Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Column, June 12, 2007

IF you log onto the Llanberis Mountain Rescue team’s website there’s a intriguing little button which says ‘We hope you don’t see one of these.’
When curiosity gets the better of you, you click the button and you’re rewarded with the view of an RAF Sea King enjoyed by a rescuee with the winchman descending to pluck them to safety.
And now once more the hills have been alive with the shouts of help from the English, fearing they won’t be alive much longer unless someone comes to get them out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
You can’t really blame them for getting themselves into trouble in our mountains.
After all they’ve not really got anything worthy of the name themselves. I you come from somewhere as relentlessly flat as Birmingham, then you’ve never had a chance to develop an eye for the mountains.
So you might be tempted to try to scale Wales’ highest peak wearing nothing more substantial than trainers…and a summer dress…and with no food or water…and carrying a 9-month-old baby too, just, you know, to make it a bit of a challenge.
That was the state of the latest group of would-be Boningtons who decided they were going to bag Snowdon.
They got separated with two 14-year-olds ending up headed for Crib Goch, a ridge with 1,000ft drops either side. The only thing that stopped them meeting a grisly end was the RAF helicopter that plucked them, weeping, off the mountain. That will make for an interesting ‘What I did in the Summer’ when they’re back at school won’t it ‘I attempted a knife-edge arĂȘte usually tackled by experienced mountaineers in just my gym pumps’.
The rest of the group were found by Llanberis Mountain Rescue and were walked down to safety.
After their safe descent there were the usual warnings of the woeful state of their ‘equipment’ (for equipment, read t-shirts and one dress, summer, for the basking in).
Personally, I’m not sure this message is ever going to get through. Firstly, the warnings are usually reported by local media like the Daily Post, BBC Wales and so on, which are read by people who live locally and need no warnings that the mountains are dangerous – it’s preaching to the choir.
By this time those rescued are long gone, back to the Midlands or wherever, where they’re probably none too keen to share with their neighbours just how exciting g their holiday has been – imagine the chat about the snaps – ‘This is me clinging for dear life with one hand to a crumbling ledge in a gale, this is the nice RAF winchman, and this is the inside of a Sea King, yes it is roomier than you’d think isn’t it? Lovely views too.’
So others who might venture this way and who think they might combine a bit of sunbathing and paddling with a stroll up Snowdon in their flip-flops never get the message.
I think perhaps those rescued from our mountains might do a bit more to publicise just how dangerous it can be.
How about making them take home a sign to put up outside their house – ‘Brought back safely to you courtesy of Llanberis Mountain Rescue’, or maybe a bumper sticker saying ‘My Other Car is and RAF Sea King’.
The fact is that even experienced climbers and hill-walkers find themselves in trouble, so you can’t really say that only the experienced should go up into the mountains.
And I don’t think the volunteers who turn out to rescue people would want the mountains to become some exclusive little preserve – although they might like people to go up just a tad better-equipped than the Birmingham bunch.
So the best thing we can do is keep putting out the information, and, crucially, supporting the teams who go out 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year, regardless of weather and risk to themselves to help those in trouble on the hill.
That to me is true heroism, when the easy thing to do would be to stay safe by your fireside, but instead you head out knowing that if you and people like you didn’t, then the mountains would be a far, far more dangerous place.
If you want to support Llanberis or Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue, it’s easy enough to do through their websites - or
And if you’ve got friends in Birmingham, tell them too.

THERE’S been a lot of talk about being British recently.
Reportedly Gordon Brown will be giving us a new holiday when he comes to power – Britain Day, prompting reams to be written about what we might do on Britain day to mark our Britishness.
Of course, those seeking a definition of Britishness are kind of missing the point, because there isn’t one.
Britain’s strength has been the fact that it is a nebulous alliance of nations who like nothing more than bickering with each other, unless someone threatens them, whereupon they turn on them with a united ferocity that is fearsome to behold.
No, so forget trying to sum up Britain, it means nothing to a people whose alliances probably lie with much smaller communities.
But I can offer one aspect of British life which seems to have united us all.
Weekly bin collections.
It would certainly seem that this is an issue that has got the nation’s knickers in a right bunch.
You can spy on us, detain us without charge, trample roughshod over the constitution, throw Magna Carta and habeas corpus out of the window, but mess with the binmen and you’ve got a civil war on your hands.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Column, June 4, 2007

WE are a third world nation, according to Sir Paul McCartney.
And if Macca calls you a third world country, you really ought to sit up and take note. He does know a thing or two about social deprivation, lawlessness and poverty – he’s from Liverpool.
But the rather predictable splutters of outrage at his off-the-cuff remarks to Kaiser Chiefs’ member Ricky Wilson, miss one important point – we are.
The Kaiser Chiefs are, as The Beatles were in their time, a popular beat combo, but I digress.
Let’s measure ourselves up to whether we are global superpower or international minnow shall we?
Well, one of the primary measures of whether you’re third world or first world is economic. Does the economy of Wales deserve such a tag?
Well, the third world nations are characterised as having weak economies, overly-reliant on agriculture and foreign aid and with high levels of unemployment.
Here we are a nation of near-bankrupt sheep farmers and my how we celebrate when we get Objective One status unlocking the Euro aid for our flagging economy. Objective One, in case you’ve forgotten, means you’re an area in Europe which the Eurocrats have decided is on its uppers to such an extent that billions need to be lavished on it to give it a chance of getting up to the standard of living that the rest of Europe enjoys.
Over on Anglesey they’re discussing how to get the one in four of the working population who are unemployed, back into work. Yes, one in four.
Third World nations often have their mineral wealth exploited by the developed world, having it extracted and carted off where they make more money for it.
Coal ring a bell anyone? And water still, it rains on us and its piped away to our ‘developed’ neighbour.
Now let’s consider transport. Third World nations have poor transport links that hinder their economic development.
If you’ve spent a day sitting in the jams on the A55 you might well form the conclusion that getting to Rhyl for the day was about as easy as getting to Timbuktu.
As for travelling from North to South by road or rail, all I can say is pack plenty of sandwiches, and drinks, and a tent – you’re going to be travelling for some time.
Third World nations suffer from poor health, where reasonably common ailments that are treatable in the developed world result in higher mortality.
How often does Wales plumb the depths of whatever league table there is relating to health? If a heart attack, stroke or lung disease is going to carry you off, chances are you’re living in Wales.
And Third World nations suffer as their people leave to try to find a better life elsewhere.
How many of Wales’s young people move to Manchester, Liverpool, London, or any English town where the chances of finding a decent job are hugely better than they would be if they stayed in their homeland?
Of course none of this will come as news to anyone who follows Welsh teams in England. If you’ve travelled to support Wrexham, it’s never very long before the opposition fans strike up a chant to the Latin-American rhythms of ‘Juantanamera’, shouting ‘Third world nation, you’re from a third world nation.’
It has to be said that the Wrexham fans, often sons of miners (now gone) or steelworkers (now gone) usually just shrugged and accepted the statement of the obvious.
Instead of outrage at a crass comment by an old Beatle, perhaps we would do better to examine the attitudes which prevail that still dismiss us as a third world nation, and whether there is any truth in them.

WHAT has happened to the singing of anthems?
There was a time when they were just belted out by the massed ranks of fans assembled to the accompaniment of some military band or other.
And the anthems usually, when sung properly kind of ambled along to a descending note and then we got on with the business of the rugby or football.
Now, however, we increasingly see the use of famous singers to ‘lead’ the anthems.
This has two effects, firstly the delay in the sound of the singer getting to the back of the stands means that the crowd is singing a good second or so behind their leader, which produces a most disconcerting echo.
Secondly, the singers, wanting to finish big, have taken to singing a counter-harmony of their final line. So when the voices of the crowd are going down, the singer is going up through the scales.
They’ve been doing it for a while now with Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on the line ‘collasant’ where the singer holds a high note as the rest of the crowd descend.
But the worst examples recently were in the FA Cup when the two singers leading Abide With Me started the vocal gymnastics on the final line, and God Save the Queen was given the same treatment.
Abide With Me is what the band played on the Titanic as it sank beneath the icy waves, its finale should slip slowly to the depths, not a soaring vocal extravaganza.
It’s time for CAMPA, the Campaign for Proper Anthems, calling for:
· A halt to the practice of using sopranos to lead a crowd of predominantly dodgy tenors and baritones*
· Sing it the way it’s always been sung – stick to the original tune and forget the vocal gymnastics
· Pointing out to the Ruperts who follow English rugby that singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot, a spiritual written by a former slave has just the teensiest bit of irony to it
* The exception to this rule is Katherine Jenkins when wearing a Wales shirt two sizes too small, she can carry on, but they can just turn off the microphone.