Saturday, 31 July 2010
The following is an article I wrote shortly after this year's July 12th Orange Order parades in Belfast. I'd hoped it might be of interest to a newspaper, magazine or some other publication but sadly it provoked very little interest. Still, it seems a shame to consign it to the dustbin of failed journalism in its entirety so I've decided to reproduce it here...
The boys can only be four or five but already they’re confident with the colourful striped batons that must be nearly half their size, throwing them high into the air and catching them with ease. Some of the more confident ones even try a few nifty tricks, one passing the stick between his legs whilst another twirls it around his neck. The adoring crowds clap and cheer, delighted by the children’s antics; some of them lining both sides of the road are even wearing clothes of the same matching red, white and blue of the twirling batons.
This is Belfast, and the youngsters are taking part in this year’s July 12th Orange Order parade, an annual celebration of the victory of Protestant King William III over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Marching flute bands from all over the United Kingdom and even some from the Irish Republic flock to Northern Ireland to take part; at this year’s main event in the Ulster capital some 80 bands are in attendance, around a quarter of those from Scotland. The annual event also attracts thousands of spectators, taking over much of the city and swamping the centre of town in a sea of orange flags.
And it is a spectacle to behold; the bands, all immaculately turned out in matching uniforms unique to their district, belt out an array of popular tunes with drums and flutes; some even have accordions, whilst all proudly carrying banners proclaiming allegiance to the United Kingdom and the religious ideals of the Protestant faith. The musicians in period World War I ‘Tommy’ army uniforms and the all-female band in pink draw particular applause.
But for many years the parades have been a deeply controversial event, regarded by many in Northern Ireland’s nationalist community as little more than provocative and unashamed triumphalism. Unionists, on the other hand, have traditionally considered these marches to be a legitimate expression of their political and cultural heritage. Some of the more contentious routes have even led to open violence, most famously in the annual confrontation at Drumcree church in the Armagh town of Portadown which directly led to the creation of the Parades Commission. It is the job of the Commission to oversee any disputed parade and judge whether it should be allowed to proceed.
Yet it would appear that the times they are a-changing. The organisers of the parades in Belfast rebranded the event as ‘Orangefest’ back in 2007 and have put their collective energies into promoting it as a fun and friendly family day out, replete with child-friendly frivolities such as face-painting, juggling, stilt-walking and bouncy castles. And this year has been no different; Orangemen have mounted an extensive public relations campaign with bright, attractive banners erected across the city centre, promotional leaflets pushed through letterboxes and shops and adverts in local newspapers and magazines.
The reason for the changes – not all of which are greeted with equal enthusiasm among the Order’s membership – is a relatively simple one. “We think the rebranding of the Twelfth is vital – we are saying we can be modern,” explains Orangefest development officer Billy Mawhinny. “How can we brand ourselves without being perceived by people as just another Orange trick, another Orange con? We can’t call it Orangeman’s Day or anything like that, because it sounds too exclusionary, so we came up with Orangefest.”
Whatever one’s political views it’s clear that their efforts seem to be making a difference; whereas once the centre of Belfast would be transformed into a ghost town where shops would refuse to open, businesses are now throwing their doors open to cash in on passing trade. And would seem that even some tourists are being tempted to watch what the Northern Ireland Tourist Board describes as “the perfect occasion to appreciate aspects of Ulster's rich heritage and culture.”
Not everyone is convinced however, least of all Lonely Planet. In their latest guide to Ireland they advise that “For the foreseeable future it’s probably best to ensure your visit to Northern Ireland doesn’t coincide with the climax of the Orange marching season on 12 July”, a standpoint which will no doubt infuriate those who have been at pains to transform the celebrations into a much more inclusive event accessible to all. LP, on the other hand, argues that the potential for enflamed sectarian tensions make the parades unsafe to attend. So whose point of view is right?
The night before the parades is given over to fire; huge bonfires light up the night sky, whilst fireworks whiz and bang overhead in a riot of colour. It’s a warm evening, and I’m attending one such conflagration in the ultra-Loyalist Sandy Row, on the southern edges of Belfast city centre. The crowd is large, numbering in the hundreds and possibly even thousands. Music is blaring from massive speakers and the drink is flowing, helped no doubt in part by the World Cup final that took place only a few hours before. In a small patch of rough ground a huge pile of wooden pallets towers above the surrounding buildings, carefully constructed and topped with an Irish tricolour. Members of the Northern Ireland Fire Service are on stand-by in case of an emergency.
One reveller, a burly Scot by the name of John, tells me what it is that makes the so-called ‘11th Night’ so special. “It’s all about having a good time and celebrating our culture. We get a lot of people who tell us that we shouldn’t celebrate who we are, but that’s wrong. The Nats get to celebrate their culture, so why not us as well?” And would a Nationalist be welcome? “No,” comes the flat reply.
And as if to make the point a cheer goes up from the crowd as the huge fire engulfs the Republican emblems adorning the pile’s summit. The heat from the flames is so hot that the fire-fighters have to spray their water hoses on nearby buildings to stop them catching light; the nearest houses have had their windows bordered up to stop them from shattering.
Similar fires take place all across Northern Ireland, some - like that in Sandy Row – taking place in pre-arranged locations with visible support from the local authorities. Others are more ad-hoc affairs, built on wasteland or even in the street using wood, rubbish, old furniture and anything else that will burn; one acrid cloud of black smoke billowing above the Donegal Road was from a street fire strewn with car tyres. Youngsters often play unchecked around the burning debris.
And everywhere there are flags; of Northern Ireland, of the United Kingdom, and a few dedicated both to the Orange Order and to various paramilitary organisations. They hang from lampposts, they adorn buildings and they even serve as items of clothing. Football tops are also a common sight, almost exclusively those of Glasgow-based Rangers or local Unionist favourites Linfield. There is no doubting the political affiliations of those who come to watch the bonfires.
Parade day itself is a much more civilised affair, at least in the centre of Belfast. Formalities commence with the solemn laying of a wreath at the city hall’s war memorial by leading members of the Orange Order, followed by a minute silence and the Last Post played by a lone bugler. When this is completed, it’s time for the bands to take centre stage, and they do so with much aplomb as they wind their way through the city toward a massive meeting field along with hundreds of Order members and bandsmen and women. Several hours later they march their way back again, many no doubt exhausted but having enjoyed a day out with friends and comrades alike.
But trouble often dogs Orange parades, and this year was no different. Pre-arranged nationalist rioting in the North and West of the city was at its worst for years; several police officers were shot and many more injured. Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable has said that the cost of policing the ‘interface’ areas - where Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods meet and where trouble is usually concentrated – will run into “millions.” Particularly worrying is the number of children that were also involved, some thought to be as young as eight. One Ardoyne priest described it as “a bit like a Euro Disney theme park for rioting. It was ludicrous.”
And yet these disturbances were concentrated in a handful of districts far from the normal tourist track or the parades themselves; to even the casual observer in the city centre it was notable just how peaceful – if a little noisy – the marches were in comparison.
Instead it’s not dissident Republican violence that poses the greatest likelihood of spoiling a day out at the parades but rather the danger of the over-exuberant crowds that follow them. Throughout my weekend in Northern Ireland the signs of excessive alcohol consumption were all-too-common; rather than the good natured fun of, say, Guy Fawkes night, the atmosphere surrounding the 11th fires felt distinctly menacing. That an anti-Irish theme still made itself felt – witness the burning of Irish flags - means that the whole affair still has at least one eye looking towards the past even as the other nervously eyes the future.
But one can’t also help thinking that for many of the festivities surrounding the marching season this reputation is undeserved. Wanting to celebrate a distinct culture unique to this corner of Ireland is no more bigoted than the nationalists living within Northern Ireland who seek to celebrate theirs, and the more controversial commentator might also note the eager readiness with which people can frequently take offence in this far-flung corner of the United Kingdom. The term ‘recreational rioting’ was not coined in Ulster for nothing.
Yet it’s still something of an understatement to say that the Orange Order parades continue to suffer an image problem. Whilst ongoing efforts to stamp out the naked sectarianism of the past and bring the whole caboodle kicking and screaming into the 21st century are to be applauded it’s going to take a lot more yet to persuade everyone that they are both completely reformed and safe to attend. For those of a nervous disposition Lonely Planet’s advice to steer well clear is - for now - probably sound.
Friday, 30 July 2010
It's likely to be fairly quiet on the Daily Rant front for the forthcoming week; I'm off to Italy for a dose of history, culture, and - dare I say it? - sun too. Specifically I'll be staying in Tuscany and it'll be my first visit to the region, and it'd be fair to say that I've only heard good things about it. I guess I'll find out soon enough..!
Thursday, 29 July 2010
For all it's detractors Wikipedia is an immensely useful resource, the first port of call for many people seeking out information on an obscure topic that before the site's creation would have been a much more difficult task. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about any particular entry's accuracy - entries can be edited by anyone holding an account - and suspicions of doctoring are frequently raised. The pages for some current American politicians, for example, were apparently altered using computers located within their own offices.
But many facts are, as the name suggests,exactly that and are generally beyond dispute. This can - but not always - include the dates of when particular events occurred, and can make for fascinating reading in its own right.
Take today's date, for example; did you know that on July 29th 1588 the Spanish Armada was defeated at the Battle of Gravelines? Or that on this day in 1830 Charles X abdicated the throne of France? Or that in 1921 Hitler became leader of the NSDAP? Or the 1948 Austerity Olympics kicked off in London?
For trivia junkies Wikipedia is an endless source of delight, a goldmine of the world's collective knowledge and an invaluable online resource. For all its faults it offers a great deal, and those that would seek to intentionally subvert the information it holds are the virtual equivalent of latter-day book-burners.
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
The Home Secretary has suggested that the use of ASBOs - Antisocial Behaviour Orders - could be scrapped in England and Wales. Theresa May said that it was "time to move beyond" the orders whilst also declaring that it was time to "stop tolerating" bad behaviour.
ASBOs have always been controversial. More than half of those issued were breached from 2000 to 2008 but Labour - under which the orders were introduced - have said that they have made a "huge contribution" to cutting crime.
And on the face of it ASBOs aren't that bad an idea. Designed to deal with persistent minor offenders whose actions might not otherwise have been punished, they are unusual in that - despite being civil sanctions - their breach is a criminal offence in itself. Some of the more unusual cases where the Order was imposed would have been harder to deal with had they not been in existence.
But many would point to the high number of breaches and their potential to become a 'badge of honour' as evidence that they have failed in achieving what they were set out to do. Others were uneasy with the potential ASBOs have for criminalising offenders over relatively trivial offences and reject the idea that they can help solve complex social issues.
If ASBOs are to be abolished it will be interesting to see what the coalition government proposes to have in their place; with anti-social behaviour a key concern for many people it may be a tall order indeed.
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
In exactly two year's time London will play host to the 2012 Olympics - officially the Games of the XXX Olympiad - and will become the first city to have held the games three times. The last occasion was in 1948, as a country recovering from the ravages of war held the 'Austerity Games'.
Cost had long been a feature of these Games too, with disgruntled Londoners unhappy at the prospect of paying for the event and ever-spiralling costs that vastly exceeded those predicted by the original bid. But support for the Olympics appears to be on the increase in the Capital, even as current Olympic minister Hugh Robertson said he could not offer a guarantee that the Olympiad's budget would not be cut. The spectacular - some might say gratuitously ostentatious - opening and closing ceremonies at the last Games in Beijing are unlikely to be repeated on British soil.
As was the case with the recent World Cup in South Africa much focus is also being placed on the long-term economic benefits that the Games' legacy is supposed to provide. The deprived area of East London in which most of the various venues are being built has been targeted for regeneration and indeed this formed an integral part of bid chief Sebastian Coe's winning submission. Some housing commentators, on the other hand, have expressed concerns at the lack of apparent progress in ensuring this legacy comes to fruition.
The Olympics will be big, and no doubt it has and will provide many jobs and other shot-term economic benefits in what is an ongoing global recession. But it would be all-to-easy to be caught up in the euphoria of hosting one of the world's great sporting events without remembering that once the athletes and spectators have all gone home very real social problems in this part of the Capital are tackled as promised.
Monday, 26 July 2010
One of the more highly-competitive routes into journalism is that offered by one of the various awards or bursaries that crop up from time to time. I've always kept an eye out for these and entered where possible, but thus far without success. And it's not surprising why; hundreds, if not thousands, enter for each and it takes something truly eye-catching to stand any chance of winning. I've recently found out that I've failed in two such applications.
The first was the Tom Walker Trust Award, offered by the foundation set up in memory of the former Times journalist. The prize itself affords a fantastic opportunity - £1,000 and four week's work experience on the Sunday Times foreign desk. To be shortlisted all one has to do is to submit an idea for a foreign news story; sadly my idea - looking at the various walls that divide cities and nations around the world - failed to make the grade, just as last year's suggestion also failed to impress. Unfortunately I missed the winning entry which appeared in the Sunday Times the day before the rest of us were informed of the competition's outcome.
The second disappointment came after the announcement of the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition longlists, another occasion where this year's entry made as little impact as last time round. What makes this particular contest so interesting - other than focusing on a particularly worthy area of global journalism - is that it has separate categories for amateur and professional writers, allowing a much more even playing field for those of us trying to break into the industry. It's also worth noting that even some of those that made the amateur shortlist contain quotes from locals in very remote parts of the world, demonstrating that even when it comes to non-professionals having the money and time to gain such quotes proves a distinct advantage over those of us who cannot.
It'd be easy to be disheartened, but it's worth remembering that for every person that secures one of these prizes hundreds of others must be disappointed. Those that have won have done so because they deserve to; I just have to continue to hammer away until I can consider myself to be in the same category.
Sunday, 25 July 2010
19 people have been killed and 340 injured in a stampede at a free music festival in the western German city of Duisburg. It's thought that the dead - aging from around 20 to 40 - were trampled as massive overcrowding turned into a massive crush; already the local authorities are facing angry questions as to the suitability to the site and the fact that it had only one entrance point. The organisers have also confirmed that the event - there were over a million people attending - will no longer be held.
Crushes in stadiums and other places where large crowds are concentrated have been all-too-common in recent years. Britain's most well-known is the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster which killed 96 but scores more have been killed in other disasters around the world. Religious festivals have been particularly prone to stampedes; almost 1,500 people were killed during the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990 and the annual event has been riddled by similar events during its recent history.
The tragedy at Duisburg is a stark reminder that crowds in themselves are inherently dangerous things and that they must be managed accordingly. If those involved in staging the event in a location which may well be found to have been entirely inappropriate then criminal prosecutions are the only reasonable course of action.
Saturday, 24 July 2010
I've added a new page to the blog which you can either access here or from the top of the main page. It details some of the broader topics and themes that tend to crop up here on a more regular basis than others and my own particular take on them. Hopefully it might explain in a little more detail why exactly I rant about what I do!
As always feedback - however scathing - is welcome.
Friday, 23 July 2010
The first of two new cycling 'superhighways' has opened in south London. Nearly 9 miles long and stretching from the suburb of Colliers Wood into the centre of town, it's hoped that the blue-painted lane will encourage more people to put foot to pedal. A dozen such routes are planned for the capital.
Reactions to the lanes so far are mixed; it would appear that despite their bright appearance they are still afforded little respect by motorised rush-hour commuters. And the fact that they are to line busy main roads will cause some to question their safety, even as the lanes are meant to create an accident-free haven for cyclists. Their cost at a time of recession - £23 million so far and rising - also make them prone to criticism.
But the aim of the lanes is a laudable one and forms part of what London Mayor Boris Johnson has termed a "cycling revolution", which will also see a forthcoming city-wide bike hire scheme, a new cycling police unit, 66,000 extra bike parking spaces before 2012 and better strategic planning.
And it'll certainly be welcome. As someone who regularly commutes by bicycle it's noticeable just how dominant the car is - usually only containing one passenger each - and how much this adds to traffic congestion. Finding alternatives to the car, whether that be by making public transport cheaper and more efficient or encouraging people to take to their bikes will make for a much happier urban environment for all.
A common charge levelled at cyclists is their frequent disrespect for the rules of the road, and it does contain an element of truth. But often provision for those that cycle is often poor, with cycle lanes often starting and stopping at random and often poor facilities for securing them at journey's end. Here in Leeds a new cycle storage facility is being constructed outside the train station, which should enable commuters to think bike more often.
Cycling has many benefits; it is an environmentally friendly and healthy way to travel from A to B. Steps to make it easier and safer are - generally speaking - a good thing, as long as the cost of those steps do not become exorbitant. It will be interesting to see if London's superhighways are a success.
Thursday, 22 July 2010
The UN has ruled that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 was not illegal. The International Court of Justice rejected claims from Belgrade that the unilateral move had violated its territorial integrity but the government there said that they would never recognise the secession; the non-binding decision was welcomed by Kosovan officials, however, who insisted that all doubt about its international status had now been removed.
The thorny issue of Kosovan independence has been a divisive issue for the international community, with around a third of UN members formally recognising the Republic as a nation state in its own right. Many others have decided against any such recognition, blaming their hesitancy on the legality of the secession and the way in which Serbia was not consulted. Many of the countries which themselves suffer with the prospect of breakaway regions have come out against, no doubt worried what sort of precedent Kosovan independence would have on their own domestic affairs. Whether this announcement will change that remains to be seen.
A good example is Spain. For years the Kingom has struggled with separatist movements in the Basque Country, Catalonia and - to a lesser degree - in Galicia, and will no doubt be keen to see the national integrity of existent states upheld as paramount. Such a stance is at odds with policy followed by the European Union, with almost every other member state formerly recognising the independence of a Pristina-based administration. Other key states to oppose the moves include China - its enthusiasm no doubt tempered by its trouble with Taiwan, over which it continues to claim jurisdiction - and Russia, a long-time supporter of Serbian nationalism. The latter's resident Vladimir Putin even described the events as "a terrible precedent which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries."
But there are some interesting exceptions. Take the United Kingdom; a nation state riddled with its own nationalist movements, the UK was among the first batch of countries to recognise the Kosovan Republic. The then prime minister Gordon Brown declared that the move would "close the chapter" following the break-up of Yugoslavia and help carry Kosovo to "a prosperous future." Britain, of course, took an active part in the 1999 NATO bombing of the region and still contributes to peacekeeping forces in Kosovo.
Spain, however, may have a point. Several secessionist movements around the world have welcomed the independence of Kosovo, with several demanding that their own aspirations for political autonomy be afforded the same treatment. It's a certainty that many will welcome the UN's latest pronouncement.
But it's true to say that, for the time being at least, the ruling will change little on the ground; Kosovo will still regard itself as independent and will try to behave as such, whilst Serbia will want to reassert its authority over a region which holds a particularly strong resonance within Serb nationalism. But this recognition of a breakaway state by an important international body could do much to bolster the confidence of similar movements elsewhere, of which there are many. The ruling elite of many of the larger countries with their own shaky borders may find that this decision makes for uncomfortable reading indeed.
Wednesday, 21 July 2010
Taxpayers in North Wales are currently up in arms over the cost of protecting Prince William, the reigning monarch's eldest grandson and the man currently second in line to the throne. The problem is that the Prince - a flight lieutenant in the RAF - has been posted to an RAF camp in Anglesey, off the Gwynedd coast. Reports that William may decide to live off-base have prompted claims that the resultant policing bill would cost up to £1.4 million, paid for by local ratepayers.
It's perhaps unsurprising that people living in Gogledd Cymru are not best pleased, even when taking into account that this is the stronghold of Plaid Cymru and Welsh nationalism. £1.4 million is a lot of money that in a time of recession could be well spent elsewhere, and the added strain placed on the stretched resources of North Wales Police could well be felt right across the region.
Another reason for the anger is that the royals are already allocated a central fund to pay for their protection, currently standing somewhere in the region of £50 million. That this budget is likely to suffer from cuts itself is likely to raise concerns about taxpayer-funded shortfalls.
There are those among us - myself included - who would rather see an end to the monarchy altogether and instead have funds such as these spent on public amenities that actually provide some sort of social benefit, like hospitals or schools. But public support for the royal family, while not overt, is unlikely to be shaken to such an extent that their demise becomes imminent any time soon. Whilst we continue to be saddled with their expense they should be seen to provide value for money. If that means living on base rather than off it then so be it.
Tuesday, 20 July 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi was "wholly wrong" and that it should not have happened. The Libyan - found guilty of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988 with the loss of 270 lives - was released from prison by the Scottish government in August last year on compassionate grounds. Al Megrahi suffers from terminal prostate cancer and doctors' reports estimated that he had around three months to live; he is still alive almost a year later.
Cameron made the announcement in the US, where claims have been made that BP - currently in the dock over the Gulf oil spill fiasco - lobbied for Al Megrahi's release. The Prime Minister denied being aware of any evidence that the energy giant had indeed made such overtures, a claim repeated by Holyrood's minority SNP administration. Some senators are now demanding an enquiry.
The whole affair is getting stranger and stranger; a British Prime Minister is being grilled over the actions of an independent administration that acted outside his jurisdiction before he even came to power and one that quite possibly did so in part to demonstrate this very independence. Those supportive of the nationalist government in Edinburgh may feel upset that Cameron is publicly criticising their decision without allowing the party to defend itself, but bizarrely the man in the Scottish administration who made the ultimate decision to release the bomber has argued that American questioning over the affair should be dealt with by Westminster alone. One also wonders whether BP's implication and their recent granting of pariah status in the United States has anything to do with this latest accusation.
The release of Al Megrahi was always going to be a controversial issue, with questions being raised over whether other mass murderers would have received similar treatment had they also been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The jubilant scenes that granted Al Megrahi upon his return to Tripoli would have made for uneasy watching even for those that supported the original decision, not to mention the apparent inaccuracy of the original medical evaluation that granted the Libyan his freedom.
What has become clear, however, is that the actions of the UK's devolved administrations are able to influence the foreign relations of the country of the whole, and not always for good. One hopes that our international partners will be able to distinguish between the two.
Monday, 19 July 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron has officially launched his 'Big Society' initiative, a vision which seeks to empower local communities and reduce the amount of intervention by the state. Describing the plans as his "great passion", Cameron said groups should be able to run post offices, libraries, transport services and shape housing projects. Funding the concept would be made possible using 'dormant bank accounts' in what has been described as a "big advance for people power".
Yet some of these groups which Big Society is intended to help have approached the plans with a degree of caution, questioning how exactly the scheme will be funded. And Labour have suggested that the whole initiative is merely another way to implement cuts, a suggestion given some weight by Eric Pickles' admission that saving money is a key aspect of the proposals.
But the truth is that this idea is more than about keeping the budget in check. Cameron is particularly enthusiastic about his Big Society - a key part of the Tory manifesto in the general election - because it is an ideological creation, an appeal to the right-wing ideals of small government and citizen involvement.
Such an experiment, of course, is inherently risky, and it's for the best that it is currently being trialled at only four locations around the country, all in England. Asking people to give up their free time to help run local organisations is one thing, expecting them to have the time, skills, experience and funds to do so is another matter entirely. There is also the issue of whether public services will still be based on certainty of provision - as they surely must - and not on the vagaries of the availability of volunteers to run them on any given day.
It would be wrong, however, to oppose this idea entirely on principle without seeing first whether it might actually work. Only when the results of the trials start to come in will those who are already suspicious of them - myself included - be fully equipped to voice our opposition.
Sunday, 18 July 2010
Earlier today I took a trip to Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, one of the largest private stately homes in the country. Most of it was built between 1699 and 1712, and whilst not a 'castle' in the traditional sense it's still a grand and impressive grade I listed building that fairly reeks of privilege; it is still owned by the Howard family and has been open to the public since the early 1950s.
Inside the building is impressive, filled with frescoes and antiques. The main central part is particularly arresting, its painted walls and arches leading the eye ever higher toward a dome suspended high above the ground. This dome - along with several other parts of the building - was destroyed by fire in 1940, but sympathetic restoration has resulted in a seamless transition from old to new. The more astute visitor may even recognise the place as the setting for both the television and film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; needless to say I was not one of them.
The house itself is set in a pretty location in the middle of the Howardian Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that takes its name from the family that once owned large swathes of this undulating countryside. The whole area forms a gentle introduction to the wilder landscapes of the North York Moors which lie enticingly close by.
Castle Howard is interesting, if expensive to visit; at more than £10 a go the prices are as grand as the pile itself. But as a study in the workings of English aristocracy it's well worth having a look at if you happen to be in this well-to-do part of the country.
Saturday, 17 July 2010
The Catholic church has declared that the attempted ordination of women is a 'grave crime', the same term it uses to describe sex abuse. The Vatican has since denied that it was equating the two but already one christian group has described the change to Church law as "a slap in the face to women."
The news may worry those involved with the Pope's troubled official visit to the UK later this year; already reeling from the seemingly never-ending accusations of decades-long abuse of children within its care and a spat over who will foot the tour's bill, this latest announcement will do little to convince the wider public that Catholicism offers a progressive version of the Faith. The Church justifies its position by arguing that as Jesus chose only men as his apostles, women cannot legally become priests. This contrasts starkly with the Church of England, which only a few days ago voted in favour of legislation to consecrate women bishops at its General Synod; it seems plausible that the announcement by the Holy See is intended as a rebuttal.
Given the furore that has surrounded Roman Catholicism over institutionalised child sex abuse it may seem a little rich for the same institution to then ruminate over the moral values of what very few will regard as an offence. Equality of opportunity is not the same as robbing children of their innocence; to suggest that they should be dealt with in the same way - even if it were desirable to bar women from employment on grounds of their sex - shows a warped sense of priorities.
Friday, 16 July 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned public sympathy for Raoul Moat, the gunman who shot his ex-lover, killed her new boyfriend and attempted to murder a policeman now blind for life. Cameron described moat as a "callous murderer", speaking after flowers were left at the scene of Moat's death in Northumberland and messages of sympathy to him were left on Facebook.
The story of Moat's shooting spree and subsequent flight has dominated news headlines for days and sparked one of the largest manhunts in British history. Since he shot himself in disputed circumstances beside a river in the village of Rothbury there has been a growing controversy over the use of police tasers and that members of his family were not allowed to try to convince him to give himself up.
The outpouring of public grief is particularly surprising, coming so soon after a mass shooting spree in Cumbria earlier this year. Facebook's RIP Raoul Moat tribute page has attracted over 30,000 members and demands to have it removed have so far fallen on deaf ears; a spokesperson for the social networking site said that it "is a place where people can express their views and discuss things in an open way."
Some attempting to explain Moat's actions have understood his actions to be a response, however extreme, to the societal pressures wrought by the chaos of modern living. Much of the sympathy his death has created comes in part from the view that as a man he simply could not take any more. Something simply snapped.
But pressure, of course, is relative, and it's fairly safe to assume that elsewhere in the world there are people whose situation is far more desperate then that faced by Moat or anyone else thinking of taking out their frustrations on those around them. It's an unfortunate fact that he died, and the circumstances surrounding his death - as well as the lengthy amount of time he spent on the run - need to be fully investigated and understood. But the place where he really should belong is prison, not a pedestal.
Thursday, 15 July 2010
Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second largest city, has been named the UK's inaugral 'City of Culture'. Seeing off competition from the likes of Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield it follows in the footsteps of Liverpool's successful reign as European Capital of Culture in 2008; some believe it could bring up to 3,000 jobs to the city and boost tourism.
Londonderry - or Derry, depending on who you ask - is an interesting place. Located in the far north-west of the Province, it was for many years the epicentre of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association's battle against the gerrymandering of the city which kept Unionists in power on the council despite its large Nationalist majority. It was also the scene for the infamous Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972 which was only recently laid to rest with the publication of the Saville report earlier this year. Political murals dominate the entrance to the Bogside estate, whilst a gable end proclaims that "You are now entering Free Derry". It is also the only example of a walled city still in existence in Ireland, and was the scene of the longest siege in British history with the town's inhabitants pitted against the forces of James II; their refusal to capitulate gave rise to the famous Loyalist battlecry of "No Surrender".
The very name of the place is also a source of contention. Given the prefix of 'London' in 1613 to recognise the Corporation of London's role in the Plantations in this northern corner of Ireland, the political connotations involved meant that the shortened name of 'Derry' became synonymous with Irish Nationalism while its longer version was popular with Unionists. When in 1984 Nationalists gained a majority on Londonderry City Council they voted to change its name to Derry City Council, but a 2007 High Court ruling stated that the city itself could only be renamed by new legislation or royal prerogative, which has thus far not been forthcoming. The tongue-in-cheek nickname 'Stroke City' stems from the habit of publications which try to avoid offence by describing the settlement as 'Derry/Londonderry', a not-entirely satisfactory way around the problem.
Local boy Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former IRA leader, said that the award was "a precious gift for the peacemakers" in Ulster and that "there's a huge opportunity now for us to move forward and make sure that, particularly areas that are socially disadvantaged, gain the fruits of this accolade." That the award - for the UK City of Culture - tacitly implies and essentially condones the continued membership of Londonderry with the British state has probably not occurred to the lifelong Irish Republican.
But McGuinness does have a point. The Maiden City has the highest unemployment in Northern Ireland and many of its most deprived estates. If this triumph is to have any real tangible benefit for the people of Doire it must improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, whatever they choose to call the city in which they live.
Wednesday, 14 July 2010
During my weekend sojourn in Northern Ireland I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the local newspaper titles likely to be unfamiliar to someone not based in Ulster. And there was an impressive array to choose from, far more then that available in my current Yorkshire home.
First up was the Belfast Telegraph, a daily title produced in the city by the Irish-based Independent News & Media which also published The Independent until that paper's acquisition by Alexander Lebedev in March of this year. Sometimes affectionately known by its nickname of the 'Bel Tel', it is readily apparent that the paper tries to appeal to both sides of Northern Ireland's political dichotomy even as others regard it as moderately Unionist in outlook and demeanour. It is an interesting and well constructed daily.
The main competitors to the Telegraph are much more unashamed in their falling either side of Ulster's ethno-political fault line. The News Letter - it claims to be the oldest English language general daily newspaper still in publication in the world - is staunchly Unionist and this is clear in the nature of both the articles and opinion pieces it includes. Owned by the same Johnston Press which publishes the ultra-conservative Yorkshire Post here in Leeds, it offers an interesting insight into the politics of unionism. The copy I picked up also had a contribution in the form of a book review - an account of a year in the company of a Loyalist flute band, no less - by fellow blogger and Daily Rant favourite Chekov.
The other newspaper in this three-horse battle for circulations is the nationalist and independently owned Irish News. It has a marked change both in tone and approach to the Bel Tel and the News Letter in that there is an expected emphasis on matters pertaining to Irish unification. That it appears to reject the more militant ethos of Republicanism and instead favours the ideals of constitutional reform is to the paper's credit and makes it both readable and intelligent.
I also came across two papers which - from an ideological standpoint - are as diametrically opposed as one could ever hope to imagine. The first of these was freesheet the Shankill Mirror, an occasional publication "Reflecting the views of the Greater Shankill/North Belfast community." Much of the paper's content was devoted to the promotion and preservation of the Unionist identity associated with the street and to attacking the Republican ideology of the areas that surround it; a fitting analogy in paper of the besieged mentality that has for many come to define Loyalist West Belfast.
For it's those areas that surround the Shankill which, after all, have been mainly responsible for effectively awarding Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams an ultra-safe seat for life. And the Andersonstown News not only featured Adams on the front page but also an opinion piece taken word-for-word from his blog, a warning sign that impartiality might not be the rag's watchword. Just as the Shankill Mirror contained articles relating to historical IRA atrocities, so did the Andersonstown News talk of oppression by the army, police and other state institutions. Both papers felt like little more than propaganda pieces, unlikely to be read or disseminated outside the immediate community each is designed to serve.
But despite the inevitable propensity for papers in Northern Ireland to take one of two possible political positions it was heartening to see such a thriving industry in local journalism. Here in Yorkshire - with a population of around 4 million - the range of papers and the opinion that they carry just does not compete with a Northern Ireland with fewer than half that number of people.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
The twelfth of July is the premier date in the Orange Order calender, and the Protestant organisation's various lodges take part in parades - known as 'demonstrations' - across Northern Ireland. The purpose of these marches is to not only celebrate the victory of King William III over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 but to affirm both the participants' religious faith and their commitment to the maintenance of the United Kingdom in its current form.
But the lodges themselves are not restricted solely to Northern Ireland; many are based in Scotland whilst branches also exist throughout the rest of Great Britain, North America, Australasia and even West Africa. The Order also has members in nine counties of the Irish Republic.
I watched yesterday's Twelfth in Belfast, one of the largest marches in the Province. Around 80 bands joined the 200 or so city lodges in an impressive logistical display, beginning with a wreath laying ceremony at the city hall war memorial before proceeding - music blaring - to the meeting field several miles away.
And it was a striking sight. The bands were all smartly turned out - the group dressed in period First World War outfits and the female troupe wearing pink proving particularly popular with the crowds - and had obviously been practicing, the flutes and drums serving to create a veritable cacophony of sound.
Efforts by the Order to make the parades more tourist-friendly and family-orientated also appear to be bearing fruit; whereas once the entire city centre would shut down over the July 12th period on this occasion many shops threw open their doors. Even some tourist attractions including the likes of Belfast Castle, the Ulster Museum and the city zoo were open on this, an official public bank holiday. And there was a noticeable absence of paramilitary symbols and regalia, with the only flags on show being those of the United Kingdom and its various constituent countries and - of course - the Order itself. The large pictorial banners carried by both the bands and the lodge members predominantly featured scenes of a local or religious nature; some pictures I took on the day can be seen here.
It's well documented, however, that many view the parades as little more than provocative triumphalism, and indeed their open display of British nationalism is potentially uncomfortable watching with those perturbed with the ideology of the nation state supreme above all else, myself included. And as if to illustrate their controversial nature parts of the city have already witnessed some of the worst rioting for years, with more certain to follow.
Last night - as bonfires went up around the city - three police officers were shot and many more injured in prearranged rioting concentrated in North and West Belfast. Yesterday's parades in the city centre were a peaceful affair with no hint of violence, but trouble in the Ardoyne area close to the route of one of the feeder marches shows that dissatisfaction with the Order's presence is still as acute as it ever was.
And yet the shrewd observer may note that their is nothing more innately sectarian in waving a Union flag in Northern Ireland as there is in waving an Irish tricolour, and celebrating Unionist culture is in itself just as legitimate as the celebration of its nationalist counterpart. The suspicion that there are many within Northern Ireland who are not only quick to take offence but actively seek it out is a strong one.
Instead many of the disturbances appear to fall into that category of 'recreational rioting' that has long been a part of Ulster's public disturbances, where the opportunity to cause trouble in the pursuit of fun is taken with aplomb. That reports are already starting to emerge of the youth of some of those involved is certainly cause for concern.
And that probably presents the organisers of Orangefest with their greatest problem. That the parades are still enough to cause civil unrest is a sign that their acceptance among all of Northern Ireland's population is still far from reality. To move them away from sectarianism is a step in the right direction but the fact remains that they celebrate a religious and political affiliation seemingly mutually exclusive with the other half of Ulster's cultural dichotomy. Only when that bridge is built will the parades reach anything approaching normalcy.
Monday, 12 July 2010
The night before the July 12th parades large bonfires are lit in towns and cities right across Northern Ireland. Some of these are pretty small affairs, made up of only a few pallets, while others are huge behemoths that tower above surrounding buildings. These fires are often controversial, what with them being an integral part of the festivities that culminate in the Orange Order marches the following day. Particularly prone to criticism is the propensity with which many of them are topped with Nationalist symbols; one large bonfire that I saw under construction in Londonderry four years ago even had images of the 1981 hunger strikers adorning the summit, men regarded as martyrs by the Republican movement.
But as mentioned previously the organisers of the parades have been trying to move the celebrations away from the sectarian associations of the past and towards a more inclusive tourist-friendly and family-orientated event, rebranded as 'Orangefest'. The fires fall under that umbrella; the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau reckons that "for fans of all things pyrotechnic, the spectacle of the annual Eleventh night bonfires all across Northern Ireland will certainly be a memorable one."
So it was that I found myself last night in the ultra-Loyalist Sandy Row, just to the south of Belfast city centre; a large mural depicting an armed paramilitary stands guard at the street's entrance. Here a huge crowd had gathered - helped no doubt in part by the World Cup final earlier in the evening - and music blasted from huge speakers, while empty beer bottles littered the ground. A huge pile of wooden pallets, topped by an Irish tricolour, dominated the surroundings; when it went up in flames around midnight a huge cheer went up from those in attendance. Firefighters were on hand to supervise the event, spraying nearby buildings with water to keep them from catching light.
Other, smaller ad-hoc fires were also lit in the adjoining streets, often in the middle of the roads themselves. A huge black billowing cloud that hovered over nearby Donegal Street came from a small fire littered with rubber car tyres, whilst others were composed of wood, old furniture and anything else that would burn.
It was an interesting atmosphere. People were clearly there to have a good time and there was little sign of trouble, but the casual visitor - encouraged to attend by the likes of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board - might have found the booze-soaked crowds a little intimidating. And one wonders what might have happened if someone decided to attend with political views that weren't so opposed to the ideals of Irish nationalism. The burning of flags was a ready demonstration that the burning of fires on the eleventh is still, for the time being, an avowedly political statement.
For those interested in seeing more I'll be putting some of the photographs of the night and from today's Orange march online in the next few days.
Sunday, 11 July 2010
It's perhaps something of a cruel irony that for all of Belfast's years of strife and large swathes of urban deprivation it has an unashamedly beautiful natural setting. The best way to get a sense of this landscape is from the towering Cave Hill which looms to the north of the city; at 368 metres above sea level the views from the top extend not only across Belfast and its eponymous Lough but as far as the Mourne Mountains in County Down and across the sea to Scotland. It's the perfect place for a walk in the countryside right on the edge of town, particularly when - just like today, when we visited - the sun is unexpectedly shining.
It's also an interesting spot in its own right. At its summit is an iron-age earthwork known as McArt's fort where, in 1795, Wolfe Tone and other members of the United Irishmen looked down across the city and pledged to fight for Irish independence. Nearby is the Victorian Scottish Baronial pile that is Belfast Castle set within a spacious country park, and slightly further afield are the delights of the city zoo.
It's also an interesting sensation to look down at a city that in the recent past was riddled by conflict and see how small a place Belfast really is. That so many lives were lost fighting over political ideology is, in my mind, a sad thing. From the top of Cave Hill Belfast is a beautiful place; there is no reason why in time it can't be from ground level too.
Saturday, 10 July 2010
I was stuck for a couple of hours in an airport yesterday, which has set me thinking. It's well known that airport restrictions are tighter now then at any time in the past, the result of the West's War on Terror and the perceived threat posed to the airline industry that most famously expressed itself in the September 11 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Centre. Using aeroplanes as weapons is not a new idea - witness the Japanese Kamikaze in the dying days of World War II - nor is their potential as a tool for terrorism in the form of hijackings and bombings a purely 21st-Century phenomenon, but it is safe to say that in the past decade the link between acts of violence and civilian air travel has strengthened both in the minds of the governments and the people that choose to fly.
Safety is, of course, a top priority for air passengers, and few could begrudge the tight security precautions in place at all airports; air travel is now on the front-line of the War and its attractiveness as a target for attack makes such adjustments completely necessary. The trade-off between being safe and spending longer in the terminal is in reality a small price to pay.
But where resentment can develop is where certain rules now in place seem unnecessary or draconian. Take current restrictions on the taking on-board of liquids, sprays, gels, toothpaste and other assorted toiletry items; many of these are banned or limited to sizes frequently smaller than those readily available. Passengers often have to dump these at passport control only to find that identical items are available to purchase in duty-free at greatly inflated prices. And the clear plastic bag that these have to be presented to at security also have to be bought from on-site vending machines. Suddenly the War on Terror seems more like a money-making exercise than a legitimate guarantor of our freedoms.
It's a similar process that has caused some to doubt the science of climate-change; when it appears that certain quarters are earning more than just a pretty penny from the introduction and adoption of ideologically-inspired legislation then naturally - no pun intended - people are going to question it.
Of course, this is false logic; simply because there are those who seek to make a profit from a certain set of circumstances does not undermine the science or reasoning behind it; all that can be said with certainty is that the profit motive can be extremely alluring to those who look for any opportunity for personal enrichment. Unnecessary airport charges for clear plastic bags and bottles of water does not mean that there isn't a terrorist threat, just as favourable government contracts for renewable energy firms doesn't mean that continued exploitation of the Earth's natural resources will not have a detrimental effect on the global environment.
But it is these sorts of things which can give the sceptic ammunition and delay essential changes in the way we tackle some of the world's big problems. It's important that those who seek to change the minds and opinions of those they wish to convert to their cause should do so without emptying their wallets at the same time.
Friday, 9 July 2010
Blog updates may be sparse over the next few days; I'm off to Belfast for a long weekend and sadly a portable laptop computer is still something my bank balance can only dream of.
The more astute of you will notice that this visit to Northern Ireland will coincide with the culmination of the Orange Order parades on July 12th, and with it the celebration of King William's victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Indeed, this coincidence of timing is anything but; it should make the trip all the more rewarding.
Curiously the latest edition of Lonely Planet's guide to Ireland states that "For the foreseeable future, it's probably best to ensure your visit to Northern Ireland doesn't coincide with the climax of the Orange marching season on 12 July", and this despite efforts in recent years by the Order and Irish tourism agencies to market the annual event as tourist-friendly. It'll be interesting to see who is right.
Thursday, 8 July 2010
Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove has apologised in parliament for errors in a list of school building programmes which are being scrapped. Speaking in a packed Commons Gove said that he wished to "unreservedly apologise" for both the errors - which saw some schools in England being told that they were safe when in actual fact they were in line for cuts - and the way in which the list was released, which broke Parliamentary etiquette. Labour MPs said the 25 errors in the list were both "intolerable" and "astonishing".
The debacle comes in the wake of the news that the Con-Dem coalition has decided to axe the Building Schools for the Future programme, with the result that some 715 schools will see their rebuilding projects cancelled.
And it wasn't just opposition politicians who were outraged by Gove's cavalier approach to slashing departmental spending. Naturally those areas most effected by the cuts are appalled; the deputy leader of Sandwell council in the West Midlands - one of the worst hit by the mistakes - said the situation was "bizarre and disgraceful" and hopes for new schools had been "stolen from under our noses." And the head of the NASUWT teachers' union leader claimed that "The fatal inaccuracies on the government's list of schools affected by the decisions on future BSF projects will take a wrecking ball to the hopes of school staff and pupils whose futures depended on having their school buildings transformed."
Unsurprisingly some Conservatives have rallied around their cabinet colleague, with one MP claiming that Labour had "left the cupboard absolutely bare" and another accusing the former government of promising schools rebuilding programmes they knew they could not fund. But the largest party in government does not enjoy unanimous support from its backbenches; parliamentarian Ian Grainger said the government must "reconsider" its plans and that "if necessary we'll come to Number 10 with all the heads and the children. This is the future for our children."
It's long been clear that - with a large budget deficit and an ongoing recession - cuts are going to hit virtually every sphere of the public sector, something of a necessary evil in this brave new world of austerity. But those already alarmed by the way the coalition government has taken to its role of financial arbitrator with gleeful enthusiasm will not be comforted by this latest farce. If an administration can't be bothered to check that its own paperwork is in good order before it consigns a massive investment project and all its associated economic and social spin-offs to the dustbin of history then doubt as to its very ability to run the country is likely to continue to grow.
Wednesday, 7 July 2010
Today is the fifth anniversary of the London terror bombings, commonly referred to in the Americanised format of 7/7. In a series of coordinated suicide attacks both on the Underground and on a double-decker bus 52 people were killed and over 700 injured using home-made explosives. It remains the worst such attack on British soil.
What was perhaps most frightening about the attacks, however, was the fact that it was completely unexpected and carried out by men born and raised in the UK. Motivated by British involvement in the Iraq war, the three Muslims of Pakistani and one of Jamaican descent all chose to kill civilians and themselves in what was almost certainly a localised plot without direct outside intervention by the likes of Al Qaeda. In the parlance of the security services the men were 'cleanskins', previously unknown to government intelligence.
The fact that the men were UK citizens added another dimension to what was an already horrific event. Three of the four were from West Yorkshire, two living just a mile or so from where I now live; watching ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan deliver his recorded suicide note - "We are at war and I am a soldier" - in a thick local accent was particularly surreal. Khan justified his actions by claiming that "our democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible", as if his bomb would only selectively kill those who had voted for parties supporting foreign wars.
Another consequence of the carnage was the use of anti-terror laws in the subsequent aftermath and a strengthening of proposals for the introduction of national ID cards, itself bolstered by the abortive 21 July attacks just a fortnight later. Conspiracy theorists have claimed this was what really motivated the London attacks and the government conspiracy behind it. That there has been no public enquiry has, for some, only served to strengthen these suspicions.
I undertook a work placement with a small magazine based not far from Westminster a couple of weeks after the bombings, and I remember that commuting into the centre of London had taken on a strange air; there was a palpable sense of tension among the passengers but also a sense of resilience and resignation. Life, after all, had to go on.
Whatever the cause of the attacks, it's true to say that for over fifty families today will be particularly poignant. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of the senselessness and utter pointlessness of violence.
Tuesday, 6 July 2010
The League Against Cruel Sports is chiefly famous for its longstanding campaign against fox hunting here in the UK but this only constitutes a small portion of its work. Some of the other so-called sports where it seeks complete abolition internationally include bullfighting, dogfighting, greyhound racing, any sort of shooting or snaring, and trophy hunting. In short, wherever animals are made to suffer for recreation or entertainment the League will seek to end it.
So all eyes are on Canada this month. It's not the controversial seal hunts that continue to vex other animal welfare charities and that has done so much to stain the nation's international reputation but rather famous annual rodeo festival the Calgary Stampede which has spurred the League into action.
It's the nature of the events at the Alberta-based show that are proving particularly provocative, with great stress placed on the animals forced to take part. Take calf-roping, for example; in this event the young calf is goaded and prodded to ensure that it bursts out of its chute at full speed. The animal is then chased by a mounted rider who must lasso it, jump off his horse and pick it up, slam it to the ground and then tie three of its feet together. The well-being of the animals involved is rarely considered, which goes some way in explaining why it has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1934. Behind the romantic mythology of the 'Old West' lies an industry of very real animal abuse.
The main stumbling block facing opponents of the Stampede - aside from an immediate short-term financial gain for its organisers - is the defence that such events are an intrinsic part of the local culture, an argument employed by supporters of bullfighting in Spain and of similar activities in other parts of the globe. Albertans, so the reasoning goes, would be denied a part of their heritage if the show was not allowed to go on.
But cultural tradition is no justification for the harming of animals for sport, and one has to wonder whether any culture that wishes - nay demands - to express itself in such a way is morally lacking. Rodeos, bullfighting and all the rest should exist only in history books, a closed chapter of a shameful past.
Monday, 5 July 2010
A while ago I urged readers to consider boycotting Nestlé, the food conglomerate that has long stood accused of collusion with companies that can at best be described as lacking in any real environmental scruples and at worst criminally exploitative. Among the most notorious of these businesses is Singapore-based Sinar Mas and its subsidiary Asia Pulp & Paper, which has been implicated in illegal logging and human rights violations; Kraft and Unilever - among others - have already stopped dealing with APP but thus far the Swiss giant has failed to do the same.
Now it transpires that Tesco has been selling products manufactured by APP, including Tesco-branded sketch pads, writing paper and cards. Rival chains Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer have already cancelled contracts with APP because of the company's appalling environmental record but thus far the UK's largest supermarket chain has refused to do the same.
And the charge sheet against APP is a lengthy one. The company has been responsible for destroying vast swathes of pristine rainforest in Indonesia - much of it illegally - and elsewhere, threatening the survival of protected species like the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. Asia Pulp & Paper not only cuts logs for paper but is involved in clearing land for the production of palm oil, the substance so beloved by Nestlé and the manufacture of which can cause irreversible damage to the environment. It is a company steeped in a culture of ecological recklessness.
Tesco has since announced that it will stop stocking products manufactured by APP and claimed that they had been involved in a prolonged exit strategy that is only now nearing anything resembling the cutting of ties. But there must be some concern that one of the world's largest retailers has been happy to carry the products of a company whose dubious ethical record is both well-known and well-documented, leaving one wondering what other unenviable partnerships Tesco has formed. Such a powerful and influential brand must do better in future.
Sunday, 4 July 2010
As someone who enjoys the great outdoors I'm quite lucky to be based in Leeds; no less than three national parks are within touching distance of the city's boundaries and even within West Yorkshire itself there are plenty of beautiful rural areas to while away a few hours in.
This part of Yorkshire is also well known for its industrial heritage, and rightly so; Victorian mills dot the West Riding and the finest example is probably that found in Bradford's Saltaire, internationally recognised as a World Heritage Site. Whilst the wilder Pennine landscapes to the north and south may win - just - in the natural beauty department the areas around Leeds and Bradford are a superb example of how nature and industry have interacted without permanently despoiling the landscape or leaving a bitter legacy of pollution.
Some parts of the county are also surprisingly rural given their close proximity to these post-industrial centres. Earlier today I visited the peculiarly named Farnley Tyas, a small hilltop village just to the south of Huddersfield. From here a five mile circular walk took us to the top of Castle Hill - replete with follyesque Tower celebrating Victoria's jubilee - and back again, a stroll of about three hours.
Castle Hill itself is an interesting place. The defining landmark of Huddersfield, the hill was once home to a neolithic fort and has also been the location of a Norman castle, a beacon site used to warn of the Spanish Armada, and later a meeting venue for large political and religious meetings as well as cockfights and bare-knuckle boxing. The view from the Victoria Tower is superb, being over 305 metres - around 1,000 feet - above sea level.
What was best about this walk, however, was that it traversed a green rural oasis close to the dark satanic towns and cities that dot this part of Britain. These are the sorts of areas that are frequently threatened by over-development and urban sprawl; the benefits they offer not only to the environment but the health and recreation of the local population mean that they are worth saving and preserving, at least in part.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Over 2,500 thousand years ago a thinker called Epimenides made a very straightforward proposition; he declared that "All Cretans are liars." Simple, if perhaps something of a generalisation, but that was not the point the man was making. Epimenides was himself Cretan, so if we follow his argument to its logical conclusion he would himself be guilty of lying. Which then means that what he is saying is in actual fact false and Cretans are not liars - a situation which cannot possibly be if he has in fact lied. Still follow?
This is an ancient version of the liar paradox, and it is just the sort of fiendishly complicated concept that at first glance looks deceptively simple, the kind which philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to solve. And as is so often the case confusion is frequently both the genesis and the end product of such lines of thought.
Take another example, proposed by another ancient Greek. Eubulides' eponymous Heap asks us to imagine a large pile of sand. If we add or take away grains of sand, at what point does the heap come into being - or cease to exist? At what point is someone deemed fat or thin if we only increase or decrease their weight by a tiny amount at a time? Would just one more piece of straw really break a camel's back?
It's these sorts of questions which are posed in 30-Second Philosophies, the second in a new series of books which places itself firmly in the Ronseal "does exactly what it says on the tin" school of learning. For the bold ambition of the 30-Second format is to explain and explore 50 thought-provoking ideas in a way accessible to the lay person in only half-a-minute.
And it's not just the more obscure ideas that are tackled. Most people have heard of Plato's Cave, or existentialism, or even "I think, therefore I am", but actually knowing what these are and the implications that they contain is a different kettle of fish altogether.
30-Second Philosophies takes on all these ideas and more and attempts their explanation in a page apiece. For the more impatient reader there is a small summary section of just a couple of sentences, whilst those inspired to contemplate further are given an appropriately philosophical thought to ponder. And in case those 50 theories threaten to overwhelm - and given the complex nature of the subject matter this is a very real possibility for those tempted to go cover-to-cover - small biographies of some of the major movers and shakers in the development of philosophical thought throughout the ages help to break up the text.
And then, of course, there is the very essence of what constitutes philosophy and why, in today's technophilic world, these concepts still matter. Philosophy's big questions - What is reality? Why are we here? Is there a God? - are still as distant today as they were in the days of Plato and Aristotle and will probably never be conclusively solved using pure empirical evidence. 30-Second Philosophies also makes the point that these concepts are not stationary - Zeno's paradox aside, perhaps - but in fact evolving and ever-changing, interpreted and reinterpreted over the aeons. It could even be that the irrepressible march of technological progress will not render philosophy irrelevant but instead create new ideas of what and who we are, and of the nature of consciousness. Artificial Intelligence, anyone?
This is the best thing about this book. To someone not schooled in the subject philosophy can at first appear impenetrable, daunting and inaccessible, the sole preserve of crusty academics. This is patently not true, and some of the most clever, intriguing and sometimes disturbing thoughts ever dreamt are introduced in a clear and entertaining way. For those seeking enlightenment this is an ideal way to start the journey; just don't expect too many answers...
Friday, 2 July 2010
Talk of electoral reform was a dominant feature of May's general election, and indeed a referendum on changing the voting system here in the UK is planned for next year. The issue of whether we should ditch first-past-the-post in favour of a version of proportional representation was one of the key demands made by the Liberal Democrats as part of the current coalition deal between them and the Conservatives, themselves far less enthusiastic for change. Labour are also generally opposed to any form of tampering with the current system.
But why wait a year to express your opinion when you can do it right here, right now? The poll - situated at the top right of the screen - should make for interesting reading when the results come in...
Thursday, 1 July 2010
The issue of British voting reform will be the subject of a referendum which - if given the green light - will take place in May next year. At the heart of any such public vote will be the issue of proportional representation and whether a version of it should replace the first-past-the-post system currently utilised so controversially in national elections.
Whether such a mass exercise in public consultation will actually come to fruition is another matter altogether; in order to proceed the proposals must successfully pass through Parliament and a rebellion by Tory MPs is already looking like a distinct possibility. Opposition from some Labour parliamentarians is also likely to provide another potential stumbling block.
It's a curious aspect of our current administration that profound changes to our political system are part and parcel of proposals that almost certainly would not meet with approval from the Prime Minister's own party. And that's because these plans are a key component of the Con-Dem coalition deal that granted David Cameron the keys to Downing Street.
As such the announcement is something of a victory for deputy PM Nick Clegg. Already prone to accusations of poodling to Tory demands in government - witness the controversial VAT U-turn, among others - the Liberal Democrats can now claim that they too have some leverage in Whitehall and an opportunity for their policies to see the light of day.
For electoral reform has been a key concern of the Liberals for some time. And it's not surprising why; after the most recent election they gained only 57 seats with just under 7 million votes, whilst the Conservatives and Labour more than quadrupled that number with a much smaller relative increase in public support. FPTP's effect of wasting the votes cast for ultimately unsuccessful candidates has long denied the Liberal Democrats a much larger representation in Parliament. The ideological compromises made thus far by the party leadership in their desire for power may ultimately be vindicated in the eyes of their core membership if electoral reform is ultimately passed.
I've discussed my own desire for - as a bare minimum - a reevaluation of both our current system and the various forms of proportional representation that could replace it previously, despite my own dismay with the way Clegg's party have taken to their role as Conservative understudy with giddy aplomb. It is not unreasonable for each and every vote cast at an election to be of equal worth; until that happens results will always be questioned and prone to conflict.