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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Column, July 18, 2006

I’M not sure at what point the panic set in. Perhaps it was when Mrs Banks told me that our best-laid plans of going into hospital to have our second baby had gone awry and that, on reflection, our dining room floor was as good as a delivery room.
Or maybe it was when, while on the phone to the ambulance controller, telling her that half an hour was really and awfully, awfully long time to wait for an ambulance, that I had to inform her that the head was crowning and that after a long and varied career in journalism I was about to embark on an adventure in midwifery.
It’s then that you find out why, on the old movies, they always shout for hot water and towels when a woman is about to give birth.
Towels to try to save the carpets, and hot water to start scrubbing them presumably. Perhaps, as he made his way into the world, William Kit Banks had an inkling that having daddy as a catcher was not a good idea, after all his nickname as a rugby player was Teflon, due to the non-stick nature of his hands when catching the ball.
So he held on until the ambulance crew arrived. But you form your opinions of these crews from Casualty and you expect them to have delivered dozens of babies, usually in the midst of some other disaster that has grim-reaped the citizenry of Holby yet again.
It was a good job than that Daniel the ambulanceman, sorry, don’t know his surname – hey, give me a break, it wasn’t a moment to be taking shorthand notes – informed us after William’s arrival that this had only been his second delivery and that he had only had a day’s training in just what was expected of him.
So given the fact that William is our second child I was about as experienced as the man who turned out to be our midwife.
Son Number 1, at three years of age, showed admirable grace under pressure, running in and out with grandma to check if the ambulance had arrived, ie, something useful, unlike dad who confined himself to reminding the mum-to-be to breath, something which given the noise levels in the room at the time, she was perfectly capable of doing unprompted.
Once the ambulance crew arrived Son Number 1 sat across the room with a grandstand view and proceeded to click away with his camera. Fortunately for Mrs B’s dignity he did this without the benefit of film, but a promising career as a photojournalist beckons methinks.
Quite what he made of it all I’m not sure, but he didn’t seem quite as traumatised about it as dad who was a blubbing fool when presented with his new son. Safe to say junior’s theory that the baby would emerge ‘through mummy’s tummy button’ was well and truly shattered that day.
I’m informed that he looks like me, but what people are basically saying when they tell you that, is that you’re a bit chubby, your hair is thinning and your toilet habits leave a lot to be desired.
William is, of course, a bundle of unadulterated joy, which is a good job given his ability at not one week old to deprive both parents of a wink of sleep.
And it’s only in the aftermath that you get an inkling of the mysterious ways in which women’s minds move. Bear in mind that Son Number 1 was born after an ambulance trip between hospitals with mum and unborn son hooked up to monitors. Son Number 2 lays waste to the dining room lovingly renovated over a year by his mum and dad.
Not 24 hours later, having cleared what Grandad told us ‘looked like a field hospital’, Mrs Banks in all seriousness turned to me and said: “You can see why people have three.”
Anyway, despite the drama, both mum and son, 8lbs 13½ozs for those of you who keep score, are doing fine. Dad’s still a wreck.

A MONTH or so ago I wrote about an event in memory of one of my former teachers, Valmai Antrobus, who died of cancer. Delia Bettaney, another of the teachers from my old school, Hawarden High, opened her gardens to the public to raise money for Nightingale House, the hospice that cared for Mrs Antrobus.
I’m very pleased to tell you that Mrs Bettaney’s event raised £1,100. A great contribution to a worthy cause and a fitting tribute to a much-loved teacher.

I CAN’T say the bosses at Burger king will weep to read this. After all, I’m hardly a fan of their products and none of their franchises are going to go bust through my continuing failure to ever darken their doors.
But the way they treated a little Welsh firm that makes flapjacks makes the idea of tasting their flame-grilled monstrosities every more unlikely.
You see the Corwen-based firm, Wholebake, decided to call one of its products a ‘Whopper’. Because that’s what it was, a big flapjack. No, no wrote Burger King, you’ll find that the only Whopper being eaten legally here is the big meaty one in a bun. Cease and desist.
Wholebake, not having the funds to do battle with Burger King has withdrawn from the fray and renamed their product. But you have to wonder at the mentality of whichever of His Highness’s flunkies took this action.
Are they seriously saying that one of their loyal customers, walking down the high street, intent on treating himself to a whopper, with fries, and Coke, hey, make that large fries, large Coke and one of those apple pies as hot as the centre of the Sun, is going to be misled into buying a flapjack instead of a burger?
It might actually do them some good if they were, but despite the damage to your health overindulgence in burgers will inflict, I’ve yet to hear that it renders consumers incapable of distinguishing beef from oats.
But hey, maybe they’re telling us something about the taste of their product, or lack of it. Anyway, my advice next time you want a Whopper, buy the one that’s better for you, buy the one that’s made by Wholebake

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Column, July 11, 2006

THE future of small schools in Gwynedd hangs in the balance. As with any of these things there are lots of options on the table, but no-one seems to be talking about actually keeping small schools open.
It seems inevitable that some will close their doors to become pricey conversions for the well-to-do, no doubt prompting protests about incomers undermining the very communities that the schools used to serve.
Of course there’s a consultation exercise going on to try to find a solution, and no doubt much hand-wringing going on at meetings.
The sad thing is that small schools do a very good job. Every study you see of pupil achievement confirms that children thrive in smaller classes where they get more individual attention. No great surprise there, but they also cost more.
And as the pupil rolls fall the cost per head goes up until finally the council bean-counters can be contained no longer and the close their doors.
There is, of course, another solution to this problem, but in Wales we tip-toe round it as if it where some great taboo.
And the solution goes back to those dratted incomers buying up the converted schools. We need more people to join our communities. And a lot of those people are going to need to be English. As long as Liverpool, Manchester, London and even Cardiff continue to generate the huge number of jobs that they do, Wales will always see a net migration away of young people.
Let’s face it, what would you do? You’re straight out of school or university, you’ve got qualifications and the choice is stay in Wales where there are no jobs or what jobs there are are poorly paid, or look over the border to a big city where you can take your pick, find a house and get a start in life.
I know that educational standards are slipping but believe me, young people are not that stupid. Of course they are moving away from Wales and who can blame them for that, they have to live.
So we either fiddle while Rome burns, or should that be while Gwynedd empties, or we accept what is happening and try to find ways to remedy the situation.
One way is to recognise that after 10 or so years of living in and around cities, sometimes people tire of the crowds, crime and congestion and hanker after a simpler life. The constant talk nowadays is quality of life and work life balance.
Families would actually like to live in Wales. Some of those families are English. The big barrier to living in Wales, particularly the West of Wales has always been communications. The A55 on a Friday is a great disincentive to those who might think of commuting.
But more and more people are able to work from home now thanks to broadband computer links that make it as easy for them to be there as in an office.
Where would you rather work every day, in an office in city-centre Liverpool, or with a view of the Menai Straits. North Wales undersells itself as a place to live and work because it has become politically awkward to talk about inviting inward migration.
Instead we fiddle round the edges trying to come up with ways of tempting young people to stay, rather than accepting they are going to leave.
What we should be doing is making sure that when they want to return and start a family they are able to do so. Instead of bemoaning the fact that young people can’t afford a home in the community they were born in – which is frankly a bit unhealthy anyway – we should celebrate the fact they’re off into the wide world and welcome them when they want to come home.
Communities need new blood and it matters not a jot to me whether that’s English, Welsh or any other nationality for that matter.
Once you’ve convinced people that Wales is a good place to live, then you can concentrate on the argument about the language. Not the other way round.
At present the message being given to people who think of coming to Wales is that they’re not welcome because they are a threat to the continued existence of the language.
So you can review the future of schools all you want, but remember, a school is just a building, the important thing are the children who pass through it. Without them it may as well be a house for the well-heeled.
Until we accept that on the present model of Welsh society our traditional communities are dying, we will do nothing to halt their decline.
Unless they change they are truly doomed and more schools will close their doors.

MY poetic correspondent D Evans, the Laureate of footballing verse, has put pen to paper once more.
“From Swansea’s own DVLA,
I’ve had a letter just to say,
That drivers with a low IQ,
Are dangerous to me and you,
So, to avoid an accident,
The following was sent,
They fly a flag and so beware,
When first you see the flag take care,
Don’t lose you cool, be at a loss,
It’s a big white flag, with a big red cross.”

Spot-on once again Mr Evans. Always like a spot of the old poetry in the column. He is Pam Ayres to my, erm, Esther Rantzen. An analogy I will proceed with no further.

I’VE written here before about the irresponsibility of the chattering classes who whipped up fears about the MMR vaccine.
On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever they perpetuated the myth that there was a link between MMR and autism when there was none.
As a result of their selfish stupidity we now have measles outbreaks in this country where before there were none. Now it emerges there is an even greater threat resulting from the claptrap they propagate. The rumours of MMR’s link to autism have reached developing countries, as a result MMR uptake is dropping. Measles may not be the killer in the West it once was, but in the Third World it kills 1,000 children every single day.
Those who have given credence to the lie that there is a link between autism and MMR ought to think about how many of those lives would have been saved but for their superstitious nonsense.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Column, July 4, 2006

WE need to discriminate against women. I know that we do already, but during an afternoon spent in the company of a bunch of teenagers it became apparent that it's a good job that we do.
I was their 'business adviser' for the afternoon and yes, you might be thinking who in their right mind would engage me to give them the lowdown on commerce unless they were intent on a life of crippling penury, but hold your horses until you've read the results, alright?
Well, the Doubting Thomases among you will be relieved to learn that I was not let anywhere near real money, or for that matter a real business. No, it as all an exercise in which the Year 10 pupils (Fourth Year in old money) were competing in a day-long business project.
To assist them in the task assorted people from the real world were drafted in to assist and that's were yours truly comes in. I'm not entirely sure how I got involved, but safe to say that if someone calls you at short notice and asks if your diary is free the best answer is always no.
Anyhow, I pitched up on Friday morning to find a lot of men in suits were also there, most of the high street banks had sent in their business advisers, even the Army was there. And me.
So things were not looking promising for Team 5 when they drew the shortest of straws and got me to guide them through the day's task.
The task was to come up with a new, healthy, bread-based snack and then work out how to advertise, market and distribute it across Europe.
It was at that point that my young team might have been forgiven for casting envious glances at their competitors who had been teamed up with men in sharp suits who looked like they knew vaguely which way up to hold a spreadsheet.
While they had drawn the short straw, I had not. My team was made up of five girls and two boys and it was soon after being introduced that I began to conclude that women are to be suppressed at every opportunity.
Unless you have one in residence you soon lose touch with teenagers, and quite right too, there is nothing sadder that a middle-aged man trying to convince you that he is 'down with the kids.' my teenage years are lost in the mists so I will not pretend for an instant that I understand their musical tastes, their fashion, their slang or their love affair with, like, the word like.
It soon became apparent though that teenage boys are little more than barely-house-trained monkeys, whose one function in life, it would seem, is to impress other monkeys. They also believe that this will impress teenage girls too. They are mistaken.
“I hate him,” one of my young proteg├ęs informed me as a monkey capered past, not breaking once from her concentration on her task.
“I really hate him,” she added moments later as he gibbered past again. “Now do you see why I hate him?” she inquired as the young ape gambolled by for a third time. I have to say she had a point and he has to count himself fortunate we don't live in and age where we still carry swords, for if my team member had had access to bladed weapons I think he would have been flapping about headless on the floor, never to interrupt a girl's concentration again.
But back to my thesis as to why we need to discriminate against women. Well, given minimal intervention from me, my team set about their task with a will and it soon became apparent that the two boys on the team were surplus to requirements, confining themselves to fetching and carrying materials for the girls to carry out their job.
I nipped out for a coffee break – by the time I got back they'd named their company, named their product, devised a concept for it, identified its unique selling points and were busy building a 3-D mock-up of their packaging.
“Do you think this is a good idea,” one of them asked. Summoning up all my commercial gravitas I said, “Looks good to me, erm, carry on.”
While the boys seemed intent on outdoing each other, mostly in the field of larking about, the women were quite happy to work as a team, playing to each other's strengths, offering and accepting constructive criticism of each other, all for the common good.
I went for lunch and by the time I got back the hive-mind of the girls had devised an advertising campaign that would work on TV and billboards...and they'd translated it into French, German and Spanish. The boys had nicked two felt-tip pens from opposing teams.
And I thought, if they're like this when they're just 15, they should own the world by the time they're 30, so how come they don't?
And this is where the monkeys pull of their master-stroke. You see, because the girls are happy working in their little collective, none of them wanted to assume the mantle of managing director of their company. So while they all politely demurred, one of the boys took the top spot. Leaving the team to wonder for the rest of the day just what it was their managing director did.
What he did do, when they won, was take centre stage when they were presented with their winners' cheque. Yes they won, oh ye of little faith, read it and weep, hacks 1, high-street bank business advisers, a big fat nil.
But women need to be discriminated against as a form of positive action for the buffoons that are boys, and men. If they ever work out a way of reproducing without us we are doomed.
And if you want a bit of business advice, for free, from an award-winning business adviser – staff your firm with women and nothing but, it doesn't matter how much maternity leave they need, give it them and more. Let them get on with it and they'll make you millions.

THERE'S no joy to be had from England's departure from the World Cup, particularly to a team like Portugal who threw themselves to the ground at every opportunity in their quest for the free kick.
And their goading of Wayne Rooney into what was never a red card offence hardly befitted a team that wants to be crowned best in the world.
One or two letter writers mistook my failure to support England as an antipathy to the team and the country. Nothing could be further form the truth, I merely objected to the assumption we should all support England because they're next to us.
But those who sat and cheered 'Anyone But England' continue to allow themselves to be defined not by who they are, but by who they dislike. You would think that we are grown-up enough to make positive statements about what it is to be Welsh, rather than displaying negative attitudes to England.
But who to support next? Well, it's got to be France, because commentators insist on calling them old men, when their average age is a positively ancient 30.
30 – old? That makes me decrepit, so go on the greybeards of France, win it for middle-aged men everywhere.