Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Steve Ludwin with a snake round his head






What a charmer: Steve Ludwin with a friendly Honduran milk snake.
Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.

Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.

“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.

He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.

The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London



‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”

After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.

I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.

Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’s Temptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.

On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.

When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’: when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s



‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’:
when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.

When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.

When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.

As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.

Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper.



Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”

The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”

When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”

The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”

They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin.



‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”

He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.

“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”

The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”

His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the National History Museum until 13 May. See Steve behind the scenes at nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-venom.

Strays: A Homeless Man, a Lost Cat and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins is being republished by Simon & Schuster

Would-be parents moving house to get free IVF on NHS

Doctor at hospital with UK’s largest sperm bank says discriminatory funding system behind relocation

Reproductive scientist






A reproductive scientist checks embryos and sperm at the UK’s largest sperm bank at Saint Mary’s hospital in Manchester.
Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Many would-be parents are moving house in order to access free IVF on the NHS, sometimes saving themselves £10,000, according to the lead fertility doctor at the UK’s largest sperm bank.

Dr Raj Mathur, a consultant gynaecologist at Saint Mary’s hospital in Manchester, said he “constantly” saw patients moving house and/or GPs in order to get more free IVF cycles.

Mathur, whose clinic accepts NHS patients from 23 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across the north-west of England, said the geographical differences in funding were discriminatory.

“It’s a bloody nightmare, localism in the NHS. I’m all for centralisation. It’s a scandal because it should really be decided by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence [Nice] … They came up with national guidelines but everywhere in the country has its own version of those criteria,” he said.

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Nice recommends that women aged under 40 should be offered three cycles if they have been trying to conceive for two years. Cost-cutting CCGs are defying advice set out by the government and NHS advisers.

“Some CCGs will specify that both should be childless; others will specify that there should be no children in that relationship … In my clinic Mrs Manchester will get one cycle and Mrs Rochdale will get three,” Mathur said.

Some borders between Greater Manchester boroughs are so tight that patients can be one house away from qualifying for extra NHS fertility treatment. Some streets in Bolton, which offers one free IVF cycle, turn into Bury (three free cycles) across the road.

Mathur said people constantly move house to register with a GP in another CCG: “You set up a game and people will play the game.”

Greg Horne, a consultant embryologist at Saint Mary’s, agreed: “It’s like if you try to find a house in the catchment area of a particular school.”

The average market price for a single cycle of IVF in a private clinic is £3,348, research by Opinium found. With just one in three cycles resulting in pregnancy, many patients spend in excess of £10,000 on three attempts or more.

“It’s discriminatory. It’s a classic example of a postcode lottery, it goes against evidence-based guidelines,” said Mathur, who is also secretary of the British Fertility Society.

Provision is being reduced as a cost-cutting measure in some areas and has been cut altogether in others. Mathur’s patients in most parts of Cheshire used to have three IVF cycles funded but as of last April are offered one.

Saint Mary’s, which was the first hospital in the UK to offer an NHS IVF service, is home to the UK’s biggest sperm bank. Working in partnership with a private American company, Fairfax Cyrobank, sperm from 100 American donors is held in a depot in Manchester.

The sperm is frozen in liquid nitrogen and flown over in “dry shippers”, which look like metal milk churns. It is then inserted directly into a woman’s uterus via a small catheter through the cervix – a process known as Intrauterine Insemination, IUI, which has a one-in-10 success rate – or is used for IVF where a woman’s egg is fertilised in a laboratory and is then returned to her womb as an embryo.

Like most fertility clinics, Saint Mary’s has faced a severe shortage in donor sperm since a 2005 change in the law giving children the right to know the identity of their donor once they reach 18. Donors cannot be paid more than basic expenses and can contribute to a maximum of 10 families.

In recent years, the hospital had just three regular donors on its books, all of whom were white. This was a problem as 20-25% of the hospital’s fertility patients are British Asians.

In Sunni Islam, sperm donation is forbidden “... so they wouldn’t have told people it’s a donor child, so it’s very tricky. There’s a red-haired gene that pops up in the caucasian population of the UK, for example,” said Mathur.

In 30 years working at the clinic, Horne said he could recall just one Asian donor. Ten of Fairfax’s current US donors are of Asian heritage and all have accepted that their donor children may contact them in adulthood.

Faye Penny is the donor coordinator at Saint Mary’s, and sits down with each patient to look through Fairfax’s online catalogue. They can search by detailed criteria including physical characteristics, personality, baby photos and can even hear his voice. “Most straight couples don’t want to see the photos,” said Penny. “Often all they want to know is the hair and eye colour and the ethnicity.”

Donor 4848 is 175cm tall and 90kg and is of Indian origin. His favourite animal is a hamster, he is Muslim, likes going to the theatre and reading.

Donor 5319 is described as: “Shy at first, he is insightful with a warm heart and caring spirit. He loves spending time around children and seeing the potential of the world’s future first-hand ... Our staff consider him attractive, with a handsome face and a tall, athletic build.”

Penny believes that being able to offer patients a choice of donor without making them wait is important. “Previously, you didn’t know the donor was going to be available the next time someone came in, because they can only make 10 families.”

According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (Hefa), more than 300,000 children in the UK have been born from licensed fertility treatment since 1991. Of those, at least 15,000 were born at Saint Mary’s in Manchester.

Eight big ideas for 2018 by Ed Miliband, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Jay Rayner, Sophie Walker and more

Art: Stefan Kalmar
AN AGE OF CRISIS: WHAT A GREAT OPPORTUNITY…

2018 is all about reclaiming reality, opposing governmental and corporate paradoxes, and dissecting lies, before they become a new truth, the new normal – a new reality.

A moment of crisis is also the moment in which new movements come into focus and new ideas are formed. I’m excited by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary group based at Goldsmiths College in London, which includes artists, journalists, architects, film-makers, lawyers, data analysts and activists.

Forensic Architecture is the name of the research group as well as an investigative practice that crosses fields. It is grounded in the use of architecture as an “optical device”, employing forms of spatial analysis, mapping and reconstruction, overlaid with witness testimony and visual documentation. The group has undertaken a series of investigations into human rights violations and acts of state and corporate violence that have informed military, parliamentary and UN inquiries.

At the same time, Metahaven, a Dutch design studio, deals with information democracy and corporate identity. Its most recent work, The Sprawl, considered the “ways in which fantasy can be designed so as to seem or feel like a truth … how propaganda multiplies within that upload/download architecture; an architecture in which both fact and fiction can exist side by side and even overlap”.

These groups are, in many ways, the contemporary version of the Independent Group, a collection of radical young artists, writers and critics who in the 1950s called the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) their home. And if the groups look similar, then this is because the struggles are too.

Stefan Kalmár, a former Turner prize judge, is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts

Politics: Ed Miliband

EMBRACE THE IDEALISM OF THE YOUNG

A demonstration at Downing Street against Donald Trump’s travel ban



As has been proved in previous generations, young people’s vision can lead to long-term change. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

A major reason to be cheerful in politics in 2018, and for years to come, is young people. Amid the gloom that has hung over politics and society since Brexit and Trump, young people have represented the most noticeable countervailing force. We saw it this year at the general election, and we have seen it in the waves of young people engaged in the anti-Trump movement, the #MeToo campaign and much else.

The significance lies not just in another set of people demanding progressive things, but a set of people with a new set of demands, unencumbered by the past and driven by the circumstances of today. People born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for many of whom LGBT+ rights, a new wave of feminism, the fight against climate change and an openness to radicalism are part of their generational DNA. When they look at the mess previous generations have made, they are driven to this desire for something better. Our deeply unequal world, including inequality between generations, is turbocharging this movement, which is not scared to demand big change.

Their idealism will often be dismissed as naivety or worse, as every wave is always dismissed, including the 1960s wave of feminism and anti-war sentiment. But older generations should resist the “we know better” impulse, the tendency to being a “centrist dad” as the term goes. Of course, this idealism is not always right, but its spirit is essential, and the demand it embodies for a new, fairer, more equal society should be embraced.

Pessimism and cynicism achieve nothing. By contrast, the energy and vitality of this new generation can help defeat Trump and lead us to build a post-Brexit Britain that doesn’t float off into a low-wage, offshore tax haven.

Just as the causes of earlier generations of young people, once dismissed as outlandish and radical, eventually became mainstream, so too it can happen again. They are the best hope for the transformation of the country we are to the country we can become.

Ed Miliband MP is a former leader of the Labour party and co-presenter of the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast

Biology: Jim Smith

INDIVIDUAL GENE SEQUENCING WILL TRANSFORM HEALTH

A collection of blood samples



2018 will see advances in DNA sequencing thanks to samples from UK Biobank volunteers. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

What we are is determined by our genes and by the sequence of the four chemicals – nucleotides – that make up the strands of our DNA. Fifteen years ago scientists sequenced and mapped the DNA in the human genome: they determined the order of the three billion nucleotides that make up our genetic material and they established (roughly) what the different parts of the genome do.

That has been extraordinarily powerful in helping us understand how life works and what it is to be human. But to say we have sequenced “the” human genome is misleading. Our genomes are all different, and if we are to understand susceptibilities to disease, or how people will respond to certain treatments, we need to correlate the health of individual people with their individual DNA sequences.

2018 should see this begin to happen. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technologies, and contributions from private sources, government and charities, it is now feasible to read the precise DNA sequence in every volunteer recruited to UK Biobank. Set up 10 years ago, UK Biobank represents a cohort of half a million people between 40 and 69, all of whom contribute information about diet, activity, body measurements and other personal information, as well as samples of blood, urine and saliva. Participants have agreed to have their health monitored, and approved researchers from academia and industry have access to all the anonymised data.

Already UK Biobank has transformed our understanding of health and disease, improving diagnosis and care for those with cancer and rare diseases. But if every participant has their genome sequenced, the prospects for understanding and treating disease, including obesity and mental health disorders, will be extraordinary. We do not know what we will find, but we can be confident it will transform our understanding of what it is to be healthy and what it is to be sick.

Dr Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation

Infrastructure: Sadie Morgan

TIME TO BUILD PRIDE IN OUR ROADS AND RAILWAYS

Ouse Valley viaduct in Sussex.



The Ouse Valley viaduct in Sussex is a striking example of Britain’s built heritage. But how many of us notice the country’s infrastructure? Photograph: Alamy

Our built environment is so integral to our lives that most of us rarely think about it – we take it for granted. We can say the same about the design of our infrastructure and how it affects people and place. It rarely gets the attention it deserves.

As architects and designers our focus has been on buildings at the expense of everything else. We can all think of our favourite building, but can you name a great streetscape, road junction or railway viaduct? That’s because often what defines the infrastructure of our countryside and cities is the miles of security fences, concrete noise barriers and railway stanchions.

Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to put a healthier, more compassionate and greener philosophy into place.

From stations to bridges, roads to railways, electricity pylons to flood defences,our infrastructure should engender national pride and a sense of local ownership. Look to the past, and there are plenty of great examples from Brunel’s bridges to Bazalgette’s sewers and pumping stations to power stations reimagined for the 21st century, as in Battersea and Bankside, now Tate Modern.

The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, but we are building it elsewhere.

The good news is that big projects such as HS2 – the largest infrastructure project in the UK for a decade – has committed to high-quality design from the outset.

Britain has proved it is capable of designing and building world-class infrastructure. Add that to a commitment to invest hundreds of billions over the next decade, and this is an exciting prospect. I see 2018 as the year Britain rediscovers its infrastructure mojo.

Sadie Morgan is the co-founder of dRMM, which won the Riba Stirling Prize in 2017 and a member of the National Infrastructure Commission

Food: Jay Rayner

AS PRICES RISE, RESTAURANTS AND FARMS WILL STRUGGLE

EU farm workers in Tarleton, Lancashire.



Increasing difficulties in recruiting agricultural labour, partly as a result of the weakened pound, are likely to be felt by the food industry during 2018. Photograph: Alamy

Of all the falsehoods peddled by the pro-Brexit lobby, the most egregious was the notion that it was a decision for our future; the impact of the decision to leave the European Union on our food chain was instant, with the devaluation of sterling leading to an acceleration in food price inflation. By November this year it was running at 4.2%, a third higher than the headline rate.

In 2018 it is only going to get worse: the price of food will continue to rise ahead of general inflation, and as a weakened pound makes exporting ever more attractive, the major retailers will find themselves locked in competition with international markets for produce. Expect to see the big four supermarkets – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons – softening up their customers for higher prices. Meanwhile, the discounters, especially Aldi and Lidl, which keep prices low by restricting choice but buying in enormous volume, will flourish.

The optimistic view is that this should all be good for food producers in 2018. In reality, Britain’s farmers have rarely benefited from competition among retailers, which have always prioritised shareholders over suppliers. What’s more, farmers have their own price issues. Few food items are the result of a solely domestic supply chain. They depend on inputs – seedlings for fruit growing, for example, or animal feeds – from abroad and the prices of those have also risen. More pressing are the accelerating labour issues. British agriculture depends on migrant labour, and there is increasing evidence of a reluctance to come to work here, both because the wages are worth less when sent home, and a growing perception that Britain is a less welcoming place for workers from abroad.

This is all going to be felt most keenly in the restaurant sector, which is preparing itself for a brutal 2018. Those ingredient price rises, combined with increased business rates, a shortage of vital staff from abroad and a general softening in consumer confidence, are expected to result in many restaurants going bust. For Britain’s food industry the next 12 months are not expected to be kind.

Jay Rayner is Observer restaurant critic

Space: Maggie Aderin-Pocock

GRAVITATIONAL WAVES WILL CHANGE ASTRONOMY

Advances in the understanding of space can be traced back to Einstein and other pioneers



Advances in the understanding of space can be traced back to Einstein and other pioneers. Photograph: A. Simonnet/AFP/Getty Images

We all know Einstein was a pretty smart chap, but few things show how ahead of his time he was as the recent detection of gravitational waves, which came out of his theory of general relativity, and is now transforming the way we look into space.

In this theory, Einstein merged three-dimensional space and time into a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Within it, mass causes distortions in spacetime and this manifests itself as gravity (you may have seen this shown as a distortion of a rubber sheet). A gravitational wave is formed when two or more super massive objects collide, resulting in ripples in spacetime that, like ripples on a pond, expand outwards into space.

Einstein published his theory in 1916, but it would take another hundred years, until 2016, for the first confirmed detection of a gravitational wave. Why did it take so long?

The challenge was that these ripples are minuscule. The measurement needed is the equivalent of detecting a movement of 1mm over the distance between us and Alpha Centauri (our neighbouring star about 25 trillion miles away). It sounds impossible, but the gravitational wave has a very distinct signature that can now be detected.

The joy of this is that it gives us a whole new way of doing astronomy. For thousands of years observations with the eye, telescopes, photographic plates and digital detectors all relied on detecting electromagnetic waves – one of the few things that can travel through the vacuum of space.

Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) can now make these challenging detections and is now fully operational after a big refurbishment. And with five confirmed gravitational wave detections in the past 18 months, we are gaining momentum – many more exotic collisions should be detected in 2018. A whole new field of astronomy is being established, and it all stems from Einstein’s genius.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate in University College London’s department of physics and astronomy

Equality: Sophie Walker
WOMEN MUST BE AT THE HEART OF A FAIRER FUTURE

Women in the US demonstrating against Trump



100 years after women won the right to vote in Britain, the battle for equality is being waged worldwide. Photograph: ZUMA Wire/Rex

Politicians could make 2018 the year that women matter, not by talking about equality but by creating it. Not by telling women to try harder – (“All you need to lift centuries of oppression is to ask better for that pay rise and stop making lifestyle decisions about babies”) – but by understanding the structural inequalities holding women back. By remaking our economy, our society and our institutions.

That would mean understanding that harassment is caused by a power imbalance and is not the result of occasional deviant behaviour; that austerity and welfare cuts damage women because they are designed to; that unaffordable childcare hurts national productivity; that we all get less from gender-blind spending choices.

We could all share care if paternity leave was funded and extended. We would all value it if we saw the benefits of investment in it: care yields twice the economic benefit of investing in construction. The next generation could thrive on relationships based on consent and respect if we taught equality in classrooms. And ending competitive tendering of women’s services could give the specialists who understand how to end violence against women and girls sustainable grant funding to do that work.

We could create a fairer future. If Brexit is the process of remaking our relationship with the world, women must be at the negotiating table. If Brexit is the result of our qualms about immigration, we must build a new system that gives women equal chances to build new lives, with access to public funds. If Brexit is opportunities for all, then women’s jobs and rights must be protected and extended as part of trade talks.

2018 marks the centenary of a small group of white, wealthy women winning the right to vote. It should also mark the year when all women, in all their glorious diversity, could finally vote for their equality.

Sophie Walker is a former journalist and the leader of the Women’s Equality party

Books: Jonny Geller
WE’LL WANT ‘REAL’ PEOPLE AND NUANCED STORIES

Piles of books



Books will offer both an escape from reality and insights into the way the world of 2018 works. Photograph: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

We have seen a shift in the nonfiction market to “authentic” voices such as memoirs of doctors (Adam Kay’s bestseller, This is Going to Hurt), nurses (Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, to be published in May), shepherds (James Rebanks’s No1 bestseller The Shepherd’s Life) and surgeons (Henry Marsh, Paul Kalanithi). I suspect this trend of “real” people writing about “real” experiences will continue.

But it is fiction that gives voice to our greatest fears and the political upheavals of 2017 have proved a great distraction to the necessary occupation of reading fiction. I can see sweeping love stories that take us away from the Twitter rages of world leaders (Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and Jojo Moyes have new books out early in 2018), complex thrillers that take us closer to how the world works (McMafia on BBC1 from 1 January is taken from Misha Glenny’s book on the links between international crime and business), and fantastical stories to transport us (Harvill’s big debut, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar).

Added to this, the Weinstein earthquake and its inability to swallow Trump will result in a new narrative conversation. In the 80s and 90s, movies such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure emerged from Hollywood’s sense of a perceived threat posed by a new working female population, and I suspect Hollywood will find a way to give voice to the #MeToo movement. I also believe one response to “populism” will be detailed and specific stories of human struggle, filled with nuance, complexity and ambiguity. Most of all, the huge diversity of voices in Britain that have been waiting to be heard will find a place in the mainstream, and as we move away from continental Europe politically and economically, we will find expression in the bigger questions and multifarious voices in this country.

Jonny Geller is a writer, book agent and joint chief executive of Curtis Brown