Down the road, a race to the stars: nuclear fusion


Creating nuclear fusion, the energy of the stars, takes much more than fireworks…

At a time of ongoing political uncertainty and division, it was good to spend an hour sitting in a crowded lecture theatre in Abingdon hearing about people who are aiming for the stars – or rather, aiming to recreate and harness the energy of the stars. It’s a quest of mythic proportions, with a prize at the end that could change all our lives if only someone can win it: a source of fuel that is clean, safe and abundant. Nuclear fusion is potentially the solution to mankind’s energy needs. And it’s eminently possible that the moment at which it becomes viable will happen just down the road here in Oxfordshire… though as with all quests, there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome first.

Nuclear fusion is the energy of the stars – it’s the process by which the sun generates the light and heat that makes life on earth possible. It’s also how all the heavier elements in the universe were made. There are several projects around the world that are exploring ways of managing and controlling this process, and Oxfordshire is a hotspot for research in this area. When I saw that ATOM, the annual Festival of Science & Technology based in Abingdon, was to include a talk about the subject, I decided to go along and find out more.

The lecture was held at Our Lady’s school, and it was packed. Alan Costley, who has been working in the nuclear fusion field for 45 years, explained how nuclear fusion works: two atoms are brought together to make a bigger atom – plus energy. However, very specific conditions are required to make this possible, in particular astonishingly high temperatures – ‘fusion temperatures’ of 100 million degrees, hotter than the centre of the sun. Unsurprisingly, this has been challenging to achieve. It was first done around 1965, and successive attempts have got ever closer to the line where the experiments will achieve ‘positive energy’ – where they generate more energy than is put in. At that point, you have a potential fuel source. Apparently, for decades, this positive energy moment was said to be 30 years away. It’s now thought to be five years away.

IMG_2414So who are the players in the nuclear fusion race? There is a huge project backed with multinational state funding, ITER, near Aix-en-Provence in France, where it occupies a 1.5km site. Pictures of the project under development reminded me of the days of early computing – the scale of the machinery, the complex assembly of components. The history of such largescale science projects is, unsurprisingly, marked by delays and overspends. Engineer Rob Manning, who lead the project to land a spacecraft on Mars in the 90s and noughties, was quoted as saying ‘The more money that is invested, the less risk people want to take.’ The result is that projects take longer as caution is built into the designs so as to avoid the danger of costly failure and the waste of public funds. To put it another way, big projects can be slow because they are too big to fail.

What about the nippy new kids on the block? There are several smaller nuclear fusion projects around the world that are supported by private investors, including ARC (Affordable, Robust and Compact) at MIT in the US, and, also in the US, Tri Alpha, and LCP Fusion, which was crowdfunded. There are also two projects in Oxfordshire: First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy, at Milton Park.

What’s a tokamak? It’s a Russian word (this area of technology, though now the subject of international cooperation, emerged out of the Cold War) and it is a machine in which nuclear fusion takes place – it’s like the engine component of nuclear fusion. OK, here’s the science bit. You thought there were three states of matter, right? Solid, liquid and gas. But at very high temperatures, there is a fourth state: plasma. A tokamak traps plasma in a doughnut-shaped vessel with magnetic coils, and keeps it hot enough for long enough for fusion to occur.

When you’re on a seemingly impossible quest, you need game-changers. At Tokamak Energy, the game-changer is superconductors – materials that have no electrical resistance to currents, so you can keep a current flowing through them for a long time without them overheating. The scientists at Tokamak Energy are also working on making tomamaks that are a slightly different shape. The aim is to create slightly smaller, cheaper machines and to speed up progress towards that positive energy moment when nuclear fusion power becomes a reality.

It is the hallmark of good science communication that everything makes sense at the time – this lecture was definitely an example of that. I hope I’ve done it justice. You can find out more from Tokamak Energy and at @TokamakEnergy. The ATOM Festival of Science & Technology 2017 took place in Abingdon at the end of March, and included lectures on everything from the search to extraterrestrial life to stem cell medicine, self-driving cars and the forthcoming solar eclipse (21 August 2017). Find out more from @ATOMSciFest.


Anger and disbelief as parent campaign against school funding cuts gathers force

school funding cutsYesterday I went to the Fair Funding for All Schools meeting at Larkmead School in Abingdon, and came away shocked by the cuts to funding per pupil that are on the way over the next four years. It’s a double whammy caused by the new funding formula and cuts to real term funding per pupil (which breaks a manifesto promise). There is a lot at stake: funding cuts are likely to affect numbers of teachers and teaching assistants, and the range of subjects offered, particularly music, visual and performing arts, design and technology and languages. Support for vulnerable students is also at risk and small schools in rural areas are likely to be hit particularly hard. It’s a cross-party issue – the meeting was chaired by the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth. (Funding per pupil is set at a national level.)
However, there is plenty we can do about this. The Fair Funding For All Schools website has lots of info plus a template letter you can send to your MP…/…. There’s a petition… Also, we have county council elections coming up in May, so it’s a good issue to mention on the doorstep if anyone comes round canvassing for support. Here’s the website with details about how much individual schools across the country are set to lose and the Fair Funding For All Schools FB page – there’s also an Oxfordshire FB page
Yesterday night was the first meeting of the Oxfordshire Fair Funding for All Schools campaign  – the first meeting was in Haringey and the second in Wokingham, where I grew up. The Oxford Mail reported on how Nicola Blackwood MP has joined calls for a review of the funding formula, while the chairman of governors of Larkmead School has left the Conservative Party over the school funding issue.

Thank you to the Mexican guy

writer Ali Mercer in LA in the 90s

Some people don’t have to be in your life for long to make an impression. I spent perhaps half an hour, 45 minutes max, in the company of the Mexican guy, but I still think of him every now and then, especially now, when I’m reading so much more about the US than usual. I met him the one and only time I visited the US, 21 years ago, and I’ve wondered about him since: was he a person of faith? Or just a kind person? The motivation for a good deed is more mysterious than the reasons for all the usual venial wrongdoing. I guess he’d be in his mid to late forties now, a bit older than me. Anyway, if he ever needs help, I hope someone looks out for him the way he did for us.

Our paths crossed because I had flown out to see my friend who was staying in LA, and we had been sightseeing Downtown – I remember Marilyn Monroe’s tiny footprints, like the marks of high heels made for a child. Next we were meant to catch a bus across town to a ball game – the quintessential American experience. It got dark. We got lost. The place emptied out, but not quite. There were no commuters, no shoppers. This wasn’t Oxford Street. There were next to no women. My friend looked anxious, and it dawned on me as well that maybe this was not a safe place to be. Somewhere a fire flared; an old guy in a wheelchair was trying, without much hope, to sell a piece of string and a roll-on deodorant in a shoebox. There was desperation in the air, and not much is more frightening than desperation.

Enter the Mexican guy. We were at the wrong bus stop, trying to figure out where to go next. He approached us and asked us where we were going. We told him. He said he would show us. He said to follow him, and we did. We traipsed after him to another bus stop – it wasn’t far but I don’t know if we ever would have found it on our own – and then he got on the bus with us and it started moving through the darkness to where we were supposed to be. We didn’t make conversation. The Mexican guy looked out of the window as if this kind of thing happened all the time, and my friend and I sat quietly and absorbed the idea that this was most likely going to turn out fine. We both knew we had just got lucky, and just like bad luck, good luck can be hard to believe in.

In the crowds outside the ball game we met my friend’s boyfriend, who was waiting for us and angry because we were late and he’d been worried. (None of us had mobile phones back then.) We explained what had happened. ‘We met this guy who said he would help us,’ we told him. ‘He came with us all the way…’ We turned to the Mexican guy to introduce him, but he had melted away into the darkness and disappeared. He had gone out of his way to help us – a couple of strangers in a place we obviously didn’t know – without expecting anything in return. We never got to thank him properly, much less to say goodbye.

I saw so many other things on that trip that I remember. On my first afternoon in my friend’s place in Venice – not as gentrified then as I believe it is now – while I was showering off my jetlag, I heard someone shouting out ‘Everybody get down!’ and an armed policeman bowled through the house to arrest someone in the backyard. Outside OJ’s trial, you could buy watches with cars on the hour and minute hands, chasing each other round and round. On the street somewhere, I watched the mute resignation with which a small huddle of middle-aged Latino men stared at the ground as the LAPD took away what they had been drinking – bottles of spirits in brown paper bags – and poured it away in front of them.

And I remember, too, the Greyhound bus I caught across Virginia, and how it went on and on forever, stopping every now and then at a low, one-storey, frontiersy-looking town, with the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains always in the distance. I could have crossed most of the UK in the time it took me to get across a bit of that one state. In one town we had a rest stop and as I was sitting outside a young white guy in a plaid shirt came over to me and pointed out his pick-up truck and asked if I’d like a lift. He said, ‘Do you party?’ I had no idea what he meant. I replied politely, Britishly, that I did indeed like to socialise, and then got back on the bus.

writer Ali Mercer rollerblading on Venice Beach California in the 90s


I never made it to New York (pictured here late 70s) but hope to one day

Ten reasons why I love the UK

Port Meadow, Oxford

Port Meadow, Oxford

This is a partisan, personal list, and we may disagree on some or all of it – but politely, as if over cups of tea and slightly limp cucumber sandwiches at a summer fete in the country.

1.       TV.

When I was little I lived overseas for a couple of years, and one of my first and most vivid memories of coming back to the UK was of the TV being turned on in the living-room and stuttering into life. Yogi Bear! In English! It was such a treat to see telly in my own language. That’s when I really knew I was home.

And British telly *is* pretty good, no? Special mention here to the BBC – when’s Poldark coming back?

2.       It’s home.

Back in the UK, a six-year-old girl at the beginning of the long summer holidays, I was a little lonely perhaps, but happy: on the swing in the garden, washing and pegging out all my dolls’ clothes, walking along with one foot on the pavement and the other on the road.

I’d like to travel rather more than I have (I haven’t used my passport since 2004, ahem), but I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. Actually, I’d be quite happy to spend the rest of my life in Abingdon. Bury me in a corner of an English field, or rather scatter my ashes, (not yet awhile though please), to paraphrase Rupert Brooke:

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam…


my son walking towards the view at Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire

3.       Language, literature, books, the sound of spoken English.

English is a malleable, stretchy, melting-pot language, a glorious mishmash of traces, inventions, leftovers and borrowings, like a falling-down town with ancient stuff buried underneath its foundations and skyscrapers snaking their way up to the light.

I love that Shakespeare just made up loads of words. Incarnadine? Why not!

Though the greats always look back as well as forwards. Auden’s The Wanderer opens with a homage to Middle English: ‘Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.’

See George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for some brilliant stuff about ‘something distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation’, ‘a culture as individual of that of Spain’: ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’. OK, so that’s about Englishness in particular and this is not, but he puts the kind of thing I mean a million times better than I could. ‘The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.’

4.       Humour and irony.

The Goon Show, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Blackadder, The Office, The Mighty Boosh, The Day Today, Stewart Lee… take your pick.

Here’s the end of Stevie Smith’s The Hostage:

Well I don’t you know, said the lady, then aware of something comical
Shot him a look that made him feel uncomfortable
Until he remembered she came from the British Isles,
Oh, he said, I’ve heard that’s a place where nobody smiles.
But they do, said the lady, who loved her country, they laugh lke anything
There is no one on earth who laughs so much about everything.

Well I see, said the Father, the case is complicated.
I will pray for you, Daughter, as I pray for all created
Meanwhile, since you want to die and have to, you may go on feeling elated.

5.       Tea and a slap-up fry-up

Ironically (see 4) one of the best slap-up fry-ups I ever had was in New Zealand, and boy, did it remind me of home (see 2.)

6.       Gentleness (especially towards children and animals)

Not for nothing did Dickens, who knew how to work a heart-string, have Oliver Twist ask for more, and Bill Sikes mistreat his rather horrible cur.

Now, I know this point is debatable (like all these points, like any point), especially as, historically, the English in particular had an awful reputation on the Continent for cane-crazed schoolmasters. Our laws on corporal punishment were pretty shonky right up until the 90s, when they were shaken up by the distressing case of an eight-year-old boy who had been beaten by his mother’s partner with a three-foot garden cane. Under UK law this was judged to be ‘reasonable chastisement’. The case went to the good old European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1998 that it wasn’t reasonable after all, and forced a review of UK law. (Here’s the European Convention on Human Rights – a fine list of fundamental freedoms, in my view – including the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.) There was a predictable hoo-ha in the newspapers, which turned the consultation on how best to amend UK law to protect children into a fuss about how the Labour nanny state wanted to criminalise parents for smacking their kids (it didn’t – but never let the facts get in the way of a good story).

I remember this case because I was working for Nursery World at the time and reported on it. There was a potential impact for childminders, in terms of whether they would be allowed to smack children they were looking after (this was finally banned in 2003).

Gentleness. It’s a fine quality. I bet Robin Hood’s sidekick Little John (who of course was not little) was gentle. With animals and children, when not sorting out baddies with his quarterstave.

7.       Music.

Primarily, but not exclusively, of the popular sort.

8.       Individualism, eccentricity, anti-authoritarianism, inventiveness.

I do not think we (we=the residents of the UK, in all our various glory) are instinctively an especially deferential bunch. Perhaps it is the luxury of long-ago Habeas Corpus that gives us the freedom to be relatively unafraid, and to nurture a certain scepticism about the competence of those in positions of authority. Especially when enjoying the freedom to speak our minds, in or out of the privacy of our own homes.

9.       Landscape.

childhood time in the countryside

off to collect eggs with my grandmother in Wales, c. late 1970s

The UK is a big place in a small space. Soft rain on Welsh hills, Cornish palm trees, the vistas of Oxfordshire, the spine of the railway line that rattles you up to Scotland: and London, home to the Mother of all Parliaments.

Here’s the end of Rosemary Tonks’ poem Farewell to Kurdistan:

… Life is large, large!
… I shall lie off your loaf of shadows, London;
I admit it, at the last.

I love to be on the top deck of a London bus/in a taxi going through London at night/on the South Bank/in a London pub/oh, I could go on and on…

10.   The weather.

In particular, the skies. It’s a good land for clouds.

PS. Not that it’s directly relevant – given that it’s not a referendum about whether you love your country or not – but I’ll be voting for the UK to stay in the European Union. I know a fair few who won’t, though. Fair play. Am not going to get steamed up about it. Most of us want the same things, the world over: peace, decent houses, schools, roads, healthcare and working conditions, and a safety net. As Jo Cox said, more unites us than divides us. We just sometimes disagree about how to get there. Hopefully we’ll muddle through whatever happens, and if not, well, see you in the workhouse, where no doubt we’ll be assembling gismos for multinational corporations.

Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to writing a blog post about why I love Europe. Because I do, even if I haven’t left the UK since 2004. (Just as well I’m happy here.)


drinking hot chocolate in Café Flore in Paris, sometime in the last century

PPS. Probably if you go back far enough almost all of us have a few refugee ancestors. Mine include some French Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields, I believe. It’s all a bit hazy, though.

PPPS. The European Convention on Human Rights took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt played a huge part in getting drafted and agreed and which Pope John Paul II called ‘one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time’. Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy also includes one of my favourite quotes, which is commonly attributed to her: ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’

PPPPS. I forgot the NHS!

More about places I love…

The After I Left You tour of places in Oxford I love

Why I love Cornwall

Off-grid: Greg Rook’s paintings of a post-apocalyptic Good Life

Off-grid paintings by Greg Rook

What would life look like stripped of technology, in a possible post-disaster future? That’s the question posed by Greg Rook in his atmospheric and rather ominous Off-grid series of paintings, which you can see at the Aldridge theatre in Farnham till 10 December.

One of Greg’s inspirations for these paintings was The Good Life, first broadcast in 1975, which seemed to embody the ideals of making-do and self-reliance, and suggest a possible future in which these values would triumph. Or would it? He describes the Off-grid series as ‘mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures’. They’re a reinvention of 1970s ideas of what might lie ahead, but also draw on off-grid movements and communes of today and of the past.

Apparently prepping stores (where you can get everything you need to survive an apocalypse) are commonplace in the US and are on their way over here. Is this the kind of future their client base is imagining?

Greg Rook's Off-grid paintings

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will remember that I once went to an earlier exhibition of Greg’s work on this theme – his Survivors paintings. I asked him what he thought he might end up doing if he lived in the kind of commune he had portrayed. He said he thought he’d probably be a terrible survivor, and went on to predict that men in particular would fall prey to strange new post-apocalyptic schools of thought: ‘I worry about men’s tendency to get lost in beliefs and self-importance and I predict that women would carry the burden of providing following a collapse. I imagine factions, sects, conspiracies and theories occupying the men’s time.’

The good life, by Greg Rook

So would the people pictured in these paintings survive? ‘Ultimately we are adaptable and our happiness is relative to our circumstances. If our expectations become limited then our aspirations shrink to fit, and what we require to survive adapts accordingly.’

Here’s my Q&A about Greg’s work, covering influences, process (what does he listen to?) and research – and what it is that ‘makes his hands itch with wanting to paint’.

You can find out more from Greg’s website.


Regular readers of this blog will know that at the end of October I went to North Cornwall Book Festival and was put up with a number of authors in a farmhouse at St Endellion. If apocalypse had struck and left us stranded there, who knows, we might have all had to turn our hands to agrarian living…

At least we’d have had Patrick Gale to teach us about farming. And perhaps Neel Mukherjee’s experience of scything would have had a practical application in addition to its literary effectiveness (it was undertaken as research for the brilliant scene where Supratik, the revolutionary in The Lives of Others, struggles to learn the technique and keep going in the brutal heat. As Neel explained in conversation with Patricia Duncker at NCBF, he found it extraordinarily difficult and exhausting too…)

The impossible choice: Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer

Has everybody seen Kramer vs Kramer? I watched it again about a year ago, as part of my research for my (nearly-finished) work-in-progress, which is partly about the aftermath of a custody battle. I was talking about it with a friend in a cafe a week ago when something unusual happened: the guy at the next table chipped in to tell us how that film had changed his life.

I’d just been talking about how I’d gone back to the book on which the film was based, and the case it makes for how, under some circumstances, the father should get primary custody after a split. Our neighbour at the next table was American, about my age – a 1970s child. He told us his parents had split up around the time Kramer vs Kramer came out and he had been about the same age as the boy in the film.

The original plan had been for him to live with his mother when everything was settled, but he had been living with his dad for a few months when his mum came to him and asked him who he wanted to live with: her, or his dad? And he chose his dad.

She’d asked him because she had seen the film and had been so affected by it. ‘A boy needs his father,’ she said.

So how had all this worked out? All right, it seemed – though it had meant the boy had to get on a plane to see his mother, which happened around three times a year.

Looking back from an adult’s perspective, he wondered if he’d understood the question in the way that she had meant it, as a choice between his parents. Perhaps he had really thought she was asking, ‘Do you want to stay here with Dad in the place you’ve got to know, or come with me to a place you’ve never seen?’ and, as children do, had plumped for what seemed most familiar, the least upheaval, at the time.

Stories are powerful things and sometimes they change lives…

Why I love Cornwall


My abiding memory of my first trip to Cornwall, aged four, is of walking back from the beach in an odd assortment of clothes and no knickers. I’d been swept out to sea; well, that was my impression of the experience, but really, I’d been knocked off my feet by a wave. Everyone I was with donated something for me to put on, but underwear I had to do without.


My seven-year-old son, who has autism, had a similar wardrobe crisis recently following a too-close encounter with the sea. This was at St Ives, and it was beautiful – the sea and the sky were an extraordinary translucent blue (half-an-hour later, the mist rolled in and it all vanished). We were just about to leave when he fell over on the wet sand and soaked his top and trousers. A rescue party scaled the cliffs in search of a new outfit from a charity shop, duly returning with a surfer-dude shorts and hoodie look; in the meantime, he circled the sand in his anorak and a pair of slightly damp, and therefore transparent, white pants.


I’m told that the Anglo-Saxons regarded today, the 7th November, as the beginning of winter. It’s been so windy and foggy and murky in Oxfordshire over the last few days, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago the children really were paddling in the sea.

Our half-term trip to Cornwall was the very first family holiday the four of us have ever had. Given my son’s autism, a holiday has always seemed more likely to be an ordeal than a treat. So it was the most amazing feeling to look out of the train window and see an alien landscape – rugged, with unfamiliar trees and a haze of mist being sucked up towards the sun. The mist cleared as we approached Penzance and we saw the sea. The light was unmistakably different to home – more vivid: it was as if we’d stepped out of a Constable or a Reynolds and into a Cezanne.


We stayed in the family room at the youth hostel in Penzance – run by lovely people (the breakfast is very good too). But our stay was really made special by friends who live nearby and who took care of us, showing us round, feeding us and providing our boy with the perfect sofa for his afternoon nap.


And now I’ve finally been to St Ives! Years ago, when I was a rookie reporter, I went to a Sunday afternoon cake and gin party where a Canadian artist told us she’d gone on her own to St Ives by train – perhaps as a cure for a broken heart, or maybe just to dispel the blues. I’ve wanted to go there myself ever since. I wasn’t sure what our son would make of  Tate St Ives, but actually he really loved the kids’ activities – lots of torches and lenses to play with.

Last time I went to Cornwall was for the July 1999 solar eclipse (ultimately an eerie experience – I won’t forget the strange cold rush of wind along the grass when the sun went dark). That was the trip that inspired the visits to Cornwall in my first novel, Stop the Clock. I still have, somewhere, the Perranporth Yard of Ale award I won on a previous Cornish holiday, in 1991.


Still on my Cornwall hitlist: Mousehole, the Eden Project, Lands’ End, the North Cornwall Book Festival (I hoped to make it this time round but it was too much to fit in), and much more… I’m also sorry I didn’t make it to the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance and St Ives Bookseller – maybe next time!

To wind up with a mini-listicle, here are some Cornwall-set novels I’ve read and loved down the years:

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, which is set mainly in Penzance. I read this recently and came away with the feeling that I’d been somewhere full of light.


The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley. One of the many things I love about this book is that Calypso marries for money and then falls in love, and firmly refuses to come to a bad end. I’m also a big fan of Patrick Marnham’s biography of Mary Wesley, Wild Mary – recommended reading for writers, especially women writers, along with Hermione Lee’s life of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I took with me on my most recent trip to Cornwall and will be very sorry to finish. Though I am also very happy to have got to the bit of the story where, late in life, she wins through to find a wide and admiring readership.

Out of various Daphne du Maurier possibilities – Frenchman’s Creek.

The first few Poldark novels. They’re adapting them for telly again, so the books are set to have a second lease of life. I did feel for Demelza, battling it out against Elizabeth, the perfect, unobtainable first love.

Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. I read this as a teenager and it made a big impression, prompting me to attempt a family saga of my own. My opening line, written from the point of view of the hapless Casanova heir of the country estate, was: ‘I made the same mistake with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her, and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ I never finished it.

If anyone has any other recommendations for Cornwall reading or places to go, let me know!


my Books Are My Bag bag came too, along with my son’s autism awareness bear and Hermione Lee’s life of Penelope Fitzgerald