Monday, 10 November 2008

Duchess and Daughters: Their Secret Mission, Review

If you thought that Fergie was engaged in paying off the £4m of debt she accumulated whilst working for the royal family think again.

She is training along with her daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, to become an investigative journalist, following in the tracks of Chris Rodgers whose expose on orphans in Romania shocked the world over three years ago.

In the disguise of Magenta DeVine, wearing a black wig, dark shades and a green headscarf, she rebutted her endless critics by asking them whether they have ever put a smile on anyone’s face through their good deeds.

It was difficult to separate the real tragedy behind the story without thinking that one was watching a cross between Royal It’s a Knockout and rich kids on their gap year.

Take away the celebratory hype and the sense of do-gooding and the message was strong.

Sarah Ferguson decided that her daughters needed a lesson in the miseries and realities of life after being closeted in a fantasy world of public school and garden parties.

Eugenie is whisked off to Turkey where parents routinely abandon children to the orphanage if they have any physical or mental illness. The young princess was visibly moved by the plight of these children that the country felt in its best interests to hide away.

The scenes where a boy was crawling on the floor to find some sunlight to cast its rays on his face, children left in their cribs all day and a hyperactive child left in a specially constructed box.

Then on to Romania, and a story that years earlier had led to a mass exodus of white mini vans filled with toys and clothes from the UK. The country, now part of the EU had promised to clean up its act but the Royals found little evidence that much had changed. This time Beatrice, accompanied her mother and was shown similar scenes that were witnessed by her sister. A teenaged girl tied naked to a trolley in a darkened room being the most harrowing.

With a heavy hint of irony they move to a gypsy camp where Fergie wonders how a mother could possibly think of abandoning the children that she loved. The sad reality being that they simply couldn’t afford to keep them and believe a better life exists for their beloved offspring if they are sent to the orphanage.

I couldn’t help thinking all along though, that this was reminiscent of Prince Charles taking Harry to a drug rehabilitation unit after he owned up to smoking cannabis.

Almost like reality TV in the guise of Wife Swap, the girls could return to their comfortable world at any time of their choosing.

Interviewed at the end, the Princesses both hoped that their visit would mean that things will change. Beatrice described it as a “Cosmic experience” which meant that she was less "worried about what people thought of her.”

If this programme was supposed to change our perception of this branch of the Royal family then it failed. If it brings more publicity to the plight of orphans in Eastern Europe then it will have succeeded.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Did St Patrick's feet walk in Heysham?

It is one of those bleak mornings on the Lancashire coast. It is raining and a cold wind blows off the Irish sea. The waves batter against the stone sea wall and threaten to immerse the churchyard and return the graves contained within to the sea.

The magnificent view from the only sea cliffs between North Wales and the Cumbria coast across Morecombe bay was painted by the artist JM Turner but today grey clouds obscure the magnificent Lake District peaks.

Ignoring the wind, I scramble up a set of slippery slate steps which lead up to the remains of an ancient church. All that is left is an archway which once opened out onto the South wing of a chapel.

Nearby are six strange shaped graves cut from the rock believed to date from the 10th Century.

A plaque is attached to the wall and as I open my notebook to scribble down its details, the wind blows it from my hand.

The inscription reads

“The ancient church of St Peter’s consecrated in 976.

I am in Heysham better known for its power station and ferries to Ireland.A mile north up the coast is the pretty village of Heysham, entrant in the Britain in Bloom competition and some say the birthplace of Christianity in Lancashire.

John Disney certainly thinks so anyway. Aged 74 he is convinced that the church marks the spot where St Patrick,the future patron saint of the Irish, landed after being shipwrecked on a journey from Ireland. He has devoted the last ten years of his life to his quest “to prove that St Patrick’s feet walked on Heysham’s shore.

Others don’t agree. Amongst them archaeologists from Lancaster University who believe the site belongs to a Celtic Norse tradition.For them the chapel and church were simply the christianizing of the Celtic population before the Norman Conquest

John whilst accepting that much of Patrick’s life “has a great deal of fiction attached to it”, believes that the wind swept church on the headland was built to mark the site where Patrick landed.

John can be found some days sitting in St Peter’s church which stands alongside the site of the ruined chapel. He trained as a guide over 10 years ago, explaining the mysteries of the site to visiting tourists .As I sit down to interview him, a couple visiting from Australia ask for a DVD of the chapel to take back with them.

John explains the interest in the site. During the 13th Century, pilgrims came to this site where Patrick landed and would journey to Cumbria in his footsteps .Before this century St Patrick’s Day was always a public holiday in Heysham and the area is littered with references to the patron saint of Ireland

The patron saint of Ireland was thought to have been born around 380AD to a Christian Romano-British family during the final years of the Roman occupation of Britain. Legend has it that he dreamt of Christianity but was chastised for not following his faith. Kidnapped by slave traders he was taken to the West coast of Ireland, where he remained for six years before managing to escape on a boat travelling back to Scotland.

Here Heysham enters the story. According to John, the ship was wrecked at a place known today as St Patrick’s steer. He thinks the evidence points to Heysham as the story describes a rocky inlet where trees are growing.1800 years ago; the waters off the coast were 14 feet deeper. At occasional low tides, the remains of stumps can be seen and this marks the place where they landed.

From Lancashire, Patrick made his way back to his parents in Scotland in an epic 28 day journey before he followed his convictions and travelled to Rome where the pope made him a bishop.

One final legend though remains in Heysham. Today in the village stands St Patrick’s well where the future saint asked a villager for water before starting out his journey. John tells me that the well in the village was put there in the 1900’s, the original well is close to Ingleton and is fed by the waters of the river Lune.He refuses to divulge its precise location.

In 1977, historians from Lancaster University began excavating at the site for clues about its past. There had been speculation that the one of the strange shaped graves had contained the remains of St Patrick. The problem was that the dating of the chapel can be put at 750 AD whereas Patrick died at least 300 years earlier.

The excavations found five burial areas near the chapel. They contained the bones of 85 people that were dated to 1000-1200 AD.

The researchers believe that pilgrims following in the steps of St Patrick, travelled from the Isle of Man in around 600 AD, converted the local landowner and set up a cross, leaving in their wake stories of the legend .The chapel itself was built by Angles around 750 AD and the site became a thriving community in this isolated corner of Lancashire. The rocky cliffs could well have been the site of an ancient manor house surrounded by huts of fisherman and farmers.

The link to St Patrick was revived with the arrival of the Celtic Norse people before the Norman Conquest and their connections to Ireland.

One of the most spectacular finds in the churchyard dating from this period is the Hog Stone. It now resides within the modern day church.

It is from this time that the chapel of St Peter alongside the site dates, and its construction used materials from the original site. Enter the church today and you can see evidence of the original workings in the West wall of the nave where a blocked up doorway still stands. Its height giving away its history.

John disagrees with the archaeological evidence. The graves he believes are not Viking in origin.” The fact that they face east was an accepted way of early Christian burial sites”

John believes his quest is close to ending. He remains convinced that only one piece of the jigsaw is eluding his final conclusion and that is the archaeological evidence that dates back to the 400’s.All the other evidence is in place.

Finally I notice that the church has a display on the effects of global warming. Mindful of the waves crashing against the wall of the churchyard, I ask John if he believes that the site will one day be under water.

“I don’t believe in that global warming rubbish. It’s just a natural cycle of events.”

I wished him well with his venture; he hopes to publish his theories next year. The rain was hammering down once again as I closed the door on the church. Looking back on the cliffs above, I wandered once gain was this really where St Patrick landed?

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Beheadings Bribes and Bin Laden

This week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will be transported down the Mall in a stage coach with Queen Elizabeth. He will attend a state banquet at Buckingham Palace and will hold talks with Gordon Brown at Downing Street.

Many people don’t think that he should be here. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is boycotting the banquet in protest at human rights abuses in the country. Labour MP John McDonnell is “astounded that the government can identify shared values with a with a regime that is world renowned for its abuses of human rights and civil liberties”

The national newspapers are regaling us with stories of beheadings, bribery and corruption. The Independent asks how we should be listening to someone who is lecturing us on terrorism and the Mirror tells us the “Truth about the savage house of Saud

Yet Britain historically has close ties with the kingdom. In 2006 the UK did over $9B business with the Saudi’s an increase of 12% in a year. BAE, based in Preston, has been a beneficiary of such business and its military ties have brought jobs to the area.

Last year the Company was embroiled in a scandal which centred on allegations of $10b in bribes to a Saudi Prince in exchange for the placing of aerospace orders. Eventually Tony Blair was forced to step in and prevent an investigation.

The Kingdom of Saud is little understood by the world. It was founded in 1932 as a result of a confederation of tribes following an Islamic jihadist philosophy. Shortly after, it received a massive boost when it discovered that it was sitting on the precious commodity of oil in 1938 and it quickly transformed what was until then a backward country.

Today the country is the world’s largest exporter of oil and holds 255 of the world’s proven reserves.

It is also the keeper of the Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina, and the birthplace of a certain Osama Bin Laden and many of those involved in the 9/11 terror attacks. Its role in the events of September 2001 has never fully been explained.

It is the fact that American troops are based on lands considered holy to Muslims that so angers Bin Laden and his followers.

Should we then be entertaining relations with this country? For some Saudi is a most important partner in the war against terrorism. For others our support for its government is a contradiction of the values that we hold so dear in the West.

According to Amnesty International human rights in the country are bleak.

A recent report stated

“Peaceful critics of the government were subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial. There were allegations of torture, and floggings continued to be imposed by the courts. Violence against women was prevalent and migrant workers suffered discrimination and abuse. Thirty-nine people were executed.”

Court proceedings fall well short of international standards and executions are carried out by beheadings, often in public. Women’s rights are lacking and only this year an attempt to lift the ban on women driving was quashed.

Our own nationals have experienced all too well its human rights record. Four Scottish national were detained in 2001 accused of involvement in a bombing campaign in the capital Riyadh. On their eventual release, after three years incarcerated, they complained of torture and solitary confinement and were made to sign false confessions.

The country is policed by a notorious religious police whom the ruling family tolerate as the price for staying in power. These police allegedly let 14 schoolgirls die in a fire instead of allowing them to leave the building because they were not dressed appropriately.

Yet the country is seen by Britain and America as a bulwark in the fight against global terrorism. Despite the recent comments of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the Palestinian crisis and in its support of American against Iran.

Whatever the conversation over dinner at the palace and at Downing Street, it is unlikely that it will turn to talk of human rights abuse and bribes.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Douglas Alexander-a profile

Over the weekend, Ladbrokes were offering short odds on Douglas Alexander being the first cabinet minister to be sacked under Gordon Brown’s premiership.

The fall out from the debacle of the “autumn election” may be according to Jonathon Freedland”the clearout of Brown’s young advisors punishing those who have led him in the election “

The blame for Brown’s troubles is being pointed at the young buccaneers in the cabinet. Ed Ball’s the schools secretary and Douglas Alexander, the general election coordinator and International development secretary.

One senior minister was quoted as saying “The Youth team has just fought its first general election and lost.”

It will be a dramatic fall from grace for Gordon Brown’s former speechwriter, who joined the cabinet in 2001 as minister for E commerce at the department of trade and industry. He was then the youngest member of Tony Blair’s cabinet.

Since then he has held a number of cabinet posts, and following Gordon Brown’s becoming Prime Minister; he replaced Hillary Benn as International Development secretary.

Alexander was born in Glasgow in 1967. Growing up in Bishopston, where his father was a local minister, he attended Bishopston Primary School and Park Main’s High in Erskine. In a recent interview he said that he owed his parents a lot for a happy and secure upbringing.

At the age of 17, he won a scholarship to attend an international college in Vancouver. After gaining the International Baccalaureate, he returned to his native Scotland to study politics and modern history at Edinburgh University gaining a 1st class honours degree.

Whilst at Edinburgh, he first became involved in politics chairing the university Labour club and getting taking on local constituency work. In 1988, he gained another scholarship, to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. Whilst there, he worked on the failed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign.

Returning to the UK he worked as a Parliamentary researcher for the Labour party, then in the wilderness years of opposition and wrote speeches for Gordon Brown.

Brown was to return the favour earlier this year when he launched his strength of the Union campaign along Douglas Alexander in Edinburgh at a speech to the Fabians’ society. Together they argued for the state of the union, saying that "it is not a historical curiosity, but a blueprint for international co-operation in the 21st century.”

Alexander trained as a lawyer before attempting to enter Parliament in 1995. He fought the by-election in the Tory seat of Perth and Kinross, overturning a large Tory majority in a campaign which broke several post war election records and put the Labour party into second place.

In the General election of 1997 he further eroded the SNP majority. However his opportunity to enter Parliament came three months later, following the death of the Paisley South MP Gordon McMaster Alexander fought and won the resultant by-election, despite some internal Labour problems at the time.
He made his maiden speech in the Commons on one of the parties most significant reforms of the first term the minimum wage, arguing that “For my constituents, it is a matter not of wanting a national minimum wage but of needing one. For 18 years, we had a Government who advanced the idea that the price of greater prosperity was greater inequality and who tried to frighten people out of their commitment to fairness”

He has been a good servant to his local constituents, including campaigns to get greater support for the pensioners of Renfrewshire.

His record in Parliament has shown him up to be a strong supporter of New Labour. He was in favour of the Iraq invasion and anti terrorism laws, voted in favour of student top up fees, the hunting ban and the replacement of Trident.

The importance of his role in Brown’s cabinet was reaffirmed in the speech he made in Washington, days after Brown became M.E. spoke about Britain needing new alliances based on common values. The speech was widely interpreted as a message to the Bush administration about a future direct for foreign policy.

Alexander though rebutted those suggestions. “The speech made clear challenges like climate change and tackling global poverty require the whole global community to work together. Our relationship with America has always been based on not just shared interests but shared values like liberty and democracy.”

If Alexander is replaced in Brown’s team of close advisors, it will be a sad day indeed for one of the young Turks of New Labour.

Monday, 14 May 2007

My locally generated story-Blackpool Grand Theatre

Blackpool’s Grand Theatre is to close its doors for 5 weeks during the summer months as it undergoes £550,000 of refurbishment.

The work will see the theatre’s interior revert to its original colour of royal blue and will include the installation of wider and more comfortable seating and the fitting of a new carpet as well as the provision of more disabled facilities

The work has been planned for two years and has been financed by a cross section of organisations, including friends of the theatre, trusts, fundraising events and local businesses.

The project has been named after Mr Sam Lee who was the Chairman of the Grand Theatre Trust from 1993 until his death in 2003. The Theatre has worked closely with the Heritage Trust in choosing the designs for the new interior.

The new seats have been manufactured in Europe and the design, based on V.I.P cinema seats, will be sold to six other Frank Matcham theatres across the country.

Once finished, the Grand believes that it will become one of the most comfortable heritage theatres in the country.

The decision to shut the Theatre during the summer months reflects the changing patterns of tourism in the resort. According to Sarah Jane Wright,the theatre’s press officer , “summer shutting makes sense”

“Last years summer was poor. Most visitors were day trippers who stayed for the matinee but shunned the traditional long running features”.

The audience has become more locally based and loyal. The busiest seasons for the theatre are now the spring and autumn.

This year the re opening will mark the start of the new season which traditionally ran until late autumn but will now start in August.

The theatre, a grade II listed building was built in 1894,and was the venue for stars such as Sarah Bernhart , Lillie Langtry, Gracie Fields, Sir John Gielgud and Arthur Askey.

It was saved from demolition in 1975 by the friends of the Grand and Blackpool council and reopened its doors in 1981.This will be the first time those doors have closed since that time..

The theatre will reopen with a gala performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

John McDonnell on the Campaign Trail

One of the declared candidates for the Labour leadership,John McDonnell spoke in Preston last night.This is the article that have penned

The question from the floor seemed quite pertinent. How would John McDonnell get elected as the leader of the Labour Party when so many of his potential supporters had already left the Labour Party?

44 Labour MP’s need to nominate the former GLC member and champion of Old Labour to even get him onto the ballot paper and in his words “to prevent the “coronation of Gordon Brown” sometime this summer.

He is therefore currently touring the country in an attempt to get Labour Party members to lobby their MP to get his name onto the paper and that was his mission last night at 53 Degrees.

There is no doubting his Socialist principles. He remembers the barren eighteen years of opposition under Tory rule, the taunting of the government from across the Thames at County Hall when every day Mrs Thatcher was reminded of the employment figures.

The euphoria of Blair’s victory 10 years ago has for him now faded. Where once he remembers Labour Party members marching to save hospitals, he now sees those same protests aimed at the Labour Government.

He accuses the party of eroding both civil liberties and Trade Union freedoms to the extent that working people have fewer rights now than 100 years ago. He cannot believe that Labour MP’s would have even considered voting for top up fees.

But most of all that a party of peace would have climbed into bed with George Bush and inflicted untold suffering on the people of Iraq.

His salvation for the party is built around reconnecting its leadership with the Grass roots of the party and remove the elitist element of government that has developed under Tony Blair. The inheritance of Gordon Brown is simply more of the same and he accuses the Chancellor of never once opposing any of Blair’s policies.

Yet with the British electorate moving to the centre ground, perhaps he should take notice of those 18 years in the wilderness when for most of them, the policy of his party made them unelectable.