Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Column, January 16, 2007

THOUGH it has to be said that Plaid Cymru has kept us entertained in recent months, I’m beginning to suspect there’s a thin thread of genius in amongst all the madness.
You have to admit some of their japes have been most amusing – sonic logos (nope, still not a bloomin’ clue), giving up our armed forces, and most recently a free laptop for every child in Wales to play grisly video games or download porn, (alright, I should point out for boring old accuracy’s sake that games and porn do not actually feature in any of Plaid’s announcements of this gem of an idea, but I suspect I know what a 16-year-old boy might do with a laptop given half a chance)
But as the elections loom and the government wheels out its big guns to warn the four horsemen of the apocalypse will canter across the land if we dare out a tick in any box but the right box (Labour), Plaid has pulled off a neat trick.
Up in Scotland their daubing themselves in woad, doing a Mel Gibson and trying to break up the union. (alright, alright, accuracy and all that – there’s been no woad as yet and no Scots nationalists have been hung drawn and quartered and had their head put on a spike – but there’s time yet, it could be a rough campaign.)
Up there they want their independence, or as Mel would have put it while whirling his claymore: Freeeeeeedommmm.
Down here Plaid has taken a little more of a pragmatic stance, if one less likely to stir the heart and inspire a rush down the A55 to take back Chester.
Plaid wants “to promote the constitutional advancement of Wales with a view to attaining full national status for Wales within the European Union.”
What? I know, I don’t know what it means either. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the genius of it.
Peter Hain was making much of the threat of nationalists and Tories to our beloved union this week, perhaps echoing the thoughts of Gordon Brown who’ll be holding the reins quite soon if things go as disastrously bad in the local elections under Blair as they well might.
But what nationalists is he talking about then?
Because Plaid aren’t intent on splitting up the union, they want full nation status within the European Union.
And what pray might that mean? No more Westminster taxes (and no more cashback either)?
Our own navy, army and air force, or are Plaid really going to disband the Welsh regiments and hope that no-one can ever find their way into the Irish Sea to threaten our shores? That’s probably not that bad an idea, because if CNN and Europe are anything to go by, one thinks we’re a bit of England anyway, according to a map they produced, the other had us not existing at all when they managed to produce a map that stopped at the Severn.
Plaid’s vestigial links to a movement for independence have withered the longer they have sat in the Assembly, tasting what little power they have down there and realising that that’s about as far as they’re going to push it.
They’ll get not further as a movement for independence because there’s absolutely no-one who wants independence anyway.
If they campaign on an independence ticket they know they will leave people so profoundly unbothered that they risk killing the election campaign dead in its tracks.
Up in Scotland they’re all fire and brimstone about cutting their ties with England , until, perhaps, they realise their oil and gas is running out as fast as their people are running south to get jobs.
Here in Wales we occasionally don’t like being patronised by our larger neighbour, but all in all we’re slightly better off than we were under previous Tory administrations.
And ‘slightly better off’ is not the stuff that inspires a revolution. Plaid are not the bogey men Peter Hain would have you believe, but without that ethos of independence running through what they do, it’s hard to see what they are at all.

THERE is a particular to being a politician and that is the picking of the pointless fight.
Firstly, it gets your name in print.
Secondly, if you pick the right fight, it’s one that no-one will expect you to win, but, even better, one that they can’t check whether you’ve won or not.
Thirdly it shows you sticking up for your constituents, even if they were never really in any danger anyway.
Witness the brave words issuing from Ceredigion MP Mark Williams over Ofcom’s ban on junk food advertising.
Now, this ban was aimed at stopping burger chains hypnotising our children into eating burgers as big as their heads, but in defining junk food, Ofcom have caught up cheesemakers, because cheese has got a lot of fat in it. Well, sorry to break this to you cheesemakers, but it has. You try making fat-free cheese and you would be selling big blocks of nothing.
North and Mid-Wales is home to many cheese dairies, but correct me if I’m wrong – and as father of a three-year-old who is just beginning to fall under the influence of the idiot lantern, I don’t think I am – I don’t remember many North Wales dairies hawking their delicious wares on prime time TV.
That is unless their product was the slice of gloopy cheese in a cheeseburger being foisted upin our hoodied youth by an American megaburger chain.
I can’t see the boards of directors of the aforementioned Welsh dairies glumly looking at their sales figures and saying: “If only we could lavish millions on TV adverts and nab the slots in children’s hour, they’d be pestering their mum to slip half a kilo of our traditional farmhouse-matured cheddar in with the crisps and cola. We’d be quids in, if it wasn’t for that pesky Ofcom."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Column, January 9, 2007

I DON’T think the Aston Hill has ever featured in postcards depicting the great landscapes of Wales .
As Welsh hills and mountains go it is way, way down on the list of those that have won our country’s reputation for wild, unspoilt beauty.
If you covered it in tarmac and put a motorway up it, no-one would really miss it. Hang on, that’s just what they want to do?
My own interest in this small unsung corner of Wales is the fact that if you look to the left while heading up that hill you might just catch a glimpse of the window of the bedroom formerly occupied by your truly.
I grew up within a stone’s throw of the Aston Hill and, sentimental as I am for my home town, even I would not claim the Aston Hill as some area of outstanding beauty that needs to be snapped up by the National Trust lest it be lost to the nation forever.
But I’m not entirely surprised that the plan to put what will be a seven-lane motorway through the place has attracted more than a few voices of opposition. In fact they face protests by not one, not two, but four action groups opposed to the plan.
What did the planners honestly expect? Did they think that it’s just such an anonymous stretch of mid-20th century housing that no-one would notice when they ran the M25 past their front doors, demolishing 50 homes in the process?
Did they kid themselves that a community that was used to the clouds produced by Shotton Steelworks and Connah’s Quay power station wouldn’t really notice the fumes from the millions of cars they would drive right past their gardens?
Perhaps they thought that ears deafened by years of traffic noise wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between four lanes and seven.
The planners have pointed out that the traffic on the Aston Hill is not local, so shutting off slip roads won’t do any harm, as most people on it want to get further into Wales anyway.
Marvellous, so the communities either side of it get all of the hazards in terms of noise and damage to health, and none of the benefits. And just who are these planners planning for pray tell? It sound to me like they’re more interested in shaving a few minutes of the journey time for the residents of Liverpool rather than looking after the best interests of the people of North Wales .
Because what happens when you run seven lanes up Aston Hill, eventually it comes to an end, and you get a bottleneck somewhere further down the A55. And then the planners there will have the bright idea of making it seven lanes wide, and so on and so on, until you’ve got seven lanes running all the way to Holyhead and straight onto the ferry for Ireland , no need to stop in Wales at all. Brilliant.
Because, utmost in all planners minds, is God forbid that anyone should be put off going in a car anywhere and the A55 must be a constant thorn in their side.
I’ve always said the A55 is the best advert for easyJet evermore. How many drivers must have sat in a traffic jam pondering the fact that the cost of the petrol they’ve wasted going nowhere could have bought an air ticket somewhere hot where the local don’t daub their road signs with slogans telling them the place isn’t for sale to the English.
But that doesn’t stop the planners mantra – more lanes, more lanes, more lanes.
Kids with asthma? Well, probably their parents fault for smoking. Accidents? Look, you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few heads, or eggs, or something like that.
Seven lanes is progress see? Well it is progress of sorts I suppose, the jams will start at Holywell now instead of Aston.
In 10 years time we will look back and wonder how they managed to turn North East Wales into a glorified motorway verge, though perhaps glorified is putting it a bit strong – just a motorway verge then.

SO that’s it then. Saddam dangling at the end of a noose and in scenes reminiscent of VE-Day a deliriously grateful Iraqi people drape garlands around the necks of the conquering Tommies and GI Joes who gave them their liberty.
What? Car bombings, suicide bombers, executions by death squads operating under the nose of the Iraqi government. Surely not.
Surely the Iraqi people will grasp liberty with open arms and we’ll be able to bring the boys (and girls nowadays) back home to Blighty.
Not a chance. It’s worse than ever and we might want to get out, but we’re going to leave an unholy mess behind if we do it as quickly as we’d like.
Which means more suicide bombs, more military funerals for more grieving families back here.
I didn’t think it was possible, but with Iraq descending into lawless chaos, people there will start missing the ‘good old days’ of their deposed and now dead, dictator.

PLAID, the mad woman in the attic of Welsh politics, has come screaming down from the loft with another pearl of a policy.
Free laptops for all high school pupils in Wales . More stunning thinking from the party that brought us the sonic logo – no, I don’t know what it’s for either, but hey, I’m not down with new technology like the kids at Plaid are, so what do I know daddy-o.
Never mind the fact that it will cost a bomb and not all children will need one – they’re having one.
The children will get to keep them for their school years. Presumably then Plaid wants them to be handed back, imagining that a laptop that has been kicking about in a school bag for five years will be use to man or beast.
Here’s another idea and Plaid can have it for free. What say we drop the laptops and buy them some books?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Column, January 2, 2007

IF you’re reading this while still gently nursing a hangover lovingly crafted from a New Year’s combination of lager, more lager, a selection of unwise cocktails and that single malt you drag down from the cupboard when you’ve truly lost the plot, you probably think Hazel Blears is a genius on a par with Arthur Guinness.
Others with a more sober eye might think Labour’s chairwoman a master of statements of the bleedin’ obvious.
In her interview with a Sunday paper she said the fact that Labour’s loosening of the licensing laws had not resulted in café culture sweeping the country, was dowjn to the fact that ‘we enjoy getting drunk.’
Later in the interview she had some stunning revelations about the religious affiliation of a bloke named Ratzinger in Rome and she revealed her in-depth knowledge of the natural world by detailing the toilet habits of bears.
I mean, given the sedate manner in which most city centre drinkers had gone about sipping a sweet sherry before reading a little poetry to each other before the relaxation of the licensing laws, it must have come as something of a kick in the teeth to the geniuses running New Labour that their reforms were greeted with, who’d have guessed, even more drinking.
Because, let’s face it, when the British are confronted with café culture abroad they greet it with open arms don’t they. Then they usually pick it up and hurl it across a previously peaceful piazza, plaza or place in a demonstration of just how much they like getting drunk.
I say they, because Mrs Blears apparently meant the English, because she said: “Maybe it's our Anglo-Saxon mentality. We actually enjoy getting drunk.”
At least I think she means the English, she cannot possibly have been assuming that we’re all Anglo-Saxon can she? I mean, I know they successfully colonized most of the country, but it was they who christened us Welsh, so most people know we haven’t quite been wiped out just yet.
And I’m not quite sure what she means by Anglo-Saxon mentality, after all, it was the Vikings who had a reputation for headlong debauchery, and even that was unjustified. The Anglo-Saxons were just ruthlessly good at colonization by weight of numbers.
In fact if anything sums up the Anglo-Saxon mentality it is the restrictive licensing laws that Labour finally swept away, although a little too hastily.
I’m old enough to remember when pubs shut in the afternoon and didn’t open their doors again until 7pm, a relic of the First World War when they didn’t want munitions workers spending all day on the beer, and let’s face it you wouldn’t want a chap who was soon to handling a contact fuse to have had a skin-full would you? But perhaps those laws weren’t entirely once we’d fought and won two wars and weren’t all building bombs to drop on the beastly Hun any more.
Those restrictive laws are more typical of Anglo-Saxon attitudes than the British reputation for drunken loutishness, which has been won for the UK by a generation of young men who have gone abroad on cheap holidays and have been unable to handle the cheap alcohol they had access to without getting into a fight.
In fact if Hazel Blears wants to point the finger at anything which causes UK youth to lose its collective head abroad she need look no further than her mate Gordon Brown (not actually sure if he’s her mate, she might be Blairite, I lose track, but then so does most of the Labour party)
On the continent young people grow up with cheap alcohol, so if they’ve got a bit of money to spend they spend it on good stuff, rather than an awful lot of cheap stuff.
In the UK we have exorbitantly high alcohol prices because of the amount of duty the Chancellor levies on it, so you never get to learn the difference between good and bad because the good stuff is beyond your price range.
So when you’re unleashed on an unsuspecting Costa, do you buy a bottle of Chateau Lafitte, or three times as much Headbanger lager as you normally drink of a Saturday night (after which, incidentally, you usually end up in a fight anyway). It’s a no-brainer, and unfortunately, so are those drinking the stuff.
“I don't know whether we'll ever get to be in a European drinking culture, where you go out and have a single glass of wine,” said Mrs Blears, who clearly has not spent too much time putting that question to the hordes of people who crowd into the stripped pine and chrome vertical drinking establishments that have thrived at the expense of traditional pubs under Labour’s misrule.
I know, and the answer is no, we won’t. Because to go out and have a single glass of weine it has to be a decent one, and a decent glass of wine, for the reasons stated above, is too expensive. So people spend their cash on a lot of cheap lager or vodka-based brews that the brewing industry, which has foisted all those chrome bars on city centers everywhere, wants to push down our throats because it is not as profitable to sell decent beer as it is to sell rubbish.
Labour says its reforms have not resulted in the mayhem people expected, but look at most city centres now and they are policed like riot zones.
The cost we will count in 10, 20, or 30 years as the liver disease statistics mount and the queues for transplants grow ever longer and victims wonder out loud on TV documentaries why they were allowed to drink themselves into an early grave.
But hey, don’t blame the Government, it’s your Anglo-Saxon mentality.
Me, I’m a Celt, and a Welsh Presbyterian at that, so New Year’s Eve falling on a Sunday, I’ll have seen it in dry.
Not a drop will have passed my lips…until midnight, at which time that bottle of single malt might have been calling.

A NEW year and good to see that my correspondents whose acquaintance with reality is only the occasional nod are setting out as they men to go on.
Ecclesiastical affairs chief “St Paul” has been in touch again. I don’t think it’s the real St Paul, but if it is I’m in real trouble. Not quite clear on just how this particular Paul was martyred, but given his persistence in telling me how wrong I am, I presume he was killed by a mob of atheist journalists.
Any road up, he’s written to tell me that I should take note that Charles Darwin “who started Evolution” repented on his death bed.
Technical point here, I don’t think Darwin claimed to have started evolution, it was a process that had been going on since the beginning of life, but hey, having a grip of the facts isn’t high on St Paul’s agenda.
So did Darwin recant?
No he blimmin’ well did not, but that doesn’t stop wall-eyed evangelists putting it about that he did.
The story originated from a woman called Lady Hope who said she visited him on his deathbed and he repented.
In actual fact, as Darwin’s daughter, who was there, confirmed, Lady Hope wasn’t there, and he did no such thing.
Now, “St Paul”, what does the Bible tell us about bearing false witness, because my shaky memory of 2nd year RE tells me it was one of 10 big no-nos?
So that’ll be you on your knees for the new year begging forgiveness won’t it?