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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Column, June 24, 2008

I SAW a film last week called ‘The Lives of Others.’
It was set in Cold War East Germany and depicted the terrifying extent to which the secret police, the Stasi, spied upon their fellow citizens.
Mere suspicion resulted in surveillance, arrest, interrogation, imprisonment and the ruination of countless lives. Worse still, friends and family were forced to betray one another by the state.
But, evil though it undoubtedly was, at least the secret police were spying on those they believed to be enemies of the state, no matter how spurious their grounds for believing so might have been.
The Stasi did not, to my knowledge, deploy their considerable talents of surveillance to track down those guilty of dog fouling. The clearly missed a trick there which our own municipal watchdogs could have taught them.
This week every council has had a letter telling them to stop snooping so much. Well, it’s worded a bit more delicately than that, but basically they’ve been told they’re overstepping the mark in using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
This was an act that was intended to give guidance and restrainto to the like of the police and security services when they use covert surveillance like phone tapping and so on to tackle terrorist threats.
How some nameless, faceless bureaucrat decided it should be used to snoop on people suspected of cheating school catchment rules is anyone’s guess, but that’s what some ingenious little nosey parker has used it for.
It is like a sort of municipal Murphy’s Law. No matter how much you assure us that middle-ranking pen-pushers will not be able to authorise the tapping of our phones, if they are given that power, they will use it.
That’s why the Local Government Association has written to councils reminding them that they ought not to use these draconian powers on trivial matters.
Unfortunately when I said ‘every council’ earlier, I should have qualified that by adding ‘in England.’ Wales is apparently not getting this warning.
It would be nice to think that is because our authorities are blameless in this and have left their RIPA powers gathering dust.
Sadly not. Conwy Council, it has been revealed, felt that the security of the state was sufficiently threatened by someone working when they were off sick that they deployed their RIPA powers.
If they’re doing that when someone fakes a sickie, it rather makes you wonder what they would do for a really serious offence, like fly-tipping – deploy the nuclear option no doubt.
There may be some who say that if you are doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to fear from a bit of surveillance by your local authority.
But it’s all a matter of proportion isn’t it? Sure, if someone is plotting the downfall of the state, I rather hope someone from MI5 is listening in on their plans. If all they are planning is to get their child into a good school, then I’m thinking spying on them is a tad excessive.
The ability to spy upon citizens is an extreme one and ought only to be undertaken by those who we consent to police us, not some jumped-up council officer with a power complex.
I do hope that someone at the Welsh Local Government Association is penning a similar warning to councils here as that sent to authorities over the border.


I TAKE a hefty pinch of salt with ministerial suggestions that we should all tighten our belts.
Those who enjoy hefty Cabinet salaries and ridiculously generouls allowances, all funded by the taxpayer, ought not to give us advice on how restrained we should be in our salary ambitions.
With fuel and food on the rise, it’s understandable that people might like to see their wages go that way too. But no, no, the government doesn’t like that, it’s inflationary.
So the public sector gets to feel Alistair Darling’s icy hand exercising restraint and the private sector follows suit.
The thing is that people who see their fuel bills rocketing are going to twig sooner or later that that has an inflationary effect, but what exactly are Messrs Darling and Brown doing to curb that? Precisely nowt. See above, my advice on pinches of salt, ministerial advice for the use of.
What I’m slightly puzzled by is Gordon Brown’s seeming belief that somehow people are not going to vote him out of power at the next election because of the ruination their finances are in.
He is like the Mr Micawber of British politics, adamant in the belief that ‘something will come up.’ He had better hope so, because the electorate are not going to sit thetre being reposessed and paying through the nose for food and fuel without some hapless politician being strapped into the backside-kicking machine come election time.
Micawber was saved by Dickens’ deus ex machina, and Brown, son of the manse that he likes to remind us he is, is apparently hoping for similar divine intervention.
I reckon they’ve got about 12 months to get something sorted, and by that I mean something more competent than messing about with the 10p tax band. If they don’t come up with the goods then I don’t think it will make a blind bit of difference what the economy is doing come election day, people have long memories for this sort of pain, and Labour will be out on their ears.

WELL, my record of sporting tipping maintained its consistent record of being, well, rubbish, with the departure of Italy from Euro 2008.
Admittedly it was a choice based purely on the kit my son was given, but hey, better than my usual selection method involving a pin.
The one prediction I will make is more Grand Slams for Wales, and I base this purely on Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson’s fertility. Congratulations to the pair on the impending arrival of another baby. Charlotte reportedly said she’s happy to have a baby whenever Wales win the Grand Slam.
Marvellous, I look forward to Charlotte and Gavin producing a whole choir.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Caught up

Apologies if I've clogged your aggregator. I'm up to date now.

Column, June 17, 2008

SO the battle of the tick box has been won.
The 2011 census forms will include a box for people to indicate they are Welsh, not just British.
A trial run will be held in Anglesey next year and those who are Welsh will be able to express that. Good job it’s being held in October though, when the swallows of summer have left, otherwise the result might have been skewed and we'd think Anglsey was full of the English.
In a way I’m a bit sad about it. The absence of the tick box might have meant the revival of my old friends, The Independent Wales Party. My, the column inches I’ve had out of them.
We could have looked forward to another month of frolics as they gambolled from eisteddfod field to eisteddfod field, filling their coffin with forms that the Welsh refused to fill in because they could only declare themselves’ British.’
But no, some bureaucrat with no sense of fun has robbed them of their main raison d’etre and they can tick away to their heart’s content.
But wait, I think they might be missing a trick if they think the war of the census forms is won.
You see the forms let you say that you’re Welsh, but they don’t let you say just how Welsh you are.
There’s got to be gradations hasn’t there, otherwise everyone whose had a donkey ride on Talacre beach will be claiming they’re Welsh won’t they?
So can we work out a tick box system so people can choose just how Welsh they feel on census day?
Rather helpfully, I’ve got a few ideas of my own, see where you fit in.

A bit Welsh – once ate a stick of Llandudno rock
Quite Welsh – bought all of The Alarm’s CDs
Welsh – bought a Dafydd Iwan CD – haven’t returned it yet
Very Welsh – claim to like laver bread
Very, very Welsh – Lloyd George knew my father, but he knew my mother rather too well
Extremely Welsh – I’m a regular at the pub where we all speak English, but switch to Welsh when the English walk in
Ultimate Welsh – petrol – check, matches – check, now, where’s that holiday home?

Of course, I missed out the category pseudo-Welsh, where you knock out a weekly rant about Wales from a bolthole in England , but hey, it’s my tick-box form I get to edit it.
In the victory celebrations over the fact that the Welsh can declare themselves Welsh in their own country, we miss one important point. That is, will the Welsh get a tick box in England .
I suspect not. I rather think that if we are minded to declare our Welshness then we will have to do it by ticking ‘Other’ rather than British and then explaining where it is we come from.
Of course, we could risk the wrath of the census takers and add ‘Original’ before the word British, because that’s what we were before the Saxons crowded us out.
And in a way ‘Other’ is appropriate as the very word Welsh means strange, and I guess ‘Other’ is what we are in England .
The reason some were so vociferous about wanting a tick box is that they think it will bolster their ambitions of independence, as if a few thousand people ticking a box means you should start building your own navy and seceding from the rest of the UK .
It will provide a few headlines on the day they give out the results – ‘Lots of Welsh people say they’re Welsh – shock’.
What would be far more interesting and far more useful to know, would be how many people, like myself, count themselves as Welsh, but have left Wales .
I’m guessing there will be thousands in the job hubs of Liverpool, Manchester and most importantly, London .
All this talent (and I exclude myself from this point, naturally) is lost to Wales . We all have anecdotal evidence of young people leaving Wales . The traditional excuse if that they can’t afford a house, but I think it’s lack of opportunity not lack of housing that drives them out, because they aren’t finding cheap house in London let me tell you.
Let’s not let that get in the way of a good victory celebration about a meaningless tick box eh?
But if the exodus of young people continues, the coffin they carry in a few years won’t be for census forms, it will be for the nation itself.


HOW teacher Geraint Jones must have regretted his choice of practical joke that day at Ysgol y Creuddyn.
After all, there are so many he could have opted for – the whoopee cushion; the water-squirting flower; itching powder; electric handshake.
But no, he chose the old ‘fake bomb in colleague’s bag’ trick – always a winner, until, that is, the school is evacuated and the emergency services are called in.
It does make one rather wonder what life at the Llandudno school is like though. Because if I were to look in my bag and see what looked like a bomb, my first instinct would be to think – someone is having a laugh, not, oh my God, Al Queda’s latest fiendish plan is to take out teachers in schools in Wales thus bringing civilisation crumbling round our ears, we’re doomed I tell you, doomed.
Either that, or Mr Williams, who has been cautioned for his jape, does a convincing line in fake bombs. I take it it was more sophisticated than the old black cannonball labelled ‘BOMB’ with a fizzing fuse attached.
We never had anything like fake bombs in my schooldays. No, when I was in school one lad broke in and turned on all the gas taps in a fairly serious attempt the blow the place to smithereens.
So I suppose fake bombs are progress, of sorts.

Column, June 10, 2008

IT’S unusual for police officers to speak their mind.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but like so many public servants they seem sworn to some Trappist vow of silence when it comes to expressing an opinion.
Oh sure they’ll reel off facts and statistics and descriptions and warnings to the public, but ask them to comment about stuff like politics and they insist on their right to silence with all the enthusiasm of the petty crooks they question.
And who can blame them, after all they’ve seen so many predecessors sent to the career equivalent of Siberia for giving the merest hint of disapproval of their political masters.
So when one is brave enough to stick his or her head above the parapet it’s probably worth listening to them. You might not agree with them, but give them a hearing because speaking out will have caused them a good deal more pause for thought than, off the top of my head, a blowhard newspaper columnist.
So when Andy Williams, an inspector from Anglesey said that the ne’er-do-wells of his patch fear being banned from the local pubs more than they fear the penalties imposed by the courts, that tells us two things.
Firstly, and really quite encouragingly really, the effectiveness of the Pubwatch scheme. I have to say I’ve often seen the signs behind the bars of the pubs I frequent for the very occasional half a shandy, and I’ve wondered about their effectiveness. But I’m reassured by the picture Insp Williams paints of criminals apparently indifferent to all other punishments, who are reduced to pathetic pleading when threatened with being banned from their local.
Jack Regan never resorted to that in The Sweeney did he, and he missed a trick: “You Slaaag, sign that confession or you’ve had your last pin in the Dog&Duck.”
The other thing that this tells us, and this is a bit more depressing, is that the criminals to whom Insp Williams refers hold the courts in contempt.
Now you have to realise that Insp Williams is coming at this from a certain angle and the yoghurt-knitting, wool-undie-wearing social workers among us might disagree and think that all car thieves need is a good hug. Until, of course, their Citroen 2CVs get nicked and burnt out, when suddenly they get a bit Genghis Khan about the whole thing, wanting to wreak vengeance on the car thief, and the car thief’s children and the car thief’s children’s children and…you get the picture.
But, in the carefully chosen words of Insp Williams, the courts “are bogged down in the politics of the government of today, which I feel has some extremely pressing issues in terms of both prison populations and the balance between punishment and rehabilitation.”
Someone not straightjacketed by a lifetime of public service, like, off the top of my head, a blowhard newspaper columnist, might put it like this: “The courts would like to bang them up, and you and me would like to see them banged up, but we can’t bang them up because the prisons and full and so we have to try and rehabilitate people who don’t wan to be rehabilitated, they just want to carry on nicking.”
What the answer is I don’t know, for a change, but Insp Williams points out the problem of a jail population that;’s bursting at the seams, resulting in a criminal population who don’t take the justice system as seriously as we would like them to.
The problem is the frustration that must cause Insp Williams and his fellow officers who know that we are worried about crime and yet, when they catch a criminal and put them before the courts – and believe me, they do this in the vast majority of crimes, there is no such thing as a criminal mastermind, the phrase ‘thick as thieves’ refers to their intellect as well – the crooks can shrug it off because they know they’ll get a slap on the wrist.
So, do we buold more prisons? Not popular because very few people want one of those in their back yard. Or do we have more punishments that actually mean something to those who commit crime – like pub bans. It might sound facetious, but if the threat of it works and reduces crime then who cares?
And if Richard Brunstrom’s willingness to speak out has filtered down to lower-ranking officers then that can only be a good thing. As I said, you might not agree with all they say, but they are empowered with enforcing the law and it is imprtant that is they are brave enough to express an honest opinion about that, we should listen.
I hope we hear from more officers like Andy Williams.

SO the fuel protests are coming to the A55.
A Facebook group has been set up – the nation quakes – and theur plan is a 20mph go-slow down the A55 from Stanlow to Colwyn Bay.
No doubt the COBRA committee is meeting in Whitehall to discuss ths latest threat to civilisation.
Apparently, the plan is to drive in convoy along the A55 holding everyone up to make the point that fuel is a bit expensive.
Somehow, I’m thinking, it’s goinbg to take a little more than that to get OPEC’s attention, but call me a whinging nay-sayer.
But I’m afraid to say there is one, crucial problem with their protest idea. The speed they’re planning to travel – 20mph on a Friday towards the North Wales coast.
Others who have endured the hell of the A55 on a summer weekend will be laughing as the read this – 20mph, we dreamt of travelling at 20mph, 20 yards an hour more like.
If they manage to get to Colwyn Bay at an average speed of 20mph, do they realise tat they will be carried shoulder-high along the beach by grateful holiday-makers, delighted to have got down the expressway in record time.
They’ll be given the freedom of the borough and hailed as the saviours of the North Wales tourist industry.
Why not walk along the A55 to give your support on the day? But not too fast eh?, You’ll leave them behind.

Column, June 3, 2008

LET’S start at the beginning shall we?
The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, and 3.8 billion years ago the oaceans were formed. Unless of course you are of a particularly literal religious persuasion, in which case it all happened over six days or so about 6,000 years ago, and if you believe that you’d best stop reading now.
But, what I’m getting at is that the Earth, the oceans and the Moon have been around quite a while now, and as a result, so have the tides. 3.8 billion years of the tide coming in, and going out, coming in, going out, coming in, going out, coming in, well, you get the picture don’t you?
You do, but the 70 people rescued from sand banks off the beaches of North Wales at the weekend did not.
Even as the water rushed in behind them, reportedly, some of them refused to heed the warnings of their rescuers of the danger they were in. Only when they realised they would have to wade waist-deep to get back to the shore did they, hopefully gratefully, accept a lift back from the RNLI.
Perhaps on the Croeso i Gymru signs on the border we should add “please check your brains in here”.
Even the common winkle, a mollusc not known for its extraordinary brain capacity, knows when the tide is coming in, but not, it would seem, the crowds paddling at Rhyl, Towyn, Llandudno and Pensarn.
Perhaps these holidaymakers were more accustomed to the puny tides of the enclosed Mediterranean, which lulled them into a false sense of security when they came to North Wales.
They might just be forgiven if they residents of the American Mid-West, for whom the sea was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But we are an island race, the furthest point from the sea is a mere 70 miles. Nelson would be turning in his grave to know a nation that once ruled the waves had been reduced to such a bunch of lubbers.
Still, I suppose it makes a nice change for them to be hauled from the sea rather than plucked off the mountains by helicopter after they tried a winter ascent of Crib Goch equipped only with flip-flops and a Mars bar.
Maybe there’s another way of looking at it. Perhaps this was evolution in action, some lemming-like instinct kicking in. These people through sheer stupidity were trying to unwittingly do the human race a favour by removing themselves from the gene pool. Or maybe it’s a crude attempt to return to the waters from which we evolved.
It’s a tribute to the dedication and persistence of the RNLI that those who refused help until the waters threatened to wash them away were brought safely to shore instead of being given a short, sharp swimming lesson.
It would seem there is a business opportunity for some bright entrepreneur who wants to set up a stall on the beaches of North Wales selling commonsense by the ounce – there are some visitors in dire need of it.

NORTH Wales Assistant Chief Constable Ian Shannon was out with the troops on a licensing visit to a pub when a sign caught his eye.
‘Polite Notice – Positively No Travellers’ it said.
Mr Shannon raised his concerns about the ‘bigoted and unpleasant’ sign on his blog and it was reported to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the sign, in a pub in the Flintshire and Wrexham area, has removed the sign.
Its author ought perhaps to have remembered the original purpose of many pubs and inns was to provide a place of rest for travellers, so it’s a bit rich barring them now.
As the credit crunch takes hold mine host might also find his regulars tightening their belts and he cannot be so discriminating, or discriminatory, about his clientele.
Of course, I dare say travellers are used to this sort of prejudice, whether it’s advertised by a notice or not. You can make someone take down a sign, but it takes a bit more effort to change what’s going on in their bigoted little head.
A couple of points to make about this. Firstly, it’s heartening to know that senior officers get out and find out what happens in the real world rather than rely on junior officers to tell them – other forces take note.
Secondly, good to see that the matter got sorted out without recourse to lengthy and costly legal action.
And finally, to signwriters everywhere, if you find yourself penning the words ‘Polite Notice’ on a notice, you’ll find it invariably isn’t, polite that is, and it’s perhaps best to put your paintbrush away.

AND now to the vexed question of who to support for Euro 2008.
The BBC has been focusing on this heavily in the run-up, as if we are all in a real quandary now that England are not in it, the assumption being that we would all have been flying flags of St George had England not been dumped out in the qualifiers.
Who to support has always been an issue this side of the border, so it has taken a little thought.
It was settled in the Banks household by a gift from Banks junior’s uncles. He was presented with a full Italy strip, on the grounds that they might win, and that’s a good enough reason to support the Azzurri.
It might seem fickle supporting a team on such a tenuous basis, but a Daily Post colleague from deepest North Wales has been a lifelong fan of Spurs as a result of the gift of a strip at an early age, footballing allegiances defy logic and rightly so.
They’re in a tough group though, with France, the Netherlands and Romania, so if they go the way of my previous football predictions, we could be looking for a new team upon which to bestow our support rather soon.
Until then, Forza Italia!

Column, May 20, 2008

IT’S probably fair to say that when Paul Murphy entered politics his inspiration was not Marie Antoinette.
But when a politician tells people they’ll have to make do with sub-inflation pay rises while all about them prices are shooting skyward, it does rather smack of comments the ill-fated queen made about the starving masses eating cake.
The common refrain of Government ministers these days from Gordon Brown down is that they ‘feel our pain’, or as Mr Murphy put it, “People in Wales are feeling the squeeze.”
Yes, They’re feeling about as uncomfortable as a Labour MP in a marginal seat I would say.
However, Mr Murphy had few comforting words for those facing debt, foreclosure and poverty – aka feeling the squeeze. No instead he warned any of them in the public sector that they shouldn’t expect any help from their employers – ie him.
No, Mr Murphy, whose salary as a Cabinet Minister could be as much as £138,000, warned that inflation busting pay increases were not the answer to our woes.
To his credit, he and other MPs, have accepted a below-inflation 1.9% pay rise this year. The uncharitable among you might point out that someone trousering £138,000 a year can afford to take a below-inflation rise once in a while without feeling the squeeze too much, but remember, Paul feels your pain.
It is statements like Mr Murphy’s that make me think that there are a few people at the very top of New Labour who really do not quite comprehend what is going to happen when they summon up the courage to call an election (that is of course, assuming that they do summon up said courage and don’t cling on by their bitten fingernails until the final day possible)
Electricity bills are up, gas bills likewise, food bills are rocketing and you have to get a move on when you’re filling your car with petrol for fear of the price going up while you’re pumping it in.
At the same time our AMs, those who have taken it, have enjoyed a very healthy, inflation-busting 8.3% pay rise which took their annual salary from £46,804 to £50,692. That’s just over twice the average Welsh wage of £24,544 a year. A wage which, incidentally, even before the credit cruch was not enough to buy an average-priced house in Wales. There are plenty of people here who will be welcoming a collapse in house prices.
But wage inflation, says Mr Murphy, is not the answer, that fuels inflation and they’re not going to take us back to the bad old days of the ‘80s and ‘90s when it was out of control.
Yes, dumping cash into an economy will have an inflationary effect, he’s quite right. Odd then that his government have sat back and watched the housing market dump huge amounts of cash into the economy as people cashed in their equity in recent years.
But then house price inflation was giving everyone a rosy glow about the government wasn’t it? All of a sudden people were taking equity out of their homes to buy stuff to fill those homes with; to buy second homes and to fund expensive foreign holidays, And to have interfered with it would have been an unwarranted meddling in the free market which has served us so well, up until now.
It was a bubble that had to burst, and so it has with predictions of a ‘correction’ in house prices by as much as 30%. So if you’ve just bought a house for £200,000, it might soon be worth £140,000. Try remortgaging that.
That is the sort of pain Mr Murphy and his fellow Cabinet members feel with us, insulated though they may be from it all by generous allowances that fund and furnish their constituency homes.
But Mr Murphy’s faith in the electors not to punish his government for their failings is touching. “At a general election people look at the policies and they will see that the Conservative promises do not add up,” he said.
Nice try Mr Murphy, but you’re fooling no-one. No, Mr Murphy, at a general election people who are feeling the squeeze will look at the contents of their bank account and vote accordingly.


I CAN reveal that the Oasis Hotel’s pink makeover and their orders to tone it down are nothing new.
You will remember that the Oasis was touched up in pink, but it was too vibrant a shade and the owners have been instructed to redo it.
Charlie Roberts, former painter of this parish, writes in to tell me of a similar incident back in 1966.
“Back in 1966 working as a painter for a local firm we had the job of painting The Washington Hotel on the prom, also in Llandudno, a deep cream, as I recall.
“We finished the job on the Friday, but on the following Sunday, Lord Mostyn, who was sailing in the bay as commodore of the yacht club, turned to his chief henchman, George Hillier, and said ‘What is that monstrous colour on that hotel George?’
“When he was told it was a sort of cream he said tell them to change it immediately. So we went back on Monday and done it again!”
“So Mr Banks, nothing has changed in 40 years. Bloated capitalists or what?”
“Yours faithfully, Charlie”
From the dates Mr Roberts has given, this is the previous Lord Mostyn, the fifth Baron, Mr Roberts refers to, not the present Lord Mostyn
You’re right Mr Roberts and the French have a saying for it – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But then, the French also guillotined the class of people who might presume to tell them what colour to paint their hotels.

Column, May 20, 2008

BARRISTERS say that you should never ask a question in court you don’t already know the answer to.
Government consultations work in a similar way, only then they never ask a question they haven’t already decided the answer to.
So when they say: “We’re considering closing down your local post office, and we’re now consulting you to see what you think of that”, what they actually mean is: “We’re closing down your post office and you can blether all you like, it’s going, tough cheddar, you can write in to complain if you want but it’s a waste of a stamp, and you’re going to be hard pushed to find somewhere to buy one of those soon.”
Let me give you one small example of just how mad this policy of slash and burn of local post offices is.
They claim that you will be within three miles of a post office, but as the Daily Post revealed, that’s actually quite likely to be nearer six miles. But that’s only applies to when you want to go to a post office yourself. In some situations you will have to travel much, much further.
In my work I get a lot of parcels sent to me recorded delivery. Now, at the moment, if I’m not in, the postperson drops them off at the village post office for collection later, which involved me walking all of 200 yards, on foot, no car involved, no pollution.
I say ‘involved’ because that’s what used to happen. The post office closed today. So now, although the nearest post office is about three miles away, because of the way the post office arranges its deliveries, these packages will go back to a post office 13 miles away.
So though you might be three, or six miles from your nearest post office, that might not be the one you have to go to in order to pick something up.
So now, to pick up parcels, it’s a 26-mile round trip, probably once a week. That is going to mean my car pumping a quarter of a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere because of the closure of my local post office. And that is just me, there will be thousands more like me, all having to make unnecessary journeys because our post office has shut.
I know the economic arguments and how much the post office network costs and so on. But just as village schools provide some of the social glue which holds a community together, so does the local post office. It’s closure might make sense to those who count beans, but then they rarely have an appreciation of anything the delivers value to a community rather than profit.
And I’m disinclined to listen to arguments about the unreasonable cost of running the post offices from a government that has squandered billions on an illegal war in Iraq and found billions in a ham-fisted attempt to bribe voters in wake of the mess that was made abolishing the 10p tax rate.
The thing that we all know is that the closure of the post offices will have its most devastating effect in rural constituencies where Labour does not traditionally fare well. They figure that their urban voters will not be affected by the change and so they can weather the fall-out from it. Once again they have shown themselves to be the party of the city-dweller.
So that’s what you get when you’re consulted – a deaf ear, a blind eye and a closed notice on your post office.

IT was, perhaps, inevitable that Cardiff City were going to lose in the FA Cup final with Portsmouth.
Not because they were in any way the inferior team, as we saw on Saturday, they pften played the better football.
No, it’s just there is is just so much good fortune a country can expect and Wales has had more than its fair share this year.
Winning the Six Nations – which would do us for the whole year most of the time, Joe Calzaghe beating everyone in the world, Duffy topping the charts and so on.
No, if Cardiff had won where would it have ended?
Bangor University causing a bit of an upset on the Thames when their scratch team of rowers from the rugby 3rd XV beat Oxford and Cambridge in the boat race?
A donkey off Ffrith beach winning the Grand National? (Even if it didn’t win it would do better than the knacker’s yard candidates usually backed by your truly)
The fearless bridge divers of Betws-y-Coed taking an unexpected gold for synchronised belly-flopping at the Beijing Games?
All of a sudden the planets would align, the Holy Grail would be discovered in a cave in Wales, carried aloft by the risen King Arthur.
Just think of the increase in traffic down the A55, sometimes it’s wise to hide your light under a bushel. Hard luck Cardiff, but it was for the best.

A PINK hotel might not be to everyone’s taste, but a shabby one is even worse.
What would Mostyn Estates rather the Oasis in Llandudno look like? They’re not happy that owners Ann and David Blanchard touched up its pillars a shade of pink and it now looks like it will be back to a less in-your-face shade.
At this stage I should say that decisions on the appropriateness of colour are not my preserve. Like the majority of the male population should I ever mistakenly pick up a pain colour chart – looking for the TV guide or somesuch other important document – I would see lots of little blocks of colour which I could not choose between.
Whereas Mrs Banks sees all the hues of the rainbow arrayed before her.
But it’s the principle of telling people what they can and cannot do when they are actually doing no-one any harm.
Yes, a vibrant pink might not make your heart skip with joy, but it does no harm, so lets allow a little individuality into our lives shall we? Lets not resort to the red tape simply because someone does something every so slightly different from the rest of us.
Of course, they’ll say where will it end, if the Oasis is allowed vibrant pink what shade will the others choose?
Can I refer you to Tenby, whose houses and hotels are decked out like a maypole and whose reputation, and visitor figures, don’t seem to have suffered too much as a result.

Column, May 13, 2008

IT’S a good job we’ve got the mountains.
Because when the globally-warmed waves, swollen by the molten ice-caps, come lapping at our ankles, we will at least have somewhere to retreat to as civilisation crumbles around us.
I know we don’t always see eye to eye with our English neighbours, but watching them slowly become and archipelago seems a slightly extreme way of settling our differences.
But why should the Welsh blame themselves for these impending ecological disasters?
Well, it might have something to do with the latest figures to be released by the Office for National Statistics, which looked at just how ‘green’ we were all being.
Here we are in Wales, a nation criss-crossed by quiet country lanes with barely a motorway worthy of the name in the entire country, and just how many miles, on average, do you think we cycle?
I’ll tell you – just 20.
The only people who cycle less then us are those who live in the West Midlands, But at least they have the excuse of the fact that pretty much every road in their neck of the woods is a motorway.
Of course, you could argue that Wales being, well, a bit on the hilly side, is somewhat offputting for the would-be cyclist. And that argument might hold water just long enough for you to see that the Scots, with more and higher mountains, cycle more than we do.
Safety then, that’s the reason, it’s simply not safe to cycle, it’s madness out there, you’re taking your life in your hands just putting on your bicycle clips.
Again, that sounds convincing until you notice that the residents of London, smoggy, traffic-choked, barbaric London, beats us as well, where people cycle an average of more than 50 miles a year.
Personally, I think we’ve got it into our heads that cycling isn’t safe. And in some circumstances that’s right. The increase in traffic has made many major A-roads simply unpleasant to be on because of the volume and speed of traffic and the pollution that comes with it.
But that doesn’t mean we should abandon bikes altogether. With a little thought alternate routes can be found away from heavy traffic and as long as you keep your wits about you cycling is not the white-knuckle danger some imagine it to be.
But in a way it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – the fewer of us there are on the roads, the less prepared drivers are to cope with us. This when confronted with a cyclist drivers either tail you for miles, nervous of passing you lest you get sucked beneath their wheels; or else they are oblivious to you and pass you at 70 with millimetres to spare.
This is the ethos of the Critical Mass movement which forces drivers to acknowledge the existence of cyclists by arranging demos involving such huge numbers they outnumber the motorists.
By penning cyclists into cycle lanes and traffic-free cycle paths it all looks very safe, but it is counterproductive if it gives drivers a giddy fit when they see someone on two wheels.
The other figures that make for depressing reading from the ONS are those for the percentage of children who travel to school by car. Once again Wales tops the league, but not in a good way, with 38% of our children travelling to school this way.
I know we have managed to convince ourselves that there are predatory paedophiles lurking on every street corner and that our children walking or cycling to school is an unacceptable risk (despite the fact that the number or children killed by paedophiles every year remains an unacceptable five, while the number of children killed by their parents remains an even more unacceptable 100, so you do the math as to who is a greater risk to your child).
This is yet another reason not to close village schools, as if there weren’t enough already. But closing village schools and opening super-schools will only result in more children being ferried by mum and dad taxi service.
Mark my words, in a few weeks we’ll get another set of figures telling us how fat and indolent our children have become and we’ll wail and gnash and send them to after-school clubs to try to shed the pounds and then pitch up at the school gate in the Chelsea tractor to ferry them home to their video games and wonder where it all went wrong.

THOSE of you with long memories and an enthusiasm for chapel on a Sunday may remember my comments some time ago about Cliff Richard and the monster he released in our midst when he set the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
I wasn’t a fan, but the many, many people who took the trouble to write in clearly were. I didn’t like Cliff’s evangelising, they clearly did, and my can they put pen to paper when they feel the need.
So of all the people you’d guess you would find in church, leading the singing, I don’t think I would be top of your list. It doesn’t stop there though, I was playing guitar, and, as we were heading to the beach straight afterward…wearing sandals. I admit, I could have grown a beard for the occasion just to complete the stereotype, but there are some lines which cannot be crossed.
Quite how I ended up there has something to do with living in a small village tended by a persuasive vicar, and being the only guitarist available. There may have been a brief moment of temptation when I could have given them a rendition of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells, or Van Halen’s Runnin’ With The Devil, but was persuaded instead to gently strum along to ‘One More Step Along The World I Go’.
Still, no bolts of lightning descended to despatch me into the great hereafter, which shows that should the Lord indeed exist, he has a well-developed sense of irony.

Column, May 6, 2008

IT’S the economy stupid.
This was a catchphrase coined by Bill Clinton’s campaign team in his successful bid to beat George Bush Snr to the presidency.
Bush had a lot going for him, the Cold War was over and he had just beaten the Iraqis in Gulf War I, but back home there was a recession and Clinton made much ground reminding people of that.
So when Labour comes to sift through the ashes of last week’s political bonfire they might like to dwell on those four words.
Naturally, I don’t expect Labour stalwarts to pay me any heed, after all, I’m regularly accused of being a raving Nat or some sort of Tory fellow traveller. But as the son of a steelworker brought up in Deeside when they shut down Shotton I’ll leave you to guess where my political allegiances lie and if labour choose to ignore the likes of me then on their own heads be it, because they are ignoring the sort of people who put them in power in 1997.
It’s really quite simple. Firstly look at what’s going up. Food prices, fuel prices and the cost of your mortgage. It must come as something of a relief for some people to get turned down for a mortgage nowadays, because they know full well that even if they had got the mortgage they would be able to afford to heat the place or stock the larder.
Have any of those rises been accompanied by an equivalent, or even close, rise in average wages? No they have not.
And in the midst of all this carnage being wrought upon people’s finances, what did the Government go and do? Abolish the 10p tax rate.
Of course, note everyone lost out in that move. I count myself among the big winners. It turned out that all the income tax that was handed back to me by the new 20p tax rate was then snaffled back in National Insurance. All bar £1 a month that is. I’m a whole £12 better off – I’m going to spend, spend, spend.
But a large group of people who Labour might regard as their voters are going to be worse off and though we’ve had climbdowns and U-turns and promises of help from Ministers, when you look at the detail it’s clear there are going to be plenty of people who will not get a penny in compensation and for them it’s tough luck. Tough luck for the Labour candidate they might otherwise have voted for as well.
Secondly, look at the behaviour of the banks in all of this. The Bank of England has made cut after cut to its base rate and have those cuts been passed on to the poor homeowners? Not a one.
And yet whenever the Bank of England base rate has risen in recent years did the mortgage lenders ever baulk at passing on the rise to us – not once.
I know that interest rates have to go some way before they hit the crippling levels that they didn in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when they were in double digits. But back then the banks were not lending people five times their income and 110% mortgages which is what they have had to do now to chase a housing market inflated by themselves because of the amounts of cash they were dumping into it.
And yet the banks neatly absolve themselves of any responsibility for the mess created by the housing market bubble – they didn’t force us to borrow the money did they? Well no, but they fuelled that meant people needed to ask for such huge mortgages and they lent out huge multiples of people’s salaries.
Yet know they are being allowed to sit there, failing to pass on rate cuts, refusing to lend and raking in the cash to protect themselves against the recession that is coming and which they helped to create. If they did this sort of thing in wartime it would be called profiteering and the bank chief execs would be doing a spell in Pentonville to atone.
Instead we have the giant economic brain of Gordon Brown claiming that last week’s cataclysm at the polls was somehow because of a failure to get Labour’s message across.
Eh?
Does he really think that had he been able to explain more clearly Labour’s ‘message’ a family facing bankruptcy and repossession would have said, “Ah, now it’s all clear” and meekly trotted to the polls to pub their cross next to New Labour.
If he does then he isn’t the giant intellect some claim him to be.
Do you think Marie Antoinette, on her way to the guillotine said: “Zut alors, if only I had been able to explain to the unwashed mob what a nice alternative cake is to bread, then all of this nastiness would have been avoided.”
Brown need to forget about everything except the economy – schools, prisons, foreign policy, and Labour’s blessed ‘message’ – all that he can leave to ministers he has appointed to deal with it. He should focus entirely on getting through the next year or so without all of us ending up sleeping beneath the railway arches in cardboard boxes.
Do that and he just might find enough people well-disposed enough to him to turn up and vote for him at the next election.

THE above message applies to most of North Wales, save Gwynedd, where it should read “It’s the schools stupid.”
Because if there was ever a stupid policy suggestion it was closing the small schools of Gwynedd. The very thing that might encourage people to move there or for people living there to stay was the quality of education in the small primaries across the county.
To have closed them would have been a betrayal of Wales’s heritage as a country where education really mattered.
Now the election of councillors for Llais Gwynedd and the end of Plaid’s overall control ought to have consigned such barmy policies to the waste bin and hopefully another route will be found to achieve the savings they need.

Column, April 29, 2008

WE had better start making a list.
The English are voting on whether to become part of Wales and if we haven’t got a list before we know it they’ll all be in.
Alright, it’s only started with the little village of Audlem , over in Cheshire , but you know what they say about wedges having a thin end.
Not that I’m saying we won’t welcome them all should they so choose to exercise their democratic right to become part of God’s Own Country, but we might want to exercise a little discretion.
Of course, you can understand why they all want in. After all, we’ve won the Grand Slam, Duffy’s top of the charts, Cardiff in the FA Cup, Doctor Who setting up home here, Gavin&Stacey’s Bafta, Joe Calzaghe a world champion twice over. We pretty much rule the roost, so you can sympathise.
Pub bores everywhere are suddenly finding Welsh great-grandmothers in their lineage and that’s enough for them to order their Grand Slam pullover and get all teary-eyed during Land Of My Fathers, even though not a couple of years ago they could be heard belting out ‘Swiiiiing Loooow, Sweeeeet Charrrrr-iiiii-oooott’ at the merest peep of a white shirt.
The people of Audlem, however, 63% of who want to be part of Wales , voted for far more practical reasons. They believe that they aren’t getting the services they deserve in England and believe being part of Wales will see them better provided for.
Well, with free prescriptions for all and no SATs tests for kids you can’t say they are far wrong.
So Audlem, formerly in Cheshire , but now part of what I am going to call Greater Wales – Croeso, Welcome.
The nay-sayers at Wrexham County Borough Council have raised the small matter of Audlem being quite a way away from us and Whitchurch being in between. Let’s not let that get in the way of things eh? Let’s annex Whitchurch too. I would say today Audlem, tomorrow the world, but it sounds a little too much like a chap whose ambitions ended badly.
But rather than seeing it as the English joining us, perhaps we ought to regard it as a return to Wales of what is rightfully ours. After all, Audlem and much of that part of the world was Welsh until we lost it to Northumbria 1400 years ago.
So.if we get Audlem, and Whitchurch, where else should we absorb into Greater Wales (got quite a ring to it that hasn’t it, Great Britain , but Greater Wales).
Well, we’ll have Liverpool for a start. We built it, we’re having it back, and we’ll put a stop to them tearing down the ‘Welsh Streets’ as part of Prescott’s grand renovation scheme.
We can quietly take Shropshire, but I think we ought to draw the line at Birmingham , on the grounds that it’s good to have someone outside Wales who also gets the mick taken because of their accent.
Most of Herefordshire and the West Country should surely be ours. Cornwall , I imagine, would be quick to secede too. The M4 corridor could see Welsh tanks across the Severn and on the outskirts of London before breakfast. If Wales had any tanks that is, and given how quick we take umbrage it’s perhaps best we don’t.
Keep the border creeping eastwards and once we’ve taken Yorkshire even I’ll be back in the fold. No need for hiraeth, I’ll be home.
Naturally there is the small matter of most of these communities not speaking Welsh. But I don’t think we ought to let that get in the way because except for the North West corner, most of our own communities don’t either.
It’s a whole new take on independence as well. You’ve no need to be independent of the English if they’re signing up to join you in their droves.
So, come one, come all, vote early, vote often to join the fastest expanding nation in the UK .

AS an exiled Welshman, albeit self-imposed, it’s always nice to bump into those with links to home.
So when I pitched up in a tiny North Yorkshire village it was a pleasant surprise that my nearest neighbour is an ex-office in the Welsh Guards.
We had a chat about the relative merits of North Wales guardsmen and South Wales – we agreed that North Walians were far the superior, although that might have something to do with Wrexham soldiers always being up for a fight.
Anyhow, Captain Mike is doing his bit for those injured in Iraq and Afghanistan next month in aid of the Help for Heroes charity.
This charity is raising funds for a swimming pool and treatment centre at Headley Court , the forces’ centre where service personnel recover from injuries received in action.
Captain Mike and hundreds of other riders will be cycling through the battlefields of France to raise money for this charity in late May.
You can read all about their efforts on the charity website http://www.helpforheroes.org.uk/ If you would like to sponsor Captain Mike, drop me a line at my e-mail address d.banks3@btinternet.com, and I’ll put you in touch.

PERHAPS the fact that the English are voting to become Welsh is not entirely unconnected to news that a church in Wales has applied for a drinks licence.
The Reverend Geraint ap Iorwerth could soon also be known as mine host as he wants a licence to serve alcohol at St Peter ad Vincula Church in Pennal, near Machynlleth.
It might have the ministers of the dry Sunday chapels turning in the grave, but in these days of declining church numbers the sort of social function where alcohol is served is one way of getting people through the door.
And apart from the nonconformist suspicion of the demon drink, the Church has always had a close association with brewing, especially the monasteries.
And if my shaky recollection of The Bible serves me, and I think it does, Jesus turned water into wine, not the other way round.

Column, April 22, 2008

IF in doubt, blame the media.
In fact, strike that, there’s no need to actually be in doubt. It’s a rule we should all live by – get up, shower, breakfast, feed the cat, blame the media and go to work.
There are few sticky situations you will find yourself in where you can’t buy yourself a bit of wiggle room by blaming the media.
I’ll bet as the crowds departed from Calvary someone piped up that it was the Scribes that were to blame for the death of Our Lord.
Now, I’ll accept that I’ve got a bit of a vested interest here, being an accursed hack, and yes, one, who, on occasion would turn up on the doorsteps of those in dire circumstances and inquire whether a word with the papers might help.
And now, it seems, we are to blame for Welsh Rugby’s decision to shift a match to a Friday night.
As WRU spokesman John Williams put it: Our view is that we already have Friday night rugby in the Heineken Cup, the Rugby World Cup and domestic rugby and we are heavily dictated to by the media.”
“Dictated to be the media” eh? And just how does that work then.
As soon as the television deal was signed did the men in jackboots march in saying: “A-ha, ve haf vays of making you play on a Friday night, for you Dai, ze days of daytime rugby are over.”
No, I suspect that by dictating, what our man at the WRU was indicating was that TV will pay for Friday night rugby, on the grounds that they can sell adverts into it if they’re commercial, or they can get audience share if they are the BBC.
Either way, I don’t think the dastardly media types were saying give us Friday nigtht rugby or we won’t show it at all.
So it was open to the Six Nations Committee and the WRU to say, well, actually, on reflection, no, we’ve always played Six Nations on a Saturday or Sunday, so there it stays.
But then, name a sporting association since the invention of TV that has resisted the blandishments of broadcasters?
But can we honestly say they have all benefited? OK, snooker, I’ll give you snooker. Once a pastime for those who needed something to fill the intervals between smoking and drinking it was dragged out of the shadows and thrust into the spotlights of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield .
But apart from that, what sport hasn’t sold its soul when it dealt with TV?
You only have to look at what football has become to see where rugby will go. Football long ago abandoned any pretence of consideration for the fans that filled the terraces. They are just another asset to be stripped of cash via ticket prices and ever-changing replica shirts.
And if they complain, so what, the Premiership clubs know they can fill seats many times over, and even if they can’t it doesn’t matter because the TV cash will fill any void left on the terraces.
Now, the money-persons at the WRU may shake their heads at my naivety and say that’s the way things are in today’s hard-headed commercial world. But do we really want rugby to go the way of football?
To its credit rugby has managed the transition from amateurism, via ‘shamateurism’ to become fully professional without players turning into the preening clothes-horses that afflict the Premiership.
The sad fact is that the Six Nations will probably get away with this and many fans who would like to have been in Paris will, of course, tune in to watch on TV.
But it’s one snub to true fans would otherwise have made the trip to France but now can’t because of work commitments. Such small blows add up until slowly but surely the face of a game we love has changed forever.

GREAT to see the BBC comedy ‘Gavin & Stacey’ do so well at the BAFTAs on Sunday.
Firstly, because it’s very, very funny and deserves the plaudits.
Secondly because much of its humour features the Welsh and yet it manages to refrain from that humour revolving around the rib-tickling revelations that a) we talk funny, and b) there are a lot of sheep in this country so there’s got to be some shenanigans going on there hasn’t there?
Thirdly, because anything featuring Rob Brydon is worth a gong, he’s a genius.
It was also a relief to see the BBC costume drama Cranford do so appallingly badly. It is dull beyond words and it was nice for once not to see awards going to a drama based on the yardage of crinoline used in its production.

Column, April 15, 2008

WATCHING Wrexham FC was always a bit of a white-knuckle ride.
Cajoled into abandoning my armchair support for Liverpool’s glory-boys by a couple of Daily Post colleagues – who were probably looking for someone to share their pain – I spent three or so seasons on the roads less travelled of the football league.
Let me tell you there is little joy to be had on a rainy day in Hull, which then had an open away end. The only laugh raised as we lost was when a ball hit the roof of the home supporter’s stand and they could all be seen brushing off the rust that had descended on them as a result. And then we couldn’t find a decent fish and chip shop open – in Hull. It was a long, long trek home.
But for all the cold, wet trips to see losses or 0-0 draws, there were more than enough moments of unrestrained delight to make up for that, and that is the joy of watching a team as unpredictable as Wrexham.
There was the Peterborough cup match when one of their fans, enraged at the drubbing they were getting by the on-form Reds, ran the length of the pitch to confront the Wrexham support. I think his sprinting years were some time behind him and by the halfway line he was flagging and grateful to be led away by the stewards for a cup of tea and a rest.
Who can forget Aresnal and West Ham, and Middlesbrough whose cup hopes were dashed on the rocks of unexpectedly brilliant Wrexham performance.
Who can forget 1-3 to dump Birmingham City out of the cup? Not me, because I had them at 30-1 with the stadium bookies to do just that.
But it wasn’t just the days of cup glory that I remember of Wrexham. It was moment like Jonathan Cross’s shot against Crewe one night as both teams vied for the play-offs. He took the ball on the bounce just inside the Crewe half and then lashed a shot at goal. Time seemed to stand still as we began celebrating one of the best strikes any of us had ever seen. Then it hit the crossbar.
All the time were were trogging round the backwaters of the football league though we could but wonder at what was going on off the pitch. Wrexham’s tribulations have not always been helped by those who have not always had the club’s best interests at heart.
Perhaps it has been a mercy that work has taken me away from the cruelty of being a Wrexham fan. My nearest league team is York now and having been there as opposition I can’t bring myself to switch allegiances and visit Bootham Bar as a fan.
Remember the plan to turn the pitch through 90 degrees, redeveloping one end and at a stroke rendering half of the newly-built Pryce Griffiths stand completely useless? Genius like that always seems to rise to the top in the lower reaches of football.
But that is the whole point of following a lower-league team. Let’s face it, few of us are ever going to achieve promotion to the Premiership.
You don’t do it for the abundant glories of watching Liverpool, or Man United or Chelsea do you? Following them disappointment comes when you are second best, not bottom of the league.
Following Wrexham means flirting with disaster. Travelling long distances for little or now reward and then still finding something positive to talk about on the long drive home.
That is what being a true football fan is about. Sure we can choose our team according to the wealth of the owner and guaranteed showings on Sky every week. But that’s not being a fan, that’s just a glorified version of shopping.
Being a fan means supporting your local team, no matter how dismal their performances are week-in, week-out. You keep the faith.
Now we are all but mathematically relegated, nine points from safety with 12 available. Miracles can happen, but some might say that Wrexham have had more than their share of them in recent years.
If the worst happens, and Wrexham drop, then we only have to look down the road to see that all is not lost.
To our unrestrained joy, Chester dropped out of the football league, but they’re back. Not without difficulties of their own, they’re hardly riding high, but they did claw their way back up.
It sticks in the craw to hold up the old enemy as an example, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride and admit they did what they needed to do.
Wrexham can do the same. It will be tough – takings will be down, players will be harder to come by. It will take a massive effort. But the loyal supporters who trail after them on dark winter nights, of who I was once one, deserve nothing less.

ST Deiniol’s Church, in my home village of Hawarden, is a big church, and it takes someone special to fill it.
Mark Parry, a school friend was that sort of person and his death, cruelly early, saw hundreds crowd the pews last week.
It was a sad day indeed, but the service reflected the joy and the music and laughter that Mark brought into so many lives.
The singing, by a Welsh congregation, was transcendent, I tell you, if you want a head-start toward Heaven then have Welsh women sing you on your way.
And it was typical of a man who brought happiness to so many, that he left the church to the tune of Laurel and Hardy’s ‘Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia’ – Mark ‘Paz’ Parry, as ever, trying to make us smile.

Column, April 8, 2008

SOME people clearly have far too much time on their hands.
How else can you explain the complaints about a pub in Caernarfon called The Black Boy.
The complainants apparently believe it is racist. They’re almost right.
It was racist, when it was named, but that was 250 years ago, people held some pretty obnoxious views back then. Not just opinions though, slavery was yet to be abolished and we were enthusiastically shipping off black boys, girls, women and men to the colonies to work on plantations.
It is all very shameful, but it is also history. We don’t do it now, nor would we, and we shouldn’t apologise for what we didn’t do ourselves. Nor should we expunge it from our public buildings.
A week ago I was holidaying in the Peak District and pitched up in a town called Ashbourne, were a hotel rejoices in the name ‘The Blacks Head’, and across the street. Did I read that right I wondered as we passed, but there to confirm my suspicions of the racism of our forefathers, was a cast iron archway topped by a crude depiction of a black man’s head.
It did look rather odd in these days when we are fortunately more enlightened about equality. But should we tear down symbols that were put up centuries ago simply because we would not put them up now?
There are lots of episodes from history that we are not particularly proud of, but ou cannot pretend they did not happen. That doesn’t mean you are in any way celebrating them, but nor are you denying their existence.
It’s true that if you built a new pub and you were sitting down with a focus group brainstorming what to call you new hostelry, ‘The Black Boy’ wouldn’t be top of your list would it?
That’s not to say some new names can’t offend. A landlady in the West Country got into trouble recently when she renamed her pub ‘Hawkins Meeting House’ after a heroic sailor who assisted Drake in fighting the Armada. Trouble is he was also a slave trader and her pub was opposite the local race equality council building.
But if we start tearing down pub names simply because they offend modern sensibilities then where are we going to stop?
Are we going to do away with the Fox and Hounds, Hare and Hounds, Anything being pursued by Hounds because the animal rights brigade take offence at these glorifications of hunting? Are White Lions offensive to differently-coloured Lions?
Is it the end of the line for the Duke of Wellington, the Admiral Nelson and The Trafalgar for fear of offending our friends across the Channel?
No, leave them where they are and be thankful that the attitudes that informed their names do not prevail today.
And let’s be particularly penitent when we sup in that inn whose name must be a thorn in the side of every wife who enters its portals – The Nag’s Head.


ANYONE who watched the documentary about Josie Russell on BBC last week cannot help but be hugely impressed by both her and her father.
I think what struck me is their refusal to conform to the stereotype that so much of the media tried to pen them into – tragic victims, struggling against adversity.
Instead they seem to have returned to a community that Mr Russell knew would be supportive and then got on with living.
One thing I did notice though was that Josie’s school, Ysgol Baladeulyn, is one of those earmarked for closure under Gywnedd’s proposals for reform.
It was obvious in the programme just how much this little school had helped Josie in the immediate months and years after the attack.
Of course, one cannot argue that a school should be kept open on the off chance that a child should suffer the sort of attack that Josie did. But given what the school was able to do for her, how much do you think it could help children with other challenges?
Keeping small schools open is difficult, but undoubtedly worth it, as this programme proved once again.


THE progress of the Olympic torch through London was an unmitigated disaster, but whether it will advance the cause of a free Tibet is another matter entirely.
I somehow doubt that a beardy bloke shouting at Paula Radcliffe is going to melt the hearts of the men in Beijing and lead to a withdrawal of troops, but it makes for a nice photo opportunity.
I can’t say I’m much moved by the disruption of the torch’s progress though, as a spectacle it doesn’t amount to much and it is a tradition that dates back to the Olympics in berlin in 1936 when the Nazis were lionised in the film by Leni Riefenstahl. Not a tradition with its roots in ancient Greece then.
If you are moved to support the Free Tibet cause though, restrain yourself from shouting a some poor sportsperson or minor celeb (and just how did Denise Van Outen get in on this particular act?) carrying the torch.
Instead inspect your underwear for the tell-tale signs of collusion with the forces of oppression. In there you will, in all probability find a little label reading ‘Made in China’. If not there, you’ll find it one many of your child’s toys.
So, are you prepared to buy your clothes and toys from more ethical, and expensive, sources? Until we are then the protests in London will not amount to any more than empty gestures.


MILLIONS of pounds of public money and many lives disrupted and we reach the conclusion that anyone who lived there could have told you years ago for free – that turning the A494 in Deeside into a seven-lane super highway was stupid idea.
The noise and pollution it would create would be bad enough, but all it would achieve would be to shift the bottleneck a few more miles down the A55.
Still, the abandonment of the scheme is a good thing and we’ll probably end up getting what we should have had all along, a crawler lane up the hill for slow moving traffic.

Column, March 25, 2008

SOME of you may be reading this in the haze of a near-diabetic coma brought on by Easter egg indulgence.
Others may be ruing that where Easter tumbleweed used to blow down the high street shutting every shop in sight; now it’s an annual festival of DIY, funded by what’s left of the limit of our overstretched credit cards.
One thing is reasonably certain, and that is that very few of us spend the holiday as it was meant to be – a holy festival marking the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easier to think about planking in B&Q isn’t it?
Not that I’m getting all holier than thou about this, you understand, although given the fact that I did attend an Easter service – albeit one organised by my son’s school – I do have dibs on casting the first stone, if I might be allowed a little Biblical imagery there.
A couple of things struck me as odd this weekend. Firstly the fanfare given to the fact that bookies were allowed to open on Good Friday for the first time. Hurrah, yet another day to go in and get fleeced betting money you can’t afford on sporting events you have no idea about the outcome of.
No, no-one is forcing them in there at gunpoint, but that’s not really the point. It’s another small step in making what were national holidays, just another day like any other.
The other was the fuss that was being made about Easter being early this year, and how inconvenient it was that it was on a different date every year.
Acres of newsprint and hours of airtime were devoted to debating this and the constant refrain was that wouldn’t it be better to do away with this tying of Easter to the phases of the Moon and let’s have a nice convenient set date every year.
Convenient for who exactly? Some mad education authorities have decided to separate the childrens’ two-week break from the actual Easter weekend, for what reason I know not.
But I cannot for the life of me see the reason for doing away with the moveable feast of Easter, although you have to go to the incredible difficulty of looking at a calendar to find out when it falls each year.
Of course, you detect the undercurrent behind these calls for Easter to be regularised, is that it would be more convenient for business to have it one the same date every year.
And these presumably would be the same businesses benefiting from the Easter being treated less and less like a holiday and more like an opportunity to make money.
I’m not saying we should be trooping to church in the numbers we used to, but we seem to have lost sight of the fact that holidays were one just that – holy days, and surely we can find something better to do with them than go shopping.
Christmas Day and Easter Sunday are just about the only days of the year now when you can find a bit of peace, when everyone isn’t on one headlong rush to get to work or the shops.
But as Good Friday is eroded, Easter Sunday will be next, and Christmas Day will surely follow. All to the consternation of the church that will be powerless to do anything about it because it long lost its ability to dictate to us our behaviour when it stopped getting us through its doors in the numbers it once did.
We go to different churches now, where the only bells that ring are on the tills.

IT was we apparently ‘have to admit’ a substandard Six Nations.
England and Ireland were ‘teams in transition’ – which means, not as good as they used to be but their selectos haven’t worked out what to do about it.
France were just mad, Scotland are a shadow of their former selves and Italy still find form elusive.
So, we should just pipe down a bit over here in Wales because no-one else is making too big a fuss about it all. Just put the trophy in the cabinet and thank your lucky stars you’ve got it.
Thus was the theme of the London-based press when they condescended to talk about the Welsh Grand Slam, which was often sidelined to make way for coverage of Danny Cipriani, the new golden boy of English rugby.
Fine. Except I don’t remember, in years gone by, a lacklustre Wales being a reason for downplaying English victories in the Six Nations.
Jeremy Clarkson summed it up thus: “I truly enjoy a seeing a downtrodden people being given a crumb of something that makes them happy.”
The sour grapes are being harvested across the border and it promises to be a vintage year.

SPEAKING of which. Gavin ‘Show Pony’ Henson was on again at the weekend, this time for the Ospreys, blowing through the Saracens defence like it wasn’t there.
At some point his, mainly English, critics will have to accept that for a show pony, he puts on some show.

TRAVELLING home to North Wales on Good Friday seemed like a ticket to hours in a traffic jam with a festival of roadworks welcoming all those approaching the A55.
But we slipped through the chicane of barriers with barely a pause, which pleasantly surprising as it was, should also be worrying.
It might be the fear of wintry weather that caused people to stay away, but on the evidence of Friday afternoon they were not heading our way in the droves we would have been hoping for on a Bank Holiday weekend.
A couple of hours earlier we had been leaving the opposite coast in England, where the world and his wife, despite the weather, was hitting the beach.
If I were working in Welsh tourism that apparent discrepancy would worry me.
If it is the weather that is keeping people away then we can just hope for a better summer. If it’s more than that though, then we have a big problem.

Column, March 18, 2008

IT was a tough decision – feed the kids or watch the rugby.
Mrs B was away and I was in charge.
I thought the boys might understand. The four-year-old shouts for Wales whenever they’re on (born in Newcastle , living in Yorkshire and thanks to his dad’s allegiances, now guaranteed a school-life of being chased around the yard by an angry mob.) The 18-month-old is a stout little chap, Celtic build like his dad. Surely I could hold off meal-time for 80 minutes?
But there they were, half an hour before the start, asking what’s for their tea. All they needed was a bowl in their hands and they’d be a pair of little latter-day Olivers.
For a moment I hesitated, thenI pictured the scene at court as the prosecution explained to the English judge: “Yes, your honour, the defendant, charged with neglect and cruelty of a most odious nature, is a Welsh rugby fan. His children were found begging for food as he danced round his lounge singing, somewhat sadistically, you might think, Sospan Fach, a Welsh song about, ahem, a little saucepan, your honour. Sadly, the only saucepans to be found in the Banks household that day were in songs and not on the cooker. We ask for an immediate, and lengthy, custodial sentence.”
No problem, I thought, set the video, feed the kids, bath, book and off to bed with them and then settle down to watch the match having studiously avoided all news channels, text messages and e-mail.
Job done, boys asleep, and I’m ready for the big, delayed, match.
Press rewind, the video whirrs. For a very…short…time.
Seven minutes, that’s all I got. Seven minutes.
While all of Wales was shedding tears of joy in one corner of North Yorkshire I was just shedding tears.
But a glimmer of hope, wasn’t the BBC banging on about making the unmissable, unmissable with some free internet wizardry.
And so it was six hours later, plugged into my laptop and on the BBC iPlayer site, I I watched as Wales put France to the sword. Late it might have been but, sweeter still for nearly having been missed, and thank you, oh thank you, BBC.
What a match, what a team. What a Grand Slam.
For me the defining plays of the game belonged to Gavin Henson who showed what defensive rugby was all about.
Time after time I thought he must be offside, but no, every time the French tried to run the ball Henson was up in their faces on the blitz.
He’s a good-looking lad, you can’t help but notice the teeth, the hair, the tan. That don’t look so lovely when it’s coming at you full pace, you’ve just taken the ball and you’ve got about a millisecond to do something clever before 14st 11lbs of Gavin folds you in half.
I’m surprised that when he got sin-binned the French didn’t ask for him to stay on, the one thing they didn’t need was Henson back on after a ten-minute breather.
If there are sports teachers out there wanting to teach young rugby players the art of being a centre, just let your young charges watch Henson’s performance.
The truly incredible thing about Saturday’s game was the devastating, unrelenting pace at which it was played. Right until the end Wales , and France to their credit, were at it full tilt. In the past the game would have died as fatigue took over and the ball stayed in the ruck while everyone gasped and prayed for the clock to go faster.
The thing the southern hemisphere sides have always had on us was the ability to play for 80 minutes at that pace but at last we seem to have produced a team that can match that effort.
The only thing that saddens me, and it was a comment by Brian Moore after the game, that the Welsh victory was all the more incredible because the players do not come from all over Wales , they are drawn from a narrow corridor down South.
And he’s right. But much better we could be if the pool of talent that we could draw upon included young players from the North.
Surely it’s not beyond the wit of our schools to use this victory as an inspiration and to get more children in North Wales playing rugby in the hope of emulating the side we saw on Saturday?
But that is for the future. And now we go to South Africa to test ourselves against the World Champions in summer.
For the moment though let’s dwell on a Grand Slam that began all those weeks ago when England decided that having got the lead it was nap-nap time and then watched as Wales showed the pace with which they would win the championship.
Let’s enjoy the memory of the Irish and French dismissals of our threat. Nothing to be frightened of, not New Zealand , after all. No, not new Zealand, but faster and stronger than Ireland and France .
Let’s wonder at just how fast Shane Williams can be; and how strong a pack must be to win a scrum against the head (and when was the last time you saw that at international level?) when France were camped under our posts; and how grateful we are that Martyn Williams decided retirement was over-rated.
Let’s look forward to what comes next, because everyone has said that this is a Wales side that can only get better, as if they have not given us enough already.
Let’s give a grateful prayer of thanks to Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley who engineered all this and let us also pray the WRU tie them to Welsh rugby with golden handcuffs – diamond-studded if need be.
And let’s remember that in winning they played the sort of rugby we recognise as Welsh – fast, creative, a joy to watch and none of the percentage kicking game that has threatened to kill the northern hemisphere game as a spectacle in recent years.
There is a school of thought that says we should not as a nation let ourselves be defined by the stereotypes of rugby-playing and singing. But to hear the national anthem all but lift the roof of the Millennium Stadium and then watch a Welsh side play the way they did, sweeps all doubt aside.
If you are going to be defined as rugby-playing choristers, then let’s always play like that, let’s always sing like that.

Column, March 11, 2008

QUICK quiz.
You are on patrol in Kandahar province, Afghanistan , one of your Land Rovers has just been flipped by a landmine and you’re now outnumbered 3-1 by Taliban dug in around you and peppering you with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns and AK-47s. What do you do?
Most of us might say dive into the nearest hole and pray that Prince Harry is on hand to call in an air-strike to get us out of the proverbial.
But most of us are not Fusilier Damien Hields, or once he pays a visit to Buckingham Palace , Fusilier Damien Hields MC.
No, rather than keeping his head down Fusilier Hields followed the trail of the rocket-propelled grenades coming towards him, and then started giving the Taliban some back.
Just hang on a minute, let’s hit the pause button there, He followed the trial – got that – of rocket propelled grenades – yep, got that too – coming towards HIM? That’s where he loses me, because that’s where I would have been up and out and running as fast as my little legs would carry me.
Fusilier Hields however, is made of sterner stuff than soft-as-shandy newspaper columnists and to the evident misfortune of the Taliban attacking him, he was also armed with a grenade machine gun. I didn’t know such things exist, but if ever you are in a tight spot it is clearly the thing to have on your side and best to have Damien Hields at the trigger.
Having followed the trail of the RPGs fired at him, and I’m still utterly amazed by that, Fusilier Hields was able to spot the positions of the Taliban and started firing his grenades. Six boxes he got through in 15 minutes – that’s 192 grenades.
The Taliban understood the nature of the kicking they were getting from this one-man army and concentrated fire on him, turning his Land Rover into something more reminiscent of a tea strainer.
Fusilier Hields only stopped shooting back when they finally hit him, shattering a rib and he was dragged out of it to get treatment.
As well as winning the Military Cross, the third-highest award for gallantry, because this was a NATO operation he was also awarded the NATO Meritorious Service Medal. However, army rules do not allow soldiers to wear non-British medals, an anomaly which the pen-pushers at the MoD whose desks are a safe distance from the front line ought to put right straight away.
There’s been a lot of fuss in the past week about servicemen and women wearing their uniforms in public because of abuse aimed at them by those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan .
I’m guessing that if you’ve got the nerve to follow the trail of an RPG fired at you, you can cope with the odd adverse comment from the misguided. Especially when the vast majority would applaud your actions.
Which brings me to the question of when we are to be allowed to do just that?
After Fusilier Hields receives his MC will the Army organise a parade of the 1st Battalion Royal Welsh (Royal Welch Fusliers) through the streets of Denbigh, and the other Welsh home towns of these soldiers?
I hope they do so that we can show our appreciation of the actions of someone who truly deserves to be called a hero.

ANOTHER weekend and another step closer to the Grand Slam.
The Irish said Wales hadn’t been truly tested thus far in the Six Nations. I take it they don’t think that now. We were tested, but it was they who were found wanting.
Strange how though, if you read the coverage of the London media, it is still all about England , the only team who deserve to win in their view, have let the championship elude them.
Wales, they grudgingly concede, are on track to win an ‘unlikely’ Grand Slam. Good of them to let us know eh?
And Shane Williams, once again, defied the laws of physics, which tell you that a 5ft 7ins player weighing 12st 8lbs (Williams) when tackled by a 6ft 2ins player weighing 15st 8lbs, ought to come off worst. But what does Shane do? He gives him the hand off and scores.
Another criticism levelled at the Welsh team is that that still haven’t played as well as they could. God help them when we do.

WOULD that we all had an independent panel setting our pay like AMs do.
Then we could all, with heavy heart, take our inflation-busting 8.3 per cent pay rises and insist that we don’t really want the money, but it’s being forced upon us by an independent panel, our hands are tied, our mouths are stuffed with gold etc, etc, etc.
What those AMs who are accepting the pay rise do not seem to understand – and it says something for the standard of intellect that the Assembly attracts - is that they can blether on about independent panels, commissions until kingdom come – their constituents are all facing low or no pay rises, spiralling mortgages and increasing bills.
They do not have the luxury of independent pay awards and they have little patience with politicians who take such awards while advocating restraint for the rest of us.
Congratulations to the Plaid AMs who had the decency to turn this award down. Their opponents call it posturing while trousering their cash. In the light of what we’re all facing in the real world, it was the right thing to do.

GOOD to see the Assembly doing its bit to put off the second home brigade this summer by sealing off Wales to visitors.
You might think of it as roadworks, but to those wanting to come her to buy a home it is more of a barricade. Two hours on the hell of the A55 and they’ll be turning back home to tune into ‘A Place In The Sun’ and buying somewhere on the Costas.
Of course, their might be one or two casualties in the Welsh tourism industry when the day trippers and holidaymakers fail to battle their way to our resorts, but hey, you know what they say about omelettes and eggs.
Fortress Cymru, you know it makes sense.

Column, March 4, 2008

ONE of the less well-advertised perks of being a reporter is the press freebie.
Not something we shout about too much when we’re getting on our high horse about MPs fiddling their expenses, but on any given day you’ll find a fair few hacks in most airport departure loungse, off on a jolly to some tropical paradise at someone else’s expense.
These things are usually dished out on the basis of how decent a job you’re doing and the likelihood of you heading off to pastures new if the boss doesn’t keep you vaguely happy.
My first such trip was to the Isle of Man, in November, in a gale. Make what you will of how well my career was doing at that stage and how worried they were at the prospect of my departure.
Any road up, some years later I was dispatched to Arizona, so by then I’d managed to keep my nose particularly clean.
We were on a tour of towns of the Old West and pitched up in a swanky resort hotel in the town of Prescott. Now, one of the oddities of America, the land that gave us Vegas in all its neon glory, is that in many states gambling is actually illegal.
However, the Native American reservations get to make their own rules in that respect and if they want a casino on reservation land then so be it.
At this point you may be wondering what the blimminy flip this has to do with Wales, but bear with me, I’m getting there, but in all too roundabout a way.
So, in Prescott we were the guests of the Havasupai Indians, on whose land the hotel had been built. We were invited to take a look at the casinos it boasted and were given the choice of the upstairs, upmarket casino, or the downstairs, more, ahem, down to earth model.
Being hacks we chose the budget version and what an eye opener it was. If I ever had ambitions of becoming a high-stakes, high-roller they died the moment I set foot there.
The very polite, but also very firm and very burly security at the door told us we would not be taking any photographs there. And you could understand why as soon as you took a look at the clientele.
This may have been owned by a native american tribe, but they certainly were not its target market for punters. No, the people sitting at its vast ranks of slot machines were exclusively elderly, white Americans.
It was the Indians’ revenge. They might have been killed, driven from their homes and shepherded into reservations that are dwarfed by the ranges they used to roam, but now they’re extracting a payment from the descendants of those who did it to them.
The superannuated gamblers were assisted in their endeavours by a steady stream of waitresses who would get them drinks and giant cups of change – anything to keep them pumping the machines with their cash.
And this is where we finally get round to North Wales. You see, up until then the only experience I’d really had of gambling of this nature had been the arcades of the coastal resorts. And you have to say that tacky as they may be, when it comes to fleecing customers they are rank amateurs compared to the slot palaces of the USA.
And now the arcades of our coastal resorts claim they’re in trouble. The latest gambling laws mean they’ve had to reduce the minimum stake in their high-paying machines, from £2 to £1. And by high-paying we’re talking £500 – hardly the life-changing sums that people play the Vegas slots for.
Part of me would not mourn the disappearance from our seafronts of the cheap and not very cheerful arcades. But that’s just my own snobbery and that shouldn’t determine how people spend their time at the seaside.
No-one lost their home solely playing the seaside slot machines. But plenty have done just that in Vegas.
If the seaside arcades go to the wall it isn’t as if there isn’t something replacing them. This government’s inexplicable love of the gambling industry has ensured that casinos and online gambling are flourishing and taking money off people like they have never done before.
Spare me the blather about them being regulated and having to pay out a certain amount. The classic tactic of the card sharp, divert attention to one hand so they don’t see the devilry the other is doing.
So if it’s a choice between Vegas and the delights of Rhyl, give me Rhyl anyday, but don’t expect Labour to be standing at the next slot machine.

A CALAMITOUS piece of diary planning means that when Ireland are being put to the sword by the unstoppable, rampaging juggernaut that is the Wales rugby team, I will not be watching live.
House guests, non-rugby fans, will have arrived and they’ll need entertaining.
Of course, I could suggest that they might like an explanation of the intricacies of rucking and mauling, forward passes and just what in tarnation is going on at the lineout. It’s one of those suggestions that is greeted by a frosty glance from Mrs B and she carries on talking as if I’d never spoken.
So, do I secrete a radio about my person and try to explain away my delighted little dances as mere high spirits.
Or do I tape it and then try to avoid all media that might reveal in advance the result?
One things is certain, if we do the Irish then with France playing the sort of headless, attack-at-all-costs rugby we used to be guilty of, then the Grand Slam is our for the taking.
Then, and only then, might the BBC accept that the story, just for once, is not about England.

ONE quick question, or rather two.
How much did it cost to establish a news black-out of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan? Wouldn’t that money have been better spent better-equippping the soldiers who are already out there.
The MoD, a ministry famed for getting things totally and utterly wrong, has once again shown itself to be run by dullards of the first water.
They have treated Harry as if his demise would be a psychological blow to the nation so dire that we would never recover and would have to wave the white flag to the beastly Taliban.
Utter nonsense, I’m sure he would be the first to say that his death would be no worse than the death of any other soldier serving there.
And as for the argument that he will draw fire and put comrades at risk – well, only if he goes into battle carrying a big notice that says: “Here’s Harry”
He should have been sent along with his regiment, no special measures, and spend the money and effort on the news blackout properly equipping him and his fellow soldiers for the job they’re doing.

Column, February 26, 2008

THERE’S no doubt that North Wales needs a prison.
There’s also no doubt that the UK doesn’t need any more at all.
That might seem contradictory, but given the state of the prison system, which is not just creaking at the seams, it’s burst and overflowed into police cells, it’s not as daft as it sounds.
It’s hard to have a sensible debate about this because you are dealing with convicts and from the time of Elizabeth Fry onwards prison reform has always had to contend with the impulse to lock ‘em up and throw away the key.
There will always be a few who would like our prisons to resemble an oubliette, but unless we wish to return to mediaeval standards of human rights we have to look to creating something a little more enlightened.
The fact is that the vast majority of prisoners do not actually go there for a long time. Whether they should spend longer there than they do is a different debate and one I’ll come onto in a while, but for most convicts are looking at a few months or a very few years behind bars before they are released back into the community.
The question is, what do we want to have happened to them in that intervening period for our, not their, benefit?
Now, I would suggest that for our, not their benefit, it would be best if they had not become a more hardened criminal, chock-full of criminal ideas garnered from their cellmates and just bursting to try them out on an unwitting public.
I think it would be best that prison is unpleasant enough that they don’t wish to return, but equips them with the tools to make sure they don’t. And by that I mean the social skills to make themselves a law-abiding citizen, not a more successful criminal.
And this is where a prison in North Wales comes into it. At the moment convicts are carted off to Liverpool or elsewhere, where it’s not as easy for family to visit. Research has shown that prisoners given a reason to want to be out are less likely to end up back inside and one good reason not to get banged up is your family. You aren’t given that motivation to go straight if your family can’t visit you.
As you read this you have to resist the temptation to say: “Well, they committed the crime, they’ve brought in on themselves.” They have, but I don’t see anything in the penal code that says wives, partners and children should be punished as well.
So putting prisoners closer to home makes sense if we are trying to encourage them to want to be at home rather than in prison.
But notwithstanding that, what we definitely don’t want is an extra prison in North Wales just to accommodate the vastly-expanding UK prison population.
The UK now has the largest prison population in Europe and last week it reached the crucial 82,000 mark where there were more prisoners than there were cells for them to go in.
All this might, might, just be justified if we had the most peaceful, law-abiding streets in Europe as a result of banging up so many of our citizens. But we haven’t.
The Magistrates’ Association was squawking in protest at a gentle suggestion by Jack Straw that they should look at alternatives to sending people to prison. But we send too many people to prison for short stretches for ‘acquisitive’ crimes like minor theft and fraud, and not anywhere near long enough for crimes of violence.
Petty thieves and fraudsters, pain in the backside as they are, should not be sent to prison where they just cost us more money. People who resort to violence should know that in all likelihood they will spend a long time behind bars.
We can’t go on like we are, jailing so many people that the prisons are so-overcrowded we are forced to release people early when some of them should definitely be staying behind bars.
And a North Wales prison is a good idea if it helps cut North Wales re-offending rates. It must not just become a dumping ground for an ever-growing prison population that is doing nothing to actually cut crime.

IT was a bit odd the way the BBC reported the weekend’s rugby.
It wasn’t the weekend when Wales went top of the table, the only team unbeaten so far and with a massive points advantage should it come down to that.
No, no, it was the weekend when England got themselves back in contention.
Odd that.
But it did nothing to dampen the joy of watching two Italians make the mistake of thinking they had caught Shane Williams, only to be left grasping at thin air as he crossed the try-line.
To explain how he managed this you need to consult that famous fan Welsh rugby, Albert Einstein (fact, would I lie to you?). It’s all to do with relativity.
You see Shane is so quick, he’s actually faster than light, so what the Italians were grabbing at was the image of Shane, while the real Shane was several yards ahead of himself. Simple really.
You want to know why he looks so young? He’s moving so fast he’s stretching time – a year for mere mortals is a day for Shane Williams.
Shane Williams is so fast, when he turns the bedroom light off, he’s in bed before it goes dark.
Speeding bullets want to grow up to be as fast as Shane Williams.
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, but only because it wants to catch Shane Williams.
When Shane nips down to the shops, he’s so fast he meets himself on the way back, and he can help himself carry the shopping.
There’s gale-force winds, hurricane-force winds, and shane-force winds – that’s when you’re in trouble.
Other rugby-players are dial-up, Shane Williams is broadband.
Shane’s so fast that if you look carefully during matches, you’ll see his shadow on panting on the sidelines, taking a breather.
Roll on Ireland .

Column, February 19, 2008

THERE are any number of ways of knowing you’ve hit rock bottom.
When a drink with friends involves a park bench and the sort of tipple that could double as paint stripper; waking up in police cells; or when the only callers that ever darken your door are the bailiffs.
As low as those predicaments all seem, there is one situation that is the true nadir of human existence, a pit of Stygian gloom so murky only the glare of TV studio lights can penetrate it – an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show.
If you have yet to sample the delights this daytime TV show, and surely it can only be viewed by the clinically obese who cannot make it to the remote to turn over, then see if any of the following apply to you:
· My brother has at least seven children and is still sleeping around
· Can you prove your son's my brother?
· I'll prove I didn't abort another man's baby - the results
· You stopped me aborting my baby...please let's be a family again
· Confess you're a cheat or I'll prove I'm the father of your eldest daughter
· Deserted by my dad every time he gets a new girlfriend
These are just a few of the titles of Mr Kyle’s shows and yes, I was confused as you were by the injunction to “confess you’re a cheat or I’ll prove I’m the father of your eldest daughter.”
The titles give a small hint of just how chaotic the lives are of those that appear on what passes for daytime entertainment nowadays. Like a car crash, its viewers know it’s going to be messy, but all the same they can’t help rubbernecking at the devastation of the lives of others.
When Jean-Paul Sartre said hell is other people I’m guessing he didn’t know Jeremy Kyle would one day be selling ringside seats to witness the fact.
One who surely must be contemplating the wisdom of appearing on the show is Craig Platt, of Kinmel Bay . He had agreed to appear because his wife Jane’s ex-boyfriend had wanted to find out who the father of her baby was – yes, I’m lost again too.
Platt, eaten up by jealousy following the show, according to his barrister, ended up pointing a loaded air rifle at his wife, who escaped through the bathroom window.
The producers of Kyle’s show, of course, deny that the parading of his wife’s alleged infidelities before the nation – or rather that dysfunctional portion of the nation who watch the show – had anything to do with his decision to chase his wife round the home with loaded air weaponry. He willingly took part and neither he nor anyone else involved was manipulated, they said.
Perhaps not, but there are a number of ways in which relationships under strain can be patched up. Airing your dirty laundry in front of a studio full of whooping morons and a wider moronic TV audience is probably not at the top of Relate’s list of marriage guidance techniques.
Of course, my sympathies for Platt probably end at the point at which he decided a reasonable way out of his difficulties was to pick up his trusty air rifle. But nonetheless, you do have to ask yourself whether his incarceration, at taxpayers’ expense, might have been avoided if he hadn’t been humiliated in front of millions.
It is like the Bedlam of old, where people would pay to look at the lunatics, only now it’s not the mad who are on display for entertainment, it’s the sad, ill-educated, inarticulate underclasses, who have to turn to Jeremy Kyle, God help them, to express their rage at the pathetic misfortunes visited upon them in their lives.
Everyone needs someone to listen to their woes, and maybe Kyle, as he says on his website, is a good listener, doing what any mate would try to do. Only your mate doesn’t listen to you in front of TV cameras. Your mate doesn’t have researchers working on your problems. Your mate doesn’t enquire, as the Kyle show website does, as to whether a lie detector test would save your relationship.
No, my guess is that if your relationship has reached the stage where it is suitable material for Jeremy Kyle, then it’s time to call in the lawyers; start divvying up the CD collection and decided who gets custody of the dog, because you’ve reached the point of no return.

THE British Army don’t mind being outgunned.
In fact, while building an Empire that spanned the globe, most of the time they did so in the face of overwhelming odds.
One who had to face them said the British infantry was the best in the world, and it’s a good job there are so few of them.
They have, for centuries, fought our battles in foreign fields and many of them were buried there before we decided to bring them home for funerals.
But what we should mind, what we should mind very much indeed, is servicemen and women putting their lives at risk and being sent into battle without at least a decent amount of kit with which to fight our battles.
Last week yet another coroner laid into the parsimonious incompetence of the Ministry of Defence that was sending Paras into battle against overwhelming numbers without night vision equipment so they could see who they were fighting.
Inevitably, one of their number, Captain James Philippson, was killed in a firefight with the Taliban. The Paras had repeatedly asked for night vision equipment to be provided, and scandalously, even after Captain Philippson’s death, the kit still was not delivered to the troops.
Here’s a quick question: Do any government ministers have a son or daughter serving in Afghanistan or Iraq ?
I’m guessing the answer is no. Do you think the under-equipping of our services might be solved overnight if they did? Answers to that one on a postcard to 10 Downing Street .