We need to upgrade our planet, not our phones



Somewhere along the way, my parenting skills went awry. My daughter, aged 14 going on 20, has an unwelcome competitive streak. She taunts me that she has five times as many followers on Twitter as I do (@tcollins298 if you want to help me out); and she crows that her iPhone is a more sophisticated model than mine.

I preach about the dangers of materialism, but she is more interested in having a conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s built-in “intelligent personal assistant” – a modern day version of the Oracle of Delphi that answers anything you ask of it.

In our household, my wife is even further behind in the tech stakes. Apple has stopped upgrading the operating system for her model. The phone is perfectly serviceable as a communications device, but apps – fine-tuned to the capabilities of the latest IOS no longer work properly.

Soon she will be forced to ‘upgrade’ because the way things are today, a phone is not just a phone. It has become the centre of our lives.

When my daughter lost her iPhone recently, there was a week of warfare over my refusal to upgrade her to an iPhone 6. Bad daddy. I thought a straight replacement was being generous.

The upgrade war hasn’t gone away. It’s just that hostilities have been suspended until October. She has an app that allows her to count down to major life events: the cat’s birthday, the next One Direction concert, the date when her current mobile phone contract comes to an end and she can campaign for an upgrade even though her phone will be perfectly serviceable.

I imagine that across Northern Ireland, similar domestic dramas are being played out.

In Europe every year more than 100 million phones are discarded. It is estimated that in the UK, there are some 85 million phones lying unused in drawers. In 2013, the United Nations warned about the impact of electronic waste. At that point, we were generating 7 kilos of waste a year for every person on our tiny planet. That’s around 15.5lbs to people of my generation. The figure is expected to grow to 20lbs by 2017.

Waste on this scale might be understandable if a product has reached the end of its useful life. But the issue here is not about life-cycle at all. It’s about built-in obsolescence – either by design, deliberate neglect (stopping updates), or by rendering a phone ‘unfashionable’ because it has been superseded by a sexier new model.

The life expectancy of a mobile phone is now less than two years: about the same as a pet hamster. There is something seriously wrong when the so-called “upgrade cycle” is less than the useful life of the product.

“What’s all the fuss about?” I hear some saying, “it’s only a phone. Most of it is plastic. It’s no big deal.” But our tech contains metals such a lead, gold, silver, and copper.

Researchers at the University of Surrey suggest that the 85 million unused phones in Britain contain four tonnes of gold – more per tonne than a goldmine. If these metals are not recovered – and little is – we have to mine more to manufacture more and more phones.

This would not be so much of a problem if manufacturers increased the life-cycle of their phones, or better managed the launch of new models and upgrades. But the industry’s business model depends on constant upgrades – conning gullible consumers to pay extortionate prices for products that do essentially the same job as their old one. The contracts system disguises the true cost of the phone, often in the region of £600 a handset.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his encyclical Laudato Si, published last week, we share a common home with finite resources. We cannot continue to plunder the earth without imperilling the very future of our planet. He spoke with force.

He called for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet”. Thus far “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest”.

Much is made of the regular Apple launches. They are normally headline news. It would be great the next time around to hear Apple boss Tim Cook talk about how it is going to contribute to the solving the problems his industry has created.

But we need to do our bit too. While we remain in thrall to our craving for the latest bit of kit, things will not change. How can we do that? Well, there’s no point in asking Siri.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on June 26 2015

26 Place to Be: Barrhead Station


This piece, inspired by Barrhead Station in Scotland and the song A Place to Be from Pink Moon by Nick Drake, was written as part of the 26 Northern Skies project. The work of the 26 writers involved was read on the journey from Newcastle to Glasgow Central on April 25. This is my contribution.

A Place to Be

I remember the first time I took a train from Barrhead station. I was nine. It was a moment of revelation. I knew then there was a way out. I’ve always wanted out.

Granny didn’t understand why. This was her whole world. Her place to be. But it’s not mine. Not now, not ever.

It’s 11am and it’s freezing. I’ve just been to see her, and now I’m off again. I always seem to be waiting on a train out of here. Glasgow, Newcastle, London, anywhere that will take me and my miseries and my guitar.

I’ll give her a wee wave as I pass on the way to Glasgow. But she can’t wave back anymore. She just sleeps. If she opened her eyes she’d see the trains rumbling by; but she doesn’t like trains. She probably grumbles about the noise and the way the express makes the ground shake.

She never saw the point of the railway line. “The tracks tae trouble,” she called them when I told her I was moving to Glasgow. She didn’t like Glasgow.

“Ye hae everythin’ ye need here,” she said, looking disapprovingly at me. “Why go?”

By “everything” she meant family. And everyone in Barrhead was family.

Granny knew their lineage back to Adam and Eve: the ‘gud-uns’ and the ‘wrong-uns’; the sacred and profane; the faithful and the adulterers – and the adulterers’ offspring. She could list every “bastard” – Granny was not one for political correctness – within a six-mile radius.

There was no such thing as six degrees of separation for her. Everyone was part of her extended family – even the pools guy who ripped her off every weekend when he pocketed her stake.

She knew he was drinking her dreams away, but the pound was worth the entertainment when he came round to collect her cash. He was a flirt and made her feel 18 again. That was worth a quid of anyone’s money, even if she didn’t really have it to spend.

Granny took the train to Glasgow only once. Her sister wanted to buy a new coat and needed someone to give her advice. But Granny couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Too much noise, too many people and no-one to stop and talk to. She never went back. One train ride to Glasgow was enough excitement for a lifetime.

To tell the truth, she never ‘got’ transport. “Walkin’s good fae the heart,” was her favourite phrase. The only time I remember seeing her in a car was when the hearse took her to her grave – it was a Merc. I bet she was embarrassed. Granny hated the Germans more than Glaswegians, and that’s saying something.

This time I don’t think I’ll be coming back. She’s never really forgiven me for leaving in the first place, and I don’t want to upset her any more. There’s no-one left for me here but her.

When I moved to Glasgow I was green, greener than the hill they buried her on. I thought my guitar would take me to the place I needed to be. Now I don’t know where that place is.

The happiest people are the ones who have no dreams. And she’s happy in St Conval’s Cemetery with her friends. Happy with her certainties, happy with her sense of belonging, and happy with the peace she enjoys in the moments when the train tracks are mere lines of metal in the landscape.

26 Atlantic Crossings

26 Atlantic Crossings was a collaboration between writers in the UK and artists from Prince Edward County in Canada. I was paired with sculptor Iris Casey, and this is the end result. It is in the form of a ‘sestude’ – 62 words.


Mercy killer without mercy.
Dropping silent. Fast.
Talons primed.

sweet bird of death.

‘Survival of the fittest,’ was your cry
and destiny
long before Darwin

Your nib writes red:

Your elegies are told
in feather, blood
and bone.

Gleaning no pleasure
from the kill,
you do what must be done

and then take wing.

To see the other works from 26 Atlantic Crossings, check out the ebook at the link below:

26 Atlantic Crossings ebook

26: The Donkey Man

26 is a writers’ collective. One of my favourite 26 projects involved a collaboration with the furniture designer Zoe Murphy. The Donkey Man is a piece inspired by Zoe’s ‘Margate to Mexico’ exhibit at London Design Week 2014. I hope you enjoy it. If you would like to see her work, check out her website at www.zoemurphy.com. You can see what 26 is up to at www.26.org.uk. The link below will take you to The Donkey Man, enjoy.

The Donkey Man

Galway batters Paisley with his golden flute


The Chuckle Brothers: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

I remember a time when watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on a Saturday night was politically correct, when Larry Grayson represented humour at its most edgy and Dana’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest was seen by nationalists as a boost for the cause of Irish unity.

My other memory of Saturday nights was trying to get the timing right for bed. In our house, bedtimes were strictly policed during the week (or at least that is how I remember it), but we were allowed to stay up late on a Saturday.

The trick was to get to bed just before dad came in from the pub, otherwise my brother and I would be subjected to the dreaded Saturday Night Lecture. His larynx lubricated by a couple of pints of the black stuff, and his mind still buzzing from an evening of banter with his mates, put him in the mood to dispense sage advice.

As teenagers do, we tried to look engaged while ignoring everything he was saying to us. Mine do that to me now. But a few things sunk in.

He was a nationalist to the very root of his being. He loved his country, its language and its music. Like many of his generation, he was offended by partition he was also appalled by the violence that surrounded us during the Troubles.

But he was a tolerant man – and that’s what he taught me.

He loved the bands – Orange and Green – and he gave off about people who disrespected the Union Flag and God Save the Queen. He expected his Tricolour and Soldiers’ Song to be respected, and respect for others was the quid pro quo.

One night in the early 90s he rang me from work to say hello. “You’re in early,” I said – he did the nightshift. He explained he was covering for a colleague who had a lodge meeting. His Orange Order workmate reciprocated on holy days of obligation so my father could go to evening Mass.

Dad’s homemade bodhran, constructed from a garden sieve, was made from the ripped skin of a Lambeg drum (a gift from another Protestant workmate). He lived tolerance.

Anyway, I thought of him this week when I was considering the row sparked by James Galway’s denunciation of Ian Paisley. I imagine there were quite a few who agreed with Galway, not least some readers of this newspaper

Readers too (perhaps for the first time) will have found themselves agreeing with Lord Trimble who weighed in this week to support of Galway’s thesis. Conducting what he called a ‘thought experiment’, the noble lord came to the conclusion that without Paisley, there would probably have been no Troubles.

Historians – professional and amateur – are full of ‘what ifs’. But ‘what ifs’ are not history. ‘What-iffery’ is as bad as its siblings ‘what-aboutery’ and ‘begrudgery’.

It’s not that difficult to construct the case against Ian Paisley, and for many there is little difference between the man and the caricature – the ranting Dr No of a 1001 Ian Knox cartoons.

But for those who met him (friend and foe alike) the cardboard cut-out Paisley is much too two-dimensional.

I suspect there were some Catholic theologians who would have agreed with him when he harangued Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament. Indeed there are bishops now who find common cause with the DUP and members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster that he founded. Paisley’s reputation as a MP and MEP was high among all his constituents, regardless of their religious beliefs.

In private he was affable, funny and generous. The Chuckle Brothers were not a creation just for the cameras.

It’s all too easy to put the blame for the Troubles on Ian Paisley. But that would be to do him an injustice. The Troubles happened because of a collective failure of vision and will; they happened because London and Dublin left a vacuum in six counties of Ireland – a vacuum filled by demagogues and killers on both sides.

Ian Paisley could have chosen a different path. History will judge him, and it will not go easy on him. But he was a victim of history as well as its agent – as were the others whose names we could easily list and whose deeds we have all witnessed.

As for my dad? He would have said: “You don’t speak ill of the dead.” Sir Jimmy – who kept his counsel until the big man was six foot under – should think on that the next time he is cleaning his tarnished golden flute.


  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 12 2015