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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Column, February 21, 2006

I WAS a good kid.
This meant that I escaped the two fates that awaited the troublesome in my old school.
The only blot on an otherwise spotless copy book was a comment by Mr Hinks-Edwards, my art teacher, who gave me a D, and said simply that I was ‘slow, talkative and lacking direction.’
He was a fine judge of character, Hinksy. But other than my inability to take the drawing of an apple too seriously I was generally attentive and very occasionally hard working.
The educationally-challenged were sent for special lessons on the top floor of the school house. The other two floors were occupied by the school’s sixth form, surely an accidental cruelty to send those with such problems through the ranks of the more gifted.
For those who were bright but whose behaviour left something to be desired, the channel for their energy was drama lessons.
There was I, all these years, thinking they’d been sent to act out being a tree, or miming a bloke stuck in a box.
What was I missing?
Now we hear that drama can be a hotbed of passion egged on by peeping tom teachers who get their kicks watching their young charges re-enact the best bits from Last Tango in Paris.
If I’d known that back then I would have knocked technical drawing on the head and signed up to become a young Romeo, understudy for young Romeo, spear-carrier for young Romeo, I don’t care just let me in on the Romeo action.
But alas and alack (see, I’ve even got the lingo, what a loss to the Shakespearian stage I am, if only I could have given North Wales audiences my Bottom) I emerged from school able to draw a radiator valve, but unsnogged by the various female denizens of the drama class – one of whom ended up on The Bill – I’d have dined out on that for years.
Of course, it’s possible that the drama classes were not the sinkholes of depravity I have imagined. Maybe they were all pretending to be trees, or blokes trying to stand up in a strong wind.
Which rather makes one wonder why the Assembly has gone top the trouble of providing draft guidelines for the teaching of drama in school to stop teachers acting out their fantasies by getting their young actors to…well…act out their fantasies.
Well, actually we know why, it’s because one teacher at a school in South Wales was doing that and videoing the results for his own gratification. He was due to be tried for it but killed himself before the trial.
Let’s recap shall we, because if you’ve a scrap of common sense you might be wondering what the fuss is about.
One chap gets his jollies by watching his pupils act their socks off, and if only it had just been their socks. He gets caught, prosecuted and kills himself.
As a result of this the Welsh Assembly has produced draft guidance for all schools in Wales.
Never mind the fact that thousands upon thousands of hours have been devoted to the teaching of drama and not a whiff of scandal has there been. Ignore the fact that countless productions of Oklahoma have taken to the stage and, mysteriously, no nude scenes have been inserted by teacher.
Disregard the fact that in the vast majority of schools any teacher behaving as this one did would have been reported to the police and prosecuted.
No, what those with nothing better to do with their time have come up with is a set of guidelines that, whatever their intent, will make teachers think twice about doing anything with an adult theme.
So Shakespeare, forget it. One of the most enriching experiences of a child’s life, to be introduced to the works of the Bard, could be denied them, because one teacher was found wanting.
Where is the evidence to justify the need for this patent waste of time and money?
Where are then allegations of widespread abuse by drama teachers? And if there were, why hasn’t there been a public inquiry into that instead of coming up with national guidance that will hamstring all teachers because of the misdeeds of just one.
Because, make no mistake, what this guidance will be is a tap on the shoulder to teachers saying ‘We’re watching.’ At any moment they know the nanny state will want them to justify every last moment of every last scene that their children take part in.
So will they allow Romeo and Juliet to kiss? Well common sense would say yes, but if they’re conscious that Big Sister Jane Davidson is watching them then probably not.
Romeo will have to make do with an affectionate pat on the shoulder, or better still, a friendly wave from his Juliet, from across the stage – safety first.
No-one wants to make life easy for an abusive teacher, but unless someone can furnish me with evidence of drama teachers across Wales making use of the casting couch, then it smacks a bit of panic.
How many schools are going to err of the side of caution rather than put on productions that they wouldn’t have thought about twice in years gone by? But now they have to beware the phone call from some busy-body who sees abuse around every corner, or some knuckle-dragger who has already bricked his local paediatrician and is looking for another ‘paedo’ target.
This guidance is a waste of time, and the shame is it could lead to a waste of talent.

THE response to my suggestion that windfarms are not necessarily instruments of the Devil has been amusing to say the least.
Especially those who seem to think the fact the wind doesn’t blow all the time is a fatal flaw in their technology – please note, even the most tie-dyed-in-the-wool green hippy doesn’t suggest they’re the only answer, just part of it.
But if you only read the letters page of the Daily Post you might form the opinion that the majority of Welsh people are against such developments.
Nothing could be further from the truth, although well-organised letter-writers wouldn’t necessarily want you to know that.
An independent poll of Welsh people carried out by NOP, an authoritative and well-respected polling organisation, found that 75 per cent of people in Wales agreed that wind farms are necessary to meet the country’s current and future energy needs.
The NIMBYs who are against wind power generate a lot of hot air of their own. But those who make decisions, such as Conwy councillors, should remember that no matter how vocal they are, they don’t speak for all of us.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Hello Cambridge...and Baguley

The little counter thingy in the bottom right not only tells me how many visitors I've had, but where they come from.

A few recent arrivals show I've some avid readers in Cambridge and Baguley.

One Cambridge visitor appears to get in via the Kings College server.

Another reader who has been spending hours on here is from Baguley, which, if memory serves, is part of Manc-land.

Anyhow, you're perfectly welcome to remain anonymous, but by all means leave a hello if you wish, it would be nice to know who had spent so long here.

If not, thanks for improving my visit length stats.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Column, February 14, 2006

I HAVE, in my time, sat through more than my share of dull council meetings.
I’m sure they were interesting to those taking part, but for a young hack wooed to the job by Woodward and Bernstein, it was a bit of a let down to be writing about development control.
Try as I might, I didn’t think a breach of planning was going to bring down the government.
The councillors weren’t a bad bunch, some were a tad too fond of the sound of their own voice, but I’m drifting into pot and kettle territory there, so I’ll leave it at that.
There was the occasional ego-tripper for whom a seat on the council was clearly the first step to world domination – one parish, one borough, ein volk, ein reich – if you get my drift.
But I never came across one who thought he – because when it comes to little Hitlers it’s always a he – had the powers that Conwy councillors seem to think they have.
That is to hold back the tide.
Perhaps it was a power they snuck past us when they were allowing councils to charge us an arm and a leg to pay for building regs every time we want to change a fuse.
That’s the only rational explanation for Conwy Council’s opposition to a windfarm off the coast of North Wales at Llandudno.
They must believe that as the ice caps melt and as sea-levels rise, as coastal areas across the globe are inundated by the rising waters, the then chairman of Conwy will be able to stride into the surf and save this little corner of Wales.
I hope whoever it is will be a strong swimmer.
The Gwynt y Mor windfarm would mean putting up 200 turbines eight miles of the coast. The power they produce could supply 500,000 homes and it would provide 120 jobs.
But, according to some, it would spoil the view. One objector even went so far as to call it a ‘visual obscenity’. If he thinks a windfarm is an obscenity I think he’s led a bit of a sheltered life.
The fact is that global warming is with us and while Gwynt y Mor on its own will not hold back the rising tide, unless it and many more like it go ahead there will be no more view to enjoy full stop.
If there is one group who should be supporting offshore windfarm developments it is the coastal regions of the UK.
One of the main effects of sea-level rise will be erosion of coastal areas and that means Llandudno and all the other Welsh resorts that have a beach or sea front will suffer.
The council said no enough had been done to study the effect of windfarms and so the council is opposed to the scheme.
I would have liked the council to have come up with just a shred of evidence that wind farms actually put tourists off before they came to their decision.
But can they, or the other very vocal opponents of windfarms, have any suggestions where they should actually be sited. If we can’t have Gwynt y Mor, then where can we have it?
The problem is that all sorts of people comfortable with their view aren’t going to want to have wind turbines off their little patch of coastline.
So, do we have no windfarms at all? If so, what are we going to have and where?
Doing nothing might be an answer to those of you who are of advanced years and won’t be around to feel the seawaters lapping round your ankles. But if you have children or grandchildren you might think differently.
Unless we start dealing with this problem now then life will not be half as comfortable for those who come after us. They will wonder why we didn’t save their coastline because we pathetically ‘liked the view.’
A worst-case scenario where the ice caps melt will see sea-levels rise by 68 metres. If they don’t want windfarms in Conwy they’d better build a pretty high sea wall and start building it now.

I’M a little too young to remember the Tupenny Rush at the cinema of a Saturday morning.
But my father informed me that a regular, and somewhat tedious, plot device was to have the hero of that week’s tale of derring-do heading for a cliff on a runaway train/horse/car, over which he appeared to plummet in the final frames.
This ensured the return of the young cineastes the following week to establish whether their hero was dashed to pieces on the rocks below, or, as invariably happened, he had hurled himself from the train/horse/car in the nick of time.
The effectiveness of this device was limited in the cinema, but I don’t believe it’s ever been used in newspaper columns before – until last week when the last half of the last line vanished into the wild blue yonder.
Perhaps I was tempting divine intervention in a column about the right to print cartoons that depicted Muhammad.
In the grand traditions of Saturday morning cinema, I suppose I should do a quick recap: In last week’s episode, our hero (OK, I’m pushing the metaphor to its limits here, but cut me some slack) had wondered why we hadn’t been more vocal in our support of the Danes in their hour of need rather than pandering to the mob who threatened to behead anyone who so much as looked at Islam funny.
Anyway, for those who were left wondering what the last line was, and who are now sitting there with your choc-ices, full of expectation. Here it is:
“Because if the chips are down I suggest we side not with the baying mob, but with the country that gave us The Little Mermaid.”

AND while I’m on the subject, am I alone in spotting the crippling irony of the editor of Cardiff University’s student paper getting suspended for printing the ‘offending’ cartoons?
The title of his paper – Gair Rhydd – Free Word.
Only free-ish then.
As well as suspending the editor and barring him from all University property the Union scuttled round gathering up all 8,000 copies of it that had been distributed.
I studied at Cardiff when it was still UCC and I’ve got to say that I find their actions an affront to free speech.
Worst still are the mealy-mouthed apologies and tip-toeing round sensibilities which simply would not have happened if the cartoons had been aimed at Christian or Jewish deities.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Column, February 7, 2006

THE Danes have come a long way since their longboats pulled up on our shore for a little light pillaging.

The Viking scourge of Europe has settled down and is now best known for butter and bacon. But then having supplied the world with two-thirds of the requirements of a bacon sandwich is not a bad way to go down in history.

But you could see that newspaper editors were finding it a stretch at the weekend to come up with your typical Dane to defend their country against the ravages of reaction by Muslims around the world to a few cartoons.

One just about managed it by wheeling out Sandi Toksvig. You remember, yes you do, small blonde (well, she is Danish so that’s a bit of a given) used to be on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Still don’t remember, trust me she was famous-ish.

But at the weekend we discovered a game even more fiendishly difficult than Name 10 Famous Belgians – Come Up With Names of 10 Danes They Don’t Even Have To Be Famous.

But a quick dabble on Google sorts out my ignorance. So here are a few, as we should remind ourselves what the Danes have contributed to our civilisation before they all perish in the fires of Hell, which appear to have been commandeered by the followers of Islam, Christianity having long given up putting the willies up its adherents with tales of eternal damnation.

Viggo Mortensen – aka Aragorn, aka Strider – hacker and hewer of Orcs in Lord of the Rings.

Whigfield – pop singer, of sorts, and if they’d been burning copies of ‘Saturday Night’ in the streets I’d have been right there with them.

Nils Bohr – physicist who helped the world understand quantum theory, or rather helped quantum physicists understand quantum theory, it’s all Greek to me, or rather Danish.

King Canute – who tried to hold back the tide, or rather, who was told by sycophantic courtiers he could hold back the tide and who got his feet wet to prove them wrong.

Hans Christian Andersen – purveyor of fairy tales.

Alright, I might have been stretching a bit with Whigfield, but a for a little country they’ve punched above their weight in contributions to civilisation, after that is they stopped burning and pillaging civilisation. And we in Wales should recognise a little of ourselves in them.

Now they are persona non grata in the Muslim world, flags burning, embassies put to the torch and people parading in London pretending to be suicide bombers as a result of a few cartoons.

They may not have been well-drawn cartoons, they may not have been funny, they may have been deeply, deeply offensive – but they were just cartoons.

But from the reaction they have provoked anyone would gave thought Denmark had launched an illegal war on the basis of a pack of lies and invaded a sovereign nation without the backing of the UN to depose a head of state. Oops, no, that would be us.

But we haven’t published any cartoons, of no, no, no. That was them, the Danes, across the water. Red flag, white cross, burns well when soaked in petrol.

But instead of backing our European allies in their time of need – and let’s remember when we were up against it 65 years ago the Danes were on our side – we pussyfoot around the sensibilities of the mob with Jack Straw condemning the republication of the cartoons almost as much as the riots that greeted them as if there is some moral equivalence between drawing a cartoon and prancing around pretending to be a suicide bomber.

Yes freedom of speech has limitations. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre. But are we really saying that the sensibilities of the adherents to this or that religion are now so sacred that we cannot, in a free society, poke a little fun at them by way of a cartoon? And I don’t single out any one faith here – I’m just as happy seeing jokes about people of all faiths and none.

There is no point in having freedom of speech unless it is freedom to say things that sometimes people find offensive. And sometimes you might say something stupid, or insensitive to the feelings of one section of the community. As long as you are not inciting violence against them then they are only words, or pictures, feelings may be hurt but no harm is done.

Britain has a history of cartooning that goes back centuries and that was unrestrained in its savagery of public figures, and yes, the public figures have even on occasion included God and Jesus.

Are we now so lily-livered in our pandering to the sensitivities of a tiny, militant minority that we abandon freedom so lightly?

Last week we came within a whisker of passing a law that would make it an offence to have recklessly incited religious hatred. Wouldn’t have mattered whether you intended to or not – if you’d been reckless, and who knows how that would have been interpreted, you’d have been in clink.

So while protesters wave placards calling for beheadings and go unmolested by the forces of law and order, our MPs consider outlawing a vicar joke.

We could just muddle through this, which is what apparently our government was trying to do at the weekend, or we nail our colours to the mast over something as inconsequential, but crucial, as a poorly-drawn, not very funny, cartoon.

Because if the chips are down I suggest we side not with the baying mob, but with the country that gave us The Little Mermaid.



THERE was a rugby match on at the weekend.

I had pre-warned Mrs Banks that at 3.30pm I would be downing tools from the seemingly interminable effort to turn a ‘70s-converted Victorian schoolhouse into something that would grace the pages of Country Living.

She gave me a look that indicated that anything other than full-tilt DIY would not be acceptable – I wonder if there’s a secret aisle at B&Q where they learn to do that.

A concession was made though – I could do the aforementioned DIY within sight or sound of the TV.

Joy.

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

I’m not sure which gave me greater pain – watching Wales get exhausted and then pushed around by an English pack that had quite clearly been cheating at breakfast with their Weetabix-quotient – or assembling four flat-pack bookcases.

And Lawrence Dallaglio. That’s clearly not him, he’s obviously some sort of Robo-Dallaglio whose been enhanced with fiendish Soviet technology. He walked onto the pitch and eclipsed the sun.

It is clearly not fair playing against someone so big he has his own gravitational field.

Anyhow, there was one moment of unrestrained joy to be had in the whole painful 80 minutes – I found they had packed one screw too many with my bookcases – there’s a first.

If Wales carry on like this the house will be finished by Easter.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Column, January 31, 2006

YOU might have noticed an unusual quiet descend upon North Wales this morning.
Once the dawn chorus had sounded its final note, another chorus of whistles was strangely absent.
All over Gwynedd, the 28,000 kettles, from Bangor to Y Felinheli, that have been working overtime since last year making water drinkable were at last given a well-earned rest after Welsh Water sounded the all-clear.
It will come as a relief, I’m sure, to be able to turn the tap and have some confidence that what comes out is safe to drink without raising it to boiling point first. Though whether Welsh Water’s customers have that confidence immediately remains to be seen.
My bet is that quite a few people, particularly those with young children, will continue the routine of putting on the kettle before they risk drinking the water.
And for all the inconvenience, expense and worry of the last couple of months, customers are being offered the princely sum of £25.
Not that money means very much when your confidence in the very stuff of life has been undermined.
Not that it is the water supply that is to blame mind you. Oh, no, no. That hasn’t been proved as yet, you see. And now we’re told that it might be impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of the outbreak.
Hmm. This is what Sherlock Holmes would call a two-pipe problem. So let’s don our deerstalkers and stoke up the old Meerschaum with Golden Shag and see if our powers of deduction can solve this mystery.
Firstly what has happened? An outbreak of cryptosporidium.
How is cryptosporidium spread? Well, what do all 208 victims have in common? Either they all eat at the same cafĂ©, share the same loo, or else, and I realise it’s a million-to-one shot, they share some product in common…such as…erm…water?
Where have investigators been concentrating their efforts? Llyn Cwellyn, a reservoir that serves the affected area.
What advice have people been given? Boil your water.
Who is paying out £25 to customers inconvenienced by the whole sorry mess? Welsh Water, but these are ex gratia payments, you understand, because there’s been no indication of a breach of water standards by Welsh Water
Hmm, so this is a tricky one isn’t it? Could it be the water supply, or is it the Cryptosporidium Fairy?
And yet, and yet, we hear the constant refrain that the water supply has not been proven to be the source. How very, very reassuring.
But it if it isn’t the water supply, then isn’t that a bit more worrying? Because if it isn’t the water supply, then cryptosporidium has found some new way to infect its victims.
And I think we would all have been a bit more reassured if those investigating the outbreak had been a bit more open about what had been happening and where, instead of hiding behind bogus concern for ‘confidentiality’ of individuals.
It insults the intelligence of the people of North Wales to claim that you cannot give out detailed information about what exactly in God’s name is going on without giving individuals a degree of privacy.
In fact, such actions can look distinctly like an attempt at news management of a situation which rapidly became unmanageable.
Did they think that victims of this nasty little infection wouldn’t contact the media of their own accord? Well they were wrong?
Did they think that any journalist with even half a brain wouldn’t be able to dig up that which they weren’t telling? Well they were wrong.
Once you tell 70,000 people to boil their water, you’ve got a PR disaster on your hands and it’s time to come clean, not use Data Protection as a smokescreen.
Of course some of the answers to the above may be provided by the findings of the Drinking Water Inspectorate investigation into the outbreak.
The findings of the DWI investigation will be made public we are told. But its proceedings will not.
Why is there no public inquiry into this matter? Anything else will leave customers, however unreasonably, suspecting a cover-up.
To restore public confidence the inquiry into what happened must be as transparent as, well, water.

TWO e-mails arrive in response to the piece I wrote last week on the mumps outbreak in North Wales.
The first from Nerys Lloyd-Pierce:
“I read your piece on MMR with great interest. I am working on the Welsh
Assembly Government MMR catch-up campaign, launched in response to the sharp
rise in mumps cases.
If your readers are worried about mumps they should contact their GP and
have the jab - it's never too late to receive protection.
Women of childbearing age need to make sure they are protected too, because
of the risk of rubella. Catching rubella in pregnancy can cause serious
problems for the baby - heart problems, sight defects etc.”
The other came from a mum who did all the right things, but to no avail:
“After reading your column in today's Daily Post I feel compelled to write regarding the mumps outbreak. It isn't only unvaccinated children who are suffering.
Two of my three daughters have now been infected with this unpleasant disease - despite having received the MMR vaccinations. My three year old had received one dose of the vaccine, which should have afforded her 90% immunisation, before contracting the disease. This was before she was due her second jab, which she has subsequently received.
Both my 7 year old and 10 year old daughters had received their jabs when offered by our surgery, but the eldest still got mumps. Quite a few of her classmates, who had also been immunised, also got the disease, although no other pupils in my youngest daughter's nursery class was infected.
What should we do now that measles is around? If their uptake of the mumps vaccine wasn't sufficient, how much protection have they got against measles and rubella?
Sandra”
I don’t think anyone would say that vaccinations are a total answer. But they do cut down the incidence of disease dramatically. Perhaps if more parents had taken up the MMR vaccine for their children, the pool of infection would not have existed to catch Sandra’s daughters.
As Ms Lloyd-Pierce pointed out, it’s never too late to get protection, so if you’re worried about your child, go to your GP and get the jab. You’ll be protecting them, and countless others too.