Wednesday, 31 March 2010


The local RSPB group is organising a nature walk in Swansea Vale on 11th April.
Their message reads:

"Meet at Swansea Vale Resource Centre Car Park, Ffordd Tregof, Llansamlet (SA7 0AL) at 10.00am. A morning walk around the marshland, footpaths and river paths in the Swansea Vale development area. Contact: Marlay John (01792-816250). Beginners and new members welcome.

"Warm weatherproof clothing and boots may be necessary. Please leave dogs at home. Walks are undertaken at your own risk. Directions: Turn north off A48 at Star Inn, Llansamlet into Church Road leading into Walters Road. Turn left at second roundabout into Ffordd Tregof. Centre is first right."

Unfortuantely, the nearest bus - First Cymru's 59 - does not run on Sundays.

I have also received the programme of summer walks from Neath and Port Talbot Ramblers' Association. Walks are listed for all over South Wales, plus one weekend away in Church Stretton. There are long walks of 8-11 miles and short walks around 5-6 miles. Of particular interest is the annual 10-mile Sarn Helen walk on 30th May.

For more information, contact the secretary on 01656 733021

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The News Read at Slow Speed

The son of a German immigrant - to India - reminisces. It's a longish tale, but I hope I'm not the only one in these parts to be moved right to the end.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Sayers, Sondheim and Assassins

Stephen Sondheim could be described as the Dorothy L Sayers of the musical theatre - which is meant as a compliment. Ironically, he confessed on "Composer of the Week" last week (still available on "Listen Again" for a few days) that, after the commercial failure of "Merrily we Roll Along" that he considered devoting the rest of his life to writing mystery stories. The TV movie "The Last of Sheila" shows just how good he was at it.

Sayers deliberately set out to extend the reach of detective fiction, mainly to make it more literate (which many aficionados regard as patronising), but also introducing such serious themes as xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Musicals had already had been given more challenging storylines from Richard Rodgers and Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein III, but Sondheim went further in cutting through the musical rhetoric and making more complex lyrics. He also deals in subjects which R&H would never have considered.

Among these is a pageant of assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents. "Assassins" contains some of his most tuneful numbers (though this may partly be because of the element of pastiche). However, he had some trouble putting it on because there was patriotic resistance to showing the head of state of the US being assassinated or threatened. It was the time of the Iraq war, and there was a Republican in the White House. Since patriotism is mainly associated with the "right", it seems from this news item that the time for this musical has come.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Conservative manifesto for government information technology has reproduced the Conservative Party proposals for UK computing from 2010 onwards. There doesn't seem to be a specific Liberal Democrat equivalent, but the party's pronouncements on individual issues over the last few years suggest that it wouldn't be a lot different*. Most of the ideas are common sense (why hasn't New Labour implemented them before now?) - a presumption against a supplier cartel for large contracts, consistent use of open standards, not going for bespoke solutions where an off-the-shelf, or existing adaptable, system is available, opening up procurement to small businesses, publishing "gateway" reviews, and "a right to government data will be created that will allow the public to request and receive data collected by government".

Some of the Conservative ideas are gimmicky (a "British Google" is just nuts) and some - like universal fast broadband in UK - have also been promised by the current government, though with a different funding model.

What I found most interesting was the implicit rejection of the Thatcher/Heseltine idea of separating high-level specification (left with politicians) from design (privatised). The Thatcher government also destroyed the concept of a central civil service computing office. New Labour has largely followed the same strategy. However, the Conservatives are now saying: "a central store of common software applications would be created, enabling apps to be reused across government departments rather than having each department buying its own software,  [an IT development team would be created within government] to create low-cost applications and advise on the procurement of IT projects [and the government Chief Information Officer would] have powers to set government-wide policies in areas, such as open standards when building systems and open data where recording information".

I trust that our proposals, when they appear, will be equally pragmatic. The free market just doesn't work in this area.

*except on the issue of control of ISPs, where we are clearly more liberal - see various Liberal Democrat postings on the subject of the Digital Economy Bill


Wednesday, 17 March 2010


The latest issue of the online Ramblers newsletter lists a few new books with a Welsh connection:

Cool Canals Walking Weekends
Phillippa Greenwood, Martine O'callaghan
Publication Date: 01/03/2010

The Pictorial Guide to the Mountains of Snowdonia 1
John Gillham
Publication Date: 04/03/2010
Volume One covering the Northern Peaks is part of a four book series that provides the most comprehensive coverage to date of the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park.

The Pictorial Guide to the Mountains of Snowdonia 2
Publication Date: 04/03/2010
Volume 2 covers the Western Peaks. “John Gillham shows a rare talent for turning rock-face into striking line illustration,” (Lakeland Walker)

Undiscovered Wales
Kevin Walker
Publication Date: 04/03/2010

Mountain expert Kevin Walker presents fifteen one-day circular walks that pass through stunning and remote locations in Wales that are rich in legend and history.

By the way, it was good to see Floella Benjamin at the ICC on Saturday. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to say hello.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Michael Foot and Free Speech

In my posting immediately after Michael Foot's death, I was too pessimistic about how he would be remembered. Yesterday's report of his funeral in the Indy was typical of the high esteem in which he was still held.

For my part, I must correct the impression I gave that the 1950s discussion programme which Foot took part in was a BBC televised version of the "Brains Trust". In fact, it was a Sunday afternoon programme presented for ITV by John Irwin and Edgar Lustgarten. It was called "Free Speech" and typically also featured Sir Robert Boothby MP (his underworld connections and bisexuality not then public knowledge, of course), Bill Brown, the reactionary general secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association who had started his career as a radical firebrand, and AJP Taylor, the historian. There was thus a straight conservative/socialist divide.

I doubt that, sadly, Associated Television, the company which had the London franchise and produced "Free Speech", considered recording any of those smoke-wreathed arguments. Even then, ITV companies operated on a tighter budget than BBC.

In the edition of TV Times for the second week in April 1956 in which I found the above programme information, there was a celebrity endorsement of the Daily Mail. The man featured in the advertisement for the deep-dyed conservative daily was Lord Elton, the father of Thatcher-baiting Ben.

End the vulture culture

"Vulture fund" is a name given to a company that seeks to make profit by buying up "bad" debt at a cheap price, then trying to recover the full amount, often by suing through the courts.

Such companies often describe themselves as "distressed debt funds". Some target failing companies, but debt campaigners are concerned about those that target poor countries. Despite its poverty, Liberia has been one of the countries most heavily targeted. $357m , equivalent to 49% of its GDP, has been awarded against the country in recent years. Zambia is another sufferer. (There is more  explanation in this pdf file, and Private Eye is worth reading to keep up to date with the latest depradations.)

This was the background to a fringe meeting, arranged by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, at the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference in Birmingham last weekend. The sixty or more party activists (it was difficult to count how many had crammed into a too-small meeting room) were given both a brief history of the campaign (it was inspired by the ancient concept of one year in fifty in which sins were pardoned and debts remitted) and an authoritative overview of the current situation by guest speaker Vince Cable. Vince knows whereof he speaks, having worked for the Kenyan government, and written, or co-written, books on the subject.

A few myths were dispelled. The chief among them was that countries which had their debts cancelled immediately channelled the funds released to corrupt ministers. Overwhelmingly, the evidence is that tax previously wasted on interest on debt went straight to meet social needs, like schools and health provision.

Conservative shame. Labour's Sally Keeble, with support from all sides of the House of Commons, introduced the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, designed to curb the activities of vulture funds. It seeks to ensure that creditors cannot pursue debt repayment beyond the level assessed as fair and sustainable by the World Bank. Being a private member's bill, it requires parliamentary time, which was denied it by Christopher Chope, the Conservative MP for Christchurch. There were suggestions at the weekend that there were other Conservative MPs who were interested in seeing the Bill run out of time, and that Chope was just the front man.

Liberal Democrats fight threat to Internet freedom

It seems that press coverage of Sunday's proceedings in Birmingham was monopolised by the leader's speech. One has to go to the blogosphere (e.g. Lynne Featherstone and Liberal Democrat Voice) to read of an equally important proceeding, the passing of emergency motion F19.

The threat was that, under the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill, a government minister - in practice, probably a middle-ranking Home Office civil servant - could close down an Internet Service Provider if there was a whiff of a breach of copyright. The pressure to include these powers had clearly come from the big record and movie production companies, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how they could be misused to suppress political comment as well. Their Lordships passed an amendment, sponsored by Liberal Democrats among others, to ensure that the power could only be exercised after the courts had intervened. Lord Clement-Jones explained the reasoning here.

But we decided that even this was too heavy-handed. There were significant contributions from a content provider, Neville Farmer, and David Matthewman, a man who, among other things, devised anti-piracy measures for other web-site owners. These two might have been expected to oppose the motion, but were enthusiasts for it.

Our William Hague moment

"I may look eleven, but actually I'm only ten". This was Maelo Manning's opening to her contribution to the debate on the "youth" motion at Birmingham, summed up by Maureen Rigg here. It really was a beautifully-constructed speech. What struck me was the contrast between the young William Hague, a grammar-school boy defending privilege, and an even younger Liberal Democrat, admitting that she attended a private school, calling for fair opportunities for all young people.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Answer the Question!

One of the advantages of digital Freeview is that one has access to BBC-Parliament, and thus see proceedings in Westminster unmediated by BBC journalists. Further, one can see in full the points of order which are raised by MPs after Prime Minister's Questions are over. Good as Phil Parry and Adrian Masters, and their studio guests, are, this session can be more entertaining and informative than any panel post mortem on PMQs.

Today was a case in point. Most of the questions raised are, in fact, not points of order as such, but a means for ordinary members to get something off their chest and into the record. Since the Speaker has to hear the submission out before ruling on it, the intention of the member is fulfilled. Today, there was much by-play over Lord Ashcroft, together with the unwillingness of cabinet ministers to give embarrassing answers to MPs' letters before the general election.

Anne Widdecombe asked a question which she had raised many times before, and which honourable members before her had no doubt also raised, going back to the days of Harold Macmillan, who had introduced the prime minister's questions procedure. What she wanted to know is how ministers could be made to respond to questions.
Speaker discusses parliamentary reform
Here there is hope. Speaker Bercow has promoted  "a tracking system for Written Questions, in due course to be made available on the Internet. I am aware that Ministers have many, many demands on their time but I want to encourage a culture in which Questions posed by backbench MPs are considered to be a special priority. This can only enhance the status of Members of Parliament." (That description was from a speech to the Hansard Society which is worth reading in full.) Today, in response to Miss Widdecombe, he clearly foreshadowed extension of the system to other questions and its use as an instrument to hold the administration to account.

Reopened rail lines

 I have just taken delivery of "Britain's Growing Railway", a stylish and well-illustrated paperback listing the new and reopened stations in Britain since the 1960s. It is published by Railfuture, the campaigning name of the Railway Development Society.

There are noteworthy entries for both Cardiff-Bridgend via Barry ("Rails in the Vale") and the Ebbw Valley Line (Lein Glyn Ebwy). In both cases, estimated traffic figures were exceeded in the first year of operation. This should encourage WAG and the Office of the Rail Regulator to be more bold in future.

It's probably too much to hope for a reopening of Neath-Brecon, with a stop at Cadoxton, though!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Labour poison pill?

The Independent accuses Gordon Brown's government of signing many contracts in a rush, without regard to value for money, before the general election. If true, this is irresponsible, whether it is to embarrass an incoming administration - unlikely to be Labour - or to pay off people with whom the government has had a special relationship.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A woman director wins an Oscar at last

Kathryn Bigelow last night won the best director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker", which follows the dangerous daily existence of a US Army bomb squad. This is the first time that this particular Oscar has gone to a woman, and only the fourth such nomination, following Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation, Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano and Lina Wertmuller for 1975’s Seven Beauties. Before this, excellent women directors like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino were overlooked completely.

One wonders why Bigelow succeeded where others had failed. Perhaps it is because she has shown that she can direct action movies, like "Point Break" and "Blue Steel", with the best of the men. These two films had a psychological dimension (as one presumes "Hurt Locker" does) and Lupino had explored the same sort of territory, but Bigelow is prepared to put action, sometimes violent action, on the screen.

So often the main Oscars go where the money is, so James Cameron's expensive but very profitable "Avatar" looked favourite. It is a promising sign that the Academy recognised a movie which cost only $15m (a fleabite in Hollywood these days) and, up until the Oscars ceremony, was reported to have only just recovered its costs.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Free speech in the European Parliament

There was a telling contribution by Chris Davies MEP in the latest "Liberal Democrat News", excerpted in his blog. He points out that the freedom of speech which Nigel Farage takes for granted was hard-won in Poland, whence comes the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek. The President (the EP equivalent of Westminster's Speaker) had asked Farage to withdraw his insulting words about Herman van Rompuy.
Farage refused.

Buzek, an activist for the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s, said: 

"I attach the highest importance to freedom of speech.  I fought for decades in my own country for such freedom.  However, I do not believe that freedom of speech in the Parliament can extend to insulting other persons, especially guests speaking at our own invitation in the chamber.  The very foundation of parliamentarianism and democracy is that freedom of expression should respect others."

Chris Davies adds:
“When Buzek talks about free speech his words carry more genuine substance than all the rants and ravings of UKIP's former leader.”

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Wyn Morris and the Symphony Of A Thousand

I had rather lost touch with the career of Wyn Morris, who died last week. The Telegraph obituary makes it all too clear why he seldom appeared in the musical headlines. However, he was responsible for what must have been the first British recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 8. Morris cannot have been quite as disorganised as the obituarist makes out; this was a major undertaking. Because of its huge choral as well as orchestral demands, and because Mahler's reputation had been in decline until then, this had hardly been performed in this country before Charles Groves conducted it for a Prom in the 1960s, an overwhelming performance, which I was lucky enough to get a promenade ticket for.

Morris's recording was made in 1972, prior to a performance (also in the Royal Albert Hall, a perfect venue for the work) with an orchestra, the Symphonica of London, which he and Isabella Wallich had put together. It was the first (and possibly the last?) symphonic release for the label "Independent World Releases". It wasn't something you would come across in your average record shop, and I chanced to spot it in a specialist outlet in, if I recall correctly, Birmingham.

There are Welsh links. Morris was born in Gwent, and Wallich was the niece of the great Fred Gaisberg, who had travelled to Craig-y-Nos castle to make priceless recordings of diva Adelina Patti.

Now looking at the sleeve again, I spot some interesting names among the personnel. In the trumpet section, there was John Wilbraham, who was also into folk-rock and jazz, and Roy Copestake, who became a founder member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. Tristan Fry, also eclectic, was one of the three percussionists and alongside the ubiquitous Marie Goosens was the harpist David Snell, who also featured on the Dankworth album I posted about earlier.

A sleeve note is taken from a "Country Life" review by Stewart Deas. It concludes: "No orchestra this size can play well together of its own volition, no matter how expert each individual player may be. Indeed, just because they are all expert players with ideas of their own, they may well present the conductor with special difficulties. He has to be prepared to ride the storm and issue the commands that will steer ship (the music) and crew (the players) safely to their destination. Wyn Morris did just that and he did it admirably."

Self-denying ordinance hits a limit

My resolution not to publish party political stuff here did not last long. I hadn't realised there were limits to the text one could paste to the Facebook wall in a single message, until I tried to set out my thoughts on Lord Ashcroft there.

But I will still concentrate on Facebook for the shorter political messages.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Ashcroft, Goldsmith, Mittal, Paul - and Michael Brown

A party colleague criticised Speaker Bercow for "wicked inaction" when the massed ranks of Conservatives tried to shout down Vince Cable's second question in the House today. The question was about the amount of tax which Lord Ashcroft had avoided paying since taking his seat in Parliament, and the moronic chanting from the Conservative benches was "Michael Brown". Vince, however, delivered his question with no discernible hesitation, not needing the Speaker's intervention and it was the official opposition which looked stupid.

One assumes that they were not calling for the return of the outed former Conservative MP, but to the Scottish financier who funded Charles Kennedy's poster campaign in 2005. It should be noted that they had to go back five years to find anything to hang round the Liberal Democrats' necks.

This is the point. Michael Brown's money was a one-off, and, being spent on a hurriedly drawn-up poster campaign featuring the leader, of dubious benefit to the party at large. Ashcroft and Goldsmith for the Conservatives, and Mittal and Paul for Labour, have continued to make contributions. Their targeted drip-drip of funds will influence the coming general election, and probably beyond. One can also criticise Labour's current dependency on one or two large trade unions, though presumably Unite and Unison members pay all their taxes in the UK and their attachment to this country cannot be doubted. Their motivation may be politically suspect, but it has also been made plain, not least in adverts by the unions themselves.

Michael Foot dies

So swiftly after the news of the death of Winston Churchill, who would be remembered more as an effective MP if he were not overshadowed by his illustrious grandfather, comes the news of the death of Michael Foot.

He came from a great Liberal family, and still retained a liberal outlook on many matters, even after he had been bitten by socialism. He will sadly be recalled only as presiding over "the longest suicide note in history", after being elected as Labour leader when he was long past his best years - a serious car crash had not helped.

Hopefully, there is enough material in the BBC archives to show what a passionate and effective debater he was in his middle years.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Aberystwyth - London link not to be reinstated

Nearly twenty years ago, the last direct Aberystwyth-London train service was axed. Since then, traffic has been returning to rail, yet Arriva's application to restore mid-Wales' connection to the capital has been turned down by the rail regulator.

One of the objectors was the Wrexham and Shropshire concern, on the grounds that Arriva's venture, calling at some of the same stations on the way to London Marylebone, would put the W and S out of business. However, it seems to me that most of the Arriva traffic would be new.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Heroin contaminated with anthrax

BBC News is  mystified by the outbreak of anthrax among heroin users. The best story they came up with on PM today was that the heroin was transported from Afghanistan in infected goat-skins.

Gary Lewis, who is much closer to the streets than the average BBC journalist, has a more plausible explanation: that the drug is cut, close to source, with infected bonemeal.

Afan FM blogs

Our local radio station is promising presenters' blogs to coincide with Dydd Dewi Sant.