Thursday, December 29, 2011

Political blog post: unemployment

One of the unexpected side-effects of working in a job tangentially linked to public health is that I keep discovering new things. I’ve become a gatherer of noteworthy trivia and factoids that actually scare me when I think about them.

One of the more shocking was this: chronic worklessness has an equivalent debilitating effect on a person’s health as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. That means that if someone is unemployed for a long period of time, they are statistically more likely to die at a younger age than someone with a job – to the same tune as if they puffed a packet of death-sticks every 24 hours.

We know the effects of smoking, and most sensible people would support a total ban if any government had the balls to do it. Lung cancer is a truly horrible way to die. I've seen it kill someone I care about, so I know that. But we don’t see the wasting disease of the soul that is unemployment in quite the same way – its impact is hidden.

And yet draw a map of disease and early mortality in any part of the country and the map will always follow a pattern: low mortality = poverty = high smoking = high obesity (i.e. poor nutrition) = low child birth weight = chronic or prolonged unemployment = poor housing = higher cancer rates, more heart diseases, more illness per se.

Poverty and suffering from ill health go hand in hand on any public health map drawn up ever.

And poverty and worklessness go hand in hand on any demographic map drawn up ever.

Just before Christmas the Government announced it was going to put over £400m into efforts to tackle ‘problem families’ – i.e. dysfunctional families with ‘feckless’ dads, tearaway teens, benefits cheats and criminal genes. This wasn’t new news, but it was reported as such. The Government previously said it was going to spend over £300m in October. Inflation means everything costs more a few months later.

A Daily Mail article that ran in October carried the headline “How Britain's Shameless families cost the taxpayer £8bn every year.”

It went on to say:
“The summer riots have convinced the government that drastic steps are required to tackle a hardcore of workless neighbourhoods where no-one has a proper job.

The coalition says Labour’s welfare legacy means there are many parts of Britain where three generations of families have never worked and live a life funded by state benefits.

Some neighbourhoods, particularly in inner cities and on large estates, are so blighted by long-term unemployment that no-one on a street has a job and children never see anyone getting up and going to work.”
We have a scenario, then, where generations of young people are growing up in workless households, where to be unemployed is the norm. There’s a reason for that. Good jobs – and by that I mean jobs that will enable you to pay the rent or mortgage, buy nourishing, nutritional food, pay for insurance, pay for heating and lighting, clothe your kids and yourself, and maybe have enough left over to pay for a monthly night out at the cinema – are hard to come by.

Whose fault is that, exactly?

According to Government, and reproduced faithfully by the bleating Mail, Labour’s welfare policies are responsible for “three generations of workless families”.

I know it feels like forever since Tony Blair’s New Labour victory in 1997, but that wasn’t three generations ago. It must be linked to whoever was in charge before Tony.

And what is Labour’s record when it comes to employment, anyway? One of the sea-changes in British politics came after the Second World War. The newly-installed Labour Government is still, I think, the only British Government ever to state a commitment to full employment. There would be jobs for people as Britain rebuilt itself – that was the plan.

It was ambitious, but it wasn’t a pipe-dream. It was founded on an ethic that saw the social good in employment. Work wasn’t just about earning money – or even a cynical exercise in keeping the population occupied. Work was something that drew communities together. If the majority of people in a community work in local business or manufacturing, it creates cohesion. Never mind the individual health benefits that we now know accrue from being engaged in work.

Another sea-change was the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s. The privatisation of national industries – gas, telecoms, electric – were all justified using economic arguments. Nationalised industries were inefficient, they had too many employees, they were monopolies that kept prices high.

So they closed the pits and the steelworks, the mills and the mines.

Interesting story – when my Dad was 16, my Granddad had a word with a friend and got my Dad a job at the steel mill that loomed above the small Welsh village where he grew up. Dad had other ideas – he wanted to study medicine and become a doctor, but many of his contemporaries went to work there.

In many respects, Dad chose a hard path. Studying medicine was even more brutal in the 60s than it is today – and I know enough junior doctors to know it’s pretty brutal today. He worked long hours, and later in hospitals and as a GP worked all hours of the day and night caring for people.

But he wasn’t thrown on the scrapheap when the steelworks was shut down in the name of efficiency in the late 1980s. He wasn’t forced, like so many people in their late 40s, to retrain for a new career and cross your fingers there would be work at the end of it. Being a doctor was a stressful career choice, no doubt about it. But he wouldn’t have traded places with the people facing an uncertain future before a retirement in penury.

That’s the thing about ‘efficiency’ – it’s only a benefit in the short-term to the balance sheet of the company. In the long-term, and we’re talking the inter-generational long-term, the social efficiency of keeping ‘inefficient’ industries going is far greater.

So, now the Tories are irked that billions are being spent on benefits for workless communities. Well, you reap what you sow.

Of course, the middle class tax-payers who senselessly vote Tory and equally senselessly read the Daily Mail are regularly up in arms about the work-deprived communities their taxes now subsidise. But Tory policy created those areas blighted by unemployment. Here’s an idea: Stop voting for the short-term, slash-and-burn, quick-buck opportunists.

The history of Tory economic policy is about short-sightedly sacrificing social capital and infrastructure for a few pence. There was never a golden egg they weren’t willing to kill the goose for. As a frivolous example, in the 60s they axed hundreds of picturesque railway routes throughout Britain, never thinking that one day heritage railways could potentially be money-spinners. (The Severn Valley railway once ran through the Ironbridge Gorge into the heart of Shrewsbury – think what that would be like as a tourist attraction now!)

When you are blinkered by the balance sheet you only see the money you will ‘save’, not the opportunities you will miss out on.

That was the 60s. In the 80s they hammered heavy industry – creating poverty blackspots that have drained the public purse for decades in the process.

What are they doing now? Youth unemployment is heading towards an all-time high. Incidentally, so are domestic fuel bills – ending those monopolistic nationalised industries certainly didn’t work in the consumers favour. The NHS is in a process of privatisation; with plans to corral off half of NHS beds for paying customers.

We’re told the NHS, like so much else, has to change because it is ‘inefficient’. But there are different ways of defining 'efficiency'. The NHS is actually very efficient at delivering a central element of what makes a society civilised – care at the point of need for all members of society, regardless of their economic status.

That principle is a bottom line worth more than any balanced books will ever be.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I’m increasingly troubled by the issue of provenance – how do we know what we read is in any way true or not.

Recently I wrote a white paper about the founding of the NHS, based on presentations by three eminent professors. One of them included a quote from Aneurin Bevan in his PowerPoint. The quote was:
“Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.”
I agree whole-heartedly with that statement – it succinctly sums up the issue at the heart of universal healthcare. But, as this was going to be a white paper, I felt I ought to reference it. That’s where the trouble began.

I read Bevan’s key work ‘In Place of Fear’ and it wasn’t in there. A quick scout of ‘quote websites’ on Google didn’t turn up anything. In fact, the only reference I could find on Google was to another presentation by the same professor, where again the quote appeared unattributed. So, I contacted the presenter who said he thought he’d noted it from the many-hundred page biography of Bevan by Michael Foot, but he didn’t have the reference.

He obviously also had a fruitless web search, because in his email he said: “The quote doesn't come up on Google, which makes we wonder if it was part of something Bevan said rather than wrote.” And then he added: “But it rings so true as a Bevan quote that I can't imagine anyone will challenge its authenticity.”

That wasn’t quite good enough for me, so I went further. I got in touch with the Aneurin Bevan Society, and the person who got back to me said they thought it was in his speech at the final reading of the NHS bill in 1948 and also mentioned the Foot biography.

I looked through Hansard for the years surrounding the formation of the NHS (not just ’48), but I couldn’t find it. I didn't have the time to trawl through the biography, so I fudged it in the paper – saying the professor quoted Bevan, but without noting the lack of source. So far, he was right. Nobody has challenged its authenticity.

Then again, within the last few weeks I was writing another paper based on a presentation and there were two quotes attributed to Gandhi. The good thing is that Gandhi is a bit more famous on Google than Bevan and it didn’t take long to find out that the quotes were probably spurious.

The first quote was:
“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises.
He is not dependent on us. - We are dependent on him.
He is not an interruption to our work. - He is the purpose of it.
He is not an outsider in our business. - He is part of it.
We are not doing him a favor by serving him. - He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
All well, good and laudable in a healthcare context. Anything that refocuses the work of clinicians on the people they are caring for gets the thumbs up from me. And, although I don’t personally like the use of ‘customers’ in a healthcare setting, I have seen enough family members receive poor customer care from the health service to hope this maxim takes root.

But I still had a problem with the quote – I wasn’t sure it rang true for Gandhi. Sure enough, Wikipedia’s extensive halfway house of uncorroborated quotes had it in storage – noting that the common attribution of the quote didn’t match the known facts of Gandhi’s life. Several websites seeking to affirm it as a genuine quote report that Gandhi said it on a visit to Johannesburg in 1890, but Gandhi’s first visit to South Africa was in 1893.

Something was screwy there. The Wikipedians and other editors noted its similarity to a statement popularised by an American entrepreneur called L. L. Bean. But no-one knew where he had got it from, or whether he coined it.

The second Gandhi quote was the famous “Be the change you want to see in the world” aphorism. As the first quote had proved probably spurious, I thought I’d better check this out. As a quote, it doesn’t appear in any of Gandhi’s published works, but it was attributed to him by his grandson, Arun Gandhi. So maybe it was genuinely something Gandhi said. I’d rate the chances of it being authentic as 50/50.

My problems with ascertaining whether quotes were true remind me of a piece of fact-checking I did when I worked for a Christian family charity. The founder of the organisation is a well-known public speaker and often tells stories as part of his presentations. One, which I heard on numerous occasions and I’ve heard told by another well-known Christian speaker, concerns a world-famous violinist called Itzhak Perlman.

The basic gist of the story is that Perlman (who was born in Israel in 1945) contracted polio and was crippled at a young age. He is now a world-famous concert violinist. When he plays, the audience have to wait for him to limp onto the stage on crutches and position himself.

One night at the concert hall, Perlman had just started a violin solo and one of the strings snapped on his violin. Instead of stopping, he carried on playing, rapidly transposing the notes as he went so he is played them on different strings than usual. When he finished, the auditorium sat in stunned silence for a heartbeat than explodes in rapturous applause.

Perlman signalled for quiet and hauled his crippled body upright. He turned to the hushed crowd and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, all my life I have sought to make music with what remains!”

That’s the story. The moral – that whatever hardships in life leave you in some way deficient can be overcome – that you too, whatever your struggle, can ‘make music with what remains’ is uplifting. I saw people powerfully moved by the story; some moved even to tears.

I wondered if there was more to the story, so I Googled it. And that’s when I discovered there’s a small problem with it.

As far as anyone can tell, it’s not true.

The details are correct – Itzhak Perlman is a world-renowned violinist. He did have polio as a child and was crippled as a result. So far, so good. But the ‘with what remains’ story didn’t happen. It’s never been mentioned in any review of his concerts – although it has been noted that once when he broke a string, he entertained the crowd with jokes while his violin was re-stringed.

As says “Apparently if Itzhak Perlman ever did continue playing a concert piece after one of the strings on his violin broke, at least one newspaper considered the feat less remarkable than his performing a stand-up routine in similar circumstances.”

The slightly cloying sentiment isn’t the reason the story annoys me. What annoys me is the way it’s been presented as true, yet a 1 second search on Snopes reveals that it is most likely made up.

I think anyone who uses someone else’s words when they present should name the source, or at least check whether a story they tell actually happened. I do.

People – particularly those with a trade in telling feel-good stories and sticking them in books – might say ‘Well, it doesn’t matter whether the quote is genuine, as long as it sounds genuine, or has a good point to make.’ But if we’re just making shit up, then where do we draw the line?

We’re not even talking about centuries-old beliefs or legends from the dawn of time. We’re talking about people and events that happened within living memory. I work with someone who heard Aneurin Bevan speak at a public event in Tredegar. Gandhi wrote an autobiography, his various writings are still in print, and there have been several biographies about him. Itzhak Perlman is still alive.

So, how come so much misinformation can exist? How can sourceless quotes be taken at face value, or when sources are described, they are easily disprovable (thinking of Gandhi’s speech in Jo’burg three years before he set foot in South Africa – which incidentally wouldn’t be ‘South Africa’ for another 20 years).

I think these are issues in a healthcare setting – because clinical practice should be based on evidence and the facts should be right. I think it’s even more crucial in religious circles, particularly if you are trying to draw spiritual lessons from them.

Or to put it another way, if the facts are malleable when it comes to a violinist who still walks among us, how much credence should we give to anything said about a carpenter who disappeared from this earth 2,000 years ago? Why should we believe anything written about him or any quotes attributed to him, given the way modern, documented lives have been expanded and expounded upon?

Those are important questions. They show why provenance matters.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The person whose mug this was does occasionally read this blog

And if he reads this he'll be relieved to know that I'm nicer than many of my Facebook friends...

(Pardon the typo in my original status - the shame!)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The real meaning of Christmas captured on a card

Amazingly, we got two of these cards, with a picture that I think really captures the essence of midwinter festivity in honour of the birth of humanity's saviour.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A parable of SoMe seasonal goodwill ~ or ~ How Twitter brings people together

A few months ago I had a chat with a chap selling second hand toys about Action Force – my favourite toy from the 80s. As is my wont, I tweeted about it.

I was subsequently contacted by two fellow AF fans on Twitter, and a fun conversation developed. It was nice to know other people knew or cared about the forgotten heroes of the 80s and their battles with the villainous Baron Ironblood.

One of the AF fans is called Annie (@AnniePalitoy) and she tweets entertaining glimpses into her life in between references to AF, GI Joe and other fab toys.

Recently Annie tweeted that she was going to donate a chunk of her Christmas bonus to charity, and wanted to know if anyone was doing anything ‘mad’. Now, I happen to know someone who is doing something mad – my friend Liz (@Lizmrawlins) who is braving the bracing brine off Barry Island on Boxing Day. (Brrrr!)

I mentioned this in a tweet to Annie. She then chatted to Liz via Twitter and ended up sponsoring her via Just Giving.

So, two people who never met except via Twitter – one with the cash, the other with just enough crazy to walk into the sea in December – will be contributing to a worthy cause. Social Media genuinely can bring people together. (As does Action Force!)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

David Cameron's 'Christian country' comments

David Cameron is now on record as saying "Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so".

He said this in a speech marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. He went on to say “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today."

Now I am partisan, as this post from a few days ago shows, so it’s interesting to see what David Cameron said and what did he possibly meant by the phrase, a ‘Christian country’.

The phrase ‘Christian country’ seems to crop up regularly, among people bemoaning the state of things, but what does it mean? It’s usually one of those ‘hark back to the past’ phrases, when we recall the ‘good old days’.

So, this would be the Christian country that got rich off the back of the transatlantic trade in human livestock. Eventually, yes we finally stopped selling fellow humans as chattels, but we weren’t done with exploitation. We were a solidly ‘Christian country’ during the Industrial Revolution, which crowded the poor into cities of slums, where most of them died of cholera and typhus. We were a ‘Christian country’ of workhouses, prostitution, gin palaces and opium dens.

Or maybe you’re thinking about the ‘Christian country’ of the twentieth century. The ‘Christian country’ that conscripted teenagers, gave them six weeks training in Ireland, shipped them to France and sent them over the top into the bloody mist of the Somme, where only 1 in 4 kids made it back alive. The ‘Christian country’ that authorised the military to open fire on civilians protesting the working conditions down the South Wales coal mines. The ‘Christian country’ that operated a political Empire for the first half of the century and then repeatedly stitched up the developing world through economic imperialism for the second half.

I’m just saying, our nation’s history ain’t particularly glorious or enlightened and I’m not sure I want my faith to be tainted by association with it. In fact, many of the best examples of British Christians, from Wilberforce, to Barnardo, to Booth, spent their time as outsiders to the prevailing culture of this ‘Christian country’, regarded as annoying, or awkward, or cranks.

But apparently, emphasising our Christian-ness as a country will prevent "moral collapse". David said: "Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, or the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn't going to cut it anymore."

Well, yeah, much as it pains me to agree with a tory leader, I would agree with that. To an extent.

I’m a bit concerned by the phrase ‘moral neutrality’ – I’m not sure what he’s criticising there. It looks to me like a sop to the vocal Christians who believe we would fix everything in society if we just banned abortion and stopped the gays having sex with each other.

But you don’t need to be a Christian to make an ethical distinction between behaviour that is right and wrong. In fact, David knows that – he said being a Christian wasn’t a "necessary nor sufficient condition for morality" but having a faith could be a "helpful prod in the right direction". So we’re a ‘Christian country’, but that’s no guarantee that people who call themselves Christians will do the right thing. Good to know.

He also said: “just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.” I’m sorry, what? I have to disagree with that statement.

What reading of the Bible justifies the persecution of the vulnerable, the widening of the gaps between the haves and have-nots, the granting of favours to the rich and powerful, and the general acquiescence to the amoral profiteering of the markets?

David Cameron’s politics are not “steeped in the Bible”. They have never been seen near the Bible. (Unless he’s reading the list of Israelite kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and has got the wrong end of the stick.)

Okay, I’m in danger of editorialising there, but either living a Christian faith is a radical departure from ‘normal’, acquisitive, selfish human behaviour, or it isn’t. You either love your neighbour or you don’t.

He does say: "The absence of any real accountability, or moral code, allowed some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society.” That’s a very interesting thing for him to say, considering he has done sod all to challenge that behaviour.

David’s government are just about the only European government to oppose the institution of the financial transactions tax (‘Robin Hood tax’), he has refused to crack down on bankers bonuses, and he has supported the head of his tax division who cut numerous shady deals with financial institutions so they could get off paying tax.

Maybe he thinks a semi-stern telling off will solve the problem. He gets to wag the finger at the banks in the confines of a church and so they’ll all listen to him and sort themselves out – do the decent thing, and all that. No, David, maybe you’ll have to man up and fill that vacuum of “real accountability” and get tough with the city boys who keep screwing everyone over.

To do that you would need a clear sense of right and wrong. The problem is David wants it both ways – he wants a free market system and he wants morality. But markets and morality are incompatible. Markets follow the money, and mammon is amoral. You have to apply your morality to the market – make the market serve your purpose – for the market to deliver any social good. That’s why a planned economy brought about the NHS and affordable housing for millions, and also why market economies have made housing unaffordable and turned our health system into a postcode lottery.

So, he wants a nice moral system, but he isn’t willing to impose anything to make it so. Cameron’s comments about faith indicate his levels of confusion.

“Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger.”

So, basically, we’re a Christian country where “many” people aren’t Christians. Not sure how that works, but okay.

He described himself as a "committed but vaguely practising Church of England Christian", or to put it another way, a ‘committed and uncommitted’ Christian. Which explains why he wants everyone to do the right thing, but is too scared to make them.

And finally, he admitted he was "full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues". Presumably that includes big issues like how to live out Christian values you’re only vaguely committed to, and practice politics that are ‘steeped’ in a Bible he’s blatantly never read.

Good luck with that, David.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Building a model railway part 9: Impulse purchase and gifts!

Here's a photo of the three 'home locos' of the SCRHC - Lacey (AKA the Big Dog), Pitbull and Snoopy

To their ranks has been added an unexpected 4th small loco - Coyote.

He's a Canadian Pacific Plymouth shunter - in a slightly different scale (HO, don't you know), and yes, he's North American. This will no doubt anger the railway purists, but I have my reasons. Firstly, he was incredibly cheap - only £14.99 brand new. Secondly, you do see foreign locos on preserved railways over here - I remember being on a narrow guage railway somewhere in North Wales that was hauled by Romanian locos. Thirdly, one day I might build a North American railroad and it would have to be West Coast!

Behind Coyote you can see the new Skaledale waiting room and the important additions of platform bins. These were Christmas presents from Matt - thanks Matt! - and I think they look great. The waiting room matches the other brick buildings I've been constructing, even though it's resin, not card.

Coyote also has the distinction of being the first engine I have 'modded'. Being HO and American it had different couplings, so I bought some UK-style replacements and fitted them. I forgot to take a 'before' shot, so you'll just have to make do with the 'after' shot, which is probably the least exciting model railway related photo I've posted on here.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Political post

There’s always a danger when expressing political views of offending somebody. I’m aware of this and generally in life I try to avoid political discussions in the justifiable fear of rejection.

But I’ve noticed myself being politicised of late. I’m starting to feel angry about the state of things and particularly the people in charge who seem bent as hell. So this is a foray into politics and all the things that have been brewing up inside me.

Partly my renaissance as a politico is because of Twitter and tuning into various voices there (like @UKuncut and @robinhood).

Working in the public sector has also introduced me to new sources of information. I went to a lecture last week delivered by Professor Allyson Pollock, who outlined the abolition of the NHS in England as it is opened up to private competition. David Cameron and co are demolishing the NHS based on intellectually flawed ‘research’ that is so preposterous, even I, as a non-statistician with an arts degree, can spot its glaring deficiencies.

Basically if you live in England you won’t have an NHS any more when this bill goes through. There is no guarantee of comprehensive cover or any duty for the Government to provide it. The organisations being given control over millions of pounds will have no obligation to provide services for people not on their ‘membership’ – and the poor, vulnerable, mentally ill, frail, confused, chronically sick, and illiterate could very easily fall through the cracks.

David Cameron has repeatedly told the public how much he loves the NHS, with the desperation of a wife-beater professing adoration of the woman he treats violently. But this privatisation in all but name turns him into a pimp whoring out his beloved to anyone with money.

There’s other stuff going that drives me crazy too.

Did you know that the head guy at HM Revenue and Customs, Dave Hartnett, was taken out to dinner by senior bods at various corporations, who subsequently got excused from paying millions in tax? He’s just lost his job by the way, or rather he will when he ‘retires’ next year (giving him another 6 months to trouser a few more quid from the taxpayer). Meanwhile one of the guys who blew the whistle is being hounded out of his job.

I’d like to know who I can take out to lunch so I don’t have to pay any tax any more.

I’d also like to know why the head of HM Revenue and Customs didn’t seem that bothered about collecting tax from wealthy people. And why the Prime Minister supported him when people started questioning it.

Did you know that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have both flatly ruled out the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ that levies financial transactions – currently conducted tax-free – because they say such a tax will work against Britain’s interests? It’s so nice they have our interests at heart, but by “Britain’s interests” they mean the interests of the banks, many of whom operate here without paying any tax because they know who to take out to lunch.

The banks, of course, are the responsible citizenry who prompted this global downturn by playing fast and loose with money they didn’t have. And strangely, although no government has held them to account for it, those same banks are seeking legal recourse to prevent a Robin Hood Tax being introduced.

The tax could raise millions – and if the banks and other corporations were made to pay their tax the way we ordinary folks are made to pay our tax – then that would be more millions. But instead the squeeze is on public sector funding.

I don’t want to defend poor spending decisions or financial mismanagement in hte public sector, but that isn’t what’s motivating the austerity measures. These were always the plan for any Tory government. High unemployment benefits capitalism because it keeps wages down. Cut people’s benefits and they will have to work and in the world of ‘caring conservatism’ that includes all those people on sickness and disability benefits.

There’s been a significant rise in attempted suicide among the chronically ill already being recorded due to the stress put on people who are unable to work but are having their lifelines taken away from them.

Then there’s the pensions thing. While any employer is fully within their rights to change the conditions of employment for their employees, there is something fundamentally untrustworthy about an employer who just unilaterally does it. Making people pay more for less is one thing – at 35 it will be decades before I see a penny and a dirty bomb in Whitehall may render it all moot before then anyway. But to suddenly tell people who have been investing for years that they will be on a significantly smaller income than they had been planning for in their retirement seems immoral.

Amidst the discussion about pensions and strikes, it is worth remembering that the average public sector pension is only £5,600 a year – not the “gilt-edged” pension pots that bedenimed tool Jeremy Clarkson seems to think they are. But Clarkson’s level of ignorance is the same as any moron tory braying out the party line about how ‘we’re all in this together’.

There are 17 millionaires in Cameron’s cabinet. No wonder they look out for the 1%. They are the 1%. And we are certainly not all in it together.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t strike, mainly because I don’t belong to a union. And I also don’t know whether striking would do any good. Unless you went out for a month – and everyone went out at the same time. That might cause enough disruption to ruffle even silky smoothy Dave’s oily feathers.

This brings me to another source of frustration, the opposition. There is little, if any, organised political dissent. Labour leader Ed Milliband seems to be incapable of having an opinion, let alone expressing it. He is a floppy-faced, doe-eyed bunny in the headlights of realpolitik and he doesn’t seem to have the nous to challenges the tory BS and expose it as vacuous mammonism.

The other opposition I see most often is the Occupy movement (or more accurately, non-movement). This is fairly visible as I have to walk past their encampment in Cardiff to get to my workplace. They are camped on a square of grass in front of a union building, but to what purpose, I don’t know.

If you are going to be anarchic and oppose the government, I can see the point of firebombing banks or bricking tory mansions. I wouldn’t condone it – certainly not on my blog given the penchant for prosecuting people ‘inciting violence’ online – but I could understand it. But to set up a few tents and regard yourself as a revolutionary just seems stupid to me.

Most of all, though, the thing that annoys me is the lethargic acceptance of the status quo. There are real issues at stake here. I think we should care – and I think we should do something.

I’m particularly appalled by the complacency of Christians. We are talking about social justice and the fortunes of the poor and dispossessed in society. These are the things that Jesus seemed to give a shit about.

To paraphrase Steve Chalke, more of my Christian friends would be upset about me using the word ‘shit’ than any of the issues I’ve listed above regarding institutionalised dishonesty and the shameless mugging of the poor to grease the cogs of the financial system, or the inhuman treatment of the marginalised.

I have always struggled with the way some Christians approach politics. Ever since I was a teenager I have hated the way the Christian approach to politics has cared more about stem cells than social justice; about abortion rather than what happens to adults living with infirmity or disability.

I understand the idea that the way society treats the unborn is indicative of the kind of society we are – but what about the way the Government are demonising the disabled and denying them support? What about the way the care of the sick and the dying is being opened up to the piranha for-profit companies? What about the tax breaks investment banks somehow get while lowly shelf stackers in the hgh street stores nervously wonder if they'll still have jobs in the New Year?

Do these things not matter?

Why should we campaign to create a society where the unborn are protected if then they are born into a society that teaches them they have to look out for number one, that compassion is weakness, that the ones who win are the ones born into privilege or who mortgage their souls to mammon in order to achieve privilege? I don’t get that.

I'm beginning to feel that everything about this government is antithetical to the teaching of Christ and yet I know many Christians will still blindly vote for them or argue for them or stand in elections wearing a blue rosette. I can only assume it’s because they don't read the same Bible I do. Maybe their God is not on the side of the weak and the poor and the downtrodden. Maybe their Jesus preached good news for the rich, and blessings only for the monied and powerful.

Aneurin Bevan stated that the success of the tory party was down to them repeatedly convincing the population to vote against its own interests. He was right. It isn’t in the interests of any of the 99% to vote such a ghastly bunch of smiling crooks into power, and yet people did.

Bevan, interestingly, rejected the church of his day because he said they were immune to the suffering around them. He felt they supported the wealthy in society in the class struggle. If he was right then the church was no longer on the side of Christ. I don’t know how much has changed. Sadly, probably not enough.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The romance of the cup

When the mighty Shrews were drawn away against Newport County in the 1st round of the FA Cup, I was pleased. Talk about a quick trip to see them play. Short of a possible draw against Cardiff I don't think they will be any closer to my house this year.

However, compared to my last away trip (the Emirates!), Newport Stadium was a bit of a rude return to life on the road as a Town fan. It's basically an athletics stadium and we were in the 'away end' - banks of temporary seating on the running track, next to a netting construction I think was a hammer-throwing cage.

The opposite end to us was a similar uncovered stand - so this is what our end presumably looked like from a distance.

We were very close to the pitch, though. I took this picture as the teams observed a minute's Remembrance silence.

The match kicked off at 12.30 - moved because ESPN decided it was the pick of the first round ties to televise. That should have been a warning to me. I have seen Shrewsbury play in three games that have been televised live and they have all been dire. Many moons ago I saw Shrewsbury's first ever live match on Sky - a grafted 1-0 win at Cheltenham. Then, eight years ago I was at the Gay Meadow when we were drubbed 4-0 by Chelsea. (Although, admittedly, Gianfranco Zola's goal is still talked about reverently by Town fans.)

The plus side though was getting close to the ESPN broadcast demountable and seeing the FA Cup in all it's pomp, perched within range of an errant clearance. You can just about make it out in this picture - on reflection, I could have taken one close up. But the guy behind me confidently told me that it was only a replica anyway. Still, I would have dearly loved to see a shanked ball go crashing into it, iconoclast that I am.

Today's TV outing will do nothing to raise people's expectations of the team if they had the misfortune to tune in. It was a Godawful performance on an oily pitch playing hit and hoof. When Town scored we couldn't see initially because it was up the other end, but that was about the only thing to shout about.

It really seemed that the Town players' touch had deserted them. In fact, for the first time ever at a football match I was a bit worried about the safety of my dependable VW Golf, because our defenders seemed determined to launch as many clearances into the car park as possible.

John Barnes and Martin Keown were summing up for the telly. Goodness knows what they made of it - the comments in the stand were pretty negative! Barnesy got asked to rap for us and got a short chant of World in Motion, but didn't oblige. We didn't ask Martin Keown to perform.

The results will show that Shrewsbury scraped a win, and in the long run that's all that matters, I guess. But to do it in such an artless style, doesn't fill me with confidence. There wasn't a gulf in class and Newport can consider themselves unlucky - only a fab save by Town 'keeper Chris Neal kept them out in the second half.

It's strange, but I think County fans will be happier with their team's performance in defeat than I was with our team's win.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Our first ever hi-fi as a married couple

After almost 17 years together and just over 14 years married, Cathy and I have purchased our first hi-fi as a couple.

It's strange that we haven't bought one before, given how often we have music on. We bought (and played out) several of the small all-in-one units in our kitchen over the years. But this was our first 'front room hi-fi'.

It's taken us a while to get it. We decided to get one last year as a Christmas present to each other.

This is what we were replacing.

The tapedeck was my Dad's, bought back in the 80s, and as dead as a Monty Python parrot. The Pioneer amplifier I bought for a tenner from a friend in about 1993, but as it had originally been his family's stereo, then his, that must date from the early 80s too. The CD player and record player I bought in my first term in my first year at Uni.

Cathy helped me carry the CD player home from the train station to the house I was lodging in in Llandaff North. We'd just started going out. She thought I was crazy blowing my money like that, but as my diet was predominantly Heinz spaghetti hoops on toast, I could afford it. (I didn't like using the temperamental gas oven in my student house. You had to reach right into the back to light it with a match and I was afraid it would blow up and burn my arm off. Hobs were safer. I ate a lot of hoops.True story.)

I bought the record player a week later, because I was a muso and I liked to buy limited edition coloured vinyl singles. I presume the turntable still works. I haven't used it in years. The CD player is okay - occasionally sticky. The amp fades in and out and you have to twiddle the volume knob to get it to function. I'll probably freecycle them as someone could use them.

Anyway, that was about half our lifetimes ago. So, today we went and bought a micro hi-fi that cost less than my CD player separate did back in the day. It can play CDs and you can plug a USB into it - a technology that was simply science fiction when our old hi-fi was built.

It's freed up some space, which was easily filled. It sounds amazing. Happy Christmas to us 10 and a bit months later!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


My Dad uses an old 35mm camera, and then has to take the film in to be developed. He likes to tell people about this. He says he's the last person using film in Shrewsbury.

Anyway, this cartoon really reminded me of him.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reliving my childhood through retro packaging

I made an impulse buy in the supermarket tonight - a Star Wars figure on a retro style backing card that reminds me of buying them first time around back in the 1980s.

Having only returned from abroad in 1983, I only ever bought Star Wars figures on the Return of the Jedi backing cards. A whole load of the figures I had back in the day have been retooled and re-released now, including Luke Skywalker in his Jedi Knight outfit, and the Gammorean Guard from Jabba's palace.

I could leave those ones, but when I saw my favourite space admiral ever, I had to have it! Altogether now: "It's a TRAP!"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Building a model railway part 8: new / old acquisitions

Those following this series will know I have acquired a few things from my Dad. recently I was able to raid his boxes of stuff and install a few new pieces on my model railway.

I also brought home a railcar that Dad bought in the 1980s, just to see if it would run. Surprisingly it does, but the headshunts at either end of my lay-out are too small for it to traverse. But at least it runs. It's in a nice early BR maroon as well, so fits in with the other locos.

Dad had a couple of Cambrian wagons - another mainline one and one produced by Dapol.This rake looks pretty good on the surface, but you can easliy spot the same numbers on the side. I am considering how to go about altering them (or at least the ones on my Mainline wagon).

I borrowed a few other pieces of rolling stock. But also some vintage trackside pieces, including two water cranes, a loading gauge and some signals.

They are a mix of manufacturers, including Triang and Hornby Dublo, and date to the 60s, I think. Part of the ethos of building a heritage railway has been to include some 'vintage' pieces like this, so it's 'heritage' in real-life as well.

I plan to build a water tower to back on to the water cranes, which I've placed together to function as an 'exhibit' in the heritage centre.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why Shrewsbury Town struggle to attract new fans

It seems whenever I take someone new to see the mighty Shrews, the team don't live up to their 'mighty' name-tag and turn in a performance that can put you off football as a sport, let alone supporting Shrewsbury. It was thus when I went with a kid to his first ever football match last season. It was thus when I took my cousin for the first time in 26 years.

And it was thus today when I took my friend Connor to his first ever Town game, making him get up at an unearthly hour on a Saturday (well, unearthly for him seeing as he's a student), and drive 110 miles to see two teams struggle to do the basic things right. Like get shots on target. Or pass.

There were a few 'firsts' though. It was the first time I'd ever seen a matchball delivered by helicopter (from the local RAF station as it's poppy appeal time). I don't know how hard it is to land a helicopter in the centre circle, but they made it look easy.

It was also the first time I'd ever seen an opposing team's fans applauded when they were announced.

AFC Wimbledon were formed by fans after the terrible FA decision to allow the original Wimbledon to 'relocate' to Milton Keynes and become the MK Dons. As such, they are held in tremendous esteem by most fans who care about football as a whole, rather than the exercise-in-branding Premier League team they've chosen to support this year. (Yes, I support a real football team; so sue me.)

However, I will hold them in less esteem from now on. I can live with the stifling 'come-for-the-draw' tactics that killed the game from about 10 minutes in. We've seen that time and again, and it was understandable that after shipping several goals and losing three on the bounce, they played cautious tactics. It's boring and frustrating to watch, but really it's up to my team to pick the lock.

But what I can't forgive is a player falling to the floor and clutching his face, rolling in simulated agony after his shirt was tugged gently by an opponent. That is shameful play-acting to get another professional sent off. Okay, it was one player, but it sullied the AFC Wimbledon name in my eyes.

It ended 0-0. Not the greatest intro to the blue and amber for Conn as he sat there loyally wearing the scarf I'd leant him. Town were lucky Wimbledon hit the post after about 3 minutes, but the missed a few good chances and had a decent shout for a penalty turned down, so there were talking points. Just not many good ones.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mid-October Mayhem

I seem to be too busy to blog of late, so here are some random bits and bobs to keep however many people click on here regularly to see what is going on in my life in the loop:

Crazy busy driving round Wales filming brilliant people doing a brilliant job improving healthcare and saving lives. Had a day-trip to Wrexham the other day, which involved 8 hours driving and a fatality. A suicidal pheasant added itself to my roadkill tally and managed to rip a bit of the bumper off The Tank for good measure.

My favourite quote from filming so far was the person who said they had been on "a real learning kerb". (Don't hit that too fast.)

Cathy got baptised at the end of September, after 20+ years of waiting. When she read me the first draft of her testimony she made me cry. Friends and family turned out to see her get dipped, and make it a real special moment for us.

I've been co-opted onto the youth co-ordinating team thing and also taken on responsibility for Soul Mr, the once-a-month boy's night. It's fun, but we are in a period of adjustment as our new youth leader in training settles in.

Back in August, I did a Sunday morning talk ('sermon', if you want to get old school about these things). You can read it here. It was my first talk of that kind for over 5 years.

We survived a week with the family in Herefordshire. Some pictures will make their way on here soon, including my cute little niece, Joy, who is in the grabbing-your-thumb-and-not-letting-go stage of adorability. Given the location, I didn't buy too much cider (although how much is too much?)

Freelance theology
I haven't had much chance to write for this project for a few years, but I have been buoyed by having my first ever donation off the site in the last couple of days. Someone likes it. (More importantly, someone reads it!)

I have had some good sessions on UCB Radio on the back of it. The most recent one was last Friday. I may be doing some more 'slots' for them in future. I've also recorded some stuff for them for future broadcast about the possible existence of aliens, because apparently I'm the guy to talk to about stuff like that.

Model railway
I liberated some of my Dad's old model railway gear last weekend. Will post some pictures soon, because I know how much you all love them!

Most recent film
Cowboys versus Aliens - fairly daft, but enjoyable. 6.5/10

Currently reading
'Franny and Zooey' by JD Salinger. I'm on a bit of a Salinger kick at the moment. I've recently finished his collection of short stories, 'For Esme with Love and Squalor'. One of the stories made me laugh so loud Cathy arched her eyebrows at me.

What's on this week?
More filming and editing in work and lots of plans outside. Going to see Bowling for Soup on Thursday, baby-sitting Friday, model railway exhibition on Saturday and ice hockey in the evening, leading youth on Sunday morning (need to prep for that - aagh!), visiting relatives in the afternoon (possibly). All good stuff.

Monday, October 10, 2011

You want me to what?

These posters have been put up around my workplace.

Now I'm all for raising funds to cure cancer, but the choice of slogan is open to (pervy) misinterpretation. I'm not sure everyone would be happy if I 'unleashed my inner pink'. Especially in a predominantly female office.

Of course, this ambiguity might be what they were going for, to 'get people talking' (or blogging). But I'm sure there are ways of putting it that would sound a bit nicer.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Building a model railway part 7: Upgrading facilities

I said in an earlier post that I was thinking of changing my Hornby good shed.

I wasn't keen on the model, so decided to replace it completely. I opted for a Metcalfe Models kit, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, even though it's just made from card, the signal box kit really impressed me, and I wanted to try another one. Secondly, it's in the same red brick pattern as the signal box lower floor and the engine shed I scratchbuilt (using Metcalfe card), so would fit in. Thirdly, from the pictures I'd seen it looked more interesting than the Hornby one, with an extended platform and an office attached to the shed. Fourthly, it came with a bonus kit of a weighbridge and office. And I love bonus kits!

Anyway, I got glueing and sticking last night. Here are some pictures:

 Bulldog clips are useful to keep the card together while the glue dries
 The shell of the building takes shape
Interior detail - a loading platform and roof trusses. Note the elastic band keeping the edges together so the platform stays flush with the wall.
 External office attached - also the shed doors stuck in place.
Some detailing to go (e.g. chimney pot), but virtually finished.

And it is now happily in situ on the railway.

 The detached building next to it is the weighbridge.
A few other scenic details added, like a skip between the goods shed and the weighbridge (just about visible). I've kept the Hornby loading gauge (above the tank wagons, top right).

Next jobs - painting and sealing the baseboard (Cathy's instructions). Ballasting (which will be fun I'm sure). Touching up the engine shed (possible re-engineering job!) And maybe installing a crane on the platform outside the new good shed. I'm looking into options...

Friday, October 07, 2011

Building a model railway part 6: New loco

I imagine very few men get given model locos from their spouse as a wedding aniversary gift, but I've long suspected my wife, Cathy, is the most awesome wife in the world!

Anyway, for my 13th wedding anniversary I was given a Hornby model of a Thompson L1 tank engine. It was, coincidentally, quite an unlucky class of loco. After a brief working life in the 50s and 60s, all examples of the class were cut up within 20 years of being built. None survived into preservation - a fact Cathy described as "very sad"

But in the world of model railways, one did survive into preservation, and is now on the manifest of the SCRHC. Number 67772 is known locally as 'Lacey', named by Cathy in honour of our 'Lace' anniversary. (Did you know that 13 is the Lace anniversary? no, neither did I.) Among the drivers, the dog theme means it also goes by other names - 'Black Dog', 'the Hound' (as in the Hound of the Baskervilles - a big black dog), or simply 'the Big Dog' because it dwarfs Pitbull and Snoopy.

Here's some pics of it 'running in'.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Asda staff humour makes Hallowe'en less horrible

Personally I don't know why you would want to fill your house with creepy-looking fake crows for any reason, let alone Hallowe'en, but I do admire the Asda employee who labelled these guys.

(I think they meant Sheryl Crow not Cheryl Crow, but stil 10/10 for effort!)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

In search of Salinger; and other books

Back in the summer I bought 'Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters' by JD Salinger. Cathy found it in a RNLI fundraising bookshed near the ferry crossing to Iona. Bit of an odd place to find it, but there you go.

This cover image is for illustration purposes only, as my copy has a blue cover. (I couldn't find it to scan it. I think I might have loaned it to somone in my book group.) It's two novellas, featuring the same characters. The first one was very funny.

Anyway I now want to read the two other books in print by him, 'Franny and Zooey' and 'For Esme, with Love and Squalour'. However, being a bit cheap I don't want to buy the recently re-packaged, fairly expensive Penguin paperbacks. But tracking them down second-hand is proving problematic.

Despite three trips to the town of books, Hay-on-Wye, and a tour of all the second-hand bookshops in Cardiff city centre, I can't find good reading copies anywhere. In fact, the only version of either title I have found was an early Penguin of 'Franny and Zooey'. It had the classic orange cover, and the classic Penguin affliction of hardened binding gum meaning the book would soon self-destruct if you started reading it. And, being on a 'classic Penguin' shelf in a bookshiop in Hay-on-Wye it was priced at a ludicrous £6.95 anyway.

eBay isn't much help either. I think generally the bargains have dried up on there, compared to when it first started out back in the day. Most of the books on there are being sold by professional dealers, for the kind of money that makes you think 'Well, I'll just buy it brand new, at that price.' I've been outbid on a couple of auctions with a reasonable starting price, but I will get one eventually, I'm sure.

Books by JD Salinger may be hard to come by, but I did find two reasonable books about him on eBay that looked worth a punt. They should be arriving through the post any day now.

It's not all doom and gloom. In Hay I found the most recent Culture novel by Iain M Banks, 'Surface Detail' for less than half cover price in hardback.

I've felt Banks has drifted off form for the last couple of Culure novels. 'Matter' wasn't very good at all. But even so this was a 'must purchase' and I'm very pleased to say I thought it was very good, with a 'twist' in the epilogue that I had been hoping for and wondering about since halfway through the book. You probably do have to be a fanboy or girl for the twist to mean anything to you. But if you are a fanboy or girl, then I think you'll like it.

The story is essentially about 'saved souls' in a virtual afterlife and a war in reality to liberate those who have died from hell. It sounds crazy, but the future is going to be a far weirder place than any of us can imagine. And if the future has a Culture (and I dearly hope it does), than that plot premise is not going to be too far-fetched. My favourite character was an Abominator-class starship. That really tells you all you need to know about what kind of book it was (and possibly a bit too much about me!)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A taste of the Premier League

When Shrewsbury got drawn away to Arsenal in the Carling Cup I knew I had to go. A good deal on the train tickets (£23 return to Llundain) made up for not getting home til 2.30am with work the next day.

What an event. The history books will show that we lost 3-1, even though we took a 1-0 lead. That moment - when James Collins headed home after quarter of an hour - was immense. For a brief moment I thought an almighty upset was on the cards. (Truthfully they could have been 2-0 up after five mninutes, though - only 2 magnificent reflex saves from Town goalie Ben Smith kept them out.)

But even though this was the Arsenal C team comprised mainly of kids I'd never heard of, they were a class apart. Superhumanly fast, supremely confident on the ball. It was obvious they'd had a bollocking at half time because they came out and really played in the second half.

Still, it was a great occasion. The Emirates is easily the best football ground I have ever been to - better than the new Wembley or the Millennium Stadium. However, the new meadow has one thing the Emirates doesn't have - in Shrewsbury you can look out through the corner gaps and count the cows on the hillside. Halftime entertainment doesn't come much better than that!

Some  photos:

Outside the Stadium. I got there early and the only people milling around were Town fans.

Inside and everything is branded Arsenal - even the cups of tea. (I was also surprised that the seats were padded!)

Town warm up!

Uncomfortable moments for the Arsenal faithful. (It didn't last long!)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Building a model railway part 5: Shedloads of fun

I always used to look at the amazing railway lay-outs in the magazines and think 'I could never do that'. But recently I thought to myself, 'Well, why not have a go?' After I built the signal box I realised that modelling in card was time-consuming, but perfectly possible. I felt confident to at least try.

I wanted a two-lane engine shed, but none of the card kits would fit the space I had. A Hornby shed would, but they are a bit plasticky, and also I wanted a shed with a closed back wall.

I had a spare set of stickers from the Hornby Goods Shed and so I stuck those to card and cut round them to give me an idea of dimensions. (To do this I had to buy a cutting mat and a metal ruler - a sortie around the shops ended up with a reasonably-priced purchase from Staples.)

I worked out ahead of time that I would need to leave gluing flaps attached, so once I had cut it out I could assemble it. The first shed was pretty plain so I scratchbuilt a lean-to workshop cum office to attach to it.

You can see the transfers on the internal wall in the top picture. Pitbull and Snoopy fitted very snugly inside their new home, so that was a good start.

That shed looked a bit plain (!), so I looked into decorating it in some way. Metcalfe Models, who made the signal box kit I built do some very nice modelling sheets of card with a brick design on. They also include a sheet of roof tiles in their packets of brick card, which is very handy.

I had an issue though - the shed needed ventilation. After some googling I worked out that a raised central roof would be an acceptable form of ventilation in keeping with the South Wales area. So I cut the fascia card to match.

I wasn't sure how to create the centre ventilation section. I originally planned to use a matchbox, as seen in one of these 'under construction' images.

However, Cathy (as senior project advisor) had a better idea, supplying some black card and some patterned craft paper that looks enough like felting / concrete to intersperse the vents.

Having got the modelling bug, I then thought about adding a coaling stage nearby. So in this 'complete' shot you can see my roofless coaling stage in the foreground.

You can also see the transfer on the interior wall. I'm still not happy with the finished shed, although I am pleased with it as a first-try. The nearside wall in this photo has windows, but they could look better. I may replace the entire wall with a new one. If I do that I will paper the inside of the wall. I plan to brick-paper the other interior walls as well, just in case people decide to peep inside. I have also purchased terracotta paint to touch up the edges.

The coaling stage wasn't an original part of the plan, but it fills a space with a semi-authentic feature and it gave me the opportunity to scratchbuild something else. The base is a small packaging box that was about the right height and the walls are Metcalfe brick card. The steps are scratchbuilt from more packaging card.

I decided the coaling stage needed a roof, so turned again to my supplies mistress, Cathy, who located me some narrow-ridged corrugated card that was close enough to the correct scale to fit in quite nicely. A quick coat of paint in the 'SCRHC olive' and it was complete and ready to be 'coaled up'!

I'm now revisiting the location and positioning of the good shed, and also what that would look like. The current one is a Hornby model and it's not that great. Metcalfe do a goods shed in the same red brick as the newly revealed SCRHC buildings and the signal box base, so I'm wondering about substituting it.

Below is the possible new position that would 'open out' the model a bit, giving a view into the goods shed interior, and making it much easier to see the loading area in front. I envisage a road leading in from the right, and possibly a weighbridge next to the shed.

I guess the thing about railway modelling is that there are many, many possibilities. That for me is most of the fun.