Sunday, August 31, 2008

Flowers in a desert.

The last two days have comprised probably the most boring weekend of the year in British politics. Absolutely nothing of interest has happened. The newspapers should not have been printed. Forests should have been saved. So I'm going to blog about crocosmias. At present they are setting our 'hot border' on fire. I've chosen the best four to titillate your senses.

This vivid yellow is perhaps just a touch too spready, so it needs to be divided and controlled every 2/3 years, or it takes over. It good and reliable though - and a must for any border aspiring to be colourful.

This crocosmia is named Emily Mackenzie. Beautiful flowers but have a maddening habit of facing downwards. Emily is a gorgeous girl, but a bit shy about showing her face - but far too too lovely not to cultivate.

My favourite yellow. She looks so lovely in those dark clothes. Don't know her name but I just couldn't live without her

This one is called Dusky Maiden. Short and beautiful. Every garden should grow it.

Tomorrow, surely some thing interesting will happen in the world of British politics. Perhaps Gordon will sack Darling, or Rhodri Morgan will resign, or Mike German will announce that he intends to remain Lib Dem leader in Wales until 2012. driving Peter Black's blog into a tailspin. I hope I'm not forced into blogging about rudbeckias.

Practising in case.

I imagine that an MP's weekend is a frenzy of opportunities to meet constituents. So I had a trial run yesterday. Started at a coffee morning to raise funds and awareness of Alzheimer's disease. I went because of my growing interest in neurological diseases. Next up was the Montgomery Canal Festival. The Canal has been an interest for the last 25 years. I went along in the company of the Mayor of Welshpool, and joined the group at the official opening. When the Mayor did her bit, she insisted that I be given the 'mike' to make another speech. I was a bit embarrassed but high profile slots like that are not to be refused. I talked about how important the restoration of the full 'Monty' is to the economy of Rural Wales. Well, I was the Conservative 'canal man' when I was an AM, so I did have some status. And then it was a 10 mile dash to Llanfair Caereinion Show - an occasion that I always enjoy. The thing about Llanfair Show is that the same people go every year. Its like a big party of family and friends. Left with several planning and housing issues to discuss with county councillors on behalf of show visitors.

The finest animals at the show are the shire horses. Not many shows still have classes for these magnificent beasts. They are worth the entry fee on their own.
My first competitive forays into local shows, many years ago now, were in the dahlia classes. I still find myself drawn to judge the classes today, often disagreeing with the judges. This particular vase of 3 medium decs was grown by my Uncle Cliff, who lives near Pontrobert, and it was judged 'Best in Show.
A rare sight these days is an old fashioned Thrashing Box. This one is owned by Jim Pickstock, and he demonstrates how it used to work at Llanfair every year. These huge machines were owner by a contractor, who towed it around farms to thrash the grain from the straw during the winter. It was the dirtiest, dustiest job of the year, and visited lung disease on many farmers. It probably killed many of them prematurely. I used to collapse after about 8 hours and go to bed with the shakes. Hard to believe that we didn't wear masks. They came in later.
There's always a wonderful display of old tractors at Llanfair Show. There were many much older than this grand old Fordson. I've included it because it was the first tractor that I ever drove myself. I was probably about 8 years old. Lots of young people were killed on these things, before safety cabs were made compulsory. Most farming families lost friends and family in tragic accidents - usually when they turned over on top of the driver on sloping ground. Safely just wasn't taken seriously enough.

And finally I just about made it to the Glansevern Hall Food Festival, near my village of Berriew. Well over 3,000 people attended yesterday, the first day of this two day event. One of the chefs on display this year was Neil Roberts, who is the current Wales Chef of the Year. Neil and Jackie run the excellent Waggon and Horses in Newtown. Coincidentally, we had been there for supper the night before. This blog has recommended the Waggon before. Its outstandingly good.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What's Darling up to?

I'm sure every Chancellor of the Exchequer must get well 'pissed off' on occasion. Normally, I'd have used asterisks ('p***ed off') but it seems that this has become an accepted parliamentary expression. Its very unusual for a Chancellor to use such an expression in a planned interview. Just don't be fooled that in some way, it was a 'slip of the tongue' from an angry man. Alistair Darling used the term in a calculated way, in order to convey an impression that he is an angry man. So its worth noting what else he's been saying, that he was so keen to bring to our attention.

First thing to note was what looks like disloyalty to Gordon Brown (from a man who has always been famously loyal). Darling claims that the UK is facing her worst economic crisis for 60 years. This is probably cobblers, (most of the figures are not even as bad as 1991) but what's interesting is that its a completely different message from that which has been spouted, ad nauseum, by Gordon Brown. He must have known it would make the Government look hopelessly divided at the highest level. Perhaps this was actually Brown's way of changing tack. And what was the bit about fellow Cabinet members wanting to take his job, and "actively trying to do it". Does he mean Brown, or Balls, or who? Blatant and calculated disloyalty it looks like. But this could be the sort of 'cover' to make Darling's supposed anger seem genuine.

I suppose the new strategy could all be a crude attempt at trying to paint so bleak a picture, that the reality will allow the Government to claim its competence in easing the worst effects of external pressures. It won't work, of course. But after reading the devastating critique of its unpopularity by Anthony King in yesterday's Telegraph, you can't blame Darling for trying. The big question for me is whether Gordon Brown was in on the Darling interview - or am I being too cynical.

Xmas Shopping

Every year as Xmas approaches, I suffer periods of severe anxiety. And its the same old problem every year. What do I buy for Mrs D. So its a big thank you to Professor Michael Dickinson, an American Scientist who has invented a fly swatter (complete with instructions) and swatting technique that will lead to assured success. No more spreading their dirty dung-laden bodies into ugly smears on the window pane, or knocking of delicate china to the floor during a demented assault with the rolled up Daily Telegraph, which reported this item on the front page of today's edition.

From December 25th onwards I expect to see Mrs D creeping around the house, using a new swatter with a degree of camouflage designed into it. She will wait patiently for the fly to land, and then approach it from behind - because it does not have a 360-degree field of vision. (Funnily I always thought it did) She will then assess which way the fly is facing, because that is the direction it will take as it seeks to make its escape. She will aim at a spot slightly in front of the fly (rather as some golfers do when aiming for the hole). And Bingo, dead fly, undamaged newspaper, clean window panes and an appreciated Xmas present. Sure beats the Barbados holiday I bought as a surprise last year.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New NICE rules.

Listened to an extended interview with Andrew Dillon, Chief Executive on the National Institute of Clinical Excellence on the radio as driving home from Cardiff today. It was refreshingly honest, and very interesting. A big part of the discussion concerned this decision by NICE which was to change its recommendation on the treatment of wet Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Previously NICE had recommended that this new effective treatment, Lucentis, which costs about £10,000 per eye, should only be available on the NHS if the patient has already lost sight in one eye. Recently, NICE decided that the treatment should be prescribed for the first eye as well. Mr Dillon apologised, genuinely and profusely to all those who have lost their sight while NICE spent too long coming to its decision. I should add that this situation applies to England only. The position is different in Wales and Scotland.

The aspect of the issue that particularly interests me is the role played by the the manufactures of Lucentis, Novartis. The reason that NICE has been able to change its recommendation is that Novartis has agreed to pick up part of the cost, thus making Lucentis sufficiently cost-effective to meet the NICE criteria. Novartis has agreed to supply free any injections needed after the first 10, if they prove to be necessary. This seems to me to be a fundamental change in NHS policy. This is providing NHS treatment to patients where the private sector is paying for part of the treatment. The decision on AMD is wonderful news to sufferers from AMD, but it could also be important news for others who want to supplement drugs available within the NHS by treatments supplied by the private sector. Personally, I thought that movement in this direction is inevitable.

The price of pleasure.

I always knew there was something not right about heated car seats. Such pleasure always comes with a price. Its like a Starbuck's Granola Bar - orgasmically lovely but it makes you fat. Anyway, Andreas Jung of the University of Gleissen has led a team of scientists who have found that the rise in temperature of the scrotum in contact with the heated seat renders the super comfortable make infertile. According to the research, reported on the front page of today's Telegraph, the average temperature of the male scrotum is just 36.7C on unheated seats, while the scrotum temperature rises to 37.3C when the heat button is activated. Remember all that fuss when the Chinese banned families from having more than one baby, and when the Indian Government was giving free radios away to childless couples. Now that Andreas Jung has produced his report, all they have to do is make heated car seats compulsory.

Who's Laughing Now?

Been away for 36 hours, and catching up on some of the rubbish that the Western Mail is publishing - at least that's what David Cornock of the BBC thinks of Martin Shipton's article suggesting that Peter Hain might fancy a move to the National Assembly. When I postulated this very idea a few full moons ago, David and others mocked me unmercifully. I remember hearing a clip of Bob Monkhouse saying something like "When I said that I wanted to be a comedian when I grow up, they all laughed. Well, no-ones laughing now". At least Peter seems to believe in devolution, which is more than the last First Minister that the Labour Party parachuted in nine years ago.

Of course its not that easy for Peter to move to the Assembly in time to throw his hat into the Labour leadership race, which we're expecting next summer. Only way I can see how that can happen is if Mrs Gwenda Thomas takes a liking to the idea of Baroness Gwenda Thomas. Must admit that the ermine would suit Gwenda rather well. But I just can't see it - and neither can she..

I don't think that any of the runners in the Labour leadership stakes that are limbering up in the Senedd paddock at present actually deserve it. We're not that far from the starting pistol, and none of them are setting out a stall worth tying an emaciated donkey to. As an aside to this, I do think that Eluned Morgan will take over Rhodri's Assembly seat in Cardiff West in 2011 though. It must be absolute purgatory to serve more than two terms in Brussels.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Politics of the jerking knee

I agree with Gordon Brown, if his distaste for a windfall tax on energy companies is genuine. There seems to be some momentum building up behind this proposal. But poor old Gordon has fallen into such a weakened state and is so not in control of his Government that he might have to back down. At present, he's just bobbing around aimlessly like a storm petrel relaxing on the open seas.

This windfall tax does not look like a very sensible idea to me. In fact, it looks like a thoroughly stupid idea, conceived during an orgasm of spite and a belief that its consequences will not be understood by the voters - or more precisely has the capacity to be presented by Labour in a way which will be misunderstood by voters, to the electoral benefit of the Labour Party. Kneejerk politics at its worst.

What's wrong with a windfall tax on energy companies - to punish them for putting up prices by so much you might ask, or more accurately, those who read leftie blogs might ask. Well firstly, its destructive of private sector investment whenever Government introduces retrospective taxes. How on earth will Gordon Brown convince energy companies to take on the risk involved in building nuclear power stations after he's just pulled such a stunt and a substantial rug from under their feet. Putin's behaviour over the last few weeks has made the nuclear route inevitable, and urgent.

And secondly, its naive in the extreme to believe that any windfall tax is not eventually going to find its way back into even higher energy bills. And thirdly it will hit share prices, and associated investments and pensions by delivering a huge knock to confidence. Now this might not seem to matter to some people, but its what the British economy is built on - and the walls are shaking already.

Now none of this is to suggest that there is not a big responsibility on energy companies to help their less well off customers and invest more in energy saving. I have no objection to use of the tax system to 'persuade' private companies to change behavior, but it doesn't work if its perceived as just an excuse for another tax hike.

Why cows face north

First reaction to this was "What a load of bull". I've spent enough time with cows to have a fair idea what they think. I just do not believe the conclusions of the team of scientists from Diusburg-Essen University which find that cows face north because they have inbuilt compasses to align them with Earth's magnetic field. Its reported that that these scientists have been studying Google Earth, found this tendency for cows to face north, and could think of no other plausible reason to explain the phenomenon. All they had to do was ask Peter, Paul and Mary (Does anyone else remember them). The answer is 'Blowing in the wind', which in Britain is predominantly from the South. As John, who used to work for me so sagely observed "Them'll usual turn their ar*** to the driving rain".

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back to an uneasy future.

When I spent a year (1994/95) studying International Law at Aberystwyth, I remember a lecturer asking students whether International Law was anything more than a case of 'who carries the biggest stick'. At the time, I thought he believed that it was indeed much more. He believed that we had moved into a new world, where international boundaries would be respected. Must admit that I wasn't so sure - never been an idealist. After today's announcement by Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia, that it was recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there's a case for arguing that 'big stick diplomacy' is back. This looks a fairly straight forward case of the Russian Bear baring its teeth and swallowing a big chunk of its neighbouring independent state, Georgia. I've just watched Newsnight and been struck by the brazen 'doublespeak' of the Russian spokesman, and the apparent impotency of the Western powers. Its the most blatant example of international two fingers that we've seen for a very long time.

Coincidentally, the other big item on Newsnight was the Democrat's Convention in Denver. Not many weeks ago, Obama looked unstoppable - but not now. And the reason that McCain is right back in the game is international affairs. The Americans are famously insular to what's happening overseas, and if it stays that way, the problems with the economy would probably turn many Republicans towards Obama. But the Russians have changed the rules of engagement - and McCain is a war hero. He's been there. And he was right on 'the surge' in Iraq, when most people disagreed. Obama has the glamour, but McCain has the respect. It looks as if Dimitry Medvedev did one hell of a favour for John McCain today

Olympian Excess

We British always go over the top. I know all other countries probably do the same thing (except perhaps Australia where they must be pig sick to trail in behind the Poms). See, I've even caught the 'we are world beaters' disease myself. All that's actually happened is that our Olympic team has performed brilliantly, and has lifted our spirits by winning more medals than we expected. But its still only a game. The Chinese might have been happy to blow however many renmimbi make up £100 billion plus, and indulge a bit of camera trickery, to win the world's applause (and this might turn out to be worthwhile if they get a taste for international admiration). But its still only a game. I never did agree with Bill Shankley (or was it Bob Paisley) who when asked whether football was 'a matter of life and death', responded with "Its much more important than that". I don't have a problem with competitors getting emotional about victory and defeat. It still hurts when I think of my good mate, Mungo Munro taking me 10-9 in the fifth set to win the first Montgomeryshire Open Squash Final - and that was 20 years ago! It hurts - but it was still only a game.

One benefit of all this fuss, and the inevitable efforts to grab some 'glory by association' is that funds for the National Lottery may be diverted back to what Sir John Major intended when this great Government-sponsored gambling game was set up. Today's Telegraph reports that Jeremy Hunt, shadow culture spokesman is saying that a Conservative Government would stop lottery funds being diverted into projects which should properly be funded by the Treasury. Hooray to that.

Despite this 'grumpy old man' post I have to admit that if I'd still been an Assembly Member, I'd have been inside the Sennedd today to welcome the Welsh medallists - especially the wonderful Nicole Cooke, whose career this blog has been stalking for years. OK, just to get up close and meet them. Privileged access to the Grand Slam Team was the biggest perk of my 8 years as an Assembly Member. But even that was only a game.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dear Ruby Wax.

Dear Ruby,

Please help me. I'm so worried about Gordon. When I dumped Tony, after he started wearing make-up to bed,and a cardboard halo about the house, Gordon seemed so 'manly' with his talk of 'tough love' and 'clunking fists'. When I wrote to you last month about the way our relationship was deteriorating, you advised me to "Dump him". Well Ruby, its not as easy as you think. I'm a very 'needy' person, and need someone to move on to - and whenever anyone shows the slightest interest in me, Gordon gets his mates in to warn him off. He can come over quite frightening, especially since he's had his teeth whitened and started smiling all the time.

And Ruby, its getting worse. If I suggest a cuddle or an intimate supper he just recites "I've got to get on with the job, get on with the job, get on with the job". Its weird. He doesn't seem to realise that I'm one of the jobs he should be 'getting on with'. Last month one of Tony's friends offered us two weeks holiday on his luxury yacht. Chance to get to know each other again I thought. Gord went ballistic. "Miliband's behind this. I'm not falling for that old chestnut." he shouted, and immediately booked us into a Norfolk B and B. As soon as we left with our bags, we were told that this Miliband fellow was seen laughing like a drain as he took his own good lady off to the sun. And when I semi-complained that we deserved a bit more time together, he said "Its fortunate that I've been able to find some special time for you. That was very good of me. Now, I must get on with the job". That's what he says to these damn 'journos' that he hates so much. Surely I deserve better than that.

And now I have this ridiculous keep fit regime of his to contend with. He thinks it worked for Tony. I've tried to tell him that Tony never actually played for Newcastle United, and that playing tennis with Lord Cashpoint was more about fixing free holidays for Cherie than keeping fit. But No. Its press-ups at midnight and the treadmill at dawn. He keeps muttering something about "winning the marathon and no pipsqueak sprinter like Miliband is going to stop me". This morning, he's been practising waving a big flag shouting "This is the way to do it Boris". I think the poor sap's losing it.

Ruby, I've only been with him for just over a year and I loved him dearly for the first six months. I don't want to seem like a tart, so I'm trying to stay loyal. But I really think it could have gone too far. What should I do,

Yours in despair, Poppy Britannica.

Dear Poppy,

Dump him.

Yours with certainty, Ruby.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pokers Galore

I've posted before about the glorious variety in which kniphofias come. Today I've included photographs of four that are out in all their pomp at the moment. The first is Percy's Pride, a poker which I use for drift planting along the 'hot' border. This is one of the easiest and most reliable of all.
I don't know the name of this variety, except that its a Bressingham Seedling. The photograph does not do justice. Its only about two feet tall and has grassy foliage. Its probably my favourite poker, because of its almost luminous colouring
This one is called Nancy's Red, and is another small kniphofia. Its wonderfully reliable and long flowering, which is why its so popular. Terrific for a small garden. This wet summer has been terrific for the rudbeckias, which provide a nice backdrop here.
Had to include this one. Its called Toffee Nosed, and is Mrs D's favourite. Its a touch too weak for my taste, and takes a bit of looking after. I see its quite often offered at garden nurseries. Grow it by all means, but don't expect too much vigour.

The Pope is a Catholic.

I depend on the Sunday Telegraph to tell me what's happening in the world of politics. It must be difficult to find something newsworthy to write in the middle of August, but the paper must have been really stuck for a lead story today. The front page headline screams out "Leading Tories call for tax cuts". At the very least I thought this must mean members of the Shadow Cabinet. But No. It referred to two Tories, both of whom are highly intellectual 'thinkers' within the Party, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and John Redwood MP. Both are reported to be calling for a bold commitment to cut public expenditure and taxation in order to stimulate the economy. I tend to share this instinct myself, but prefer to say that we should do so only after a period in Government when we can assess the impact of such a policy. The reason I describe this as a non story is that I thought we all already knew what the headline was purporting to be telling us.

Mrs Thatcher's continuing service to her people.

I assume that Carol Thatcher had secured her mother's agreement before she 'went public' on the Great Lady's struggle with dementia in her new book - extracts of which were featured in today's Mail on Sunday. I cannot imagine it being otherwise. So I have to declare my high admiration for what mother and daughter have done. Before many more years pass, there will be a million people in Britain suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. One of the great problems facing our nation is just how we are going to cope with this. At present, care of the elderly, particularly those with dementia does not have as high a priority with government as it should. Allowing the name of Margaret Thatcher to become associated with this disease will hugely raise its profile. I recall her great friend, Ronald Reagan, one of the greatest US Presidents ever, announcing that he was an Alzheimer's sufferer - and the way that the resulting publicity encouraged a greater openness in discussion about a disease that had been shut away in the back cupboard.

I remember being in a similar position myself, though at a level of significance rather lower than that of Mrs Thatcher, when I was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. It was another of those diseases that people thought should not be discussed in polite society. This reluctance to discuss bowel problems still costs a huge number of lives. Unlike Alzheimer's, early diagnosis often enables complete recovery. I decided to go public about it. I worked with the BBC on a short report which was broadcast on the eve of my operation, which involved what's termed a lower bowel resection. It was rather unusual for such a programme to be broadcast before the surgery. I've never been able to watch it myself, but I'm told it was quite powerful stuff - mainly because of the timing. I did receive several hundreds of cards from people thanking me for putting Bowel Cancer on the map - bringing it out of the closet you might say. I don't think my family liked the publicity at all.

But back to Carol Thatcher's revelations. Many of us will be shocked that someone so seemingly indestructible can be so afflicted. It demonstrates that dementia can strike down anyone. Tonight we are all a little more aware of the problems that arise when it happens. Let us hope that the advance of the disease is slow. Yet again, in an entirely new and unexpected way, Mrs Margaret Thatcher has been of service to the British people.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Local Show

The 60th Berriew Show was held on the Rectory Field today. It was the best Berriew Show ever. And there was no better exhibit in the flower and vegetable tent than this 'Collection of Vegetables' from Sid Cooper of Cwminkin, Montgomery. Sid Cooper has been coming to Berriew for many years. He's one of the best growers in Wales. Many years ago I was on the Show Committee, and for many years was an enthusiastic competitor. I did win the 'Best in the Show' award on two occasions with my onions, but I never did win the 'Collection of Vegetables' class. Sid Cooper would take some beating.
There was an excellent entry of sheep today. This photograph is of what could be the best example of a Kerry Hill sheep in the world. The Kerry Hill originated in Montgomeryshire, and became popular across Britain and overseas. Mr Powell has been the dominant Kerry Hill breeder for as long as I can remember. Its an honour for the local show that he exhibits here. I've never bred these big sheep myself - a bit too 'soft' for my land.
And no show is complete without the brass band. There was so much else as well. There was a terrific competition in the cakes section. I bought a Farmhouse Cake and a Lemon Drizzle Cake entered by Helen Roberts, who was a bit miffed that her Lemon Drizzle wasn't in the prizes. I've tried a slice already and can vouch for the quality. Helen's mother Ros, was this year's President, and her Nan still takes the entries, and won the apples competition. Local Shows are like that. Just wonderful.
And neither is a show complete without the Punch and Judy Show. I did want a photograph of Punch smacking the Crocodile on the head with his stick. I'm not sure whether I was too late, or whether this particular part of the show has been banned as unsuitable for children. The Show finished up with an impressive fireworks display, the first time this has happened for many years - as a special celebration of the 60th birthday. When I was a kid, Berriew Show fireworks were an annual excitement which drew huge crowds.

Making Marriage Pay

Posting on the benefits to society of the institution of marriage is a risky business for a politician. It invites criticism and accusations of wanting 'the state' to make inappropriate moral judgement, and interfere excessively in how people live their lives. I'm sorry about this, but when 'the state' has to pick up the tab for the consequences of family dysfunction, 'the state' has no choice but to search for policies which limit the damage. Anyway, I'm so often accused of being a wimpy 'pinko' that I don't mind being branded as of the reactionary right for once.

My support for the introduction of a married couple's allowance has nothing to do with morality, or an opinion that marriage is a 'higher' form of cohabitation. People can live their lives through multiple short term relationships if they want. Makes no difference to me - unless there are children. And then its only on average. In fact, this post is about parenthood, and averages.

Its no good a political party promising to try to mend a 'broken society' without proposals to deliver it. A married couple's tax allowance (or something similar) would be just such a policy. I know that there are many examples of spectacularly performing children brought up be single parents. I know some of them well. And I know it makes no sense for two people who cannot live together in any sort of harmony, to fight on. But look at what happens 'on average'. We know that children with two parents, on average, perform much better than if there is just one parent. And we know that children with two parents, on average, are less likely to fall into a life of dissolution and crime. And we know that on average, two parents are far more likely to stay together if they are married.

So I was really pleased to read the front page of today's Telegraph, which reports that George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, is committing himself to building on previous announcements on this subject made by David Cameron. I just cannot see how any Government can claim to be serious about 'mending our broken society' without travelling down this road. Its simple logic.

And personally, I'm also looking forward to a debate about how we can adjust our taxation system to promote and help those involved in the service of providing care to family members who can no longer care for themselves. This is one of the greatest problems facing future governments, and has not received anything like the attention it deserves. A debate for another day perhaps.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Joys of a Stoma.

Regular readers will know that I am the owner of a colostomy, following a surgical re-design of my internal drainage system a few years ago. In the early days, one of the downsides of this was that the inadvertant breaking of wind was a fairly regular occurrence. Since I switched to a colonic irrigation system, this rather embarrassing characteristic has largely disappeared - but not totally. I've mentioned before that when in Church or in the presence of Royalty, I keep a firm hand on the stoma as an insurance policy. It was David Melding AM, a man of great historical knowledge who reminded me some years ago that the Earl of Oxford felt it necessary to leave the country for 10 years after breaking wind in front of Queen Elizabeth 1.

I was out leafleting earlier tonight. As I approached Sarah's house, she saw me coming and opened the door in a most welcoming way, with her three young children in close attendance. My stoma spoke. Neither Sarah nor I said anything. But her 4 year old son looked me in the eye, and said "You farted". About 5 seconds of silence ensued, before Sarah and I collapsed in laughter. 5 years ago I would have been mortified. That's progress I suppose, of a sort.

Round 25

Just home from leafleting and looked through the Western Mail online. And there it was. The latest round in the undignified spat twixt Alun Michael MP, former First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales and Lord Elis Thomas, Presiding Officer of said institution. Demeaning and damaging. Do you remember that recording of Joyce Grenfell, trying to keep control of schoolboys misbehaving? Personally, I support the idea of sixguns at dawn to sort it out.

At least no-one else has been silly enough to join in. All this petty squabbling only reinforces my long standing opinion that the current system of transferring powers from the Westminster Parliament to the National Assembly is a 'constitutional crisis waiting to happen'.

The basic problem is that things are unclear. I'm not at all sure of the appropriate level of scrutiny that should be undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee. When a Legislative Competence Order is being considered, it is not a new law, which would warrant the most detailed consideration. What it is is the power to pass a law, in a specific area of policy. This inevitably raises new questions. MPs will want to know what AMs intend to do with their new power. They may even want to think about what laws AMs could in theory pass, at some stage in the distant future. From one angle its possible to think that MPs are becoming too involved in detail. But from another angle, its possible to think that MPs should consider every possible use to which the new power could be put. There seems enough material here for Alun and Dafydd to carry on poking sticks at each other for many years to come.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Human Pytotechnics

I once knew a man who did this as a party trick. It always did look rather risky to me.

Filling Percy Thrower's Boots.

It had to happen of course. It was inevitable that the BBC's decision not to give the main presenter role on Gardener's World to Carol Klein would have led to accusations of gender bias. The new man is Toby Buckland. I think that I'm pleased about this - and this is nothing to do with Toby being a man.

I've watched Gardener's World, on and off, since Percy Thrower dominated the programme in the 60s/70s until he was sacked for advertising fertilizer. He was Britain's first celebrity plantsman. To begin with he was employed at 'the Dingle' which is at the heart of the annual Shrewsbury Flower Show, and he ran the programme from his home at 'The Magnolias' near Shrewsbury, which I visited. Shrewsbury has always been our main town. Percy was very big into fuchsias. Probably his most successful successor has been Alan Titchmarsh, who developed something of a sexual magnetism through the way he used words and wellies - or so I'm told. Couldn't see it myself. My personal favorite was Geoffrey Hamilton, who died at far too young an age - and I grew to like Monty Don, whose tenure has recently been cut short by ill health.

I was dreading the job being given to Carol Klein. Its not that she doesn't know her gardening. She does. But listening to her forced vocal exaggerations really grates on me. We press the mute button when she's on. Joe Swift is not much better. I suppose they are coached to do this. No real gardener would. I read somewhere this week that the BBC is taking Test Match Special down the same ugly road. Now if the job had been given to Rachel De Thame, it would be an entirely different matter. No gender bias on this blog.

Staying Legal

I always recommend that drivers should remain within the legal speed limit. I do admit to having a chequered history on this subject, but at present I have just 3 points on my licence, and those are getting on for 3 years old. I'm looking forwards to driving with a clean licence. So I will not bother to reply to an invitation which arrived in the post this morning, offering me the opportunity to buy a 'laserjammer'. Of course, this device is not sold as such, but as a 'parking aid'. They are even called Laser Park LS and XS Systems.

According to the blurb, police laser guns transmit about 100 pulses of infrared light in one-third of a second at a reflective area of your car, usually the front number plate. These pulses reflect back to the gun, which then calculates how much the distance is changing over time and therefore the speed at which you are travelling. The Laser Park Systems detect these pulses and return their own laser beam at the same wavelength. It seems that this renders your car invisible to the laser gun. Well, I never! You learn something every day.

But of course, these devices are actually parking aids. Their ability to render police radar guns totally ineffective are just an interesting coincidence. The blurb suggests that we think of them as raincoats, which have as their main purpose, keeping you dry. Wearing a raincoat doesn't make you a 'flasher' - but its a very convenient cover if you happen to be one. I really hadn't thought about it like that, but there you go. I'm just a country boy. Anyway, both 'flashing' and 'speeding' are illegal.

Wedding Photo

Over the last few weeks, the marriage of our youngest son, Tim to Adrienne Marcella O'Sullivan has featured in this blog. Only right that I should share with you a wedding photograph of the happy couple.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Telegraph Letters Today

Dear Sir,

The current excitement over Olympic medals shows that it is the sport that stays in the memory. The razzmatazz of the opening ceremony and the presence of VIPs is soon forgotten. This, I feel, augurs well for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Francis Davies,
London W11.

Well said Francis. No relation. Just same opinion.

While speaking of the Olympics, there is a deeply worrying movement towards deception currently afoot. It was quite shocking that the voice of the little Chinese girl in the opening ceremony was a blatant fraud. And then we learn from Mrs Beverly Romero in today's Telegraph that her 'Gold Medal' daughter Rebecca was not actually cycling naked in that advert. It seems that she was wearing her underwear, and that it was simply airbrushed out. As well as being a great disappointment to all those who had appreciated the artistic merit that the nakedness had imparted to the photograph which has so handsomely adorned the nation's billboards, it is extremely worrying for the rest of us. I could be running down Broad Street in Welshpool, properly clothed, totally unnoticed by others, when some rogue cameraman snaps me and with a bit of airbrushing, I'm in the middle of a 'streaker' scandal. Its time for a campaign based on the slogan, 'We want the real thing'.

Dignity in Defeat.

By winning the Olympic Gold medal at Beijing, Rafael Nadal has taken over at the top of the men's tennis ranking list. Roger Federer had held the No 1 spot for 237 weeks, a phenomenal performance by the Swiss master.

What caught my eye was Federer's comment on losing his prized top spot. He said

"Rafa played great to get to No 1. That's what I expected and hoped for many years ago when I got to No 1, that if someone were to take it away from me, he would have to play an incredible tennis schedule, win the biggest tournaments, dominate the game basically, and then like this he can take the No 1 ranking. So I think Rafa totally deserves it".

Compare that with the bitterness that flows from the mouths of Premiership managers after every defeat, and the churlish comments from politicians who lose office. Rafael Nadal is a wonderfully rugged, determined, athletic and likable tennis player who thoroughly deserves his new top ranking. And Roger Federer has demonstrated yet again that he is a truly class act, who has brought great credit on the game of tennis, which has been so contaminated by the antics of Conners and McEnroe, both great players, over the last 20 years.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Another Cardiff/Westminster Spat

Another day, another row over National Assembly powers. It does seem as if Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas and Alun Michael MP really do detest each other. Throughout the period when Alun was First Minister of the National Assembly, we all knew there was a lack of warmth twixt the two. I was only six feet away when this coolness descended into the icepit from which it may never have escaped. When Alun tendered his resignation 8 years ago by handing an envelope to Dafydd in the Presiding Officer's Chair with a great flourish, the PO refused to accept it, simply setting it aside without opening it. Alun's little stunt was designed to preempt a 'No Confidence' vote in his leadership, but Dafydd was having none of it. The letter remained unopened, the vote went ahead, Alun was removed from office, and my guess is that the two have not passed a civil word since.

Back to today's row. Lord Elis Thomas went public on his opinion that MPs are out of order to complain about the workload that the Legislative Competence Order system is in danger of putting on them. I do not know why he did this. But Alun Michael thinks he knows. He told the BBC that he thinks Dafydd is trying to portray the present system as unworkable, so that Plaid Cymru can demand a referendum on full law making powers. In my opinion, it would have been better if both of them had said nothing.

Actually, Alun Michael is talking complete tosh on this point. My guess is that his Lordship does not want a referendum any time soon - not that he'd admit it. It would be far too risky. I think that Dafydd went public because he just can't help putting on a show. If he's not involved in some controversy for two weeks in a row, I reckon he sits down with a glass of the finest wine and ponders how he can put right the discrepancy.

Personally, I just despair about this sort of public spat. The current Government of Wales Act is such a complex nonsense that its a threat to our constitution - "a constitutional crisis waiting to happen" is my usual phrase. Now who was it who said that "a period of silence would be welcome".

Farm Talk.

Been to Welshpool Livestock Market this morning. Fat lamb trade was respectable, the 'killers' were selling well, and the 'dairies' were on fire. Translation for non farmers coming up.

I was a bit too late for the fat lamb trade, which will be of particular interest to me over the next few weeks as my lambs become ready for slaughter. I'm told that good lambs were making about £6 over their weight in kilograms today - £46 for 40s. That's not great, but not disastrous either.

'Killers' is a shorthand description for cull ewes, female sheep which are no longer suitable for breeding because they are too old, too knackered, or have lost their teeth. When I was young, such sheep were worth next to nothing, but immigration from the Indian sub-continent has created a market in Britain for old ewes. They eat them. Also, some lowland farmers buy the best of these cull ewes to produce one more crop of lambs. They will be maintained on good pasture and given supplementary feeding. The tup will be introduced to them early, so that next years lambs will be ready for market around Easter, when the old girls will make that final journey to the abattoir, for onward passage to the plate.

Dairy cows were very expensive. Most heifers (first calvers) were making over £2,000 each. I'm told that they are especially expensive in Mid and North Wales because it remains illegal to bring animals in from South Wales and most of England because of blue tongue restrictions. The blue tongue zone has recently been extended to all of Wales, but until all animals are vaccinated in our area, bringing dairy replacements in from outside remains banned. So shortage is driving the price up.

I haven't taken much notice of dairy cattle for decades. We retired from milk production about 30 years ago. I admit to finding today's Holstein dairy cows to be hideously ugly. When I was a stockjudge in my youth, Holsteins would have lost out to the old British Friesian every time. At one time I was a member of the Welsh stockjudging team, trained by Mr Edwards of Abermule (I think). The competition involved placing 4 animals in order of merit and explaining to a judge our reasons for doing so. In those days a good dairy cow had a nice straight topline, and flat plates, which was the area between the hips and the pin bones. Mr Edwards would have marked down the Holstein on confirmation grounds - and their udders also tend to be too pendulous, promising only a short productive life. But they do produce a lot more milk though.

I don't suppose many of you are interested in all this stuff, but it was my ticket to the city lights when I was a lad. The Smithfield Show was held in London and we used to stay in the Regent's Palace on Piccadilly. Happy days.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Time to sort things out.

Another day, another article about troughing politicians. Matt Withers in today's Wales on Sunday is joining in the frenzy. Politicians have been too slow in realising the degree of public contempt that all this is causing. It has to be sorted. I was at a most convivial lunch in Berriew today, when the conversation drifted onto politics, and the lady I was talking to told me that she believed all politicians to be corrupt. I've become rather used to this sort of comment. What really struck home was the matter of fact way that she said it.

I'm not entirely sure what should be done about it, because being a politician is not like many other jobs, in that it does require a place to live in two places, unless the constituency is near to Cardiff Bay or Westminster. The easiest and traditional way of allowing for this has been for a lump sum to be given to politicians which enables them to decide for themselves how to manage this - via renting, or buying or just staying in hotels. In the Assembly, its around £13,000 per year, and for MPs, I believe its about £24,000. (These figures are not exact) But this is no longer acceptable. The public disapproves of it. Inevitably one or two will spend the allowance in a way which is extravagant, and the ire of the public descends on everyone. I am looking forward to the report by Sir Roger Jones' review panel, which should bring forward an independent assessment, and appropriate recommendations.

Some of my political colleagues believe that the media is irresponsible and unfair in the way it reports on this issue. In general, I don't think this is the case. I did think that there was very little attempt to explain the reasoning behind 8.3% salary increase in Assembly Members salaries from May '07. I daresay that I could have scored walletfuls of brownie points by joined in, but I thought the increase was entirely proper - even if there was a case for phasing the increase in, as had happened with other public sector workers. Ironically, the unjustified publicity about the 8.3% diverted attention from a whole series of responsibility allowances that did deserve condemnation.

Reform is urgent. This issue is not going to go away. And full transparency is essential as well if respect for politicians is to be restored.

Flying the Flag

I'm not much for all this nationalistic chest beating which attaches itself to winners at international competitions today, but I was pleased to see Tom James proudly waving the Welsh Dragon after winning his gold medal in the coxless fours. At the risk of incurring the wrath of some of those who visit this blog, I, too would have waved the Welsh flag if I'd been good enough to have won an Olympic final. There's something about sport which empowers my Welshness gene like nothing else can. Tom was taking a bigger risk of incurring the wrath of the Chinese authorities who are using the Games for political purposes and are determined to suffocate any possible display of regional/national pride, because of its disgraceful treatment of Tibet. Tom James of Wrexham is a real Welsh hero.

Tamsin opts out of Crewe and Nantwich

Never nice to see a former colleague fall on hard times - and I've almost forgotten about the nauseating strategy she adopted in Crewe and Nantwich earlier this year, when she and her party ran a reptilian campaign against Edward Timpson, who won the seat for the Conservatives. But it was a sad little piece in Mandrake's column in the weekend Telegraph concerning former AM, Tamsin Dunwoody.

Tamsin is reported to have decided not to put her name forward for consideration as Labour candidate for the General Election. The reason she's given is that since losing her seat on the Assembly, she's not been able to find a job, and simply cannot afford to move herself and five children from her home in Pembrokeshire up to the constituency. Guido Fawkes was much more scornful.

Dunwoody Still Unemployed

It is nearly five months since Tamsin Dunwoody lost the Crewe & Nantwich by-election. Apologists for politician's troughing ways claim that the taxpayer needs to pay three times the national wage to MPs to attract high calibre candidates. Guido argues that there is no shortage of candidates, vacant safe seats attract hundreds of ambitious applicants, the market price for wannabee MPs is clearly lower, demand already far outstrips the available supply of constituency seats.

MPs and their apologists claim that they could earn far more in comparison doing other things - to which Guido retorts if they are in it for the money, they should do something else. The modern political class largely comprises of ex-party HQ staff, SpAds, spin merchants with a smattering of lawyers, ex-trade union officials and polytechnic lecturers. Life-long political insiders since their university days with little real world experience outside politics do not have great skill sets for the private sector (outside becoming lobbyists). It is no surprise therefore that Tamsin is still unemployed

Carno Station.

Been a busy weekend. No time for reading newspapers or blogging til now. I've just started a few weeks hectic political activity, and two of our sons, plus wives, plus Ffion have been with us for the weekend. And the video of Tim and Adrienne's wedding arrived Sat. morning and had to be viewed - all three hours of it.

Did go to Carno Show on Saturday though, and spent some time at the 'Re-open Carno Railway Station' stand. This has been a strange saga, without much common sense being applied. I'll try to explain the issue.

The Cambrian Line which runs between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury has always been limited to a two hourly service. There's enough demand to justify a one-hourly service, but this cannot happen because there is one stretch of track between passing places ( Welshpool and Talerddig) of over 30 minutes. Its the sort of 11+ question you'll have to work it out for yourself. The Carno case has been that by creating a 'passing loop' in the village and re-opening the station that Beeching closed, an hourly service would become feasible - because the train journey from Welshpool to Carno takes less than 30 minutes. Now, this 'solution' was declined by the Assembly Government last year. Instead, it was decided to extend the dual track at Welshpool all the way to Forden - in order that the stretch to Talerddig, where almost no-one lives (about three miles past Carno) will be reduced to 30 minutes. I'm told that this solution is no cheaper than re-opening Carno Station, which would have the added benefit of encouraging many more passengers onto the train.

Anyway, the campaign to re-open the station carries on. The Assembly Government's investment programme for the next five years is to be announced in a few weeks. This project needs to be included. I know it involves the Assembly Government actually making an investment in Mid Wales! You may laugh, but I work on the theory that it must happen sometime. There is a need for a cross party pressure group of Assembly Members to get onto the case.

UPDATE - Some comments are pointing out that there is a 'passing loop' at Newtown, midway between Welspool and Carno/ Talerddig. This is true but irrelevent in respect of the possible introduction of an hourly train service. To acheive this aim, it requires passing loops at roughly 30 minute intervals between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth - Shrewsbury to Welshpool to Talerddig/Carno to Dyfi Juction to Aberystwyth. Newtown does not fit into this timetable. The Assembly Government has decided that Carno is not the best fit either. In passing, this report published today emphasises the need for an hourly service.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Premiership Predictions.

Never has the Premiership started with so little fanfare. All eyes are on Bejing - but not mine. The sheer gaudiness of the Olympics, and the blatant use of sport for political purposes has devalued the whole circus for me. I'm just trying to enjoy some of the wonderful individual sporting achievements that are flowering inside the 'tarty' tent. I really enjoyed reading David Tang's Diary piece in this week's Spectator. Just about the only bit of honest reporting about the Opening Ceremony I've read.

So who's going to be top and bottom dogs this season. I predicted Chelsea for Champions last year, and they took it to the wire, despite having a manager who knew he was going to be sacked at the season's end. I reckon Scolari will deliver the title, with Man Utd and Liverpool fighting it out for the runners up spot. The Arsenal, Villa, Spurs and Everton will battle it out for European slots. Cannot see Portsmouth, West Ham (Sorry Iain) or Man City threatening.

Stoke and Hull will go straight back down, though I expect Stoke to make a half decent start. But who will join them. I reckon that West Brom will just about do a Sunderland and survive. So its pick one from Wigan, Bolton, Middlesborough, the Black Cats again and (in my opinion) the Bentleyless Blackburn - with my money on Wigan.

First managerial casualty will be at Newscastle, where a tearful Keegan will blast the club for lacking ambition, and declare that he's leaving management for ever - and appearing on Big Brother instead.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Storm Clouds over Llandrindod.

Edna Mopbucket's been on the phone, telling me about one almighty row that's been raging down at County Hall in Llandrindod Wells. Our phone call was a bit strained because she fundamentally disagrees with me about the benefit of wind turbines - and this row has been about the Council's treatment of planning applications for new wind farms. Edna loves them. They remind her of the time she ran a small Band B in Blackpool, opposite the Tower. Last time I was banging on to Edna about the terrible impact of these monstrosities on the landscape she accused me of being a "middle class snob with a full belly", and slammed the phone down. Charming I thought.

Anyway back to this Council rumpus. It all started when Councillor Wynne Jones, planning portfolio holder told the County Times that the Council was suspending discussion of all planning applications for wind farms until the Assembly Government had improved the County's transport infrastructure. It seems that this position had not been cleared with planning officials, or with Chief Executive, Mark Kerr. Edna reckons that Mr Kerr almost collapsed with shock when he heard what had happened, and his condition worsened when Councillor Bobby Mills, Chair of the Planning Committee got hold of him. She informs me that it completely untrue that Cllr. Mills threatened to visit physical violence on anyone, but he was 'fired up' and is noted for his 'direct' approach. Edna went on to say that poor old Mark hadn't fully recovered from the effects of the defibrillator when the Assembly Government were on the phone, asking him what the ****** **** the ****** ******* at the ******* Council were thinking about. Personally I doubt that a civil servant would ever have said such things. I suspect that Edna just likes using these dirty words, and thinks its OK if quoting someone else. A lot of people, especially ladies, use that as an excuse. And then the MIGs were on the phone, concerned that the National Assembly was going to take the planning function away from Powys County Council altogether, and demanding an 'emergency' meeting of the Council's Management Board at the earliest possible opportunity. Main reason Edna rang me was to tell me that this 'emergency' meeting is arranged for next Friday, when Councillor Wynne Jones will be summoned to explain his public comments to the Board. Edna didn't know whether any professional medical support is going to be in attendance to help the beleaguered Chief Executive survive it. She's trying to arrange her cleaning rota to be in the vicinity of the Boardroom next Friday, and she's promised to ring me if any fist fights break out.

UPDATE - Edna's been on again. She told me that she was gathering up all the 'calming down lotion' bottles from the Chief Exec's office when she heard someone say that the leader of the MIGs (Montgomeryshire Independent Group) had called for the resignation of Wynne Jones from the planning brief. This sort of stuff is unheard of in Powys. Next thing will be a demand that all emails and other communications between the Chief Executive and others concerning this issue be attached to the papers for next Friday's meeting. Blimey, it could be getting nasty.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When the truth is optional.

Been to Guilsfield Show this afternoon. Very nice day, beginning with the 'President's Lunch'. I've known Bill Roberts, boy and man for over 50 years. He was genuinely thrilled by the honour bestowed upon him by his own local community. Bill was positively glowing with pride.

Though I was there with some political intent, having leafleted the village last night, the only political party campaigning seriously was Ukip. It was manned by my very old friend David Rowlands and John Bufton, both of them former and current parliamentary candidates. I was fascinated to hear them inform me of my opinions on several matters - opinions that I had no previous inkling that I held.

Firstly I was told that I'm so committed to devolution that, in effect, I am in support of Welsh Independence. When I informed them that this was not in fact the case, I discovered an absence of any listening gene. Apparently, anyone who is not in favour of abolishing the National Assembly, must be in favour of 'Independence'. I was also told that the Assembly had been established on the instructions of the European Union. I did point out that a referendum was held, but again failed to locate the listening gene. There was plenty more. It seems that I'm in favour of reducing the number of Welsh MPs to 20. No indication whatsoever where this figure came from. We do know that if the same ratio of MPs to electorate applied in Wales as currently does across England, the number of Welsh MPs would fall to 26 - and that this was Conservative policy at the last General Election. If law making powers were to be vested in the National Assembly, a reduction to 26 Welsh MPs would have followed if the Conservatives had won. At least that was what the Manifesto said.

Now I have a general sympathy with Ukip's basic objectives. I too want to retain the United Kingdom as the independent state to which I owe allegiance, and I am an opponent of Wales becoming an independent state. This does not mean that I want the UK to withdraw from the European Union - and it does not mean that I want to persist with the unstable devolutionary settlement that currently exists between my nation (Wales) and my state (the UK). Where a matter is devolved, it should not be half devolved, with the current residual ongoing potential for constitutional conflict. I am in favour of law making powers being granted to the National assembly in all devolved matters. But what I did find extraordinary is that I was listening to two men telling me that my opinions were fundamentally different from what I know them to be. And I suppose that's what they were telling everyone else as well. There's a word for that.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Testing Patience

I feel a touch dispirited tonight, following a meeting in my Welshpool office this morning. The subject under discussion was the proposal to establish a renal dialysis unit at Welshpool. The meeting included the Chair of Kidney Foundation Wales, and the local hospital League of Friends who would probably be willing to help fund such a development. As our discussions developed, it seemed to me that we were no further forward than we were three years ago. Its enough to make anyone but the most dogged just give up and drink wine. But I just can't do that.

I don't know where the blockage lies. Is it the Minister? Personally, I think the current Health Minister, Edwina Hart, is effective and straight speaking. Perhaps its the civil service? Well, it could well be. There seems a conspiracy to prevent the release of any information that has the capacity to increase knowledge. Its the equivalent of nailing jelly to the wall and is enough to break the heart of the most committed volunteers.

Our conclusion this morning was that we need to establish a Renal Mid Wales Committee to create some noise. It will be necessary for this committee to operate under the auspices of Kidney Foundation Wales - because publicity and headlines in our newspapers, the County Times and Shropshire Star have no impact whatsoever on civil servants - probably because their Minister is unlikely to see anything that is not in the South Wales newspapers. Oh well, if that is what's to be done, better make a start on it tomorrow - but today has severely tested my belief that a renal dialysis unit will come to Welshpool anytime soon.

Profits - What profits.

I see that two Assembly Members (who are married to each other) have made a name for themselves by pledging to repay to the National Assembly any profits that they make on their 'second' home in Cardiff. Mandrake in the Telegraph has swallowed the bait, and reported this as a great public spirited gesture. If I didn't go in for gesture politics, I would make the same pledge myself. It wouldn't cost me anything at all. I bought my second home in Cardiff Bay in 1999 and when I conclude that my political career is over, I will sell it at a profit of £0. In fact by any reasonable method of interpreting the P and L account, I'll have made a loss.

In 1999 I bought a property in Adventure's Quay, mainly because it was so convenient to my office, that I wouldn't have to equip my flat with telephone/computer etc. I sold it in 2005, at a 'profit' of around £25,000, having spent quite a bit of my own money improving it. I suspect when allowing for the loss in purchasing power of the purchase price, I would probably have made a loss. I moved to a flat in Century Wharf, because I liked it more. It was more expensive and meant that the 'second home' allowance did not remotely cover the costs, which I paid for myself. No complaints. My choice. If I were to sell it now, I would probably lose about £30,000. Again, no complaints. I believe in the market, and live by it.

Two relevant comments on this. Firstly, it does stick in the craw when commentators accuse me of making a profit out of my Cardiff flat at the taxpayer's expense - as Rhyn ap Iorwerth did on Radio Wales this morning. And secondly, I could make the same grand gesture that Huw Lewis and Lynne Neagle have made, and it wouldn't cost me a penny. This is just me thinking aloud.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NHS Efficiency?

Had a call this morning from a friend of mine who is awaiting a knee replacement operation. He was expecting it yesterday, and turned up at Bronglais Hospital Aberystwyth all ready for the deed to be done. He had his pre-med and waited - all day. At 5.00 he was told that there wasn't a bed, so there would be no operation, and that he should return this morning. (He lives 60 miles away) So he duly returned expecting to have his operation today. He arrived early this morning, and waited. Eventually he was again informed that there was no bed, and so no operation. This time it was a bit more problematic for him, in that his surgeon is off on holiday tomorrow.

This is extremely inconvenient for my friend. But another aspect of all this that really concerns me is that the consultant surgeon and his theatre team must have been hanging around for two days with an unused operating theatre, simply because there was no available bed. This seems an incredibly inefficient use of professional NHS staff's time. As I go to press, my friend still has no idea when or where he is going to be fitted with his new knee.

Where have all the AMs gone.

Had both BBC Wales and Radio Cymru on tonight, wanting me to do Good Morning Wales and Post Cynta tomorrow morning to talk about Assembly Members expenses. Only reason they want me of course is because everyone else is either on holiday or under the desk. Never have so many voice mails been accessed by the media in so short a period of time. I think I'm on with Sir Alistair Graham, who used to be Chairman of Standards at Westminster.

This is not an easy issue for me, because so many members of the public will strongly disapprove of a lot of the expenditure. But I've always taken the view that if I'm spending public money I should be accountable for it - which has meant that over the last few years, whenever there's been a discussion on this issue, its usually been me who 'appeared' on the media.

I don't think that I'll be willing to say much about Lesley Griffiths sofa, or Nick Ramsey's TV system - except that I'm pleased that the public know about it and can make their own judgement. Neither will I make a judgement on whether Mike German should have been able to claim for a 'second' home when his 'first' home is so near to Cardiff - except that I'm pleased that Sir Roger Jones and his panel have been established to review the whole system.

They might want to make an issue of Assembly Members who lose their position having their mortgage interest paid for three months, or until the property is sold. Personally, I think this is fair enough, and I had no concerns about claiming the allowance myself. In fact, I still retain the flat, and will do so until I decide that my political career is finally over.

I'm content to appear, but I do think it's a poor show that the BBC have to come for me tomorrow morning, rather than one of current Assembly Members who are rather better remunerated than I was.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The moral case for lower tax.

Been visiting hospitals in Montgomeryshire today - at Llanidloes and Welshpool. There was quite a crowd of us. Nick Bourne AM, Jonathon Morgan AM, Cardiff Councillor Craig Williams (Welshpool born) and me. The Mayor of Welshpool also joined us. It was a 'Nick and Jonathon tour', with Craig doing the driving - and I joined them for the Montgomeryshire leg. Downside for me of visiting our local hospitals is that I meet friends whom I didn't know were ill. We are visiting Newtown Hospital tomorrow.

While in Llanidloes, I had another conversation about whether I'm a 'proper' Tory. As usual, the person making this point meant to be complimentary. I suppose my electoral interest would be served by just agreeing, but I always protest. Despite all of David Cameron's efforts, there still lingers the image of a (proper Tory) being an 'English barrister, caring little for the poor and vulnerable' - and I'm none of these things. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with being English, or with being a barrister, but support for the poor and vulnerable must be at the heart of any 'Tory' philosophy. I'm never willing to quietly accept anything else.

This conversation turned somewhat naturally to Gordon Brown's leaked plans to give every family with children £150 to help them with the huge increases in the cost of fuel. Now, on the face of it, such a proposal might seem designed to help the poor and vulnerable. I argued that it would be no such thing. It would be no more than a proposal to make it look as if Gordon Brown wants to help. The most effective way of helping would be reduce the tax take on fuel bills in the first place. Instead of taking £250 from families via fuel duty, wasting £100 of it on administration and then returning £150 to families, how much better it would be to leave the original £250 with families in the first place. That's what a 'proper Tory' would do.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What you get for a pint and a half.

I didn't even know that I possessed a striatum. Apparently we all do. Its the part of our brain which is involved with sexual attraction. Important to remember that the striatum is located in the head. According to a Dr Marcus Munafo, an experimental psychologist at Bristol University, a pint and a half of beer will stimulate this body part into enhancing the attraction of a potential sexual partner by about 10%. Similar research carried out by Berriew Young Farmer's Club about 40 years ago discovered much the same thing, but at a rather more concentrated level. I remember one lad telling me that "after 10 pints, every woman was a stunner".

The one bit of this research that did surprise me was that the beneficial effect of a pint and a half lasted for 24 hours. This conclusion is at variance with the empirical evidence arising from trhe Berriew YFC study, which suggested that even after 10 pints, the effect had worn off by next morning. The same lad also told me that the effect sometimes dissipated even more quickly if it was a brand spanking new relationship, and it was consummated at extremely short notice.

This research is very significant, particularly at a time when so many of us are under financial pressure. Its far cheaper to buy ten and a half pints a week to maintain a permanent state of 'plus 10%' than wasting a fortune on silk underwear and anti wrinkle creams. Surprising what useful information flows out of our universities today.

Wales rules the World.

For several years this blog has been an admirer of Nicole Cooke, the Bridgend cyclist. I was outraged that she was not declared Britain's top sportsperson for the last two years. Her achievements have been outstanding. For two years she has been indisputably the best female cyclist in the world. For two years, I placed her ahead of Joe Calzaghe - even after the Lacey demolition. Today the world knows just how good she is. Never has anyone more deserved to win an Olympic Gold medal. Just watch this video clip - and then watch it again. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Wales rules the world.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Nature's Cruelty.

Ever since the wedding weekend in our garden, I've found the odd bit of debris left about the place. The discarded champagne glass, the burnt out firework etc.. Well, this morning I found a rather more unusual item.

Our cellar is always well stocked with Bud, Becks, lagers, cider, white and red wine etc.. The only new beer we decided to introduce for the pleasure of our guests was a crate or two of one named 'Old Speckled Hen'. It proved to be very popular. And guess what? Today I discovered an Old Speckled Hen on the lawn - without its top on!

And we don't even have any hens! I suspect that Reynard, whom we spotted sizing up the Canada Geese chicks in early May, and whom we believe collected one for the pot a few days later, has called again, this time on our neighbours and reduced their laying flock by one. Anyway I thought it was worth a photograph. This blog will not shy away from forcing its readers to confront the brutality that is a feature of the natural world.

A Distinguished Commentator !

It would not be at all surprising if there were to be a self-satisfied glow about this blog today. I have been invited to serve as a member of the judging panel in a leading television channel's Politician of the Year Awards. (I hope you notice a new respect for confidentiality permeating the text as I write this post). The glow emanates from a reference to myself as a 'distinguished commentator' in the invitation letter. I'm afraid that I can reveal no more. In my letter of acceptance, I promised that I would set aside any residual loves, hatreds, prejudices and long term vendettas as carrying out my duties - as 'distinguished commentators' invariably do.

Mixed news for Welsh Football.

I know its early days (does anyone know why football commentators say early doors?) but I'm pleased that Cardiff City are in a play-off position - according to the BBC that is. Very disappointing for Swansea supporters to see that their newly promoted team look as if they are going straight back down. Ashok at the BBC is going to be very unhappy to see that Wolves are in a disastrous position, despite Steve Morgan's millions. Congratulations to Barnsley on their terrific start.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Challenge to Government.

An interesting standoff has developed in Powys between the Council and the Assembly Government. I don't know how this one is going to go, but it looks very big onions to me - and high risk. Front page of this weeks County Times reports an announcement by Councillor Wynne Jones, Board member with responsibility for planning that all wind farms in Powys are going to be refused until the Assembly Government has provided the finance for a new road infrastructure capable of carrying the turbines - which seems highly unlikely.

Now, I'm rather pleased to learn of this development. But I find myself wondering whether it can possibly be true. To refuse all wind farm planning applications would be a direct challenge to the Assembly Government, and if carried out, would totally undermine it's policy of promoting onshore wind farms. It's contemptible TAN 8 policy would lie in ruins - which as it happens is the best place for it. Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, Mick Bates, an avid enthusiast of onshore wind farms will be furious. Hundreds, if not thousands of Montgomeryshire residents who were in despair about the phillistinian desecration that was about to be visited upon their beautiful landscape will be popping champagne corks tonight. Indeed, I will take a celebratory glass or two at the Guilsfield Show Cocktail Party, for which I am now about to prepare myself.

But wait a sec.. On the other hand, if this is not true, there will be a fearsome backlash. I remember old Hubbs, my future in-laws Bassett Hound. He was as calm as you like - unless you wanted what he had. And once you'd given him something, he was vicious when you tried to take it away again. For Councillor Wynne's sake, I hope he can deliver on this promise. I would not want him to suffer the terrible consequences of 'Hubbsian Revenge'. And if the Council do refuse the 15 or so Planning applications that are in the pipeline, I hope their legal advice is strong enough to defend the Council against the inevitable appeal costs.

Now, Councillor Wynne gets a bit naggy with me sometimes - but I'm bang on his side here. I go as far as to describe him as a man of vision, in that I'd never have thought of this one myself. I don't think he would have gone out on this limb so strongly without some every careful preparation. For certain he would have had the planning officcers and Chief Executive onside. I reckon that a few more copies of my County Times are going to be revisiting this story over the next few weeks.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Non Listening Ministers

Labour really just do not 'get it'. Do not understand why they are in such trouble with the electorate. I've just watched the Housing Minister, Caroline Flint on Newsnight being interviewed by Kirsty Wark. She was stupendously awful.

The issue under debate was whether the Government is considering a 'Stamp Duty holiday' of some sort to help put some life into the housing market. When Kirsty promised us that the Housing Minister was going to outline what the Government had in mind later in the programme, I was very interested indeed. I have a personal decision to take concerning a house purchase in the next few days.

Ms Flint was insufferable - hectoring and bullying. She had no intention whatsoever of answering any questions. Her attempts to patronise Kirsty really grated with me. She knew exactly what Kirsty was going to ask. Why on earth did she allow herself to be interviewed. We are left in the position that the Government may well suspend some part of the stamp duty tax burden. No-one with any reasonable option will want to buy a house until this issue is cleared up. It seems that there is no problem facing our economy that Gordon Brown's Government cannot make worse.

Paying our Politicians

For some people, it would make no difference how much our politicians were paid. It would be too much. But there has to be some way of deciding what is the 'right' figure. Today, the National Assembly for Wales has established a 'Forum' to look at the pay and expenses of AMs. This is very sensible - and Sir Roger Jones is a good choice as Chair.

There has been a rumpus about Welsh politicians pay ever since Assembly Members awarded themselves an 8.3% increase last year. Personally, I thought the increase was fully justified, and that the media completely missed the real story. There was an unanswerable case for the salary increase, but no justification whatsoever for some of the responsibility allowances that were slipped in under the cover of controversy. I hope this 'Forum' will consider whether it is right that some of these unjustified payments should be taken away again.

The Olympics.

I daresay I'll get into things over the next few weeks, but so far, I'm just not engaged with the Olympic Games at all. In part, its because of drug abuse. I've only just heard that Antonio Pettigrew has admitted abuse and had his medals confiscated.

But there's a good piece in the Telegraph today about the most memorable moments of past Games. It lists Coe sprinting away from Ovett to win the 1,500 metres, Greg Louganis diving off the high board in Seoul and cracking his head on a lower board, Nadia Comaneci, Steve Redgrave, Carl Lewis and Bob Beaman. Got me thinking about the moments which have embedded themselves most deeply in my memeory. I will list the two.

First there was David Hemery, winning the 400 hurdles in Mexico City in 1968. I was a 440 flat runner in those days, and so had a particular interest in this sort of distance. So I stayed up and watched it live in the middle of the night. I will always remember Hemery coming off the bend and obliterating both the field and the world record. He took 0.9 seconds off it. It was a stunning run.

My second great memory is of Ben Johnson, winning the 100 metres in Seoul in 1988. It was a most amazing run, leaving Carl Lewis in his wake, and smashing the world record with a time of 10.79. It was near unbelievable - and so it turned out. He was drugged up to the eyeballs. I do have some sympathy with him though. He has been condemned across the athletics world ever since as a drug cheat. But the three runners who came in behind Johnsone, namely Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Dennis Mitchell all tested positive at other occasions in their careers - and are still remembered with affection.

The one thing I do feel sure of is that medals will be won by drug cheats over the next few weeks. But I'll still watch the whole extravaganza.

How to make 60p

Been away for a few days break. Called in at Tim and Adrienne's house in St Fagan's to do a revamp of their garden - which led to another deeply embarrassing retail experience. I've commented before about my total incompatibility with the practice of shopping, and this incident has done absolutely nothing to bolster my confidence.

Called in at Wyevale Garden Centre, and decided to buy the entire sock of Astilia 'banksii', which amounted to three plants. No problem about that you'd have thought. But there was. The plants were priced at £12.99 each, or two for £20.00. Personally, I'd have paid the £32.99 to avoid a fuss - but Mrs D was with me, and she's a proper shopper. So we had Tony the Manager called to the till and after a bit of hooing and hahing he agreed that all three Astelias would be priced at £10 each. I then said that Mrs D had a 10% discount card from another Wyevale Garden Centre. The girl on the till, said that discount cards only apply on Tuesday. I saw no reason to challenge this and paid up. But then Mrs D arrived on the scene, and immediately challenged this judgement. She was right of course. "Oh, its one of those discount cards" was the reply. So Tony the Manager was called from his office again. He agreed that we should have the 10% discount.

But the till machine rejected the refund because it took 15 minutes for the transaction (now about 5 minutes old) to be registered. So Tony and I waited, and eventually, I was able to leave the Garden Centre with my 10% discount, and Tony was able to retreat to his office. And then, as we were loading up our purchases, Mrs D noticed that while we had been charged £10 for the third Astilia as agreed, but that we had been charged £12.99 each for the other two. At first I pretended not to hear, and started the car up ready to go - but No. She wasn't having it. No choice but to trudge back to the till, armed with my receipt, ready to prise Tony out of the Manager's office yet again.

The only satisfying aspect of this horror retail story is that we did have rather more discount than that to which we were entitled - because the 10% discount was taken off the full price of the Astilias, rather than off the discounted Price. 10% off £25.98 rather than off £20.00. So we finished up 60p to the good.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Come On the 'Reds'.

Pleased to read Sally Williams' report in today's Western Mail that the Red Squirrel is making a strong comeback on the Island of Anglesey. Menter Mon has been leading the re-introduction effort for the last 11 years, and ecologist Craig Shuttleworth reckons that there are 150 Red Squirrels scampering around the Newborough Forest at the moment. This is a truly amazing achievement, and this blog is flushed with the excitement of it all.

There have been two basic strands to the successful strategy. Firstly there has been the complex work involved in expanding the Red Squirrel breeding programme, and secondly there's the rather more 'negative' side which involves the culling of the horrible Grey Squirrel. The report claims that 7,000 have been despatched and that there are only 50 of these 'rats with tails' now left on the Island. That's 50 too many in my opinion. I've been interested in this work for many years, and have to admit that reading a report such as that written by Sally was something I hadn't expected ever to read. Maybe someday, we may see the Red Squirrel scampering around Montgomeryshire again, as they were a few decades ago.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Red Mist.

Too cross to blog. Should really leave it and go to bed. I learnt from my rugby career that when the red mist descends, its best to take time out to cool off. Normally, I really couldn't give a **** what bloggers or commenter's write about me, but for some reason, I've just read an anonymous comment on another blog which instigated thoughts of violence - an almost teenage resort to aggressive thought that throughout my life I've worked hard to conquer.

And what can have caused this. An idiotic anonymous accusation that I am a separatist - together with one or two black clouds crossing my personal sky. For many years I've watched as a Labour Government forced through constitutional change which created the idiotic system of government which currently applies in Wales, my nation. The current Government of Wales Act is a constitutional crisis waiting to happen - a creation of such instability that it threatens the unity of the United Kingdom - a stupid arrangement of such epic proportions that it can neither deliver or be understood. Now, I hear some opinions that totally ignore the reality of where we are - opinions formed on the basis of where they would currently like us to be. Well, that's OK if the intention is just to feed a prejudice, but not if the aim is serious commentary on the future of how Wales should be governed.

The National Assembly for Wales was established after a Wales-wide referendum voted in favour of it in 1997. I tried to persuade people to vote No at the time - but I was on the losing side. That's the reality. There is not the slightest chance of going back. All the evidence tells us otherwise. And then another constitution came into being in May 2007, which facilitates the transfer of law making power to the National Assembly via a system that never looked as if it would work, and which only a student of politics can understand. All I do is look at the evidence before my eyes, which tells me that the only sensible way forward is for law making powers to be given to the National Assembly in those policy areas that have been devolved. This is nothing whatsoever to do with support for separatism. Its about trying to make sense of a constitution that a self serving Labour Party has imposed on Wales (and Britain) with no regard to the long term stability of the union. Disagree with my analysis by all means - but don't call me a seperatist. I daresay that the red mist will have lifted by morning.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Time to go.

So he's finally resigned. Now we can have a genuine debate about who should become our new leader. We can have a debate about what new strategies are needed for the big challenges to come. We can expect to see a few new faces brought into the team, to 'freshen it up' as BBC commentators tend to say.

It was absolutely the right decision to take. Things just haven't been going right, of late. The most recent test which ended in a shock defeat, when the opposition's supremely proud and confident nationalistic leader led from the front, was the last straw. And it had all started so well. To begin with, it almost seemed that he could walk on water. No matter what nasty little 'googlies' were sent his way, he just stood there, and dealt with each delivery with deft flicks and an impressive, assumed authority, swinging his great clunking bat with effortless ease. But suddenly his successes dried up. We've seen failure upon failure. The public had turned against him and were baying for him to be sacked. Other names were being touted. His authority was shot. So today's resignation will have come as a great relief to those who vote in the national team's leader.

Yes, Michael Vaughan really had to go. It was to the great credit of the man that he made the decision himself - even if it was a pity about the tears as he announced his departure. But to be fair, even the Iron Lady shed a few when she went. Without doubt, it was the right time for Vaughan to go, and he went with good timing and dignity. I've always thought that politicians can learn a lot from our best sportsmen.

Archbishop Morgan talking sense.

I don't always agree with the musings of the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan. But I do like what he's going to be saying at the National Eisteddfod tomorrow, according to the BBC. He wants us to celebrate 'Welsh identity' without us becoming 'narrowly nationalistic'.

Now this isn't as easy as it seems. As Dr Morgan points out, in some parts of our world discussion and disagreements about 'identity' have led to violence and hatred. But not for many years in Wales. Its a question of winning arguments, not physical battles. For example, I've long believed that the long term success of the Welsh Language and culture depends on attracting the goodwill of non Welsh speakers. I try never to speak in Welsh if there is a non Welsh speaker in the group conversation. I know. Why should we not speak our own language in our own country etc.? But what matters to me is the long game. To adopt a phrase from the Iraq War, its about winning 'hearts and minds'. Sometimes, by speaking English today, we can ensure that more people will be speaking Welsh tomorrow.

Same goes for the Eisteddfod itself. Nothing wrong with it being a celebration of the Welsh Language. It should be. But I've always been in the camp of diluting the absolute 'Welsh only' rule to allow a reasonable amount of signage and explanation to help and encourage non Welsh speakers. Anyway, I hope the sun shines on the Archbishop tomorrow.

Councillor Craig Williams.

It must be three to four years since a young lad walked into my office in Welshpool, and announced (or at least his mum did) that he was interested in helping me and the Conservative Party. Now this was pre-Cameron days, so it was the political equivalent of hailstones in July - not unprecedented but noteworthy. When he told Pam, who runs the place, that he was a whizzo on the computer, the political career of Craig Williams was born. Last week he was elected to represent the Pentyrch ward on Cardiff City Council.

It was a very good result for Craig. The seat had been won by the Conservatives in the Council Elections two months ago - by just 47 votes. I thought it would be a tough ask for a new candidate to hold on, against the same Labour candidate who fought the May election. Craig increased the Conservative vote from 478 to 554, even if his majority was cut to just 12. His Labour opponent, Christine Priday will have been disappointed not to have won but pleased that she increased her vote from 429 to 542. More significantly, the Plaid Cymru vote crashed from 275 to 129 and the Lib Dem vote also dropped from 110 to 97. These drops are worse than at first they appear because in May an 'Independent' also took 99 votes. Do I hear Plaid activists wailing "We're doomed. Where's our Alex Salmond when we need him?"

The point of this post is not to niggle all those Plaid bloggers which are supposed to be dominating the Welsh 'blogosphere', but to highlight the arrival of Craig Williams of Welshpool on the Welsh political scene.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Presumed Consent.

Been catching up on Welsh politics, now that my gaze has returned from family matters. And I see from the BBC that there was a major issue on the agenda at the National Assembly this week. An Assembly Committee rejected the idea of 'presumed consent' in respect of the donation of human organs. This must have been a really tough call. Must admit that I would have gone with the majority opinion.

There can be no doubt that introducing 'presumed consent' would greatly increase the donor rate, and that more lives would be saved. Such an argument cannot be lightly ignored. But the reality is that if organs were taken from dead people, unless they had specified otherwise, many body parts would be removed from dead bodies whose owners did not want this to happen. So many people just do not get around to preparations for death, until the Grim Reaper has actually come into view.

I sense that the change will come in the end though. The force of science seems to be irresistible. And I can imagine that it would be a traumatic experience talking to the family of someone, recently deceased, whose life could have been saved if only there had been a donor organ available. But there you are. Politics is about tough decisions - and they don't come much tougher than this one.


When something special is over, what's left are the memories. I suppose there will be the photographs. But this photograph is a bit sad. Its the fading footprint of what was a wonderful weekend in our garden. The last peg and bag of rubbish has been cleared and the marquee has been dismantled, and now stands somewhere else. The mosaic of green shades shows up the dance floor which lay there for an extra day. In another week, when the grass has grown and been mowed, the lawn will be as if no wedding reception and party ever took place. Weeks of preparation and anticipation. Then joy and fulfilment. And now its almost gone. When Tim and Adrienne are back from honeymoon, they will have to buy us a tree, just as Edward and Karen did.

Much of human existence is like that. A man's life involves perhaps two decades of preparation, with maybe another 50 years or so before the marquee is pulled down, and gradually all trace of his existence fades away. The same applies to political careers - unless your name is Mike German, in which case you go on and on and on. (How much longer until Peter Black lobs another grenade into the great pianist's orchestra pit?) For some of course, its all preparation. Take Gordon Brown. "Please do", scream Labour MPs! The marquee, which took so long to build just didn't hold water, and collapsed in the first big rainfall. That's the thing about life and living things. They have an end.

But there are memories. And if the day was special, its the good ones that will last. It was a wonderful day.