30 June 2005
And what is this nonsense about expecting a ball boy (or girl) to look after your towel during play, so that you can wipe yourself down between points? Just get on with it!
"Today sees the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Bill enter its final phase in the Scottish Parliament.
Amongst the reactions to the ban is this by David Matthews of KPMG. "This should come as welcome news to all those involved in the pub industry who may have assumed that a ban would have a massively detrimental effect on their profits. Our survey shows that while there may be some loss of trade amongst regular pub-goers this loss will be compensated for by increased patronage amongst the “once a week” brigade.”
The inherent stupidity of this comment simply beggars belief. Ask any bank manager to lend you money on the premise that you’re just about to lose a sizeable chunk of your regular customers and see where it gets you.
A total ban on smoking will have nothing but a detrimental effect on establishments such as pubs, clubs and bars."
I can certainly confirm that, in my (central Edinburgh) local, 75% of the clientele smokes and that the manager is extremely gloomy about the impact of next year's proposed ban. My personal attendance in the pub is occasioned by the availability of sport on TV - I certainly could not sit through a Lions match (any Lions match) without the solace of a gasper from time to time.
"In anger and embarrassment, Congressional Republicans are scrambling to repair a budget shortfall in veterans' medical care now that the Bush administration has admitted it vastly underestimated the number of returning Iraq and Afghanistan personnel needing treatment. The $1 billion-plus gaffe is considerable, with the original budget estimate of 23,553 returned veterans needing care this year now ballooning to 103,000."The figure of 103,000 is new to me: to restate the position, more than 100,000 American soldiers are expected to return from Iraq and Afghanistan to the US this year needing medical care. It is little wonder that US support for the war is waning.
"I support absolutely the right to legitimate peaceful protest. I expect to see that commitment given by Mr Fox too, and if any members of his party are involved in disruptive or dangerous activities next week that break the law I expect him to expel them from the Scottish Socialist Party."
Mr Fox repeated his question twice, only to get an equally dusty response from the First Minister on both occasions. A few minutes later, following a point of order on the same issue by Carolyn Leckie, the mini-demonstration began and Mr Reid, the presiding officer, suspended the sitting for lunch, some 5 minutes early.
Earlier, Nicola Sturgeon asked the First Minister, among other things, if he would attend the Make Poverty History march this weekend. Mr McConnell replied "I very much hope to be present on Saturday...". It seems surprising that he could not give a definitive answer, given that it is only two days ahead. Unfortunately, Ms Sturgeon did not follow it up in her subsequent questions. So we are left with the conundrum: is the First Minister going to participate in the march or not?
29 June 2005
"THE controversial private restaurant for MSPs at Holyrood came under fresh attack last night when it emerged that the more successful the venue is, the bigger the public subsidy it receives.
The members' restaurant and bar in the parliament building is already subsidised by about £80,000 a year. But the finance committee was told yesterday that the catering contract had been agreed in such a way that it penalises success - the bill for the taxpayer actually goes up as more MSPs use the restaurant.
This is because Holyrood subsidises the cost of each meal to such an extent that every time a dinner is served, it costs the parliament more money.
There is also the problem of staff costs. As more MSPs use the restaurant, more waiting and bar staff are needed and again, the parliament foots the bill.
It also emerged yesterday that MSPs who live more than one hour from Edinburgh are allowed to claim for dinner they take in the restaurant."
How many own goals can this team score? 1. They have a restaurant which excludes those who are not MSPs; 2. they subsidise its costs (why?); 3. they subsidise it in an open-ended way so that subsidy increases in line with usage (does the PFI deal for Inverness airport come to mind?); and 4. they allow certain MSPs to claim dinner costs as expenses. Do our MSPs not recognise the way this makes them appear to the general public? Bizarre!
"His protest songs made him the figurehead of the anti-establishment movement that defined America during the 1960s. But yesterday Bob Dylan was facing accusations of selling out after it emerged the singer had agreed an exclusive deal to sell some of his rarest tracks at Starbucks, the coffee shop chain targeted by anti-globalisation protesters as a symbol of American cultural dominance. "
Do you suppose he needs the money?
28 June 2005
"A HOAXER who issued an official-looking press release suggesting that Malcolm Chisholm is gay was last night at the centre of a police investigation.The message was sent out to newspapers and broadcasters from a Scottish Executive computer account and purported to be a statement from the communities minister announcing he was in love with another man. Speaking to journalists in the Scottish Parliament later, Mr Chisholm appeared relaxed about the incident."It's a load of garbage," he said."
What is the point of issuing a press release which will quickly and obviously be revealed as fake? And how are Mrs Chisholm and their children supposed to feel? Scottish politics can do without this sort of nonsense.
26 June 2005
"Bridget McConnell and Boyle fell out almost immediately after the commission was set up (a remarkable feat given that he was thought to have been Jack McConnell's personal choice for the post). Scotland's First Lady and Cosla had demanded they be able to veto any recommendations which the commission put forward - but were knocked back by the then Culture Minister Frank McAveety.
And while McAveety recommended that Bridget McConnell sit on the commission, Boyle refused, believing that having the wife of the First Minister on his panel would lead to claims of a political stitch-up. Excluded and marginalised, Glasgow's arts chief thus "took umbrage". The local authorities were being marginalised by Boyle, local authority chiefs claimed. The commission was failing to grasp the grassroots work they undertake.
Sources close to the commission claim she decided to hit back - setting up a 'rival' culture review body under Cosla's wing, which sat independently of Boyle's commission. Boyle quickly lost patience, fearing that the Cosla group would undermine his own findings. One insider said earlier this year: "Bridget took the view that her group should work independently of the commission. Others were trying to take a more reasonable line, but to a great extent she basically said: 'No'.
"It was just a personal thing. She is a very powerful person in the arts world and this is the way she decided she wanted to run it," the source continued."
All very incestuous.
The fund, set up by the First Minister at the beginning of this month after a high-profile trip to Malawi, has so far fallen short of expectations.
Allegations of corruption in the Malawian government, with stories of aid money being used for the purchase of luxury cars, has resulted in only £26,000 being raised - far short of the six-figure sum McConnell had hoped for.
Further trouble was heaped on the fund last week when impeachment proceedings were launched against the country's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, by Malawi MPs, claiming he used government funds to buy a Mercedes and to pay for his grandchildren's education.
£26,000 seems like a rather minuscule return. And how can the Scottish Executive avoid the return visit of the Malawi President (in November, I think) becoming something of an embarrasment?
24 June 2005
"The complaints proved several things. First, despite the explosion of rival cable and digital channels, Britons still regard the BBC as their in-house broadcaster and all-purpose punching bag, a proprietary institution in which everyone has a stake and an opinion, and in which even the smallest change is occasion for national browbeating and self-castigation.
Second, there is no danger any time soon of the weather relinquishing its special status as Britain's universal ice-breaker, conversation-filler, and smoother-over-of-awkward-moments. In this way, the new reports are useful because they give people something weather-related to talk about, other than whether or not it is likely to rain (a pointless topic, because it usually is)."
Always useful to see ourselves as others see us.
David Blunkett, who resigned as Home Secretary in December last year following a furore over the visa of his former lover's nanny, received a pay-off of more than £18,000, even though he returned to the Cabinet five months after quitting.
The Government was accused last night of a "grotesque abuse" of taxpayers' money after it emerged that ministers who have resigned from their jobs - and then returned to government - had received thousands of pounds in compensation.
Alan Milburn, who has left the Cabinet twice, was due two official pay-offs. He was entitled to about £17,800 in redundancy cash, after he resigned as Health Secretary in 2003, and £18,700 after he resigned last month as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
23 June 2005
Bruce Crawford (Mid Scotland and Fife)
(SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will support the implementation of extended school programmes to provide adequate child care from 8am to 6pm.
Euan Robson: In Scotland we already have a strong network of voluntary, public and private sector providers offering a range of child care services from 8am to 6pm which we plan to build on.
"A successful London bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games will excite and inspire Scottish people of all ages and abilities to take up sport, it was claimed today.
Sports Minister Patricia Ferguson spoke ahead of a visit by Steve Cram, a member of the London 2012 bid team. Mr Cram is meeting business leaders in Scotland to give an assessment of the London bid, ahead of the decision next month by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC will announce the successful host city during the 117th IOC Session in Singapore on July 6, 2005."
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, this Scottish person is far from excited or inspired. The Olympics are overblown and corrupt. I would rather that we had nothing to do with them.
"The new design remains predominantly navy but features white under-arm and side panels, whilst the two white hoops on the sleeves have been removed. It replaces the previous Scotland jersey that was introduced in November 2002 and is produced by Scottish Rugby kit supplier Canterbury of New Zealand. It will be officially available to the public from tomorrow (Thursday 23 June) and Scotland players will model the new kit at the Royal Highland Show fashion show on Friday (24 June)."
A child's jersey will cost £39.99. Was a new strip necessary? Admittedly, the previous version was a bit of a dog's breakfast, but the new strip would not appear to amount to a significant improvement. Or is this just another attempt to raid the pockets of fans and parents? Sad to see the footballisation of rugby.
22 June 2005
"When he came in from his night’s watching, his plate would be ready in front of him, and in front of it would be three bottles: HP brown sauce, Lea & Perrins Worcester Sauce, and Camp coffee; but the bottle which wasn’t there was as telling as those which were. His ritual was unvaried: I would sit opposite him, jaws glued together by my grandmother’s porridge, and he would tap the bottles with his eggy knife and remind me that all were supplied by appointment to His Majesty King George VI. More yet, he would bang on, HP Sauce was named for the Houses of Parliament: you can see that from the picture of Big Ben on the label. So not only our gracious King and Queen, he would explain, were smacking the bottom of their sauce bottles at the exact same moment as their loyal subjects, so were all our great, and democratically elected, leaders. God knows what bloody Hitler and bloody Tojo are sloshing on their breakfasts this morning, was his invariable coda, but you can be bloody sure it isn’t this...
That my grandfather saw British history in exclusively gustatory terms would finally be confirmed with the splash of Lea & Perrins on to the bread that he used to wipe his plate: he would observe, yet again, that the bloody Yanks could not pronounce Worcester. He was no fan of the Americans: he had waited three grisly years for them to join him in the Flanders mud, and well nigh as long this time around; and therein lies the significance of the bottle that wasn ’t there. He wouldn’t have Heinz Ketchup in the house. Not only was it American, the American who invented it, in 1885, had been born German. That my grandfather never pointed out that 1885 was the year Gordon was killed at Khartoum, where were the bloody Yanks that time, need you bloody ask, has often, down the long arches of the years, puzzled me."
"Even the most devoted Europhile will need an atlas to place Ryanair's latest destinations. The Irish low-cost airline declared yesterday that it is starting routes to Kaunas, Poznan and Lodz (pronounced "Wodge", according to the airline's helpful notes).
Kaunas is in Lithuania; the other two are in Poland and take the number of Polish airports served by Ryanair to seven. A year ago there were none.
The airline expects to carry 800,000 passengers between Stansted and Poland over the next year. Its chief executive, Michael O'Leary, says he has high hopes for a booming short-break market among Londoners keen to sample Rzeszow, Szczecin and Bydgoszcz.
But the real game here is emigrant workers. With fares from £3.99, Ryanair offers an alternative to long-distance buses for Polish carpenters, electricians, decorators and bar staff. In a sense, it is oiling the wheels of the European Union - without free movement, the single market is academic.
The strategy brings Ryanair full circle - it started life shuttling Irish migrant workers back home from Britain. The migrant market appears once more to be at Ryanair's core - unless anyone fancies a golf weekend in Wodge?"
I confess that I quite like such developments. There are Poles working in my local Tesco (which is always advertising for staff and which obviously cannot secure a sufficient labour supply from the Edinburgh population). It seems that Ryanair is doing more to address Scottish demographics than the Scottish Executive's fresh talent initiative. And I, for one, would recommend Wodge, Stettin and Kaunas as weekend holiday destinations. These are lively and interesting locations, usually with historic town centres.
"This is how the two sides squared up in the heated internal debate. In the male corner was a man seen as a rottweiler of the lobby: relentlessly aggressive, abrasive and sometimes downright rude, admired for his take-no-prisoners onslaught on politicians. Clever and consumed by an obsession with all the minutiae of every passing ripple in the Westminster game, the man is a walking Wisden of political detail. He is the lobby personified, he was made for it and it for him. Two tough guys - the editor of the Today programme and the editor of the 10 o'clock news reportedly strongly backed the macho candidate.Ms Toynbee has a point, I suppose. But if politicians have to be kept in order, then I would prefer to rely on a rottweiler. And Mr Robinson represents the triumph of geeky, balding, four eyed nerds, a triumph with which I find myself in some personal sympathy.
In the other corner, Martha Kearney is calmer, wiser and - that rarity in the lobby - someone who is as interested in the policies themselves as in the Westminster game. Because she is not a rottweiler, her denigrators outrageously called her "coquettish" - which roughly translates as "not a man and not hideous to behold". She can be acerbic, but the real difference is that she does not approach politics as a violent contact sport between the lying bastards in power and the noble gladiators in the media."
21 June 2005
"Attention all petty, vindictive snitches everywhere, your country needs you: New powers effectively criminalising smoking in public were announced by the Government yesterday, with the minister in charge promising an "intelligence-led approach to enforcing the law". Informers
will be encouraged to report breaches of sweeping bans on the habit, in which company smoking rooms will be outlawed and places such as bus shelters and the outsides of office blocks made no-smoking areas.
Very little encouragement will be required as there will be no shortage of willing and zealous
What a horrible place this country is becoming.
I rather doubt if our home-grown smoking ban enforcement arrangements will be any less reminiscent of totalitarianism.
"The tie is to follow the bowler hat into oblivion in the new, "smart casual" image for Whitehall civil servants, the retiring cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull indicated yesterday.
The 60-year-old mandarin - still dressed in a suit and tie himself - said as long as Whitehall staff still look authoritative and professional, there was no reason why a tieless civil servant should not turn up for meetings or deliver services to the public, particularly in hot weather.
"Obviously it would not be suitable for people to turn up in blue jeans and trainers because it could undermine their authority, but as long as they looked smart they needn't wear a tie," he said."
"Blair speaks about Africa as if its problems are the result of some inscrutable force of nature, compounded only by the corruption of its dictators. He laments that "it is the only continent in the world over the past few decades that has moved backwards". But he has never acknowledged that - as even the World Bank's studies show - it has moved backwards partly because of the neoliberal policies it has been forced to follow by the powerful nations: policies that have just been extended by the debt-relief package Bono and Geldof praised.
Listen to these men - Bush, Blair and their two bards - and you could forget that the rich nations had played any role in Africa's accumulation of debt, or accumulation of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders. Listen to them and you would imagine that the G8 was conceived as a project to help the
I have yet to read a statement by either rock star that suggests a critique of power. They appear to believe that a consensus can be achieved between the powerful and the powerless, that they can assemble a great global chorus of rich and poor to sing from the same sheet. They do not seem to understand that, while the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the old Coca-Cola ad."
The article seems a little over the top. Geldof and Bono are not political innocents, at least not any more. On the other hand, the need for simple messages in communicating to the public may be leading them into areas of political hard choices. Their halos are beginning to slip?
19 June 2005
"Among those recently approached by FCO officials were Macsween of Edinburgh, the world-famous haggis firm, which was asked to donate about 2,500 vegetarian products worth more than £5,000. James Macsween, operations director of the company, accused the FCO of “greed”.
“We told them ‘no’ because there’s a moral issue involved,” he said. “Why are all these companies being asked to give goodie bags to all these people, free of charge, when the mass public are calling on them to cancel world debt? It’s saying the wrong thing. It’s greed and, I’m afraid, it’s disgusting.”"
I commend the company's attitude (as well as their haggises, which are really excellent). And it serves the FCO right for asking for vegetarian products.
"OPPOSITION leaders in Malawi have urged Jack McConnell to withdraw his pledge of up to £3m aid. They say that the money could be used to support the lavish lifestyles of the east African country’s ruling elite. Politicians and civic leaders point to the fact that the president is to spend nearly £1m on luxury cars. While 1m of his countrymen face starvation, President Bingu wa Mutharika has ordered three top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz Maybach sedans for his family at a cost of £850,000.
The disclosure will cause acute embarrassment to McConnell, who visited Malawi last month as part of the build-up to the G8 summit at Gleneagles and is to host a visit to Scotland by Mutharika later this year. "
16 June 2005
Ms Sturgeon: Can I remind the First Minister that the future of Ferguson's shipyard in Port Glasgow, one of only three yards remaining on the Clyde, and the jobs of the 300 people who work there depends entirely on it winning a Scottish Executive contract to build fisheries protection vessels? Will the First Minister today tell his fisheries minister to stop dithering over this and instruct him to award this lifeline contract to Ferguson's shipyard now?
First Minister: I'm obviously restricted a bit, Presiding Officer, by the rules of procurement and tendering to go into all of the details in this case but I can assure Ms Sturgeon that of course we are looking at the tenders for this contract very carefully indeed and in particular we are looking into the evidence presented to us, not just recently in relation to the actions of the Polish Government and Polish yards but the evidence that we took to the DTI and the Department of Transport last October in relation to similar claims. The only dithering, though, that has been going on on this issue is in relation to the contracts for fisheries protection vessels, because I have to remind Ms Sturgeon that her front bench spokesperson, Richard Lochhead, said the last time that we gave Ferguson's a contract for a fisheries protection vehicle, Mr Lochhead said "our fisherman will have their heads in their hands when they learn that Ross Finnie has spent almost £8 million on a brand new boat to keep them in their place". The last time we awarded a contract to Ferguson's we were condemned by the Scottish National Party. This is the government that is determined to deliver for Scottish shipbuilding but also ensure we have fisheries protection vehicles-vessels in place too.
The bull is duly irritated, to the extent that he fails to make it clear just what stage the letting of the contract has reached. Instead, the First Minister introduces a totally irrelevant issue concerning fisheries protection, rather than dealing with the procurement question. And he makes his first slip by referring to fisheries protection vehicles (as if they were a bus or a lorry); this may well be corrected in the official version to appear tomorrow (which tries to clean up MSPs' oral delivery). He might avoid such errors if he looked at his notes more frequently but he seems to like to deliver his answers off the cuff. Anyway, Ms Sturgeon next wields the pic, intended to enrage the bull.
Ms Sturgeon: May I suggest to the First Minister that he raises his game? This is work that has been commissioned by the Scottish Executive and the question is: will it go to Poland or will it go to Port Glasgow? Isn't it the case that the Executive has been told repeatedly that the Polish yard is being subsidised? It won a contract from Ferguson's last year with a bid that wouldn't even cover the cost of materials, for goodness' sake. And can I remind the First Minister that, thanks to the SNP taking action, the EU Commission is now so concerned that it has launched an informal investigation into the Polish yard. So, can I ask the First Minister, what is it going to take to make him come down on the side of a Scottish industry, a Scottish shipyard and Scottish jobs? Why won't he, to quote Trish Godman, one of his own MSPs, show some backbone?
First Minister: Well, there's not only been plenty of backbone here but there's also been lots of action to try and ensure not only that Ferguson's win the current contracts that are out to tender but also in the past actually award contracts to Ferguson's despite the opposition of the Scottish Nationalist Party. And it's also wrong, as happened around about that visit to Brussels that Ms Sturgeon mentioned in her question, it's also wrong to imply that in some way this problem could be solved by transferring responsibility for this vessel from the Scottish government here in this Parliament to the British Royal Navy and the British government and the Ministry of Defence. The SNP leadership called, after the visit to Brussels, to re-classify the vessel as a "grey" vessel, ie a military ship. That would mean it was in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, not even this parliament. And it would also mean that Scottish fisheries protection was no longer being taken as a responsibility of this parliament and devolution but instead was being handed back to the Ministry of Defence and the British government. Now the SNP cannot have it both ways on this. I absolutely welcome the SNP's support and the support of any other party in this parliament for the efforts that we have undertaken, not only to help Scottish shipbuilding but to ensure that anybody who is breaking the law in distorting state aids across the European Union is being dealt with. And the SNP's - perhaps late, but very welcome - intervention on that is indeed welcome to us. We should be doing this on an all-party basis, but at the same time we need consistency not hypocrisy; we need honesty for the workforce at Ferguson's and not rubbish that would lead them up the garden path and lead to them getting no contracts at all in the future.
Nice piece of alliteration by Ms Sturgeon - Poland or Port Glasgow? And she deploys the traditional three piece rhetoric - Scottish industry, Scottish shipyard and Scottish jobs. The First Minister falls into the trap of answering a question - on grey ships - that Ms Sturgeon has not asked. He then tries to suggest that the classification of fisheries protection vessels as "grey" ships would automatically lead to the contract reverting to MoD and indeed to fisheries protection ceasing to be a devolved matter. This is utter nonsense of course. Then as the pic grinds into his back, he begins to lose vocabulary, syntax and semantics. For example, what is it that he wants to do on an all party basis? And he still hasn't answered the question about why he can't immediately move to let the contract to Ferguson's. Ms Sturgeon decides to tease him with a veronica or two.
Ms Sturgeon: Can I say to the First Minister that what he has just confirmed is that there are many ways in which the Scottish Executive could have given this contract by now to Ferguson's. Instead they have chosen to do nothing. Does the First Minister begin to understand the urgency and the seriousness of this situation? Does he know that, while he politics, more than 100 jobs at Ferguson's have gone already, a further 21 will be lost two weeks today unless this contract is awarded, and many more will follow. As even the local Labour MSP said yesterday, we cannot wait; this contract should go to Ferguson's right now. Can I suggest to the First Minister that, instead of cowering in a corner in case someone in Europe gives him a row, he should take this decision and he should make it clear that if it is challenged he will defend it? It's called standing up for the national interest. Why won't he do it?
First Minister: Ms Sturgeon's only two solutions to this issue are either to hand over responsibility to the Ministry of Defence - which would allow shipbuilding yards the length and breadth of Britain as well as yards in Poland to compete afresh for this particular tender - or indeed to break the law as she is now suggesting. That is utterly, utterly irresponsible. The best way to deal with any allegation of lawbreaking elsewhere in the European Union in relation to the contracts is to have those allegations properly investigated and that is what we called for, not in April in the middle of an election campaign but last October when we first approached the European Union and of course the British government on this issue. That is what we have consistently done in response to any evidence that has come in, either from Ferguson's or from elsewhere, and that's what we will continue to do, because we are determined to not only stick to the law but also make sure that others stick to the law elsewhere in the European Union and ensure that Scottish shipbuilding has the best chance it has and not, I remind Ms Sturgeon, condemn this Executive or anybody else for awarding fisheries protection vehicle contracts to Scottish shipbuilding yards as the SNP did not that very long ago.
More alliteration from Ms Sturgeon - "cowering in a corner"; she is actually becoming quite good at this. On the other hand, the First Minister is off on a blustering rant, his hands gesticulating wildly. Ms Sturgeon - rather coolly, I thought - administers the coup de grace.
Ms Sturgeon: Will the First Minister just confirm that all along it's been the SNP coming up with possible solutions and the Scottish Executive doing absolutely nothing? Isn't he aware that all Ferguson's Shipyard wants is fair treatment and a fair go? And while he dithers, jobs are currently being lost. Will he take a decision now in favour of a Scottish industry, a Scottish shipyard and Scottish jobs? Will he take that decision and defend it? Will he stand up for Scotland?
First Minister: I repeat, Presiding Officer, the last time Ferguson's got a fisheries protection contract from this Executive, the SNP said that people would be hanging their heads because it was such a disaster for Scottish fishing. The SNP opposed that contract, and they can't now come in late, 6 months after we first raised these allegations, and claim in some way that they are being consistent. I welcome your conversion. I want this to be an all-party effort. I want to ensure that in this parliament we do stick together, we do promote Scottish shipbuilding and we do tackle those elsewhere in the European Union who've been alleged to break the rules. But let's be consistent about it and let's not say one thing to one audience and another thing to another.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Why could the First Minister not have taken a sensible line: this is a difficult issue, requiring consultation with DTI as UK state aids authority and the EU Commission; pursuing these issues as quickly as we can but must recognise that there are no simple answers; no good awarding contract to Ferguson's if that proves in due course to be illegal. I readily admit that he did not have a good hand of cards to play but he did not appear to play them very well.
"The timing of the programme is important. Winterwatch would be Godot-like, an empty stage, but spring means British birdlife at its whizziest - all that mating and nest-building, laying and hatching, fledging and flying the nest. Three weeks is also the ideal narrative span, long enough to encompass young ones being born and leaving home, which for humans can take more than 30 years. And Oddie makes the perfect oddball front man, enthusiastic, well-informed (a passionate ornithologist long before he became a celebrity with The Goodies) and reassuringly old-fashioned in his vocabulary - it's a while since I heard someone say "blighters" and "flipping heck".
The series has had an impact far beyond viewing figures. When Springwatch featured the white-tailed eagle, there was a tenfold increase of traffic on the relevant webpage of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. And when peregrine falcons were shown nesting on the Post Office Tower, The London Wildlife Trust was besieged by membership inquiries. The Oddie Effect is like the Delia (or Nigella or Jamie) Effect - and though the only gastronomic delight he has been recommending to viewers is mealworms, several suppliers of mealworms have since sold out. "
I confess that I usually find Oddie intensely irritating but in this series of programmes his obvious interest in the subject matter and his refreshing unwillingness to conform to the usual BBC presenter standards make him the ideal front man for the programme. But the real reason for success is the terrific wildlife pictures. Check out the programme website here.
15 June 2005
"Although the ceiling of own resources has been 1.24% of the EU’s GNI for years, annual budgets have never really exceeded 1% of GNI. For the new Financial Perspectives, however, the Commission is proposing a payments ceiling of 1.14% on average. It says higher expenditures (relative to GNI) are necessary because member states have been transferring more tasks to the EU level (Lissabon process, external policies, justice and home affairs), and because of the Union’s enlargement which increased the EU’s population with 30% but its GNI only by 5%.
A group of six member states, all net payers, disagree. These six (the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden) want to limit the EU’s expenditures to a maximum of 1% of EU GNI. Brushing aside the Commission’s arguments, they say 1% is possible, because most budgets in the past did not surpass that limit either. They add: “In view of the painful consolidation efforts in Member States our citizens will not understand if the EU budget were exempt from this consolidation process.”
Rather cheekily but not without grounds, the Commission’s reply to this is that national budgets, which take up 45% of EU GNI, increased more than twice as fast over the past seven years as the EU’s budget of just over 1% of EU GNI. The Commission also expects an end to underexpenditures in funds allocated to the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004, as a result of improving administrative capacity. It therefore fears limiting the EU’s budget to 1% of GNI requires more serious budget cuts than it would seem at first sight."
Shame that the mainstream media are incapable of producing anything remotely comparable.
"There were other distinct differences between Ascot North and Ascot South. There was less flesh on display, less conspicuous champagne consumption and, of course, no Frankie Dettori — whose jumping dismounts became a feature of the meeting.
This was a distinctively northern occasion. The on-course bookies hailed from Pontefract, Castleford and all points north, as did the punters, and one grandstand bar ran out of John Smiths bitter before the first race began.
A spokesman for Sodexho Prestige, caterers for the meeting, said that they had laid on extra kegs of beer and were on standby with additional supplies of potatoes and vegetables to meet the demands of heartier northern appetites. He added: “Northern appetites are perceived as being that bit larger than down South.” "
Usually, this kind of sneering is leavened by a smattering of wit but not on this occasion. There is even the statutory reference to northern headgear:
"two pals on a day-trip from Stockport had flat caps, rather than top hats."
"Destinations of these journeys within Edinburgh have been blanked out, but regular trips for similar sums were to a street name beginning "Qu" and an apparent destination beginning "To", prompting the suspicion that for a six-year period Mr McLetchie was using the parliament's taxi account to travel from his MSP's office on George IV Bridge down to Queen Street, where Tods Murray had its office at that time. A parliament spokesman yesterday said MSPs had to verify that any travel costs claimed were for parliamentary or constituency business."
Why are journalists pushing this story? And who benefits from the continued (artificial) controversy?
"The travelling British and Irish media, meanwhile, have also been warned that interview opportunities with players, other than brief soundbites straight after games, will be seriously restricted between now and the first Test on Saturday week. Either this is a reaction to some of the less flattering reviews of the Maori defeat or Woodward has forgotten the lessons of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia.It is important to note, however, that the incipient paranoia will affect both sides of the argument. When reporters write such material as "Lions supporters back home deserve to be kept better informed", one begins to suspect that there is some special pleading here.
On that trip the media were treated with open suspicion by some members of the management and disillusionment among the players eventually spilled out via assorted diaries and columns, most notably those of Matt Dawson. Here in New Zealand there have already been depressing rumours of experienced squad members being warned against exchanging anything but clichés and pleasantries with the press corps; references to innocuous activities, such as a quick beer, have been excised from players' columns by the censors. "
14 June 2005
"Nearly a third of patients with lung cancer and more than 40% of patients with colorectal cancer who are urgently referred to hospital by their GP do not undergo surgery or start receiving therapy within the target period, according to these figures.The picture is better for breast and ovarian cancer patients, with 85% and 86% of sufferers starting treatment within time.The Scottish Executive still does not know how swiftly people with a wide range of other cancers, including prostate and skin, receive treatment. However, progress re-ports using data which is out of date or not yet validated, also seen by The Herald, suggest some other cancers are even further behind target.In some parts of Scotland, the latest information shows just a third of urgent patients with prostate cancer receiving treatment on target."
The actual figures are here, broken down by health board area. Actual achievement, on an all Scotland basis, as against a target of 2 months between referral and treament is:
breast cancer 84.8%
colorectal cancer 57.3%
lung cancer 68.5%
ovarian cancer 85.7%
Pretty dismal stuff, if you are a worried cancer patient who has to sit and wait for treatment for more than two months.
12 June 2005
"We have said that we do not believe that the [UK] bill will go far enough, which is why we need to find a workable system that will reduce the availability and use of air-guns even further in Scotland's communities and reduce the potential for similar incidents in the future. We will find such a solution, butwe will do so properly and in discussion with the Scottish police forces and the Home Secretary."
By Friday, this position had been considerably hardened. The Scotsman reported that the First Minister had agreed a position with the Home Office whereby Scotland would be allowed to do its own thing, even to the extent of a reverse Sewel motion:
"He [the First Minister] is prepared, though, to extend the scope of the Scottish Parliament's powers into UK law, if that is required, and he has the full backing of the Home Office to do so.But then today, Scotland on Sunday rubbishes the Friday report, making it clear (here) that independent action by the Scottish Executive is a non-starter:
This groundbreaking move to crack down on airguns will represent the first time that the Scottish Executive has legislated in such high-profile matters which fall outside its remit.
A source close to Mr McConnell said: "Jack believes the Home Office did not go far enough when it announced its plans on imitation weapons this week and he wants to go further. It will definitely happen.""
Why does the Scottish Executive do this? The First Minister takes a defensible line at FMQs; the next day, his spinners push the boat out too far; and then the Home Office make them look like idiots. Did they not clear the Friday line with the Home Office? Or did they think that they could bounce the Home Office into adopting a change of tack? Or were they simply suckered into believing that the Home Office would play along? Whatever way, the First Minister's advisers have been grossly naive.
"THE Home Office is to block moves by First Minister Jack McConnell to create a new licensing system for airguns in Scotland. Sources close to Home Secretary Charles Clarke claim it would be "ridiculous" to have different registration schemes on either side of the Border. They are insisting that Scotland should fall into line with their own plans to create a new registration programme for all firearms, which is soon to be piloted in England."
10 June 2005
"You Don't Bring Me Flowers is the most egregious example of middle-of-the-road music, so named because if you drive in the middle of the road, you'll eventually die in a head-on collision."The real surprise is that Leonard Cohen doesn't get a mention!
"The River makes one wish Springsteen would write a song about getting plastered on Cristal and driving a Bentley into a swimming pool."
"Clocking in at over seven minutes, Total Eclipse is Wagner's Ring Cycle without the funny hats; the equivalent of an opera company pelting you with copies of Anne Rice novels. You're completely drained when it's over and desperately in need of a shower to rinse off the raven droppings."
"THE dictionary definition of rhetoric is the theory and practice of eloquent speech, otherwise known as the art of using language so as to persuade others round to your point of view. In Jack McConnell’s vocabulary, however, it is an insult. He uses it to dismiss opposition arguments, to suggest that any criticism directed against his policy is windy and self-serving. Mainly, he uses
it to undermine the SNP.
Take yesterday. A decent argument by Nicola Sturgeon — that the First Minister had promised action on curbing the use of airguns but had not so far done anything about it — was dismissed by Mr McConnell as “rhetoric”, and not just “rhetoric” but “shameful rhetoric”.
I did not quite follow his logic. By this definition, rhetoric simply means any argument with which you disagree."
This is a bit unfair to our esteemed First Minister. We must remember that he was a maths teacher and probably did not have the opportunity to benefit from a classical education. Rhetoric and logic are closed books. When he uses words, he means what he wants them to mean and, if others want to scoff, too bad.
"Earlier this week, The Herald reported how council officials in Glasgow said the fixtures, dubbed "smokeooteries", would cause a number of planning problems. The report, by the department for development and regeneration services, claimed the smokeooteries would create noise, pedestrian and traffic safety problems together with potentially scarring the city's heritage
Sad that the banning of such facilities is likely to lead to the loss of such a wonderfully descriptive term.
"This is what keeps Africa poor: not a lack of political will but the tremendous profitability of the current arrangement. Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest place on earth, is also its most profitable investment destination. It offers, according to the World Bank's 2003 Global Development Finance report, "the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world". Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so unspeakably rich."
It would have been easy to dismiss this as typical anti-globalist propaganda, were it not for this in the same newspaper:
"A millionaire British businessman, Friedhelm Eronat, was named last night as the purchaser of oil rights in the Darfur region of Sudan, where the regime is accused of war crimes and where millions of tribespeople are alleged to have been forced to flee, amid mass rapes or murders.
The disclosure was greeted with outrage by human rights campaigners. "From a moral point of view these people are paying a government whose senior members may end up in front of the international criminal court for war crimes," Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, said yesterday. "
09 June 2005
"By chance, Mr Gibbins discovered he could alter NTL's recorded message, and after he'd tinkered with it people seeking help were met with something altogether more blunt. "Hello, you are through to NTL customer services," they were told. "We don't give a fuck about you, basically, and we are not going to handle any of your complaints. Just fuck off and leave us alone. Get a life."
NTL did not see the funny side and called in the police. Magistrates in Teesside, however, may have had similar experience on corporate helplines themselves.
Mr Gibbins, 26, from Redcar, Cleveland, was acquitted at Teesside magistrates' court on Tuesday of an offence under the Communications Act 2003 of making a grossly offensive message."
08 June 2005
"One could not help admiring Mrs Laing for her courage. It is simply not done, in this age of deference, to attack a leading member of the rock aristocracy, or to question his judgment. Geldof, Bono and Sting may widely be regarded as three of the most conceited buskers on the planet, but who in public life would dream of saying so?
Even the doughty Mrs Laing felt obliged to couch her criticism in the most sycophantic terms: "Though we all adore Sir Bob Geldof and applaud his good intentions and all that he has done for Africa and the publicity he has brought to a cause which we all believe in, the idea of flooding Edinburgh with a million protesters is simply not a good one."
Leaving on one side Mrs Laing's absurd claim that we all "adore" "Sir" Bob, let us concentrate on her attempt to save Edinburgh from flooding. We have no doubt that in Edinburgh itself, her campaign will receive a certain amount of support, since its people have long suffered an annual invasion by fringe playwrights, an experience which has tended to put them off receiving too many visitors at any one time."
"The price collapse is a disaster, too, for Malawi's government. The industry brings in more than 60% of the country's foreign exchange and contributes 34% of its total revenue, providing vital seasonal cash for up to 70% of the population.
The low prices have forced the country's weak currency even lower, and make a mockery of its attempts to climb out of poverty.
In a preliminary report issued last week, the Malawi tobacco commission said that 44.2m kg of tobacco had been sold for a total of $160m (£87m) by May 19, compared with $203m for 44.5m kg during the same period in 2004."
In these circumstances, it may well be right for the Scottish Executive to pursue the actions which follow from Mr McConnell's visit. But I fear that the economic difficulties facing Malawi are so immense that the well-meaning interventions from Scotland will be palliative at best.
04 June 2005
"M de Villepin has set himself 100 days to restore French self-confidence, to infuse France with a sense of its poetic destiny: “We need a heart that beats for everyone.” For this poet, practical considerations are secondary. As he wrote in his recent 823-page treatise on French poetry: “What does it matter where this path leads, nowhere or elsewhere, if the furrow continues flowering, if the flash of lightning still inflames the night . . . If the poet still consumes himself, he refuses the enclosures of thought, certainties, to camp in the heart of the mystery, in the living spirit of the flame.”
To which the American response will be a resounding: “Whatever.” The Bush White House does not do poetry. At a Nato summit in Prague, Donald Rumsfeld was once forced to sit though a performance of modern dance and poetry. Asked for his reaction afterwards, he shrugged: “I’m from Chicago.” "
"EDINBURGH has issued an emergency appeal for 5,000 portable lavatories, 50,000 lavatory rolls, 25,000 bars of soap, 5.5 million paper hand towels, and a secluded spot to dispose of 875,000 gallons of effluent. "
And the last sentence of the following paragraph paints a rather unfortunate picture:
"Keith Bodinnar, chairman of Portable Sanitation Europe, said that the council had asked it to provide between 2,000 and 5,000 portable lavatories. “We’ve now sent out an e-mail to all of our membership with the dates, asking them to acknowledge the availability of units. This is a very busy time and to the best of my knowledge all the available toilets in Scotland are already booked. It’s a challenge for us to get our teeth into,” he said."
"EUROPE'S political crisis spread to the euro yesterday after Italy publicly discussed abandoning the single currency and reverting to the lira.
The Italian suggestion, once unthinkable to the European establishment, comes as a poll showed a majority of Germans want to pull out of the euro and revive the Deutschmark.
The threats to the future of the euro have disturbed currency markets already nervous about the growing crisis over the European Constitution."
But then rather invalidates the air of crisis with:
"The euro fell this week to its lowest value against the dollar for eight weeks."
An eight week low! Wow, I bet the Euro Central Bank is shaking in its boots.
"The bill run up by Scottish ministers in just a few years on glossy leaflets is the same as the exclusive Beverley Hills mansion recently sold by Hollywood star Jennifer Lopez.
"This is an obscene amount of money to be spending at a time when service provision across the public sector is being stripped back, where wages are being pegged and honest working men and women are ultimately left to pick up the bill."
Aye weel... As far as I am aware, the Executive has not bought nor is intending to buy a Hollywood mansion, so what is the point of the comparison? And even if £1.5 million might have bought the services of 60 nurses for a year, this is not really an either/or case (especially as the Executive's annual underspend exceeds £400 million).
Given the size of the Executive, an annual £1.5 million on publications would seem well within the bounds of normal expectations. So why all the fuss?
02 June 2005
The recommendations of the Accounts Commission for the Council are as follows:
i. The Council should immediately carry out a recovery exercise which addresses core problems in the organisation.This seems rather woolly, if fashionably couched in public sector management speak. Just what are the real problems and what should the Council be doing to address them?
ii. The Council should undertake a fundamental review of its management and service structure arrangements based on a clear and logical analysis of customer need as well as organisational
iii. The Council should undertake a review of the management capacity required to deliver on the challenges facing Inverclyde in terms of skills, knowledge and experience.
iv. The Council should undertake a performance review of all services, focusing on the identification of customer needs and the establishment of a clear performance baseline for all services from which targets can be set and against which future performance can be
v. Action should be taken by members and senior managers to develop an effective working relationship that supports the needs of the organisation and the delivery of Best Value services to the people of Inverclyde.
vi. The Council should secure appropriate external assistance, both on a consultancy basis and at a governance level from elected member and chief executive peers, during this recovery exercise.
Finally, I wonder if the criticisms are not reflective of a wider problem which is that too many Scottish local authorities are simply too small to be able deliver their services in an efficient way.
Anyway, if you are interested, read the actual Audit Scotland report.
"A month later, on Saturday, June 17, the FBI night supervisor called Felt at home. Five men in business suits, pockets stuffed with $100 bills, and carrying eavesdropping and photographic equipment, had been arrested inside the Democrats' national headquarters at the Watergate office building about 2:30a.m.
By 8:30 a.m. Felt was in his office at the FBI, seeking more details. About the same time, The Post's city editor woke me at home and asked me to come in to cover an unusual burglary. The first paragraph of the front-page story that ran the next day in The Post read: "Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here."
The next day, Carl Bernstein and I wrote our first article together, identifying one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., as the salaried security coordinator for Nixon's reelection committee. On Monday, I went to work on E. Howard Hunt, whose telephone number had been found in the address books of two of the burglars with the small notations "W. House" and "W.H." by his name."
For those of us who were around in the early 1970s, this is impossibly romantic stuff. And the fact that the Redford-Hoffman movie seems to be even more closely based on reality than imagined simply enhances the glamour.
01 June 2005
Pour Chirac, Villepin reste un collaborateur, comme Juppé ; pas vraiment un homme politique ; il le vouvoie. Sarkozy est pour le président «sans foi ni loi», c'est-à-dire «un homme politique» ; un rival ; il le tutoie. On sait en qui Chirac a confiance.
For Chirac, Villepin remains a colleague, like Juppe [former Chirac favourite who was also prime minister for a time]; not really a political animal; he [Chirac] uses the [more formal] 'vous' form [in speaking to Villepin]. Sarkozy, according to the President, is a renegade, that is a political animal; a rival; he uses the [familiar] 'tu' form. We know whom Chirac trusts.
"Security will be further tightened by up to 2,000 US Marines who will be flown in from an aircraft carrier to secure a 30-mile zone around Prestwick airport."
I'm not at all sure that I like the idea of US marines manning road blocks in this country. When the G8 Summit was in the US, I do not recall a regiment of the British Army taking an active part in the security arrangements.
Could the marines not just stick to sitting on their aircraft carrier, to be on call in case of emergencies?
Let us hope that The Indie has got it wrong.
"He is, however, not half so popular within the president's UMP party, many of whose MPs - most of whom he openly despises - have yet to forgive him for the debacle of 1997.
Often unbearably arrogant, he is known inside the party as the Bostonian and by Bernadette Chirac, France's first lady, as Nero, after the megalomaniac Roman emperor who thought himself a great poet."