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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Column, May 30, 2006

IT’S that time again – we’re not in the World Cup and I approach the vexed question of whom it is that we should support.
You may not have noticed this yourselves, given our usual non-attendance at this competition, but surely you will have seen the rash of flags of St George fluttering from car windows these days.
Strange business this, because they are usually to be seen hanging from the windows of hot hatchbacks, driven by baseball-capped youths who tear around so fast that the flag is reduced to tatters within days, or else removed completely in their slipstream as they rip through any applicable speed limit.
I suppose we should be grateful that the flag has at least been reclaimed from the likes of the BNP and is now flown by any old idiot as opposed to being flown exclusively by racist idiots.
We could of course take Scot Gordon Brown’s advice and support England. Excuse me a moment……sorry, just had to go off for 10 minutes hysterical laughter there. Yes, and there’s no ulterior motive for that bit of wisdom from the Chancellor is there? He’s not got his eye on his chances of moving in next door has he?
Yes, well, support England. Where do I start? Firstly it would be breaking the habits of a lifetime. Secondly I believe that a Welsh trachea is genetically incapable of pronouncing the Anglo-Saxon ‘In-ger-land’ chant required if a true fan. Just like any word starting ngh foxes them (mind you, can’t blame them for that, it foxes most of the world and good proportion of us too. You’ve got to love Welsh haven’t you? So bloomin’ complicated it baffles the Welsh as well)
But I digress. Now you have to be diplomatic about this, as some English will get their bottom lip out when you suggest that you cannot in your heart of hearts cheer them on until their inevitable exit in the quarter finals after a lucky break in the group stages.
They will solemnly explain how they would support Wales if the situation were reversed. Really? And just when has this support for Wales in the absence of England ever, ever manifested itself?
What major sporting tournament have we been at that they haven’t where dragon flags have been seen fluttering from car doors as they cheer on plucky little Wales?
Right, I’m casting my mind back and I’m at a loss to recall a display of sporting devotion to our cause coming from over the border.
So that’s England disposed of for our allegiances. No, not now, not ever.
But if not them, then who?
There’s always France, but that would be supporting a team purely to wind up our neighbours, and the idea is to get behind someone we can identify with.
What about Argentina? There’s the Patagonia link isn’t there? Well, it’s a possible, but I can’t get past an illogical revulsion at supporting a country that bombed the Welsh Guards. I know I should be more grown-up about it, but hey, I’m a newspaper columnist, not Kofi Annan.
There’s Iran, and the USA, unlikely bedfellows I admit, but we could support them on the grounds that no-one in the West will be supporting Iran and no-one in the world will be supporting the USA. Even the Yanks themselves won’t be supporting their team because most of them think soccer, which is what they persist in calling it, is a game for girls. Before women footballers write in to complain, I know it’s a game for girls and women as well as boys and men, but in the USA they think it’s only for girls, because their men play manly sports like, erm, baseball, which is basically rounders – and that is a girls’ game.
There’s the Aussies, but they just think they are God’s gift to sport, any sport. Too cocky by half.
We can’t support Germany on the Boardman Rule – our chippy, bombed etc.
So who, who who?
Well, a quick look at the FIFA map reveals a familiar name – Ghana. And I’m supporting them for no other reason than 30 years ago I learnt about the country in second year geography and remembered that Ghana’s Volta Dam is the world’s largest artificial lake – thus proving that senile dementia is still a little way off.
The CIA website says that it’s a democracy that held free and fair elections (ha, like they would know anything about that) so I’m not supporting some tinpot dictatorship either.
There is the small matter of them getting past Italy, the Czech Republic and the USA in the group stages, so come the second round I might be casting round for someone else to support.
But then, if all goes well, so will the hordes flying the flag of St George too.


I DID say last week that venturing into matters theological was probably a mistake and after I criticised the Church’s opposition to the Da Vinci Code I received an 858-word reply apparently proving all sorts of conspiracies involving the Vatican.
That’s more than I actually wrote on the subject in the first place.
I will not even begin to bore you know with the intricacies of this missive, but you'll find it in the messages attached to last week's column. Enjoy.

AS hosepipe bans reduced Home Counties’ lawns to an arid wasteland and the spectre of the standpipe looms, our neighbours cast a greedy eye at our rain-soaked mountains and hatch plans.
Once again the bright idea of moving water along canals from areas where there is plenty to areas where there is none rears its head.
This might make sense to those ignorant of the resonance of using Wales as a water provider for England.
I’ve written in the past about our need to put Tryweryn behind us, but even I baulk at the suggestion that rain that falls on Wales is England’s for the taking.
It’s our resource and if they want it there should be some payback.
And isn’t it odd that the inhabitants of the South East of England, an area where the majority of the nation’s wealth resides, are so keen to share resources when it is they who are short.
I wonder how keen they would be to share other resources on a similar basis – say jobs for a start. As a rule of thumb we could say one job created in Wales for every lawn watered down South.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Column, May 23, 2006, and not before time too

IT is with a little trepidation that I venture into matters ecclesiastical once more in the space of a month. Not so long ago I defended Jerry Springer – The Opera, and was told, quite firmly, by my theological correspondents, that Satan and all his tiny demons were waiting to give me a good roasting come the day that I shuffle off this mortal coil.
Ah me, so much for that free will business. But, like buses, now along comes another issue about which those who would be the gatekeepers of Heaven are getting themselves in a right froth.
The latest thing causing consternation to the clergy is The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's magnum opus which bases a, fictional, thriller on the theory that Jesus didn't die on the cross, he lived on, married Mary Magdalene, moved to France and sired a bloodline that survives to this day...in France.
So far, so barmy, if hope you're still with me, and I hoipe those of you who've packed it for the beach this summer haven't had your enjoyment spoilt. I've not actually read it, so I shouldn't be giving anything else away, other than it's a load of old rubbish.
But now it's incurred the disapproval of men of the cloth, including Rev Canon Geoffrey Marshall, Dean of Wrexham, who doesn't want us to be fooled by the Da Vinci Code. Well that's alright then, because I was about to book my holidays to Provence, hoping to find cheese, wine and eternal salvation on the basis of an airport blockbuster. Because that's how stupid I am.
What strikes me as ever so slightly rum is the way that churchmen have been queueing up to rubbish the bestseller because of its fantastic plot, while ignoring the sensationalist storyline they and their ilk have been peddling for the past two millennia.
Let's compare the two shall we? Firstly you have Dan Brown who expects us to believe that Jesus didn't die on the cross, he lived, married Mary Magdalene, and started a bloodline which continues to this day in France.
Or rather, he doesn't expect us to believe that, because the last time I checked, WH Smith and every other shop that stocks it was doing so under 'Fiction' not 'History'.
Now, let us just cast our eye over what Mr Brown's hefty opposition would have us believe – and remember this is not just Canon Marshall who is saying this, the Catholic Church has set about debunking Brown too.
Well, let's look at the claims for Jesus for a start: Virgin birth: water into wine; walking on water; curing lepers; feeding the 5,000 and then ascension into heaven following crucifixion. As to his father, well the claims are even greater: parting of the Red Sea; plagues of Egypt; walls of Jericho (tumbling down of); and creation of Heaven, Earth and all the creatures and plants that live thereon in just six days.
And that's just my faulty memory of primary school RE, as residents of the Chapel Belt out there will tell you, there's a lot more than that they expect us to swallow.
So what they're telling us is not to be too gullible about Brown, while swallowing their own fantasies hook, line and sinker.
Now, I'm no enthusiast for the works of Dan Brown. Of course I envy his ability to turn a little plot and a modicum of writing ability into a multi-million pound bestselling, Hollywood-enthralling fortune, but then what mediocre hack wouldn't? Not bitter, not bitter at all.
But his holiday blockbusters are hardly a thing of beauty and a joy forever are they? Although I suspect that's not entirely what he intended them to be.
But my problem is that if the Vatican has to appoint cardinals to debunk it and every clergyman in Christendom feels the need to denounce it, then perhaps the Da Vinci Code has shown that Christianity is a bit weaker at the knees than we suspected.

NORMALLY if Wales were under-represented at anything I'd be the first to complain, but this is something quite different.
Big Brother House – two out of 14 inmates are Welsh – what gives? Do we represent two out of 14 of the UK population? No we do not, so why so many of us in there to make fools by proxy of the rest of the Welsh nation.
And who have we got? A beauty queen who thinks everyone fancies her and a lifeguard who fancies himself. Glorious, what fine specimens of modern Wales. But you have to say par for the course for the parade of self-promoting dysfunctionals that this programme seems to attract.
And now, we're told the pair have been warned not to speak Welsh to one another in case it's a code. Apparently Big Brother is listening in bilingually in case they contravene the rules.
What a shame to miss the opportunity to show the rest of the UK that Welsh is still a living language.

HAVING cut my teeth as a reporter in Wrexham, where I first met Martyn Jones, I can't think of anyone less likely to have a run-in with the law.
Although this is, reportedly, what happened when the MP was asked to produce his security pass by one of the guards there.
Maybe he felt that his flamboyant bow ties were identification enough, but he declined to comply. Fair enough, he's been there a long time, but what hope has the Government of convincing us to carry ID cards when it can't even gets its own MPs to carry their own.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Column, May 16, 2006

I EXPECT so little of government in Wales, and yet it never fails to disappoint me.
The latest masterpiece of municipal jiggery-pokery is a land-grab that would make the bloke who bought New York off the Indians for $24 blush with shame.
Denbighshire is, reportedly, planning to sell out the playing field from beneath the skipping feet of the children who live near Marine Road, Prestatyn.
Apparently the land was gifted to the children of the town by an ancestor of Lord Aberconwy, but let’s not let that stand in the way of progress and a plan for flats linked to the unpopular sell-off of the town’s community hospital.
You have to stand back and admire the bare-faced cheek of it all I suppose, and you wouldn’t mind so much if another branch of Welsh government wasn’t trying to move in the opposite direction.
You see, in January last year, the Welsh Assembly Government published a document called ‘Climbing Higher’ - all about fitness levels in Wales. Lots of it is statements of the absolutely bloomin’ obvious, such as "Active people are more healthy", or "medical research has established the link between sport, physical activity and health." Groundbreaking stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, why its author isn’t up for a Nobel prize is anyone’s guess.
But, to be fair, as well as this the document actually commits the assembly government to a few targets, one of which makes for interesting reading.
"No-one should live more than a six-minute walk (300m) from their nearest natural green space."
Now, I’m unsure whether a playing field counts as a ‘natural’ green space - a loophole through which the burghers of Denbighshire might nimbly leap. But nevertheless, while Cardiff is doing its bit to make us healthier, the councillors on the ground are selling the ground from beneath our feet.
Of course, Denbighshire isn’t the first to realise that playing fields can make a healthy, albeit temporary, addition to council coffers. They are not alone in eyeing up swings and roundabouts and realising they have a greater monetary value when replaced with bricks and mortar.
One playing field is hardly going to save the nation from obesity, but if all councils behave as Denbighshire wants to then the net effect is a bad one for children’s health.
Hardly a week goes by when we aren’t assailed by statistics telling us how unhealthy we are as a nation. One set of figures had six out of ten men in North Wales reporting themselves as overweight or obese - reporting themselves, mind, so you can add a couple more who were sucking their gut in and kidding themselves they were as fit now as they were when they were 14.
Collectively we are eating ourselves into an early grave on a diet of chips, burgers and pizza, consumed while devouring daytime TV.
It’s all very well the assembly government coming up with initiatives and schemes to help us get fitter, but the message has to be delivered before the damage is done.
Part of the problem is that those tackling poor health tend to come up with over-the-top solutions - such as outdoor adventure weekends, windsurfing or kayaking. All very worthy and great to take part in, but you can’t just pick up a kayak and go for a ten minutes kayaking on your nearest river.
Whereas if you’ve got a patch of green space, doesn’t have to be very much, you can play football, or rugby, or if you must, cricket, or you can go for a run, or even a walk.
All very simple, costs not very much at all in the way of equipment or organisation. All it needs is a bit of grass seed, the occasional mow and a sharp slap on the wrist to short-sighted councillors who want to see a For Sale sign on it.
The habit of fitness is picked up in youth - but if kids don’t have anywhere to play they’ll find other, less physical activities to keep themselves amused. It is hard enough to pry them away from their Playstations, but if they genuinely have nowhere else to go then a parent has no chance.
Still perhaps Denbighshire has shown the parents of Marine Road the way - after all, they aren’t the only ones who can grab land.
All they have to do is find another bit of land where nothing very useful is going on, register ownership, call in the demolition men, and grass it over. My tip - county hall, Wynnstay Road, Ruthin.

ARCHDRUID Huw Goronwy wants towns in Wales to twin with each other to promote cultural growth.
How’s that going to work then?
I always thought that twinning involved exposing yourself to another culture, language and way of life in an effort to broaden one’s mind.
Imagine the scene, the first group of twinners from Bangor, arrive, bags in hand, at their twin-town, Porthmadog.
"So, what’s the local speciality to eat here then…..oh….lamb."
"What drinks can you tempt us with then? Ah, bitter…or lager."
"And tonight you’ve laid on traditional folk music for us with…Dafydd Iwan…you’re really spoiling now."
"So tomorrow you’ve got a tour of the local beaches laid on…that’s….fantastic."
"Has anyone got the number of a taxi firm?"
The clichéd view of twinning arrangements is that it is just a junket for councillors. But while I carry no torch for freeloading councillors, I’m always a little wary of criticising junketing, as journalists are the greatest beneficiaries evermore of hospitality at another’s expense. Here I’ll declare my own interest having benefited from trips to Germany, Tunisia, France and the States - and in a couple of years when I must have seriously blotted my copybook with the editor - Bulgaria and the Isle of Man…in winter.
But genuine twin town arrangements, where schools and other community groups forge links with people whose experiences are genuinely different to their own, can only be beneficial.
The danger with Huw Goronwy’s idea is that a nation which already spends too much time looking inward, could become more insular than ever.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Column, May 9, 2006

IF I remember rightly it all began with let there be light.
Then came the heavens and the Earth, Eden, the whole plant and animal kingdom.
Then He got to Adam and Eve and it all started getting a bit messy.
But you have to say that creating the Universe and everything there is in it in just six days, was not too shabby a feat. Something to put on your cv while taking a well-earned rest on the Sabbath.
So why then do some people assume that a God powerful enough to create the entire Universe, omnipresent enough to be with every one of us every moment of the day, is so touchy as to be offended by an image of Jesus in a nappy.
Dr Barry Morgan our Archbishop, is not a happy man and the reason he's unhappy is that Jerry Springer - The Opera is showing in Wales.
"Blasphemous and gratuitously offensive" is how he described the show and when you hear that it's got pole dancing, the Ku Klux Klan, Satan and a nappy-obsessed Christ figure, you might think he has a point.
"They'd never get away with saying the same thing about the prophet Mohammed," said Dr Morgan.
Yes, well, having adherents ready to lop off the heads of those who offend against does make you re-evaluate your criticism of a religion, but it's not something that makes me more likely to convert.
It doesn't fill my heart with love of the Lord to be told that I'd better worship Him, because I wouldn't get away with being so cheeky about Allah.
Is Dr Morgan worried about the offence to God, or the offence caused to fellow Christians?Myself, I think God, if He existed, would have broad shoulders and would suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous musicals with the stoicism typical of an all-powerful, all-seeing deity.
I suspect that when people like Dr Morgan shout blasphemy, it is because they are more concerned with their own feelings as Christians. What stings the most is the lack of respect for their faith, not their God.
Do they really believe a God who parted the Red Sea, visited the plagues upon Egypt, caused Noah's Flood and brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down is going to be offended by a theatre show?
And anyway, won't those responsible reap their rewards in the hereafter, where a warm welcome will await them, while those prudes who disapproved will surely enjoy their heavenly reward?
I'm always a little confused by Christianity's insistence that we were born with free will, and yet all around they're very quick to tell you what you can and cannot, do/watch/say.
I would have thought that it's not really enough to arrive at the Pearly Gates to say: "Lord, I've led a good life, but then again, I didn't have much choice in the matter did I? I'd have sinned given half a chance, but my Archbishop was a bit of a spoilsport."
Perhaps the Archbishop is unhappy that there will be more bums on seats at Jerry Springer than on pews in church on Sunday. However, I'm not sure that people, deprived of seeing Springer - The Opera, will be flocking to hear a sermon instead.
I'm not sure which sort of Christian annoys me more, the happy-clappy, beardy hippy who thinks he's down with the kids because he tortures an out-of-tune guitar as they sing the dirges that pass for hymns nowadays - or the po-faced, lemon-sucking priests who disapprove of anything approximating pleasure.

THE case of Vernon Barker will show us just whether the Labour party has forgotten its working class roots.
He was a man who died before his time, poisoned by the asbestos that it was commonplace for so many men like him to work with.
Now the House of Lords has ruled that because he was exposed to asbestos a number of times for different employers, his widow Sylvia is to have her compensation drastically cut. The award was only £153,000 anyway - small enough for the suffering that goes along with a death from mesothelioma, the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
The thing is that any reporter attending inquests will tell you that we're seeing more and more men like ex-Shotton steelworker, Vernon Barker. Tucked away at almost every hearing, among the road crashes and suicides, appear men of a certain age, dying of an industrial disease because of a job they did in their youth. Every year the grim toll exacted among men who worked with asbestos decades ago steadily increases.
These men are Labour heartland material - manual workers who worked in heavy industry, shipbuilders, steelworkers and in construction. The people who year-in, year-out kept faith with the Labour party as the party for the working man.
Now they are dying in their thousands and insurance companies are limiting payments to their widows because they can't track every job they did 40 years or more ago.
To tackle this outrageous loophole will require a change in the law. The test of character for the party of working people is whether they can deliver it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Column, May 2, 2006

I'VE always hated those stories of suicidal parents who choose to take their children with them when they kill themselves.
It seems to me the supreme act of cruelty. Fine, if you cannot take this life any longer, then free yourself of it, but to deny your children their chance of one is despicable.
That was my reaction when, recently, there was news that Alison Davies threw herself and her son, Ryan, off the Humber bridge.
It was only after that initial, awful, story though, the details emerged of Ryan's autism - fragile X syndrome - and the strain that it had put on her and her family. A strain that she apparently could no longer cope with and was not prepared to leave her family to deal with when she was gone. Her last message in a 999-call, was to tell her family not to worry.
So it's not as simple as a solitary act of cruelty by a deranged parent. It makes you wonder what parents who have such children go through and how much support they actually get.
And then, a few days later, a message arrived from a parent in just such a situation. She was moved by Alison Davies's story, to write in order to give some insight into the dreadful strain parents coping with an autistic child can find themselves enduring.
This is her story:
"Our son has autism.
I've admitted this a thousand of times, and by now the word itself holds no more terrors for me. When he was first diagnosed, the word seemed to reverberate in my head in multicolour glory whenever I sat down. It governed every conversation, made friends eyes glaze over in boredom, brought chats on the phone to a grinding halt. In short, it was taking over our life as a family.
There is no quick fix for autism. You can go down the path of checking for food allergies and introducing supplements to the diet until the cows come home. Some people do get some success, but the cases of miraculous improvement are sadly few and far between. And many of these supplements are expensive. Side effects can make a normally placid child hyperactive.
There is only one course you can take to ensure a better future for your child. You can begin fighting. On the way, you will develop the hide of a rhinoceros and the deviousness of a politician. Diagnosis needs to be as early as possible.
We were lucky: a caring health visitor spotted the signs while on a routine visit to a sibling, - just one of a few people to whom we owe an immense debt of gratitude. When you get over the shock, you begin asking what needs to be done.
You automatically turn to the supposed experts around you, and hopefully a school placement will be made for your child. Being of what I have to admit is a singularly pig-headed nature, we refused what we were offered, and now at least we are not amongst the desperate parents still fighting to get any form of one-to-one help for their children.
Diagnosis magically opens up several doors, not least of which are the various benefits to which you are entitled if you have a disabled child. But that is not to say that life has been plain sailing.
Autism is not an obvious physical ailment. Children I know who have the condition are invariably extremely good-looking. You will know IF a child with autism looks you directly in the eye. There is an innocence and trust there at every age that you normally only see in very young children.
Sadly, poor eye contact is one of the first signs of the condition A child with autism can blend into a crowd, until you suddenly realise that people are giving you funny glances. They are not used to behaviour - a sudden squeal, hand-clenching, funny walk, inordinate interest in somebody else's business - which you see every day of your life.
Apart for one occasion when I must admit I flipped at the crass remarks of a teenager, I have relied on my rhinoceros hide. Once again, we are lucky. The odd behaviour I have just described is minor to say the least when compared to what some families go through.
Picture this scenario : the child comes home from school on Friday, the hatches are battened down, and the family disappear until Monday morning. That is during school term. Many families take the option of leaving their autistic child in residential care during school holidays, torn apart by their love for the child and the need for a relatively normal family life for any other children and to preserve their own sanity.
There is official help available, - from Education, Social Services or charitable organisations. When you can get it. Social Services suffer from staff shortages, due as I understand from staff falling ill through strain at work. (I nod and tut in sympathy, while the thought races through my head : have they ever tried living with a child who has even moderate disabilities?) Education will take you through the mill as you teeter from initial gratitude to downright distrust.
And why is it that everyone in authority seems to think that they know your child's needs better than you? In the end, however well-meaning outside agencies might be, they cannot possibly be there for you all the time. Responsibility ultimately falls to you.
I have been moved to write this because of the tragic story of Alison Davies and her son, Ryan. I could have written more or less the same thing 4½ years ago with the case of Helen Rogan and her son. Both these mothers were in despair because they were let down by the very people who should be helping them."

You read that, and you begin to understand what drove Alison Davies to that bridge that awful day.

THE flags in Welshpool do no go up and down like yo-yos we are told.
This was the reason given for failing to have it fly at half-mast when local soldier, Lance Corporal Paul Thomas, died in Iraq in 2004.
So his parents are understandably looking askance at an honour heaped upon then man who helped make that decision, town clerk Ken Fletcher, who is to have his name included in the mayoral roll of honour on his retirement after 40 years' service.
This is not to denigrate those who slog in the trenches of local government, and whose efforts deserve recognition - 40 years is a long time to be dealing with councillors. But it hardly compares to giving your life for your country, no matter how much some people might disagree with the reasons we went to war in the first place.
If clerks get their name in gilt letters for evermore, then a fallen soldier deserves his home town's flag to be lowered as a mark of respect.