Friday, February 25, 2005

Column, February 22, 2005

SO it’s goodbye to all that.
No more tally-ho or view halloo, whatever they may mean.
No more stirrup cups, and men in pink (what you and I call red) jackets, or hunting horns ringing out across the fields on a frosty morning.
And who will mourn their passing?
Well, despite what I’ve written in the past, I will. Because somewhere along the way the hunting ban ceased to be about preventing cruelty and instead became an exercise in the curtailment of liberty.
We’re not talking fundamental freedoms here, nowhere in the Human Rights Act does it enshrine your right to go chasing a fox on horseback with a pack of hounds.
But the hunting ban is about a parliamentary majority, made up primarily of Labour MPs from urban seats, imposing its will on people who live in the countryside and who primarily elect MPs sitting on the Opposition benches.
Now, MPs make laws all the time that will be unpopular with sections of the community – need I mention the Poll Tax, which was pretty well reviled by everyone. But this ban seems peculiar in its single-minded determination to give those in the Shires a good kicking because the metrocentric Labour MPs have the means to do so for the first time in their party’s history.
This is not about animal cruelty, because, as was apparent after the ban came into effect, foxes are just as much in danger now as they were before. More so, in fact, because it’s harder to outrun a well-aimed shotgun than it is a pack of hounds.
And if new Labour are so concerned about animal welfare where is the Act of Parliament banning factory farming of chickens. Where is the law to stop animals being pumped full of growth promoters and antibiotics all in the name of a quick buck for huge agri-business conglomerates?
Nowhere to be seen because those very companies produce cheap rubbish masquerading as food, and there are no votes to be had in putting up the price of chicken breasts on the supermarket shelves.
For many animals raised for consumption, life, if it can be called that, is nasty, brutish and its only mercy is that it is short. So Labour MPs complacently patting themselves on the back having eliminated the ‘cruelty’ of the fox hunt, ought perhaps to take a trip to a shed used to raise broiler chickens.
Of course the Countryside Alliance and others in favour of the hunts do themselves no favours in their choice of spokesmen. They hit upon a bright idea with their poster campaign showing the likes of a nurse who enjoys the hunt, trying to prove that it was not just the preserve of the landed gentry.
Why then do they insist on fronting up their campaigns with red-faced double-barrelled hoorahs who confirm every cliché there is about huntspeople?
And it is apparent that the hunts have a fairly unpleasant thuggish following too, and they might win more friends among the undecided if their whippers-in kept these under control as well.
Still just because you don’t like the cut of someone’s gib, that’s no reason to go banning their way of life. Hunting has been going on for a long time in this country and it played its part for better or worse, in shaping rural communities. You don’t just do away with it on the whim of city MPs who never set foot in the country.
Of course hunting involves some cruelty. But then so does angling, and I wonder whether New Labour will consider banning that next.
I suspect there will be much muttering, shuffling of feet and averted glances at the thought of the electoral suicide involved in trying to ban the biggest participatory sport in the UK. So it’s not about principles is it? It’s about what’s politically possible. Metropolitan Labour MPs were ideologically opposed to hunting and the ‘class’ of people they perceived were involved in it, so they banned it, because they could.
And the League Against Cruel Sports should save us its shrill certainty now it has achieved its aim, no-one likes a sore loser, but a smug winner is even more irritating.
And what of the sabs? Just to digress, I was covering a hunt once, and I thought the smell of the pack of hounds was bad…until a van full of sabs emptied out.
Do you think the hunt saboteurs will quietly go home once hunting is no more. Will they hang up their balaclavas and start using soap for the first time in their lives?
I’m guessing perhaps not, I’m guessing that angling is next on the list and they won’t be happy until everyone complies with their lentil-eating ideology.
And let’s face it, the hunt ban was Blair’s sop to the party for its lap-dog support for the war in Iraq. The Labour party has saved the lives of a few foxes in exchange for the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis.
It would make Keir Hardie so proud.

IT’S a long, long time since I went to Glanllyn, the Urdd centre on the banks of Llyn Tegid.
So I can’t comment on whether it is a hotbed of nationalist sentiment or, as it was in my day, a rather fun way of promoting Welsh, although the food was terrible, but then they did make us cook for ourselves.
But I have to say that Cardiff’s Fitzalan High School seems to have got the wrong end of the stick in accusing if of peddling racist comments.
I’m no expert in poetry, but when a verse talks of ‘Welsh’ food like coq au vin and curry being better then frogs’ legs, snails and Bombay Duck, I think a hefty dose of irony is being served up.
For the slow of understanding – coq au vin and curry aren’t Welsh.

AS you shiver in the sub-zero temperatures of this week, take a little cheer in the fact that it has been presented to you entertainingly.
John Ketley was on the radio complaining about the cult of celebrity that has taken over in weather forecasting (although few of them, like him, have had a song named after them) and the exaggeration of their forecasts.
I’m bugged by their desire to give weather a personality. This morning as I drove to work some witless woman was talking about ‘organised snow.’
What can she have been think of? Organised by who, what fiendish mind is behind this sinister organisation of all those flakes.
You hear it all the time, cloud ‘pushing it’s way in’, rain ‘marching in from the West’, and sun ‘poking its way through the clouds.’
I don’t know what’s more irritating, the personality of the weather, or the ‘personalities’ presenting it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Column, February 15, 2005

THERE are a lot of things you need when you have heart trouble.
The best possible care for a start, better diet, no cigarettes and less stress.
I’m no expert in cardiac care, but I’m willing to stick my neck out on this one. I’m guessing that a 200-mile round trip for tests is probably not high on the treatment options that heart specialists have at their disposal.
When it comes to quality care, they probably don’t say: “No what you need is a nice trip down the A55, then the M56, then a nice sit in a Manchester traffic jam just to get you good and wound-up.”
I’m thinking that they might prefer another treatment regime for their patients. And yet this is exactly what the shower masquerading as the Welsh Assembly Government have foisted upon the people of North Wales.
There’s a unit in Bangor perfectly capable of administering angiograms, it was built just three years ago at a cost of £1m, but now its having to do other work because the Assembly won’t give the funds to carry out the tests there.
So into your cars you get, and pray your test doesn’t fall on a Friday when just to compound your misery you will be spending the journey home in the stationary queues of holidaymakers travelling to the North Wales coast.
In Cardiff city centre stands a statue of Nye Bevan, architect of the NHS, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been dragged down by the lackeys of the Welsh Assembly Government so intent are they on ripping up his legacy and depriving us of whatever benefits we might think a lifetime contributing to National Insurance might entitle us to. Not very much it would appear. Not a dentist certainly, despite the vain promises of Tony Blair, and certainly not heart tests on your doorstep, despite the obvious detrimental effect a 200-mile journey is going to have on someone with a heart condition.
Would anyone else in the country put up with this sort of thing? Would people in London happily travel to Birmingham for something as routine as an angiogram? I’m suspecting that if you started suggesting to Londoners that they would have to set off up the M1 for their heart test, heads would roll at the Deprtment of Health.
But in poor old second class Wales shuffling patients around the country like just so many cattle has become par for the course. It doesn’t matter if they complain because Welsh health is so poor the chances are they won’t be around for too long to moan eh?
Of course there’s a glib answer and that is that a unit for the whole region is being built at Glan Clwyd, but that won’t be open until 2006. And let’s face it the Bangor unit was only built three years ago and yet its now not getting the funding it needs to carry out the tests. It’s all very well building new facilities, but if you won’t fund the staff to put in them to do the work then they’re small comfort to the people who need them.
But then this is the latest mess with health that the assembly has made. Jane Hutt presided over the utter fiasco of waiting lists until she was shown the door by Rhodri Morgan.
I wonder if the Assembly is keeping track of the numbers of people suffering heart conditions in North Wales who die awaiting treatment and whether the journeys to Manchester cause a rise in mortality.
When the NHS was set up to care for us from the cradle to the grave I don’t think it was envisaged that it would shuffle us between the two quite as quickly as the Assembly is apparently planning.

FURTHER to the, not entirely surprising, revelation that Jesus had Welsh blood, in last week’s column, Iolo Griffiths, e-mails to remind me that Wales has more holy connections than that.
“You might also be aware of the allegation a couple of years ago that the Virgin Mary was buried in Llanerchymedd (perhaps she was visiting relatives!). King Arthur is allegedly descended from Joseph of Arimathea, so perhaps he could have been eligible to play rugby for Israel!
Do I believe these claims? As a born-again Christian I am very sceptical about something which has such tenuous historical and biblical support, but you have to admit this theory is quite fascinating, even if it is far-fetched.”
Far-fetched or not it’s all beginning to add up. Your head positively spins with the possibilities. Of course the clues have been there all along haven’t they.
Wales – God’s own country, where we speak, wait for it, the language of heaven. Coincidence? I think not.
Any publisher daft enough, sorry, willing to pay me a stonking great advance to cobble together the above into a farrago of cod mythology and conspiracy theory, please contact me at the above e-mail address.

I HAVE a theory regarding the stunning success of the Wales rugby team, who made short work of the Italians on Saturday.
Our neighbours appear to be ready to place an order for spoons, wooden, one for every ticket holder at Twickers, but I digress and intrude into grief so back to my theory.
The more like a boyband they look, the better they do. Gavin Henson is all spiky hair and shiny boots. Now the new hero is Shane Williams whose disturbingly-coloured hair is reminiscent of some exotic bird of paradise, a fast one at that.
Where the theory falls to the floor is in the pack, who, with the best will in the world, will not be adorning many a teenage girl’s bedroom wall. And it would be a brave man who suggested they start shaving their legs like Henson – if Adam Jones started now he wouldn’t be finished in time for the Stade de France.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Column, February 8, 2005

A NEW picture hangs on my wall this morning.
It shows Mathew Tait wondering just when Gavin Henson might let him back down on the ground.
Henson looks like he’s quite happy to carry Tait around under his arm for the rest of the afternoon. “Don’t worry about this one boys, I’ll just keep him here, and I’ll tackle at the same time, oh and I’ll kick the winner too.”
February is a miserable month, none of the excess of Christmas and not quite into the promise of Spring, but Saturday was a day to bask in the warm glow of an England defeat.
Not just a defeat mind you, a performance in which they were outclassed in pretty much every aspect of play and even their most devoted fans went away counting themselves lucky not to have lost by more than they did.
You have to admire the Welsh rugby fan though, if this had been football they would have long ago lost their appetite for seeing the men in red beaten by a white tide of percentage rugby.
But they have kept the faith, turning up every time, often more in hope than expectation. But on Saturday you could sense that something was going to happen.
The national anthem has never sounded more like a call to arms, an outpouring of raw emotion, a collective expression of the hopes and desires of those thousands assembled there. In those few verses they did their bit, and what a bit it was.
It has become hard to watch Wales in recent years, such is the promise, only to be followed by bitter disappointment. But then Gavin Henson tackled Tait, not just tackled him, but gave a perfect demonstration of physics and what happens when you hit someone with just the right amount of force (a lot) and at the right point – they go backwards.
You began to sense that the tectonic plates of rugby were shifting as quickly as the rather shoddily placed turf was beneath the scrum.
England were a ‘team in transition’ we were told – management-speak for ‘not as good as they used to be’. Wales played direct, fast rugby and were wonderfully assisted by the fact that England took five minutes a time to extract the ball from a ruck. I could swear I saw some of the Wales back line having a sly fag while Matt Dawson tried in vain to extricate the ball from amongst his players. You can forgive them for wanting to keep the ball in the ruck though, as long as it was in there they were safe, the Welsh couldn’t run at them with it.
And while the London-based press has made much of Henson’s gelled hair, shaved legs and silver boots, the opposition can mock as much as they want, it’s hard to laugh when he’s broken past you ball in hand on yet another surging run. It’ even harder to laugh when he’s holding you up waist high and pointing your head at the ground – ask Mathew Tait.
In a way it is sad that we invest so much in defeating England. It is, perhaps, not entirely healthy to feel this way about one match. Indeed if you ask a lot of people what’s more important, winning the six nations or beating England, many will settle for a victory over the English.
It is as if it is payback for all that has been done to us over the years. Instead of undoing those wrongs, we settle for dominance on the sporting field. Throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s it was a given that the English would get a drubbing here and most times at Twickers too.
But then they even took that away from us – until Saturday.
Welsh rugby has had too many false dawns and this may be one of them, but let’s enjoy the sun while it lasts and look forward to Saturday and the Stadio Flaminio.

THERE is not a lot you can say to oppose the head of Ysgol Frongoch in Denbigh in his quest to clean up the language of a minority of his pupils.
These foul-mouthed youngsters have caused consternation in the streets, demonstrating quite how wide their vocabulary has become.
The head, Gareth Davies, blames TV in part for the problem.
While applauding his aims, you can’t help but feel he is a little Canute-like, as the tide of bad language laps gently around his knees.
Having a good swear is part and parcel of growing up. Some of us grow out of it, some of us do not (and it would appear, go on to work in newsrooms up and down the land)
The worst thing you can do is react to it. Once they know they’ve shocked you, they’ll use it again and again.
I have to confess to having form for this myself, having been hauled over the coals by Mrs Thompson, my teacher at Ewloe Green CP for gratuitous use of the f-word on the playing field.
She inquired whether I could find the word in my dictionary and, sad to say, the Pocket Oxford let me down badly, containing no mention of it. This, she said, showed that it was not acceptable language.
Oh to have had the large Concise volume in my desk – the word would have been there in all its glory, I could have given her definition, etymology and a host of examples of usage. An opportunity missed.
Ban all swearwords and you add to their mystique. It would be better to teach appropriate usage, although it would be a brave headmaster indeed who added that to the curriculum.

AND so, as promised, to the website that shows that Jesus was Welsh.
Well, it shows that his grandmother was Welsh, which would have made him Welsh enough to step out onto the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, giving us two players capable of walking on water.
I came across this little gem while reading a website called “The Guild of Glyndwr” - - which carried a list of Welsh claims to fame.
And down there at number 7 is the following “According to the latest research, Jesus' grandmother (Mary's mother) was Welsh!” Exclamation mark indeed.
It kind of makes you wonder what the previous seven claims to fame were, that this should only be number 7 – but they are much more mundane – St David’s is the smallest city in Europe and so on.
But back to Our Lord’s grandma. This could be big. I’ve seen what Dan Brown has done with this sort of gubbins and I’m thinking the ‘Dai Vinci Code’ could make my fortune (see what I did there, Da Vinci, Dai Vinci? Forget it, pearls before swine)
Anyway, the only ‘research’ I could find was on a very strange site called ‘The Royal House of Britain’ which seems to indicate that Jesus’s grandmother was called Bianca.
There the trail goes cold though, where in Wales Bianca was meant to come from I’m not sure. It sound like she might be more at home in Albert Square to be perfectly honest.
If any readers more learned in the Scriptures than me (that is, all of you) would care to enlighten me, a small share in the ensuing royalties from my international bestseller is yours.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Column, February 1, 2005

I WONDER when it was that Wales became the international yardstick of things that are quite big?
What did the ancient Greeks do when they stumbled upon another of their interminable islands and needed to report its size to their fellow citizens?
As Alexander conquered vast tracts of land how was their area expressed?
Until Wales was mapped and its size decided the world was stumbling round in the dark for a handy comparison.
It’s no use using the number of football pitches something is as big as, once you’ve got past half a dozen or so it’s meaningless.
No, when it comes to size, your object is only truly on the map when it’s been compared to the size of Wales.
I’ve mentioned this before, particularly the insidious creep of countries like Belgium as a measure of size – a step too far towards metrication and wholly to be resisted.
Reader Alison Jones e-mails with the latest use of the size of Wales:
“From time to time we see Wales used as a handy comparison to give an idea of the size of something. You, yourself have commented on this rather questionable habit. Why not turn it into a competition to see who can find the most ludicrous example. I would like to start the ball rolling with something heard on BBC2 last week. The programme was 'Sweeney Investigates.....Roman Abramovitch' Apparently, Siberia has an oilfield the size of Wales.”
A whole oilfield the size of Wales? Once the English discovered a coalfield the size of Wales which they exploited for centuries – ah, no, that was Wales.
It has to be said that at least Alison’s oilfield is something useful.
Usually the things that are the size of Wales are rather bad – such as asteroids poised to plummet into Earth extinguishing all life; or areas of rainforest that are burnt down every day; causing global warming which leads to icebergs breaking off Antarctica which are…you’re ahead of me aren’t you…the size of Wales.
The irony is that such is Wales’s success in cornering the market for expressions of ‘ooh isn’t that big’ that it is used the world over, often by people who could not even point to Wales on a map, never mind know how big it actually is.
So let’s look at few examples of just how useful Wales has become to people who have found an object 20,000km² but don’t know to tell people just how big that is.
Well as I said, bad news can dominate, so when an earthquake struck Gujarat in 2001, it was almost inevitable that the area affected, as GlobalEye, the website of the Department of International Development, confirmed, would the size of Wales.
The Environment Investigation Agency was very concerned a few years back when forest fires threatened Indonesia’s Orangutans, particularly given the area of forest that was burning down – yep, big as Wales.
The battlefields of Normandy covered an area the size of Wales.
In the USA, where they are a good deal more tolerant of GM crops than we are, an area the size of Wales is under cultivation growing mutant veg.
When the Government was spicing up its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, much was made of the fact that Iraq was said to have enough chemical warfare agents to contaminate an area the size of Wales. That’s a lot of chemical warfare agent, strange how none of it was about when we actually invaded.
We do get our revenge now an then for being used as the bearer of bad tidings – the Campaign to Protect Rural England calculates that the tranquil countryside lost in England over the past 30 years is about the size of its neighbour.
But perhaps the use of Wales to portray the size of whatever nemesis is approaching, be it deforestation or asteroids, is all for the good. There is no such thing as bad publicity and the use of Wales keeps us there in the public consciousness. No-one after all, talks about icebergs the size of England now do they?
So perhaps we should embrace it and use it ourselves in our day-to-day measurements.
If you want to, the very handy website can help you do just that with an online calculator to tell you how many Waleses your object is as big as.
So let’s look for a bright side in all this.
Is anyone out there using Wales as a comparison with something good?
Well, historians looking for the fabled utopian land of Shangri La now believe it is a remote part of China that was once known as Muli, and you can guess for yourselves how big it is.
But my own favourite usage comes from the Scotch Whisky Review website which informs us that Diageo has some 7m barrels of the stuff maturing – enough to flood an area the size of Wales. What a way to go.

IT is, as I said last week, rather galling to be told a Welsh accent holds you back when most English people don’t know a Welsh accent in all its varied intonations.
But Jean Parry writes in with some encouraging experiences of her own:
“I enjoyed your article today in the Daily Post. Coming from Flintshire I have the same problem. Some people think I have a scouse accent, which is nonsense.
Some years ago we were on the Norfolk Broads and we visited Norwich. A lady stopped us she was doing some kind of survey.
Straight away she asked us were we from Flintshire, I was very impressed and then she said “You’re both from the Mold area.” You can imagine our surprise.
Apparently she was researching local dialects and she worked in Mold for a time and pinpointed us immediately.
That was a good experience because I knew then that we had a regional accent.
A similar experience happened to us in New Zealand last year.
When we were in Christchurch a waitress asked us which part of North Wales we were from and this occurred in another part of New Zealand.
It’s a shame that some people (English in particular) don't pick up these nuances.”

ONE of the delights of the world wide web is the truly barmy sites that get set up.
People who one had to confine themselves to shouting their lunatic views on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park now have a potential audience of millions at the click of a mouse.
And it is the backwaters of the Net that you find some of the strangest sites.
This week I was beside myself with glee to find a website that proves Jesus was Welsh.
Well, if not quite Welsh, because after all we know he wasn’t born here, then Welsh enough to play for Wales.
More of this, quite frankly, divine website next week.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Here's how it will work

My column appears in the Daily Post every Tuesday. You can buy it at newsagents throughout North Wales.

For some reason the column is getting archived by US companies who charge for it - although who knows why anyone would want to pay for access to it, but there you go.

But I object to a company charging for my stuff on the web, so I'll be publishing it here free every Wednesday.


Well, here I am on the old interweb thingy.

Hope this works.

Column to follow shortly.