Friday, 30 March 2012

Turning a rumour into a crisis

I don't own a car. I can't afford one, and quite frankly I don't need one. Where I live, public transport is perfectly adequate for my daily needs. If there's something really special that I need to do away from my area, then I hire a car. This is cost effective, and only happens two or three times a year.

This weekend is one of those occasions. I picked up a rental car this morning for a four day hire, so that I could collect my sister's ashes from Lichfield, and take them up to Wales over the weekend to scatter them, according to her wishes, in a well loved beauty spot. So far so good. I began to worry a little bit when on my way to the car hire place I saw a Nottingham Post headline outside a newsagents which said, "Notts petrol stations run out of fuel as panic hits the forecourts". What on earth was going on?

The car had about a quarter tank of fuel, so I obviously needed to get some more. In touring around (wasting valuable fuel), Sainsbury's and Tesco's had run out, one or two smaller garages were restricting customers to a maximum of £5 of fuel, and those garages (for example Asda) who seemed to still have an adequate supply also had horrendous queues waiting to get in. I decided to make my way to Lichfield in the hope that everywhere wasn't as mad as Nottingham. At the Donington Park Services there was plenty of petrol, and no queues, but of course the price is exorbitant. Beggars can't be choosers, and I filled up, then made my way to Lichfield. Tomorrow I will have enough to get up to Wales which will allow me to do what I have to do. I'll worry about getting back on Monday. Why on earth was all of this so difficult?

We know that tanker drivers have voted for industrial action, but here are some key points;

  • There are no dates set for any strikes
  • The UNITE Union is currently in talks with ACAS, which may bring a resolution
  • The Union says that even if there are any strikes, they won't be until after Easter
  • If there are strikes, there'll be at least seven days notice of them happening
So why the panic? The Government has not helped here. One Minister, Francis Maude gave the advice that people should fill jerry cans with petrol to prepare for a fuel tanker strike. This has caused apoplexy in the Fire Brigades Union, who have warned that it would "massively increase" the risk of fires and explosions. The maximum that you can legally store in appropriate containers is 30 litres, and these must not be in domestic dwellings or buildings attached to domestic dwellings. So people without a garage, or have one attached to the house are in trouble. David Cameron has distanced himself from Maude's advice, but has said that it is "sensible" to keep the car topped up. Neither men are being particularly helpful here. But there's something else.

In yesterday's Telegraph newspaper, Dan Hodges had an article with the headline, "Petrol panic: it's hard to tell who's stupider, the Government of the governed". And he goes on to say, "If you filled up your car today because Francis Maude told you to, you're an idiot. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but you are. In fact, anyone who has taken any action over the past seven days on the advice of ministers in this Government needs their head examining. Don't get me wrong. Francis Maude - acting like Corporal Jones after a posting to the Desert Rats, with his order not to panic, but break out the jerry cans just in case - is an idiot too. But seriously; if he went on television tonight and told you to put your hand in the fire, would you?" 

I agree with Dan Hodges. Do other nations panic as easily as the British? Are others as daft, as when we see a queue we must join it? We don't even know yet that there is going to be a strike, but even if there is, why panic now? There's time. Oh to heed the words of AA President Edmund King , who said two days ago, "It's vital that people do not turn a rumour into a crisis".  But I guess that too many people actually love a crisis.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I believe in: The equality of man

Westminster Hall, London
Yesterday, the Queen, as part of her Jubilee Celebrations addressed members of both houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

It was of course covered by the BBC, and I watched the first half hour of the programme, but switched off before the speeches, for reasons that will become evident.

What a marvellous building this is. To quote from the Westminster web site, "Westminster Hall is the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. What makes it such an astonishing building is not simply its great size and the magnificence of its roof, but its central role in British history. Closely involved in the life of the nation since the 11th Century, a journey through the Hall's past is a journey through 900 fascinating years of our history".

While I marvelled at the magnificence of the Hall, what was going on under its awesome ceiling filled me with nausea. You see, I don't believe in a monarchy, and never have, though I do remember once, in support of the organisation I worked for attending a Royal Garden Party at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. I did escape a line that was waiting to shake hands, as that would have been too much, but I must say that the strawberries were wonderful, but as it was the season for them, they would have been great anywhere. I'm not an aggressive anti-monarchist, or a rabid republican: neither to I want to reintroduce the guillotine, imprison royalty or banish them to some far off island. It's the institution that I object to not the personalities. I'm sure that the Queen is very nice, and that Prince Philip, in spite of the occasional blunders is no worse than anyone else.

Thomas Paine
The reason why I am not a monarchist is because I believe in the equality of man. (I use man in the generic sense to denote man and woman). You cannot have equality when you are described as "My loyal subjects". If you are a subject then you are inferior to the person you are subject to. Superiority or inferiority have no place in the equality of man.

I'm currently reading "The Works of Thomas Paine" - and this man could write. Though born to a Quaker family in Thetford, Norfolk in 1737, he went to live in Philadelphia around 1774, where he began a new career as a journalist. In 1776 he published a short pamphlet (though the definition of a short pamphlet in the 18th Century is very different from that of today) called "Common Sense". He quickly gained a reputation as a revolutionary propagandist. As one of his biographers said, "He attacked monarchical government and the alleged virtues of the British constitution, opposing any reconciliation with Great Britain. He also urged an immediate declaration of independence and the establishment of a republican constitution".

He rested his case on the moral basis of the natural equality of men (in the sight of God). The statement about natural equality is true whether you are religious or not. If religious, then we are all created equal; if not religious then we are all born equal. In the same year as Paine published his pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for writing the United States Declaration of Independence, which declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Eighty seven years later, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, referring to the Declaration of Independence, opened with "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal".

There have been those who have pointed out that this equality was fine as long as you're not black or a native American Indian. This comment has not been made with the benefit of hind sight, as in the year that the Declaration was written, the abolitionist Thomas Day said about its hypocrisy, "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves". One hundred and eighty seven years later in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr was still waiting for this equality, when in his famous 'I have a dream' speech, he said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal".

The fact that men are imperfect, and have imperfectly followed through on this equality does not negate the belief that all men are born equal, and remain equal. Monarchy is incompatible with equality. Monarchy says that some are better than others, that the majority should be subservient to the minority, that the few should be fawned over by the many. The equality of man does not allow for subservience; for fawning obedience; for bowing or scraping; for allegiance. Socialism believes in the equality of man, and therefore I don't believe that a Socialist can also be a Monarchist.

In Tony Benn's blog of June 2002, at the time of the last Jubilee, he wrote, "In Royal Britain we are expected to confine our loyalty to someone at the top rather than express it in solidarity with our fellow men and women, and this is the basis of the feudal class system within which our duty is to those put above us, know our place and keep it out of respect for our betters. The feudal class system is still a very powerful force in Britain, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the socialist definition of class which identifies very different economic interest between those who work to create the nation's wealth and the handful at the top who own that wealth". He also said in a Guardian article in 2003, "Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country - or enjoy the privileges it affords". 

The equality of man is not just some fancy philosophical statement; it has to be seen to work out in practice. As far as I'm concerned, Monarchy has no place in a modern, so-called democracy, because there is no equality of man with it in place. The alternative to monarchy is an elected First Citizen who would be fully accountable to the Parliament that we also elect. Was this what Lincoln was saying in his Gettysburg address, when he concluded with the words, "... that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". But that's for another discussion.

At the last Jubilee in 2002, Tony Benn wrote words that are still relevant. "The Jubilee has provided them (the people at the top) with a marvellous opportunity to put the clock back more than a hundred years by providing bread and circuses for the peasants and allowing the powerful to celebrate their new found sense of security". 

I've tried to be reasoned and reasonable here; avoiding personal criticism of the present royalty, as it is the issue of monarchy and not the personalities that is important. Let me leave the final word with the Monarchy, in the shape of Prince Charles. "Something as curious as the Monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it". Well I for one don't want it, as it is an affront to the equality of man.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Great Day to be Welsh (in sporting terms)

Champions Wales 2012
Yesterday, being St Patrick's Day was a great day to celebrate being Irish. Or if Nottingham was anything to go by, an opportunity for hundreds of people with no Irish connection at all to don silly Guinness shaped hats; pretend to have an Irish accent, and get drunk.

I missed the St Patrick's Day parade; actually I avoided it. I haven't been to a parade since Belfast in the early 1970's, which put me off them totally, though I have no desire to prevent others from experiencing this strange form of enjoyment.

I do like my sport though, and with apologies to the Irish, and English, and Scottish, and Italian, and French, yesterday was a great day to be Welsh. Wales won the Six Nations Rugby championship by beating the five other nations over the last few weeks. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, they beat France 16 - 9, and so achieved the Grand Slam. This is the 3rd time in 8 years, and the 2nd time in the last 5 years that they have achieved this, which had Jonathan Davies talking about them in terms of the great sides of the 1970's. I'm not so sure that they're at that level yet, but they're still quite a young side, so who knows. They have however matched the achievement of 34 years ago by winning three Grand Slams in eight years. I remember Welsh Rugby in the 1970's, and the video below gives a glimpse of the magic of those days.

This was the golden era of 1969 - 1979 when Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns, with players whose names still trip off the tongue: Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, J.P.R. Williams, J.J. Williams, John Taylor, Mervyn Davies, (known as Merv the Swerve, and who sadly died just 3 days ago), Gerald Davies, and the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner.

Some people (mostly from outside of Wales it has to be said) are begrudgingly giving praise to Wales, but saying that the real test of how good they are is when they play teams from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia and New Zealand. Oh come off it. People don't say that when England win. Let's just acknowledge that as far as the Six Nations is concerned, Wales are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, and that as far as Rugby is concerned, it's a great time to be Welsh.

But it's not just rugby. Yesterday, for the first time this season I watched Match of the Day. There were only two Premiership matches played, so there were some decent highlights shown.

First on was Fulham verses Swansea from Craven Cottage, with the result, Fulham 0, Swansea 3. This lifted Swansea to 8th position in the league, which is a remarkable achievement for a team who have just come up from the Championship.

But it wasn't just the score that impressed me, as good as that was against a very decent Fulham side. It was the manner in which Swansea played the game. I've read a lot of the plaudits that they have received for their style of football, and I was looking forward to seeing this for myself.

In the analysis of the game afterwards, they showed a marvellous clip which they had speeded up. It was a sequence of 30 - 40 passes lasting nearly 1:40 seconds, and it was a great example of possession football. And all of it was played on the grass, which reminded me of the great quote from Brian Clough, "If God meant us to play in the clouds he would have put grass there". Gary Linecar felt that Swansea were almost "Barcelonaesque" in the way that they played football. This is the kind of hyperbole that I would have been proud of. There are no "stars" in the team, just players who are comfortable on the ball, and know how to use it well. They are a credit to football, and another reason why yesterday was a great day to be Welsh.

But enough of this Welsh love-in. Yesterday also showed that football and rugby are just games, and other things in life are much more important. This was brought home by the collapse of Fabrice Muamba from a suspected heart attack while playing in the FA Cup for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba is a former England under 21's player, and is young, fit and wealthy, but this didn't stop his heart from giving out, and at the time of writing this on Sunday evening, he remains in a critical condition. There really are no guarantees in life are there. I do hope that he pulls through OK.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Same-Sex Marriage

I was determined to keep out of the "Same Sex Marriage" (Gay Marriage) debate, as to be honest, all I really want is a quiet life. However, I am so angry, even apoplectic at the level of debate, that I've got to get it out of my system.

On Thursday, the Government launched a 12-week consultation on allowing gay couples in England and Wales to marry. The full consultation document can be read here. We've known this was coming for quite a while. In September 2010 the Liberal Democrats at the party's conference endorsed same-sex marriage. In February 2011 the Government expressed its intention to begin a consultation to allow both religious same-sex ceremonies and civil marriage for same-sex couples. In September 2011 the Government announced that it would introduce same-sex civil marriages by the next general election (2015). It's important to understand the scope of this consultation; the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said, "The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how". It will happen before 2015.

What exactly is the Government proposing? In summary, they are;

  • to allow same-sex couples to marry in a register office or other civil ceremony
  • to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert it into a marriage
  • to allow people to stay married and legally change their gender
  • to maintain the legal ban on same-sex couples marrying in a religious service
Lynne Featherstone couldn't be clearer on the last point, "We're not looking at changing religious marriage, even for those that might wish to do it". The Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has said, "Churches who want to celebrate gay marriage [should have] the chance to do so". Not to do so is for Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, "... not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so". But it's not going to happen yet. 

However, the proposal to "redefine marriage" has brought down a torrent of invective and Armageddon like prophecies. The campaign group, Coalition for Marriage has said, "Marriage is so much a part of everyday life. If we change its meaning in law, it will have a knock-on effect in everyday life". What in god's name will this knock-on effect be? Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has called the plans "grotesque", and if implemented would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world". Don't you just want to scream? The Church of England says, "Arguments that suggest religious marriage is separate and different from civil marriage, and will not be affected by the proposed redefinition, misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country". But it's this status quo that is being addressed. It's being redefined and broadened out; there is no misunderstanding.

The other Sunday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England, wrote a pastoral letter to be read at mass across the country warning about the proposed changes. He said, "There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female, or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children". So does this mean that those male and female married couples who have failed, for whatever reason, to have children have failed in their marriage? 

I have read scores of articles, blogs and comment boards on the Government plans, and frankly I'm appalled by some of the language used, which I cannot bring myself to copy here. Of course, as a fervent believer in freedom of expression, everybody has the right to express their opinion, but what they don't have is the right to express that opinion in a way that becomes almost a hate crime. When this is done in the name of God, it is reprehensible. Thankfully, there are those within the Churches who do not share the views of their 'leaders' or support the bile from fellow communicants. Following the Roman Catholic letter read out across their Churches, one communicant wrote a letter to the national press. I'm happy to reproduce one paragraph of it here. "I walked out ...into the fresh air ... I am ashamed to call myself a Catholic today. I am heterosexual and I have a solid marriage and have two beautiful and amazing children. But I am astounded at the bigotry that was read out at mass last Sunday. My adrenaline was pumping and heart was palpitating, and I was already sweating. I could not sit in that room. To ostracise a whole group of people, to demonise them, to exclude and deem them a laughing stock and not real human beings with human feelings is an outrage, an atrocity and unbelievable in this modern age. And what I was reeling at most was the hatred. Religion is about love, surely?" 

Equally, not all "religious groups" are closed to the subject. The Quakers at their 2009 Yearly Meeting decided to recognise opposite-sex and same-sex marriages equally and perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. They have asked the Government to change the law so that such marriages in their Meeting Houses would be legal. I do love the Quakers.  

It's those who claim to have a religious persuasion that are making the most noise about same-sex marriages, but why should we take any more notice of them than anyone else? The answer we're often told is because we are a Christian country, and our values are Christian. But I beg to differ. Britain is an increasingly secular society, with only a small minority regularly taking part in religious rites. In the question on religion in the 2001 Census, 37 million people said they were of the Christian faith (there were around 54 million people living in England and Wales), yet in the British Social Attitudes Survey run most years from 1983 to 2008, the percentage of respondents reporting religious affiliation was down from 70% to 55%, and respondents who said that they attended Church at least once a month was down from 21% to 15%. So in 2008, the survey shows that those who do not attend some Church at least once a month was 85.1%. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Britain being a Christian country.

The religious campaign group, Catholic Voices commissioned a survey which was reported in The Telegraph today. The results of the poll showed that 70% of people were opposed to same-sex marriage, and so the Government were completely out of touch with public opinion. Now I don't have a lot of time for opinion polls, but lets play along with it. So Catholic Voices says that 70% are against same-sex marriage, but a poll conducted by YouGov a week ago showed that 43% were in favour and a further 32% supported civil partnerships, with only 16% opposed to the recognition of homosexual relationships all together. If we go back even further we find a Gallup poll in 2004 having 52% of people agreeing with same-sex marriage; in 2008, ICM Research had 55% agreeing; in 2009 Populus had 61% agreeing, and in 2011, Angus Reid Public Opinion had 43% agreeing with same-sex marriage and a further 34% for civil partnerships. Rather than the Government proposal being out of touch with public opinion, it is fully in line with it, and the trend has been for increased support over the years. 

It is worth noting also that about twice as many Britons now marry in secular, civil ceremonies than in religious rites. When Cardinal O'Brien said that same-sex marriage "would shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world", it was as if the UK was the first to go down this route. As far as I can tell, the list of countries that allow same-sex marriage includes Spain, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and Belgium. Hardly a list of back-wood countries is it? 

Since civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, there have been around 50,000 of them, and who knows how many same-sex couples will want to get married. I haven't canvassed the gay community, or spoken to those that I know are gay, because how many is not important. Whether there's one couple or one hundred thousand couples, the issue is the same. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights charity Stonewall, has said the issue was neither about religious freedom nor party politics. And I agree with him. For him, "Ultimately it's about the freedom of a small group of people to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else". 

I leave the last word with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams who said, "The law should not be used as a tool to bring about social changes such as gay marriage". What an extraordinary statement. The law has been used to bring about social changes for generations, but gay marriage should be exempt. Just pick and choose what social changes you want the law to bring about. Incredible. It really is time for the Church of England to be disestablished. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Moving into e-books

For nearly twelve months I've been dithering over a decision, but last week I took the plunge - I bought a Kindle.

The reason that I dithered was because I didn't want to be a 'traitor' to the hard copy books that I love to handle, and see on my shelves.

I've been a small customer of Amazon for a while, and I think that I have been eventually worn down by their regular emails recommending further reading, in line with books that I'd previously ordered.

Every email was also advertising the Kindle, and eventually, my admittedly tenuous resistance was broken. So last week, I clicked "Order Now", and within a few days it arrived. I don't want to see the end of printed books that I can hold in my hands, but that's not going to happen in my lifetime, and after all, this is the 21st Century, so why can't traditional printed books and e-books go hand in hand?

A practical reason for buying a Kindle is that I'm getting on a bit now, and while I love to read in bed, my arms have started to get tired of holding rather large, heavy and cumbersome books. Now (courtesy of Amazon information), my Kindle weighs less than 170 grams, fits in my coat pocket, and holds up to 1,400 books, which will do me for a while. As an aside, I was struck by Amazon's vision for Kindle, where they say, "Our vision for Kindle is to have every book ever written, in every language, available in 60 seconds from anywhere on earth". Now, I've written a few vision statements in my time, but nothing so awesome as this one.

My reader will no doubt be asking how on earth did I get on setting the thing up, knowing about my aversion to setting up anything. Well, all I had to do apparently was link it in with my wi-fi; how hard can that be? It turned out that in spite of me being stupid, it wasn't very hard at all, and I was already to go. Now was the time to download (or is it upload? I can never remember) some books. Being the big spender that I am, I decided to see what I could get for £10, and I ended up getting five books (which I'll come to in moment).

Because I've ordered from Amazon before, all of my details are on file. Being still a bit awestruck by technology, I was amazed by their "one-click to order" button. I selected the book, clicked the button, and I swear that within 10 seconds I had an order confirmation email, and the book on my Kindle. This happened with all five books. I was well impressed, though I did exceed my budget by 28 pence. So what did I purchase and why?

  1. Crap MP's by Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Dr Geoffrey Hicks(99p) -  This is the authors' choice of 40 MP's from the 16th Century to the present day, but there's nothing really that hasn't been said before.
  2. The Prince & The Art of War by Niccolo Machiavelli (77p) - I've read about Machiavelli before, but never something by him. I'm interested to learn from his own words how the word 'Machiavellian' came into our language.
  3. The Complete Works of Thomas Paine (77p) - This radical political figure of the 18th Century, active in England, America and France, as well as a powerful advocate of Deism, has long fascinated me.
  4. The CIA World Factbook 2012 (£1.30) - No idea why I bought this. I think I just got carried away in the excitement.
  5. More Time for Politics by Tony Benn, Diaries from 2001 - 2007 (£6.45) - I've just finished his 'Free at Last' diaries from 1991 - 2001, and as he is one of my political heroes, I wanted to read more. 
So what do I think of my three days with Kindle? Marvellous; now I wish I hadn't waited nearly twelve months to get it. I now of course spend even longer sitting on a bench in the middle of the day. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Hopes, Aspirations, Dreams, Plans

Boots Library, Goldsmith Street, Nottingham
Yesterday, the warm air hit you as soon as you opened the front door. As usual I was dressed for winter, but the warmth wouldn't last would it, so I didn't change. What a mistake.

Layers started to come off as soon as I left the tram at the Premier Inn, opposite the Boots Library in Goldsmith Street. That meant carrying a jumper and heavy top coat - will I never learn? The Premier Inn also houses a Costa coffee house, and I sat outside with my cappuccino watching part of the student world go by.

What will this generation of students achieve, or what will they be allowed to achieve? When I was watching those go in and out of the library; others having coffee with friends, and still others in groups large and small making their way into town, I wondered what hopes, aspirations, dreams, plans they had. I hoped that they had some, rather than just waiting to see what happens. These would be part of the next generation of scientists, educationalists, politicians, lawyers and whatever was their chosen field, and while university is also a time to enjoy yourself (or so I'm told), it is also the time to prepare for the future. No pressure there then.

How embarrassing
In making my way to the Arboretum to finish my coffee, I found scores of students (I overheard some conversations) who obviously preferred a sunny afternoon in the park, rather than an air conditioned library.

If I had the body for it I would have sun-bathed myself, but I don't so I didn't. I'm always afraid that some concerned citizen will ring up the authorities and say that somehow a whale has beached in central Nottingham.

You almost needed a ticket system to find a park bench, but I eventually found a free one overlooking the Chinese Bell Tower; it was worth the wait for its comedic value. There was a mixed group of about a dozen students sprawled over the tower having their lunch. Some of the lads were stripped to the waist showing off their six-packs, and obviously trying to get the female attention. They were like peacocks without the plumage. The funny thing is that the girls were paying more attention to what was on their mobiles, than anything that the lads got up to. With damage done to the male pride, some of the lads seemed to admit defeat, and did what many of us have done when we've been rejected, they had a game of football.

As an old man I was beginning to find all of this very humorous, but then I remembered that there's nothing new in this. Men have always postured to get the attention of others; always used their bodies as part of the mating rituals. I remembered that I was a bit of a poser myself in my youth, as the embarrassing photograph above of me shows. Girls were driven wild by my slim and cool exterior (Oops! Apologies, I've slipped into dreamland again; just like those on the Bell Tower cannons, I was more ignored than acknowledged).

The students were certainly having fun, and that's part of life. I also hope that they have dreams and plans, and that those come to fruition, not only for their benefit, but for the country also.

While still on the subject of students, I went into town today, and while walking down Bridlesmith Walk, I noticed a photographic exhibition by second year students from Nottingham Trent University, so I went in to have a look. Bridlesmith Walk is not exactly the mecca for "foot fall", but the exhibition had taken over an empty shop.

I was interested because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the town centre (yes, I know I do a lot of that), when a young lady came up to me and said she was a photography student who was taking photos of people in town, and would I mind if she took mine. I should have asked, "Why me"?, but I didn't, so I just said yes. I don't think that it was my physique that impressed her; I just hope that she doesn't put a caption like "Lonely old man on a city bench". But I wasn't in the exhibition.

I love photographs, and the student exhibition was very good. My eldest son is keen on photography, and you can see some of his latest pictures of London here. That's worth a pint by anyone's standards.  Good photography for me seems to be all about the eye; good equipment yes, but it's the eye that sees the image you want to capture. The NTU students had this, and the exhibition showed it.

Hopes, Aspirations, Dreams, Plans - what will the future bring?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Why have a Directly Elected Mayor?

Currently there are fourteen directly elected mayors in England, and in addition, Liverpool will elect their first mayor in May 2012.

Up to now, there have been 37 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities. Twelve have been passed and 25 rejected by the voters. A Government press release last month, said, "The Coalition Agreement proposed the creation of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities outside of London, subject to confirmatory referendum and full scrutiny by elected councillors". Of those 12, Leicester elected its mayor last year, and Liverpool will do so this year. The remaining 10 cities are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. As these cities have not voluntarily chosen to go down the route of having elected mayors, as the Local Government Act 2000 and 2007 allows them to, and as they have also not chosen to hold a referendum, the Government has decided to force the cities to hold a referendum, in the name of Localism.

The historic position in local council's is that Councillors are elected by the people at Ward level, and then those Councillors elect someone to be the leader of the council. A cabinet is then formed, which reports to the full council.

An elected mayor need not be a Councillor, and cannot be removed by Councillors; only the electorate can do that every four years. One question that has been nagging away at me is what is the difference between a leader and an elected mayor? I suggest that you look at Nottingham City Council's web site here, where I think you will find some helpful answers to the question. So, on the 3rd May 2012, Nottingham and nine other cities will hold a referendum so that the people can decide whether they want to go down the route of having an elected mayor.

The Government's View
According to their press release, the Government believes that elected mayors can provide cities with a strong, visible leadership that will help them prosper nationally and internationally. The Minister for Cities, Greg Clark said, "Out greatest cities can benefit from the prestige and international standing a mayor can bring, helping them to achieve their full potential. For Britain to be successful our cities need to be successful. An elected mayor with a strong voice can seize the opportunities for their city to compete on the world stage".

In the House of Commons Library Standard Note published on the 10th February, it says, "As regards mayoral powers, the Localism Act allows for the delegation of 'local public functions' to 'permitted authorities'. The Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers". 

Nottingham City Council's View
The city council are opposed to the introduction of an elected mayor, and have been consistent with that view since they passed a resolution in July 2011.

In the Council's opinion;

  • The Government's Impact Assessment identifies that a mayor would cost around £1 million over five years. Government estimates show the costs of the referendum as £300,000, elections in 2012 and 2017 as £384,000 in total and average additional salary costs of an elected mayor over Council Leader as £70,613 a year. 
  • It has been suggested that some of the costs could be covered by reducing the number of councillors, but this would reduce representation at a neighbourhood level. Elsewhere, ward councillors' work has shifted to the mayor, undermining their role.
  • Nottingham City Council's current strong leader and cabinet model requires the Executive to recommend the budget and strategic policies to Council which may approve, overturn or amend them by a simple majority. Under a mayor and cabinet, the Executive submits the budget and strategic policies to Council which ultimately may only amend or overturn them by a two-thirds majority. This seems to diminish the role of council by making it harder to overturn a mayoral decision. 
  • The Government's move to instigate a change of governance arrangements should be a matter for local councils and is not compatible with 'localism'. 
So Nottingham City Council are at war with the Government (not for the first time I might add), but it's the people who will decide on the 3rd May. I'm not eligible to vote as I live just outside the city boundary, but if I was, how would I vote? The Guardian, in an editorial on the 27th February came out in favour of directly elected mayors. Two days later they published a very interesting series of letters on the subject. In carefully considering the matter, I find myself with four concerns that lead me to the view that I'm opposed to the introduction of a directly elected mayor. 

As I've already mentioned, the Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers. This means that different mayors may have different powers, and we don't know if it will be up to those mayors to negotiate those powers for their city. Here's a major problem for the referendum, voters are being asked to make a decision about whether to change to the mayoral model without having the full information on what powers a mayor would have. I find this to be totally unacceptable.

Also, the Government's view that "elected mayors can provide cities with strong, visible leadership" seems to be part of a belief in the power of super-personalities, and as one of the Guardian letters says, "leads to the foolishness of celebrity worship and the obscenity of million-pound payments to City fat cats". (If a recent letter to the Nottingham Post is to be believed, this is happening in a neighbouring City with a newly elected mayor who has proposed to increase his salary from £44,000 to £100,000 a year). I think that there's enough cult of personality in central Government without introducing it into local Government as well. And who is to say that a new system will be better than the current one? Who is to say that the right person will be elected, "who can provide cities with strong, visible leadership"? The Guardian is correct when it says that "such an outcome is by no means certain". It also points out that "some elected mayors have struggled to be effective, sometimes on competence grounds and especially if elected as protest candidates against the town hall establishment". 

I have a real problem with the imposition of a referendum in the name of localism. Another letter in the Guardian draws attention to an article written by Professor George Jones and Professor John Stewart, where they say that the Localism Act 2011 "imposes referendums on local people and local authorities, not sought by either", and "is not based on a logic of localism, but on a logic of centralism". Nottingham Council, elected by local people, are being forced to go down a route dictated to them by central Government. I cannot be happy with this.

Finally, something that is far more important to me than any of the above. No system is perfect, and mistakes will happen, but Matthew Huntbach in a letter to the Guardian has encapsulated very well my thinking here, so I quote from him. "The committee system of local government, with wards small enough for personal contact, is still a key aspect of winning, and offering a career path into politics to those who don't have the fortune to run a city-wide campaign, is a glorious part of Britain's heritage. (The Guardian's) claim that all power in the hands of one person is more effective than power shared by representatives of various opinions echoes the line used in the last century in favour of a similar system of governance, though at a national level than local level, that it 'makes the trains run on time'". 

I hope that Nottingham votes NO to having a directly elected mayor. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

What now for Peaceful Protests?"

Occupy Nottingham
So, Nottingham City Council are to go to court to evict the "Occupy Nottingham" camp from the Old Market Square. This is in line with other authorities across the world who have removed protesters from their areas.

The "Occupy the Cities" movement began in Wall Street, New York in September 2011, and swiftly spread to cities across America and the world. Occupy Nottingham began on the 15th October 2011, so in a weeks time it will have been in the Market Square for six months. The Occupy movement was largely a protest against the international financial system, with particular UK focus on unfair banking practices resulting in the near collapse of the banking system. Many banks were rescued with taxpayers money, resulting in debts that all of us are expected to pay for. Have lessons been learnt, as even largely taxpayers owned banks are still paying immoral bonuses to senior executives. The Occupy Movement's slogan of "We are the 99%" is a message that the 1% should not destroy the lives of the rest of us. The camps have been a great way of drawing attention to the greed of capitalism, and the iniquity of government cuts. I have supported the protest 100%, because they are presenting a message that needs to be heard.

Occupy Nottingham Common Statement
I have read and heard a number of people who do not support the protest, criticize those who are involved for not providing details of viable alternatives to the system that they are criticizing. 

This is grossly unfair. There is a "Occupy Nottingham Common Statement" for all to see at the camp. There are good points made as to what should be done. For example, point 5 declares that "We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate". Without this, it's like an old boys network.

Also, why should protesters who may well largely be ordinary working class people be expected to come up with all of the detailed answers? Isn't this what we elect our politicians for? Isn't this what we pay senior executives for? The Occupy Movement has rightly pointed out what is wrong, and what needs to change. If enough people agree with this, then it is up to our representatives in Parliament and local government to bring about the changes that are needed to ensure a fairer society for all. So, what now for the we are the 99%?

In considering all of this, two issues come to light. One is the right to peaceful protest, and the other is do protests have a shelf life? (I may address the latter in a future blog).

Where does Nottingham City Council's aim to evict the Market Square protesters stand in relation to the right to peaceful protest? The Council's Corporate Director of Communities has said, "We've got an increasing number of businesses and members of the public who have raised concerns about the camp". We're not told how many people have raised these concerns; is it 10, 100, 1000? What was the nature of these complaints? Do such complaints allow the rights of others to peaceful protest to be denied?

The Government's own website, Directgov says, "The right to peaceful protest is a vital part of democracy, and it has a long, distinguished history in the UK. Taking part in a demonstration, rally or protest is a high-profile way to take a stand on issues important to you. Protests can make a real difference - leading to changes in governmental policies and laws. Peaceful protests allow people to come together and stand up for what they believe in, and can be a very effective way of promoting change".

The Human Rights Act protects freedom of expression and freedom of assembly - these form the basis for our right to gather with others and protest. The Act forbids governments and other public bodies, including the Police, from violating those rights. There are of course limitations on these rights, but these are designed to prevent unrest, violence and crime, and for the protection of the rights and freedom of others.

Let's look at this in relation to the Occupy Nottingham camp. For nearly six months this has been a peaceful protest; as far as I'm aware, there has been no reports of unrest, violence or crime. As for protecting the rights and freedom of others, I can't see the problem. Some may claim that it's unsightly, but I feel the same way about some of Nottingham's buildings, but I wouldn't dream of asking for them to be pulled down. The camp is tucked away in one of the corners of the square, with still plenty of space for people to walk by. It is not affecting anyone's freedom, and as such, I fail to see why legally they don't have the right to peaceful protest, and to stay in the Square for as long as they wish.

On its Facebook page, Occupy Nottingham said, "We have collectively decided, so far, not to move from Market Square and through civil disobedience and lawful rebellion we will stay". As a believer in democracy, liberty and the right to peaceful protest, I applaud their intention, and support them 100%.

Keir Hardie
What is a disappointment to me is that it is a Labour controlled administration that is seeking to evict the protesters. Disappointed, yes; surprised, no. Long ago Labour forgot its roots, and turned its back on those it was set up to represent.

Keir Hardie, who founded the Independent Labour Party, and became the first Leader would be turning in his grave. He was a giant, when most others who followed him were mere pygmies.

The Council will undoubtedly have its way; protesters will be evicted, the camp will be cleared, and those 'nasty' protesters will go their way. Perhaps the protesters will be denied their right to peaceful protest in Market Square, but this may well be the start of a new phase of "lawful rebellion", as I've a feeling that they won't go away that easily.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Cycle of Life

Arboretum 6th March 2012
Having been preoccupied with other matters for a number of months, I've realised how much I've missed my walks in the park.

Today was a beautiful day: blue sky, bright sunshine, and quite warm, so I decided it was time to get back to the Arboretum.

After queuing behind too many students with too much money to spend (that's a bit judgmental isn't it? I apologise), I picked up my coffee from Costa's on Goldsmith Street (ideally placed for where I wanted to go), and headed for the park. My favourite bench was free, so I sat down and watched the world go by (actually this was about six people as the park was surprisingly quiet). Basking in the early afternoon sunshine, my mind turned to thoughts on the philosophy of life. Being me of course meant that none of these thoughts were particularly original.

Springing into life
The park was coming to life: bits of blossom here, a few buds there, and flowers poking their heads through the grassy slopes. How different this was from just a few weeks ago.

Where once there seemed only death, now there is vibrant life, and it will only get better. A young couple walked past with a visible glow on their faces. They were pushing a brand new pushchair, with a baby inside who couldn't have been more than a few weeks old.

My sister would have passed on about the same time that this baby was born, and so the cycle of life continues. None are exempt from being part of this cycle: our time is up, and we are replaced on this earth by someone else, and so it has ever been. Tragedy for some, and joy for others.

Sitting on that park bench and pondering the meaning of life, I thought how truly "classless" birth and death really are. Life sometimes can be dominated by class: does it exist, and if it does, where am I on the class ladder? But in birth and death none of that matters. The poorest and the richest persons in the world all appear in the same way; where they appear is of course very different, but the physical act of birth is the same for all. Similarly with death; where we die, be it a mansion or a gutter is of course different, but the physical expiration of life is the same. We are all united in birth and death, so don't you think that it's a great shame when this equality in between these two events is forgotten?

Philosophers have written much over the centuries about the essence of life, with most of it being incomprehensible to the ordinary person. Others, however have captured something that is understandable.

The singer/songwriter, Seasick Steve wrote, "I came into this world with nothing, and I've still got most of it left". I think that he had a good perspective on life. For Reba McEntire, it was, "To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone". While to Albert Einstein, "If A equals success, then the formula is: A = X + Y + Z, where X is work, Y is play, and Z is keep your mouth shut". 

How we live between the cradle and the grave is important, and as Mae West says, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough". Human beings have many views on life, and often it's not related to one's social condition. Some are upbeat even when they're suffering in life, while others are downbeat, though they seem to have everything that others crave.

In my favourite TV programme of all time, The X-Files, the dialogue goes, "Life... is like a box of chocolates - a cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that no one ever asks for, unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So, you're stuck with mostly undefinable whipped mint crap, mindlessly wolfed down when there's nothing else to eat while you're watching the game. Sure, once in a while you get a peanut butter cup or an English toffee, but it's gone too fast and the taste is fleeting. In the end, you are left with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts, which, if you are desperate enough to eat, leaves nothing but an empty box of useless brown paper". How terrible it is to view life like this.

In 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', J K Rowling wrote, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live". That's it isn't it? The part between birth and death is life. We can't do a lot about the beginning and the end, but we can about the piece in the middle. It too is part of the cycle of life. There is joy in birth, and sadness in death, but in a recent bereavement, I've learnt the comfort of Dr Seuss' words, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened". 

Having just re-read this blog, I'm sure that my reader is asking, what the hell is he talking about? Hey, it's "philosophy", you're not supposed to understand it.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Eulogy for Sue

After nearly a year of battling with lung cancer, my sister Sue finally lost that battle and passed away on the 20th February 2012 at the St Giles Hospice in Whittington, Staffordshire, with her funeral taking place on the 1st March.

Though she was only there for three nights, it was her wish, that if she was unable to cope at home, then she would like to be at the Hospice. Like thousands of other people, I cannot speak highly enough of Hospice work. Sue managed to attend about half a dozen sessions at the Day Hospice, once a week, and to receive home support until she was unable to cope. The quality of care could not be matched, and I will be forever grateful to them.

The present St Giles Hospice is a modern state of the art facility, that was first opened in May 2010. It is called The Compassus Centre, named after the Latin noun which means "a deep awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to alleviate that suffering". Awareness and alleviation is something that they do in abundance, and if you have to lose a loved one, then you want them to be peaceful and pain free. Below you will find a brief tour of the St Giles Compassus Centre.

Sue and John
The photograph opposite was taken two weeks before Sue died, and was one of the last few days at her home in Lichfield.

Apart from it making me realise that I must lose some weight, I treasure it as a captured moment when brother and sister are together. We haven't always been close, but the past twenty years in general, and the last twelve months in particular were very precious, when perhaps we got to know each other in new ways. I gave a three minute Eulogy at her funeral service where I tried to say how incredibly proud I was of my sister. This blog will simply expand on that theme for the benefit of her family and friends, but will still only give a brief picture of her life.

We were born and brought up in the small village of Penycae in North East Wales. I arrived in this world in 1947, and Sue in 1951.  When Sue was about three or four, we moved from a small cottage in the village to a small holding just outside the village. She loved it there, and in spite of fairly spartan conditions, there were many happy moments.

She loved feeding the chickens, and being with the few animals that were around the place. She also proved to be very useful to my friends and I. She would be placed in goal when my friends and I were out in the fields playing football. But I think that judging by the number of times she mentioned this over the years, the experience may well have traumatised her.

When she was just gone seven, we moved back into the village, and our father died. She attended Penycae Junior County Primary School from 1958 to 1962, and in a future reference, the Headmaster of the school wrote that Sue "was a pupil who applied herself diligently to her work, and showed great promise of becoming a competent scholar. Sue was a thoroughly reliable girl who seemed more mature than the usual in her attitudes towards her studies".

The words application, diligence, competence, reliability and maturity, were to be used many times by others over the coming years. I'm very proud of her for that. Sue was the intelligent one in the family, and it was a great day when she passed the entrance examination and went to Ruabon Girls' Grammar School. In the summer of 1966 she achieved nine passes in O'Level subjects, with I remember, Latin being one of her favourites. In 1967 the school became a comprehensive, and it's name was changed to Ysgol Rhiwabon (Ruabon School). In the summer of 1969, she obtained A'Level passes in English and Geography, with the latter being particularly mentioned. The then Headmaster wrote that Sue "was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming young lady who was a most helpful prefect in the Upper 6th". 

Leaving school in 1969, she went to live in Oxford and did a two year Cartography course at Oxford Polytechnic. She left there with a Diploma in Cartography, and I have in my possession her final piece of course work for that Diploma, which I must say is a beautiful piece. She went to work for Lovell Johns Ltd, a cartographic company in Oxford.

Passport Photo 1980
Over the next 37 years Sue had a variety of jobs with various levels of responsibility, and in them all proved herself to be very competent. I think that because it was also in my area of interest that I was particularly proud of the fact that between 2004 and 2010, that she was a part time tutor teaching employability skills to 16-19 year olds wanting to enter the Construction Industry, and part time tutor in numeracy as a basic skill to those who had missed out on education.

Her level of interest and commitment to this work was shown when my son, daughter in law and I were clearing out her flat. (And I can't thank them enough for the amount of help that they gave me). The amount of paperwork from that period was incredible. On that point, if Sue had a downside, it was that she was a hoarder. There were even empty envelopes from forty years ago, and nothing she ever received seemed to have been thrown out. I'm sure that the amount of paper that we sent to the furnace, would have generated plenty of energy for Lichfield.

Take one look at Sue's CV, and the thing that strikes you is that from leaving school in 1969 until 2007, her life was one of constant study and betterment. I am so proud of her for this.

BA Honours 2004
Among the many qualifications that she gained, I am particularly proud of the Diploma in Cartography in 1971; the Institute of Managers Certificate in Computing and Management Information gained in 1995; her European Computer Driving Licence gained in 2003/4; the PGCE awarded in 2007, and above all of these was something very special to Sue.

I was immensely proud to be at Trentham Gardens, Stoke on Trent in July 2004 to see Sue receive her BA (Honours) in Business Studies from Staffordshire University. It was a lovely day; Sue was so happy; photos were taken, though I had to force her to get the official one done; refreshments were devoured, and "The Old Fashioned Love Band" were playing New Orleans Jazz, and I paid £10 for one of their CD's. I couldn't have been happier for her.

I wish that I could speak more about her friends and her social life, but I don't know enough about it. That's one major regret that I have, that we spent too many of those important years apart. But none of that diminishes the love, pride and respect that I have for my sister. At the funeral service last Thursday, I finished my brief Eulogy with these words, which I will also use to close this blog.

St Giles Hospice, Whittington
Above all of the things that I am proud of with Sue, I am immensely proud of the way that she dealt with her illness. Twelve months ago she was told that she had lung cancer: what followed was a series of fairly invasive tests to determine the type, then a lengthy treatment programme. A week before Christmas she was told that the treatment had not worked, and that she possibly had about two months to live. Throughout all of this she was strong and positive, and I can only remember one day, near the end of her life, when through frustration at her bodily weakness, she was irritable. Sue spent the last few days of her life at St Giles Hospice in Whittington, which is where she wanted to be. Sue was no saint, but I am, and will always be massively proud of my sister, Sue.

Sue front right, date and venue unknown
Happy Days
More Happy Days