Tuesday, January 02, 2007


I am a Stephen King fan.

I watched the film The Shawshank Redemption before I realized it was adapted from a King short story. That 100 pages of prose soar to heights any writer would love to reach. It contains a few passages that I find as lyrical, as perfect as any I have read.

So I sat down over Christmas to read his novel Misery with something of an air of keen anticipation. I haven't seen the film but I remember watching trailers, possibly at the time its actors were receiving the Hollywood treatment.

The premise is brilliant: a writer trapped in the wilds with "his number one fan" who also happens to be cockadoodie crazy. The story tells the tale of how he survives, resurrecting the character she loves and he loathes and whom he had killed off in his last novel. She encourages him along the way by lopping off various pieces of his anatomy when she feels he is in need of a degree of motivation.

And yet, though it may be treasonous to say it, I felt like there should have been something more. Where were the unexpected twists in the plot, the heart-stopping moments that have the reader desperate, yet dreading, to turn the page? Sure, there are moments when, figuratively, you want to look away but don't confuse moments of horror with the fiendish unfurling of plot.

I enjoyed the book - King could write out the telephone directory in a way that would entertain me - but I think he has done better.

Saddam - part two

Saddam's execution last week raises any number of profound issues some of which I touched on in my last post.

On a rather more mundane level, it reinforces yet again what has already been evident for some time namely, how improvements in communications are changing the nature of the news media.

The formal footage of Saddam's walk to the gallows, orderly and dignified, is challenged by what appears to be mobile phone footage taken from an unidentified witness. This time it is easy to hear the shouting, the accusations and the generally confrontational nature of the execution. For the voyeur the actual drop through the trap door is apparently to be seen on some web-sites.

A number of newspaper editors have already commented how electronic web-sites, for example, are able to publish news so much quicker than the traditional print version. But speed is not necessarily the pre-eminent quality and the changing face of news coverage has both pros and cons.

The risk with instant reporting is that there is a far greater chance of mistakes or inaccuracies. In this case, however, the mobile phone video actually gave a truer account of what went on.

There is a huge issue over censorship as the current event reveals. Heads should still be hung in shame at the BBCs cowardly retreat in the face of government pressure over the findings of the Hutton report. The fact that a journalist took a few short-cuts (wrongly and deplorably) should not have meant that the BBC caved in over the central charge that our PM, or his advisers, sexed up intelligence reports to provide a legal basis for committing the country to war.

No WMD have been found since the invasion although the threat that they could be turned on us in less than an hour was one of the main reasons given to justify the invasion. Why has no one ever been held to account for this catastrophic failure?

The instant exposure to events literally as they unfold reduces the ability of those in power to spin what is happening for their own ends. The risk is that something sinister or unseemly (the actual death in this case) will be made available as a consequence where this would not have happened if more traditional methods of reporting had been employed.

The brave new world demands a greater maturity from the receiving audience. The reader/viewer has to be able to judge the merits of what is being published and to decide whether to read on or to log off. For my money, it is preferable to make the audience choose, rather than abrogate responsibility for that decision to someone else who may well have other interests to preserve.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam - execution

Saddam Hussein is dead. More accurately, he has been executed by the countrymen he once lead. But what does this mean for the typical Iraqi and the wider world?

For the long-suffering citizens of that much troubled country, it is unlikely there will be a significant upturn in their fortunes any time soon. Put bluntly, no one cares about them enough to prolong the agony. Consider the massive coverage the despot's death received. Compare it to the amount of time given over to coverage of the other 70 or so innocents blown up by car bombs on the same day.

For the international community - at least, for the UK and USA - the priority now is to get the soldiers home. Far too many of them have been sacrificed on the alter of political vanity and continue to be sacrificed trying to keep order in the face of chaos. They will leave behind a state of anarchy as Iraq slips in to civil war. This is the fruit of Bush's foreign policy of pre-emptive action.

The decision to invade Iraq was unjustified, probably illegal and will have tragic consequences for years to come. Overshadowing all of his other efforts and achievements, this will be Blair's legacy to his citizens. Far from bringing peace and democracy to the world, those in the West sleep far more uneasily now than at any time since the death of Hitler.

What is more, as the winds of change blow down the years, what chance Bush or Blair being indicted for war crimes? There are any number of unresolved issues: the supposed threat of WMD which never materialised, the "sexing up" of intelligence reports, the disenfranchisement of the political and legal processes, the disgraces of Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. All will bear the scrutiny of history.

What chance Bush or Blair one day following Saddam to the gallows should criminal liability be established?

Christmas: the great fraud

What do you think of when someone says the word Christmas? Massive amounts of food, wine, presents? Time spent relaxing with the family? Undoubtedly, that is what comes to mind for many of us, myself included.

I've always been aware that it should mean rather more than that but somehow I've managed to blank that out, to push the thought in to a dark corner. Don't want to vex myself by examining my conscience too closely for fear of what I might find. An incident late on Christmas Day caused me to reconsider.

I was staying with my in-laws - decent people with whom I get on well - in Surrey. We had eaten a massive meal and then driven to Olney to see one of their daughters and three grandsons. On the journey back someone in a dark car all but ran us off the road. Right up our rear bumper, horn blaring, headlights flashing, then practicallybouncing off the side of the car as he overtook, middle finger raised in something other than a gesture of friendship. I tried to remember that it was the season of goodwill to all men.

And that was what made me think. True, the unidentified idiot accelerating in to the distance, was just full of anger and not really worthy of a great deal of thought but who was I to take the moral high ground?

I'd certainly eaten my share of the 6,000 calories that the average person consumes on Christmas. And I'd done so without giving a thought to the starving in Africa. I'd bought my baby daughter all sorts of presents at considerable expense, when given she is but nine months old, the only thing that interested her was the wrapping paper. I'd done so without thinking of the poor, the meek or the lowly. I'd listened to the children arguing over who opened their present first and then crying if they perceived they had not done as well as someone else and I'd just accepted that as the way it was.

No, I really do not have any call on the moral high ground.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Arise, Sir Shane

The news that Shane Warne, Australia's wrist-spinning legend, is to retire from the game at the end of the current series will provoke extreme and opposite reactions; it will be celebrated by every fan of the sport wishing to see the little urn that holds the Ashes return to its spiritual home at Lords yet be mourned by every spectator who watches the sport simply to see a genuine magician at work.

I like most sports, cricket included, but I can not be accused of being passionate about it. I remember clearly, however, the day S Warne Esq. introduced himself to the world at large and changed my view of the game in white.

1993. Warne's first ever ball in Ashes cricket. Out strolls Mike Gatting, former England captain and, at the time, probably the best player of spin bowling in the country. The ball rips out of the back of Warne's hand, swerves and dips to pitch a foot outside Gatting's leg stump before tearing back in front of his hesitant forward prod and flicking the bail of his off stump. Unplayable, unbelievable and unprecedented. Not just the ball of the century, the best ball ever bowled in Test cricket.

In his next and penultimate test, Warne is poised to become the first man ever to take 700 wickets. That is almost double the number a certain Ian Botham took.

Yet like Botham, Warne is a flawed man. Capable of anything on the pitch, he has proven himself liable to the weakest moments off it. Affairs, sordid text messaging; the falls from grace have served only to highlight the heights he attained when clad all in white.

In short, it has made for great entertainment. The cricket world, nay the entire sporting world will be a little duller with his retirement. Let us celebrate a cricketing genius the likes of which none of us are ever likely to see again.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

If you can't stand the heat...

A big piece in today's Guardian publicises a report from the Marine Biology Association revealing the significant effects climate change and the warming of our oceans is having on marine life.

After a four year study, and by then comparing the results with records from the 1950s, scientists found that some marine species adapted to cold water were migrating away from the warming shoreline. Indeed, some life, like the tortoiseshell limpet has now almost completely disappeared.

With computer models predicting that the pace of change is set to increase, the effects on marine biodiversity will only be exaggerated.

Is it just me, or should we not be doing a whole heck of a lot more to stop this?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dirty Hands

What do we want of our politicians?

Virtue? It would be good to think so, but virtue is not a prerequisite to running a country. How many politicians have led us or their party while conducting secret affairs? John Major, John Prescott, Paddy Ashdown are but three from our recent past. If nothing else they demonstrate that personal decency is irrelevant in the arena of power and that betrayal is not related to the shade of your political persuasion.

Honesty? The same principle applies. How many of our elected representatives have been called to account for fiddling the books, fudging the accounts or using their office for personal advantage? Peter Mandleson, David Blunkett etc etc. Let us not open the Pandora's box of party funding.

So how should we consider the scandal of quashing the SFO enquiry in to alleged bribery in the murky world of arms dealing? From the points of view of virtue and honesty the decision is little short of outrageous.

But weight has to be given to the other issues. A £10 billion deal to buy 72 fighter planes that will secure up to 100,000 jobs. A relationship with Saudi Arabia preserved at a time when we need all of the friends we can find in the Middle East, not just to secure a flow of oil but also to provide intelligence in the so-called "War on Terror."

These are uncomfortable but undeniable factors to balance in the overall equation.

The decision may offend every principle of decency we have but it does have undeniable benefits - "it is in the best interests of the country" to use politician's speak.

Sp perhaps that is what we require from our politicians, not untarnished morality but an ability to be pragmatic, a willingness to get one's hands dirty.

Perhaps we should not pour scorn on our leaders for falling short on points of principle but instead acknowledge with grudging respect a hard decision made in difficult circumstances. Perhaps, but if so, where do we draw the line? If it is acceptable to deny the rule of law over an allegation of bribery, what about its avoidance over taking the country to war in Iraq?

Why do I have this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach?

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Best of British

Yesterday, I vented my spleen over the government's antics.

Today, I would like to restore some balance to the emotional ledger by paying tribute to two individuals whose deeds may have escaped you. I don't propose to name them, just think of them as your faceless representatives in the military, the ones who do the dirty jobs, the ones who don't get to question and debate, the ones who die.

Today, I acknowledge my respect and gratitude to the two servicemen posthumously awarded the Victoria and George Crosses for their bravery under fire while fighting for our country. This is neither the time nor the place to challenge the legality or moral basis for our involvement in those conflicts - just to repeat the oft-used but still resonant phrase that greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another.

I hope your country is worthy of you.

Reasons to be cheerful

Thursday 14 December 2006. A day that proves - yet again - that we, the people, are treated a whole lot more like Blockheads than Ian Dury by our elected representatives.

Prove it I hear you say. Well, you can take your pick.

It is the biggest news story for months. The official publication of the police report in to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Acres of newsprint are given over to debunking the conspiracy theorists and I mean acres.

And what also happens? Just the trifling matter that our PM is interviewed by Scotland Yard detectives investigating the peerages for loans scandal. It has been on-going for none months so purely coincedental that the news is confirmed today that Blair has become the first ever sitting PM to be questioned by police conducting a criminal investigation.

As if that wasn't enough, there is confirmation that the Serious Fraud Office's investigation in to the alleged bungs by BAE Systems has been squashed by the government. The figures are mind-boggling. A £60M sweetener which threatened a £10 billion arms deal.

The SFO said: "It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest."

We may all be equal before the law but plainly, some of us, notably those with the odd £10 billion burning a hole in their pocket, are more equal than others.

It would be nice to think that the government's probity in such matters was beyond dispute but that is difficult to do when the leader of the government has been "assisting the police with their enquiries" relating to other aspects of his conduct. What really sticks in my craw, however, is the crass manipulation over the release of this information: bury the bad news on a huge story day in the hope no one will notice. Compounding my anger is the expectation that most people - Guardian editors notable among the exceptions - are so lethargic that the strategy may well succeed.

It's enough to make a law-abiding citizen feel all warm inside.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wooden Spoon - Spoonews

Taken from the December edition of Spoonews

Oaklands Park School

Oaklands Park School stands on the outskirts of Dawlish, on Devon’s east coast, in a substantial Victorian property with a veritable honeycomb of other buildings in its grounds. The school provides an education and care service for children with severe learning difficulties. It is able to cater for up to 55 boys and girls at any one time with residential provision for 25 of them. Approximately half of the pupils have Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Bob Pugh is the head teacher as he was back in 2002 when Spoon first made his acquaintance. As a former rugby player of Welsh extraction, it did not take long for a good relationship to blossom. “Sport is a priority in the school. Although all of the children have special needs, from a physical viewpoint, many of them are as able as their peers in mainstream education.”

One of the key attractions of the school, certainly as far as its pupils are concerned, is the fact that it has a pool. It reflects huge credit on the staff that when the children leave, 95% of them are able to swim. In 2002, however, the structure in which the pool was housed was beginning to show signs of its age. This was not altogether surprising given that it was 30 years old and had been anticipated to last for 10 years or so when it was first put up. Bob remembers that it was “an unwelcoming environment” but the estimated cost of replacement – put at close to £70,000 - was beyond the school’s means without a major fundraising drive that would have taken years to achieve its goal.

“Two parents met Bruce (Priday, chairman of the Devon region) at a fundraising event and he came to visit,” recalls headmaster Pugh. “That led to a visit from the project manager (Philip Blunden) and in what appeared to be no time at all, the project was in hand. I was really impressed by how little bureaucracy there was while, at the same time, everything was done very professionally.”

Bob recounts that the Devon committee raised roughly £15,000. This was matched with central funds and the school could then apply for “seed funding” which doubled the £30,000 aggregate. With the shortfall made up by a local drive for funds, the necessary sum was soon available. “We could never have done it, however, without that initial input from Spoon. It has made a huge difference. It has given the pool another 30 years of life.”

When Spoon News arrived on an abysmal winter’s day, the importance of the facility was plain to see. Even at 9:30 in the morning, the first class was already making itself ready for its dip in the pool. “Swimming is our best lesson,” says Julie Gibbons, assistant head (autism.) “Each class uses the pool twice a week, once with an instructor and once with the class team. Furthermore, each of the residences has the pool for its exclusive use during one evening of the week.”

Julie points out just how important the facility is in developing channels of communication with the children. “The interaction is a lot more spontaneous in the pool than it is outside in what could be termed “the real world,” particularly with the pre-verbal kids.”
There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the children even early in the morning. “The best thing about the pool is swimming underwater,” says George Milburn aged 10.

His friend Charles Welsh, 9, is similarly keen. “I couldn’t swim before I came here but now I can.”

“I like it when the roof comes off in the summer,” says Daniel Rose also 9, before adding: “Next time, can the pool be made deeper please.”

The ability to have the roof retracted is not just popular with the pupils. “When the sun is out, you can almost imagine that you are in the Caribbean,” says Julie with more than a little wistfulness in her voice as we watch the rain lashing down outside. It is easy to see why the pool is such a selling point.

The school is set to undergo further re-developments and improvements in the future. “We’ve had the architects out to see how the changing rooms and everything else can be fitted together,” explains Bob. “It’s a question now of bringing the other facilities up to the same standard as the pool!”

He pauses and then mentions that the opening ceremony had been conducted by none other than Welsh legend, Phil Bennett. “It was just such an honour to meet him,” says the awestruck head teacher. “It was quite probably the best day of my life, although you had better not tell my wife that!”

Don’t worry, Bob, your secret is safe with us.

Wooden Spoon - Spoonews article

Wooden Spoon is rugby union's official charity dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children. The following article will appear in the December edition of Spoonews, Wooden Spoon's quarterly magazine.


All organisations have them, Spoon more than most. They are the rocks on which success is built; the hard-working, decent folk who give of their time and energy often without much, if any, recognition. In short, they are the unsung heroes. Barry Williams, an integral part of The President’s Ball held every year at The Hilton in London, is one of them. He is also, by all accounts, an irresistibly funny man.

With a surname like Williams and hailing from the soft-forested hills of mid-Wales, just across the Herefordshire border (near the beautiful Elan valley) I half-expect a rich, lilting Welsh accent, a la Richard Burton, to resonate down the phone line. Instead, it turns out that Barry was born in London but moved at only a few weeks of age to Croydon where his father, a policeman, was stationed. He was educated locally and, at the age of 16, went to work in a local department store. By his own admission, he was not there long.

“When a lady came in to buy a tin opener, she would often leave with the tin opener, a full set of saucepans and a canteen of cutlery!” Although engaged as a salesman he was asked to rein in his selling instincts. It was a time when service to the customer was king, when every shopper was referred to as “Sir” or “Madam” and actually selling something came as an afterthought. Such limitations did not fit well with our Mr Williams.

He moved to a company that would better appreciate his selling instincts – Waterlows – and sold computer stationary. He sold it in vast quantities and yet all was still not well. “I’d sell 10 units but, at the age of 20, I was still earning half the wage of my 45 year old colleague who only sold 4 units. I was equally peeved that I got a basic Escort to drive around in and he got a top of the range Cortina!”

His life changed one night in 1974 when he organised an old-fashioned stag show at Woodmansterne FC in Surrey only for the comedian not to turn up. It was the days long before the mobile phone. The compere hot-footed it to a phone box in the street but before he did so he “asked the audience” if anyone fancied doing a ten minute slot. As the club’s unofficial jester Barry was volunteered and pushed up on to the stage like some sacrificial offering. The compere returned – having discovered that the comedian had been involved in a car accident – to find Barry being barracked relentlessly by his mates but holding his own with lightning quick ad-libs.

“After the show, the compere took me to one side and asked me if I could tell a joke. He said I could already ad-lib with the best in the business. I told him I could, if given the chance, and he invited me to do a guest slot on a show. It paid £4 for ten minutes when I was earning about £12 a week. I loved it.”

Within four months Barry had a jammed diary and the sales world lost one of its forces of nature. He has been full-time ever since. His career has seen him pay appearance fees (of as little as £10 in the early days) to the likes of Jim Davidson and Michael Barrymore in shows he has compered. His love of theatre has seen him tour with The Searchers, The Three Degrees, Leo Sayer, Tommy Cooper and Cilla Black. He has twice been voted Comedian of the Year.

In 1984, a new workplace emerged that would, in time, become the after-dinner circuit. Barry burnt the candle at both ends for two years but, in 1986, he left show business and became a full-time after dinner speaker. At the same time, he moved with his wife, Jenny, and their three children to mid-Wales. Over the years they have built up an extensive menagerie, keeping 40-50 chickens, four dogs, eight parrots and five cats. “My wife also has a pet owl which free-flies in the kitchen while the pool serves as our koi pond and has over 100 specimens in it. We have been known to take a dip in it with them in the height of summer!”

At the start of the 1990s, Barry first made contact with Spoon when he was invited to speak at The President’s Ball at The Hilton. He was the first entertainer ever to be asked back for a second year, and then a third. In fact, he has been back every year since. Over time, his role has evolved and he now comperes the show. Needless to say, he has many highlights.

“My favourite has to be Peter Scott, trussed up by his wedding tackle, and flown under The Hilton ballroom ceiling, before descending, like Superman, to address the gathering. It was a fantastic piece of apparatus and I believe Peter keeps it in his bedroom to this day!”

Barry has become great friends with the chief executive chef at The Hilton – Anthony Marshall – who has performed in a cameo roll at many of the recent balls. “My favourite was his rendition of The Full Monty although Spoon did miss a golden opportunity. They could have sold binoculars to the ladies at any price whatsoever!” He notes that the esteemed chef and his team only ever perform in this way at The President’s Ball. “They are among Spoon’s very best supporters.”

He describes the amazing scenes at The Hilton as being surpassed only by the will of the audience to enjoy themselves and give generously. “The auctions are remarkable. I remember an executive from Renault buying a cuddly African lion for £5,000 but I do wonder whether it is a coincidence that we have not seen him since!”

Barry’s involvement with Spoon means that he has come to know some of the key personalities. He cannot speak highly enough of Peter Scott. “He must take great pride in that the fact what he started almost nonchalantly with four chums has grown in to this blue chip charity organisation.” He has warm words also for the current chief executive, Geoff Morris. “He is bringing another dimension to Spoon and works tirelessly in the corporate sector to expand the charity’s income.” He describes Tony Richards as “the perfect foil for Geoff” and also singles out Mike and Sandra Eland as “another pair of unsung heroes.”

But it is the work that Spoon does that which means most to him. “Almost 100% of the funds generated go to the causes intended. That is something a lot of other charities could learn from. For me though the great thing is to see the look on the kids faces, their wonderment. That’s something money simply cannot buy.”

Barry Williams, unsung hero and genuinely nice guy.

Surfing - Pipeline Masters

Weblog - Surf Nation - Times Online December 07, 2006

What is the connection between the Pipeline Masters and Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945?
On the eve of the Pipeline Masters, Cornish waterman Andy Cox has been in touch. Here, glass of fine wine in hand, he gives an insight into just what makes the Masters the biggest show in town.

Tennis has Wimbledon and boxing Madison Square Garden but surfing trumps both: surfing has Pipeline. And tomorrow sees the start of the Rip Curl Pipeline Masters. The last stop on the World Championship Tour (WCT) the Masters is, without doubt, the one contest above all others that a professional surfer wants to win. To become a Pipe Master is to enter surfing’s folklore, to make an indelible mark on history’s page, to be able forever after to hold your head high.

Pipeline stands out even among the other world class breaks on Oahu’s North Shore: places like Sunset, Backdoor and Off The Wall. It is one of the shallowest and most dangerous reefs on the planet, capable of producing huge barrels when conditions are right. There are other waves that meet this description, notably Teahupoo in Tahiti. What sets Pipe apart is its history, its provenance. If Teahupoo is a bottle of Jacob’s Creek, an enjoyable pleasure to be shared with friends, vintage Pipe is Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945, to be savoured only on the rarest of occasions, drunk from the finest crystal and on bended knee.

A look at previous winners of the event reveals some of the legends of the sport: Gerry Lopez, Rory “the dog” Russell, Michael and Derek Ho, Tom Carroll and, more recently, Kelly Slater and Andy Irons.

One of surfing’s most dramatic days of all time came in 2003 when Irons defeated Slater in the final event of the year to win not only The Masters, but also the Triple Crown (best surfer in the three Hawaiian events) and the World Championship. This year, Slater has already wrapped up his eighth world title but Irons will want the Triple Crown and the Masters trophy. Having won the event in three of the last four years, he is the man to beat.

Posted by Alex Wade on December 07, 2006 at 09:01 PM in Weblogs

For more surfing news see www.timesonline.co.uk/surfnation