) stalking of another fringe performer. Carmen Ali’s stuff had us simultaneously laughing and cringing in horror at jokes about taking shots out of a mooncup and having anal so rough that you could feel your heartbeat down there the next day. Really funny stuff. The only thing I’d have like to see more of was the two of them playing off each other, as it was the show was more like two separate 30 minute stand up sets. Well worth a watch though.

Ben Norris

Moving on from Jekyll and Hyde we decided to wander over to the Cowgate to change things up a little. We lost a few people as they hared off to get food or see other shows, leaving a core of 6 of us to head along to the rest of the evening. We ran across a little outside bar tent which was conveniently quiet to have a break and a couple of beers whilst remarking upon the DJ duo’s remarkable resemblance to George Michael and Channing Tatum.

Handily enough a Ben Norris show started right next to us, so we headed in to see that. This was a fairly good, regular stand up show – I’d describe his stuff as perhaps a kinder, gentler Louis CK. Generally pretty good, although you could tell he was getting a bit annoyed at the crowd. I don’t think the 40-60 year old council retirees in the front 4 rows were the target audience for jokes about toddlers and pooping.

“Japanese TerminatoL”

Do not go to this show.

I don’t really want to dwell on it too much, because it was just awful. A solid hour of racism and nothing else. The highlight of this show was the drunken Glaswegian girls heckling – who in any other show I’d have despised. Seriously, the best way you could describe this act was “cringe”.

That promptly killed the evening, so we headed back to Robbie’s to crash out. Claire has earned a lifetime ban from picking Fringe shows.

Day 3: Sunday – Chilling out, Festival Fatigue and Pizza Parties

Sunday was planned to be my chillout day, and it was exactly that. I dropped my bag at Jono’s, we had a little wander around an art exhibition and then Jono, Robbie and I spent the afternoon relaxing on a couch in Outhouse. Cracking playlist in there, and some not bad beer.

After that, off we went to Jocelyn’s for pizza and Cards Against Humanity. Solid evening of good fun.

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I think me and Jono then had a drunken heart to heart about art and what it means to us, but again my memories seem to have gone somewhat blurry.

So that was my weekend adventure at the fringe! I caught up with some friends who I’ve really missed (hadn’t seen Robbie in ages), I saw some funny people and had some fine beers. Can’t ask for more than that.

If you’re on the fence about doing a Fringe trip then I can’t recommend it enough. Just find a place you like, hang out there and go to some random stuff. Even if it’s awful you’ll get something out of it. Fringe Fatigue hits hard though, so I’ll be having a good week of being antisocial this week.

Geologists in “acquaintances who drink beer” shocker!

The Independent on Tuesday of this week published an article by Chris Green reporting on the contents of emails between two unnamed individuals working for Cuadrilla and the British Geological Survey (BGS) which were obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The quotes selected from the cache of e-mails reveal (in dramatic fashion) the revelation that the two individuals in question appear to know each other casually – catching up over a beer and potentially going to a Leonard Cohen concert together. Damning stuff. The article is padded out further with some quotations from an attempt to organise an event (which didn’t actually happen) where the BGS and Durham University were contemplating organising an event to educate journalists about fracking.

Academic institutions are no strangers to this style of reporting, where troves of emails obtained either through FOIA requests or other means are pored over to attempt to cherry pick hints of impropriety. Climate researchers in particular are practically used to it. The “Climategate scandal” was founded on this very issue, where selective quoting and mischaracterisation of what those quotes meant was used to manufacture doubt into the scientific research being undertaken at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent investigations have vindicated the researchers completely. Other climate researchers such as Michael Mann have been hounded with FOIA requests by denier groups in an attempt to seek out more controversial nuggets of text. It’s a surprise then to see these very same tactics being used by an environmentalist group such as Greenpeace.

The case for impropriety here is extremely thin, so much so that I’m actually surprised that Greenpeace weren’t able to dig up anything which looked more damning. Who amongst us thinks that carefully about what we type? Can we really be sure that our own e-mails are any better? I’m sure if you look in the inbox of any habitual email user you can eventually find something which looks damning enough when taken out of context. How many of us have sent emails to old friends or colleagues arranging to have a catch up pint some time?

Not too long ago I received an email from a colleague with an attached Creation “Science” document. The e-mail read: “I guess we had it all wrong”. How does that look out of context? I know that my colleague had their tongue planted firmly in cheek, but is that how it would be reported? Similarly, when I won a BP sponsored presentation prize I proudly joked to my collaborators – “I guess I don’t believe in climate change now!”. Individuals seeking to imply relationships between myself, petroleum researchers and employees of the British Antarctic survey would need to look no further than a series of regular e-mails with the subject “Total Choon!” linking to various music videos.

We all have ill-advised statements sitting in our outboxes, whether they’re jokes or poor word choices. This latest “scandal” isn’t even that, it’s an attempt to cast aspersions on a pair of individuals based solely on their social associations.

Geologists are a sociable bunch, we have a well-known love of beer, and we tend to know our fellow graduates well. Three or more years of shared field trips in cramped, remote hostels with terrible weather tend to form lasting bonds. Friends from my undergraduate degree work across the world, some in academia, many of them in industry. A geologist in the BGS and a geologist in Cuadrilla knowing each other and potentially being friends should hardly be a surprise in this context. The association between the two does not imply any form of impropriety or shady goings on. Indeed many of us maintain friendships with colleagues working in other fields for the purpose of potential future collaborations as well as social engagements. I am working on a PhD in climate research, the fact that a few weeks ago a friend who works for a large multinational oil company slept on my couch doesn’t influence either of our work/research. That said, he did e-mail me this today:

“Hi Bob, how are things

Fancy catching up over a beer sometime – would be interested to hear more on your research into climate. You’ve got a wonderful field location, would be great to find oil out there.

p.s. hope Greenpeace doesn’t read this!

[Anonymised oily friend]

#sarcastic email”


Disclosure: I work as a PhD Researcher at Durham University. However I am not associated with any petroleum or fracking researchers (except for Friday evening beers!). I do enjoy some classic Leonard Cohen tunes.