Saturday 30 August 2008

Being boring (3)

Off on hols, just for a week. I'm going to be doing what is billed as 'the wildest one day white-water rafting run in the world' - have just been looking at the website and it includes 'the Devil's Toilet Bowl' and the 'Gnashing Jaws of Death', and finishes with something called 'Oblivion' where only 1 in 4 rafts avoid a flip. You might ask why I am doing this... I don't know. Also hoping to do some microlighting too, in case you thought from the pic I'd got the wrong idea about just what whitewater rafting entails. Back soon - (and someone else will be keeping an eye on the blog!)

Friday 29 August 2008

Rock bottom

Obviously I would get out of the office a lot quicker if I didn't keep getting distracted - like by this headline on the BBC website "Cash-in-buttocks man in M25 ban" I was going to tag this 'cash-in-buttocks man' but who knows what sort of readership that would attract.

Being boring (2)

I'm in the Westminster office at the moment, having caught the 4.30pm from Temple Meads. Trying to clear the decks before I go away next week, so I'm wading through the post that has piled up during the last few weeks that I've been in Bristol. This includes a copy of "Yo-Yo", the magazine of the Simba Dickie Group. I have no idea who they are, but the covering letter includes an enticing P.S. "There's a special treat awaiting all fans of the BIG-BOBBY-CAR on the internet under" I am sure there's a good reason why they've sent me this.

I was meant to be going on an official delegation to Zambia next week but the president died and they're still in official mourning so it's been called off. The delegation was to have been led by Virginia (now Baroness) Bottomley, and included her successor as top Tory totty, Julie Kirkbride MP. (Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to say that if I make clear I'm being ironic? And do I actually mean ironic, or am I having a touch of the Alanis Morrisettes here?)

We all met for a briefing on the trip before recess. I'm rather scared of posh women who ask you lots of questions, so when Virginia said the Zambians wanted to talk to us about our Freedom of Information Act and we needed someone to swot up on it, and how about you Kerry?, I accepted rather in the spirit one accepts when the teacher asks if you want to be class helper. Anyway, it's not happening now, or not until December, maybe.

Touch me I'm sick

Speaking of Andrew Lansley, Hopi Sen is having a bit of a go at him on his blog. Hot on the heels of Wednesday's press release calling for less health spending in poor areas, the Tory health spokesman is now accusing Labour of, erm... not spending enough money on health in poor areas. Or at least, not doing enough to tackle lower rates of life expectancy in poor areas.

Lansley says, "if spending on healthcare alone determined health outcomes, Glasgow would be the healthiest place in Britain and Wokingham the least healthy". But the spending follows the poor health... Is he suggesting that the gap between life expectancies in Glasgow and Wokingham wouldn't increase if spending in both areas was exactly the same per head? He makes a valid point that there should be more spending on public health preventative measures in places like Glasgow, but that shouldn't be at the expense of axing current funding for treatment when people do fall ill.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Don't take the pizza (2)

Well I did say I was going to come back on this sooner, but I've been rather enjoying the spat between Devil's Kitchen and Chris Hutt on the first post. I don't think you can really argue with the 'it's your fault you're fat' line, although it's a bit harsh and some people do really struggle to lose weight. (The Times was rather naughty to use this picture of Andrew Lansley to accompany its piece, and even naughtier to caption it how they did).

According to the Times, the Tories would oppose further bans on junk food advertising and a traffic light 'warning' system on high fat, high salt foods. They think that increased peer pressure will do the job instead. So it's OK to persuade and cajole and nag people, but it's not OK to legislate.

I can see how this might work for something like binge drinking, where young people could conceivably be discouraged from drinking too much if their peers send out the signal it's not big or clever (lazy shorthand on my part... it's late, I'm tired). But doesn't society already send out rather a lot of not-at-all ambigious signals that being fat is unattractive and unhealthy? I can't see that it's acceptable to be obese. In fact I'm sure many obese people encounter disapproval - and abuse - on an almost daily basis. There's possibly a certain tolerance amongst some parents of their children's obesity, I suppose.

The Tories are also suggesting a 'responsibility deal' with food companies, to try to get them to reduce portion sizes and the amounts of fat, salt and sugar in meals. If it's the responsibility of the companies to make their products healthier, isn't that rather taking away the right of customers to exercise an informed choice? Some people would rather eat full-fat desserts once a week than low-fat options every day. (We have some 99% cocoa, no sugar chocolate in the office at the moment; it's vile. Tastes like turnips).

I actually think producers do have some responsibility in this matter, and particularly a responsibility not to dress their products up as something they're not (e.g. "low fat" products which compensate by being higher in sugar). I'm all for Government talking to them, and encouraging them to produce healthier food (and reduce their packaging while they're at it). And I'd rather it was done that way than through legislation - more healthy food, yes, but doughnuts for those who really want them. What I don't see how Lansley can get away with saying that this approach is any less about 'nannying' than better labelling or less aggressive marketing would be. In one case, it's the food companies (nanny?) who would serve up healthier food; in the other, it would be the consumer who is given the choice whether or not to buy it.

Life and how to live it

On Wednesday I had intended to spend several hours at an event at Barton Hill Settlement, where various stakeholders - the police, youth services, voluntary sector organisations - met to discuss issues relating to Somali youth. The first hour was taken up by lunch, however, and although it gave me the chance to catch up with a few people, I had to leave soon after the official business started, to attend Frances Easton's funeral.

Val Davey, the former MP for Bristol West, gave a moving tribute to Frances, telling how Frances, her husband George, and her little sister Margaret became involved in the Labour Party in their teens and had worked in every General Election since. Even during my election in 2005, when Frances was in her late 80s and in failing health, she spent hours in the office folding leaflets and stuffing envelopes. (Margaret, only slightly younger, was still CLP Secretary at the time). She never sought political office herself - though George was a councillor - but did it simply because she believed passionately in the Labour Party and what it stands for. She was also very much involved in St Lukes church, and the work of the Church Mission Society in Uganda.

City dweller*

So this is what I was up to tonight... I was supposed to go to Bath for the opening of the UK School Games, but was told at the last moment about a public meeting to discuss residents' objections to the proposed new development at Junction 3 of the M32- a Creative Learning Centre they call it, which means a library, some art spaces, some learning facilities, and much more, including housing - because that's how they'll get the match funding. (It's a £3.5m project, half of which is provided by the Lottery).

Local residents are unhappy that they've not been properly consulted, and have concerns about pressure on parking, loss of green space, air quality, and residents' safety. All agree, however, that the area is badly in need of a make-over. Its undeveloped, semi-derelict state at present makes it a haven for drug users and sex workers, which is particularly grim considering it borders a primary school, a youth club, a church and the Single Parent Action Network's study centre. Residents tell stories about seeing people crawling out of the bushes as they're on their way to work in the morning, and sex/ drugs litter everywhere.

One of the things we discussed was the need to breach the barrier between St Pauls and Easton, created when the M32 was built, so that St Pauls' people feel they can use the Centre too; at the moment people don't feel safe walking through the subway, so there's talk of surface walkways instead, or better security. The plans are on the Council website.

*Bit rubbish, I know, but the best I could do and I'm working my way through the Fall now, which will go on for ever and ever. A bit like the band really. My sister fell asleep with her head on the stage at a Fall gig once.

Being boring

Been rather busy over the last few days, hence the lack of blogging. Highlight of the week - and I have now learned to use that strictly in a non-ironic sense - was probably my visit to Speedwell Fire Station, where I got to dress up in a firefighter's outfit (they have firefighters my size these days!) and perch on an engine. There will be pictures... but not of the Bridget Jones sliding down a pole variety. I didn't do that.

Speedwell is a community fire station, which means it has facilities open to the public, e.g. to use computers and get involved in the Union Learn project. I'm all in favour of making full use of public buildings. The fire station is next to the (rather wonderful) new Bristol Brunel Academy, which allows access to its learning and leisure facilities. In an area like Speedwell, which is sorely lacking in community buildings, this makes all the difference - and makes adults feel part of the school community too.

Definitely not the highlight of the week was the discussion we had to have in the office about the purchase of a replacement toilet seat, because the intern had sat on it and broken it (which probably scores quite high on the list of things you don't want to happen when you're on work experience). I am sure the likes of Sir Patrick, Sir Paul and Sir Peter (in fact, both Sir Peters) on the Tory benches don't end up doing such things, but for most of us, being an MP is like running a small business. So in between the official visits and meetings and surgeries and letters and emails and phone calls, you also end up having to deal with mundane things. And for the record, I got in at 9pm tonight, and the toilet seat conversation was very short.

Was going to carry on talking about why I got in at 9pm, but then I'd have to think of a new title, or "people" will say I'm calling local residents "boring"...

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Don't take the pizza

There's no excuse for being fat... someone will say tomorrow. As an experiment - assuming you haven't yet seen the press coverage - what do you think of this statement? And do you think any differently when you know which Party he's from? More to follow tomorrow...

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Prole art threat

I was told at the weekend that there's a John Hegley poem about growing up in Luton and then moving to Bristol (he went to Sixth Form in Mangotsfield), comparing the difference between the two places. Anyone know anything about this? In the meantime, here's his poem*, Luton:

(A poem about the town of my upbringing and the conflict between my working-class origins and the middle-class status conferred upon me by a university education)
I remember Luton
as I'm swallowing my crout'n.

*Anything Charlotte can do....


One of my rules for dealing with journalists is that I don't often call them back unless they leave a message saying what they want to talk about. They're usually trying to stir things up - e.g. X number of "senior" Labour MPs (is it ever a junior MP?) think that Y should be sacked or Z should be promoted or that heads should roll because of .... you get my drift.

Quite often the calls seem to be from interns or junior researchers, who don't know anything about the subject and have just been briefed to solicit a 'yes' or 'no'. You can spend 10 minutes discussing the nuances (and as a lawyer I am very good at the 'on the one hand' and 'but on the other hand' line of banter, which I know is not what journalists want).

So with something like the windfall tax you might start off by saying that you quite like the idea, and you certainly hope that the Chancellor is looking at it, although you have concerns about some elements like whether the cost would ultimately end up being passed on to the consumer, but you do think something ought to be done to help people meet their fuel bills, and the energy companies have after all made huge profits, although as a matter of principle you're not keen on the idea of retrospective taxation.... And then you get asked 'so can I put you down as a "yes" then?'

If you do go down as a 'yes' then you are henceforth referred to as 'a member of the Government' despite being a lowly PPS.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I think it - a windfall tax - is worth looking at, but I'm not fully signed up to the idea. I want to know more, and see numbers and analysis and predictions. I also quite like the idea of making energy companies pay more for permits under the EU carbon trading scheme, although I appreciate that won't raise as much money. Some might think this stance is a bit of a cop out, but I think it's important to dig a little deeper before jumping in with both feet... (if that's not a metaphor that lends itself to talk of ending up totally buried !)

Tom Watson has an interesting take on this actually. I've also been called by Compass on a couple of occasions and said something pretty similar to what John Robertson says he said. Despite being pushed fairly hard to lend my name to calls for the tax, I reiterated my line of being 'interested' in the idea but not fully convinced. I suspect that was enough to justify my inclusion as one of the 7 unnamed PPSs being cited on Newsnight as secretly supporting it.

* Son Volt, in case you think I'm cheating. And no, I didn't have to Google it. It's on my iPod.

Monday 25 August 2008

Satan gave me a taco

For those of you who will be in the Bristol area this coming Sunday, it's the Love Food Festival at Paintworks.

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

It was Deasy's funeral on Friday, and standing room only at the crematorium, followed by a wake at St George Labour Club. I left after a while to do a surgery, and came back afterwards to find them still going strong, which would have pleased JD no end. Even though he'd been in good health, he'd discussed things beforehand with a friend, as people do, and had said he definitely didn't want any religion in the service. He must also have said he wanted The Laughing Policemen played, as that's what he got. Bit bizarre, but very JD.

Should I find myself in such a situation - and I'm going to be doing some rather dangerous things next week, by which I don't mean cycling round Bristol City Centre, although Charlie Bolton has emailed to offer me a bike lesson - I think I'd go for REM's 'Find the River' on the grounds that it's not quite as depressing as most of the music I listen to, and not as noisy, so it won't upset the old folk. Plus there's something quite comforting about Michael Stipe's voice, and something quite apt about the lyrics. (This is the sort of thing I think about when walking home from work of an evening....)

I put this on public record because I had a similar conversation with my (former church warden) mother once, about not wanting a religious service or hymns. Her response was something along the lines of - well if you go first, you won't be around to have any say in the matter! So it could be Lord of the Dance after all.

Ca plane pour moi

For those who have been wondering just where our politicians have been going wrong lately, here's Iain Dale's Total Politics magazine, pointing the finger at dowdy female MPs. And quite right too. How can we ever expect to hold our own on the international stage without a weekly blow dry?

P.S.Any resemblance between the cat in this picture and me first thing in the morning is entirely coincidental.

Through the barricades

Thanks to Mrs Blogs for bringing this to my attention. Tony Hadley will be entertaining the troops at Tory Conference. She conjures up the enticing image of Cameron entering the room as Tony belts out 'Gold!' I can see it now: a gaggle* of Tory Boys singing 'You're indestructible - always believe it!' (*Not sure what the correct collective noun for Tory Boys is - any better suggestions?)

And if anyone manages to get a clip of Michael Gove singing 'work till you're musclebound', I will pay very, very good money for it.

True grit

I've only just discovered my colleague, Paul Flynn's blog, and may I belatedly salute his courage, his indefatigability, etc... 700 comments on s**king, and he's still going strong. Also definitely not someone who could be tagged in any way as being in the pocket of 'Big Pharma' (see numerous posts).

Interesting to read that, having started off as a sceptic on GM crops, he's now agnostic, which is more or less where I stand too. Paul Collier wrote something on this for the Guardian the other day, in response to Prince Charles' - 'let them eat Duchy Originals' - comments.

Paul has just come 11th in Iain Dale's poll on blogging MPs, with yours truly in 8th place. I feel slightly embarrassed by that...

Memories can't wait

Have been challenged by Tom Harris to participate in a chain blog thing instigated by Iain Dale, where I have to recall where I was, what I was doing and how I felt at certain key moments in history. So here goes...

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
Was still in bed, early-ish on a Sunday morning, (well, early for a Sunday) when the phone rang, Jonny Boy answered it - and then came in to tell me the news. We spent the rest of the day watching the television, like virtually everyone else, and being slightly embarrassed by the fact that we were so interested.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
I would have been at law college at the time. But... if I'm honest, I really can't remember when or how I heard, which is a bit bizarre. I assume we celebrated, but I think it all felt like a bit of an anti-climax. I'd rather have seen her lose an election.

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
I was at the TUC conference in Brighton, in the visitors' gallery waiting for Tony Blair's speech. There'd been a fair bit of pre-publicity about how he was going to be given a hard time by the union delegates, with staged walk-outs and organised heckling, so the atmosphere was tense. Then the Chair, Bill Morris, announced that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. A few minutes later, Blair came in, said a few words - which was when we realised it was a suspected terrorist attack - and headed back to London. The conference was called-off, we headed out to the foyer where we watched repeat clips of the planes flying into the towers, and then a bunch of us ended up in Phil from Tribune's hotel room, watching the news coverage. I remember copious amounts of Jack Daniels being consumed by some people in the room, and the rumour that more than 50 planes were missing. Everyone was stunned, and some people were in tears.

England's World Cup Semi Final v Germany in - 4 July 1990
Watching it with a bunch of mates, because that's what we always do. I think this one was round my house, which would have put me in charge of keeping the supplies of veggie sausage rolls, potato wedges, Pringles, tortilla chips, chilli dips and other nutritious food coming. The lads - Dan, Ray, Bronek - would have been abusing the England players, especially Chris Waddle; I would have been telling them off for not cheering 'our boys' on (and also suggesting that Chris Waddle was perhaps a slighter better player than any of them); and Jonny Boy would have been pretending he knew something about football. Oh, and this was New Order's year, wasn't it - so I may have been doing my notorious version of the John Barnes rap.... 'You've got to hold and give but do it at the right time, you can be slow or fast but you must get to the line...' Yes, I know all the words.

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
I wasn't born.

I now have the task of nominating five other people to do the same. So - I nominate:

Over to you folks!

Friday 22 August 2008

Public service announcement

This is just a temporary new look for the blog. I've been playing around, and now I'm bored/ stuck.

Thursday 21 August 2008


OK, time for some serious stuff. Did a fair bit of running around today, so haven't had time to digest the detail of Bristol's GCSE results yet, but just want to congratulate Ray at the City Academy for breaking the 60% barrier (it was 22% in 2001, before they went for academy status) and Armando at Brunel Academy for a stupendous achievement in his first year running the new school (62% getting 5 good GCSEs, compared to 30% at the old school, Speedwell, in 2007). Armando used to be Ray's deputy at the City Academy, and I suspect may be just a teeny bit pleased that his school has done just that little bit better! Of course there's still plenty of room for improvement, and there needs to be a real focus on increasing the number of pupils with 5 GSCEs including English and Maths (although this was up 11% at Brunel and 2% at the City Academy).

Just for the record, 49% of pupils at the City Academy receive free school meals, (I think the Bristol average is around 17%). It's the local school for children living in Lawrence Hill, which is the 19th most economically deprived ward in England/Wales. 38% of the pupils have English as an additional language, and 68% are from ethnic minority groups. I say this because I'm sick of hearing people rubbish what these schools have achieved by accusing them of operating selection by the backdoor. They don't - and from what I know of the two headteachers involved, they wouldn't want to, even if they could.

Common people

Introducing Cameron's new policy adviser, Jonty Olliff-Cooper. I would say more, but Recess Monkey has already beaten me to it, as has the Mirror.

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Avid readers of the Bristol Blogger (and is there any other type?) will be more than familiar with the work of installation artist Paul McCarthy (no relation). Avid readers of the Daily Mail website (that would be me) have now, belatedly, also had the story brought to their attention. Where the Blogger leads, others follow....

P.S. No relation, but until this morning I did have a sticker attached to the toilet seat in my Bristol flat, which let us just say, portrayed something not entirely disimilar to the subject matter of my namesake's latest work of art. Only steaming. (Put there by a 5 year old nephew on a recent visit, I hasten to add, along with a picture of a toilet with an open mouth saying 'Yum yum, eat it up').

Someone - someone who knows I'm the local MP - came round this morning to do some repairs, so I thought I should remove it. Unfortunately I only got as far as sticking it on the bathroom mirror while I pondered what to do with it - and then left the flat in a hurry. So - right in his line of vision then. I am thinking of explaining it away along the lines of 'when I look in the mirror first thing in the morning and think I look like s**t, it serves as a useful reminder that I don't. Not quite'.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Lost in the supermarket

Damn this song title theme; I could have gone for 'Off her trolley'. I have belatedly discovered the blog of Lib Dem councillor Emma Bagley, who leads an exciting life. According to her blog profile her favourite music is: Pink, James Blunt, Madonna, and 'Coors'...... Still at least she has a blog. I'll give her credit for that. More councillors should.

I've also just been checking out Bristol Tory Boy's biog. He's apparently had a career spanning two decades. And was in the army too. That (sort of) explains why a 20-something year old would choose to be pictured in a bow tie for his Facebook photo. I guess we need to find him a new name...

Going for gold

I wouldn't dare for a moment suggest that the Government has anything to do with Team GB's Olympic success. But we'd have got the blame if it had all been a complete flop, wouldn't we?

Hold on to your friends

OK, I'm going to stop criticising Dave. And hand over to Boris.

Gimme, gimme, gimme

Mutley asking for a medal.

Monday 18 August 2008

From safety to where...?

OK, serious stuff now - which will probably take me the best part of an hour and not please anyone (although if pleasing people was the point of this blog, I've been getting it rather wrong lately).

Today I went to Yarl's Wood detention centre, in the farthest flung reaches of north Bedfordshire. (Not somewhere I'd normally venture as a Lutonian - the north-south divide is alive and kicking in Beds.) The purpose of my mission was to find out for myself what conditions were like there.

So - facts first. Yarl's Wood is a removal centre for failed asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and overstayers (i.e. people who arrive here legally on, say, a six month tourist visa but then don't go home). It may also include foreign national criminals, although increasingly they're being deported straight from prison at the end of their sentences. The average stay is only a couple of weeks. Some residents are removed from the UK at this point; others are successful in opposing removal instructions and return to the community pending judicial review of their cases.

Most people, of course, remember Yarl's Wood from the riot and fire six years ago. It's been substantially rebuilt since, and is very different now. It only houses single women and families for a start (and is the only centre of this type in the UK; all children go to Yarl's Wood). Men are only allowed there as part of a family unit, which could mean a single father and a child. This is one reason why Yarl's Wood tends to be higher profile than other places, as anti-deportation campaigners tend to focus on cases involving children. Many of course take the view that children should never be detained in such places, although their families will only be taken there if they've not taken up opportunities to return voluntarily. There are no unaccompanied children there; they're allowed to remain in the UK until they're adults. I think at the moment there's something like 314 residents there, which includes 89 families and 44 children. It's about 80% full, which is typical.

I have to admit, my first impression of Yarl's Wood was that it was pretty grim. It's on a small industrial estate, which is home to ugly grey warehouses and, surprisingly, Red Bull Racing. (No sign of Mark Webber or David Coulthard though). It looks from the outside like a prison camp.

But then I was shown inside, and taken along corridors lined with children's paintings to meet the Director, Victoria (friendly, young - well, definitely younger than me. Not at all what you'd expect - but then again, I've met the female Governor of HMP Bristol and the Director of Ashfield YOI, and they're nothing like Officer Ferguson either). Also present were reps from the UK Border Agency, who are responsible for overseeing the contract with Serco, who run the centre.

After a very useful chat, we started our tour of the facilities in the reception area, which consists of a welcome desk and a series of rooms, brightly furnished with Ikea sofas and with Disney cartoons painted on the walls. Although there are quite a few locked doors along the corridors, the aim is for the place to look as little like a prison as possible, which is largely successful. For example, many internal gates have been removed or curtains hung to hide them. Residents - which is the term used by staff to describe people detained there - have the keys to their own rooms, which generally have twin beds and their own showers and toilets. They are never locked in, and can generally wander from one place to another. (The family unit is separate because of child protection issues). The rooms are basic, but certainly not cell-like. Residents have televisions and video recorders in their rooms, as well as CD players. There are two libraries, with stacks of videos, internet access, newspapers and books. Residents can find out there about what's going on in their countries of origin, and staff will find out more for them if they're concerned by current events.

There are also three cinemas on site: one showing foreign language films, one showing blockbusters, and the other for children - which was showing Shrek today. There are two hair salons; a gym; a sports hall; arts and crafts rooms; and of course classrooms. I went to the nursery unit: very cute kids, all playing happily, lots of toys and an outside play area. In its Ofsted inspection it had come out overall as 'good' but 'outstanding' in terms of equipping children with social and communication skills, which is pretty impressive considering the circumstances. There is another class for primary school age children, and one for older kids. They all seemed like typical kids; cheerful, a bit rowdy. I asked the teacher and Director what impact detention had on the kids, and was told they generally coped with it well. The youngest ones were either too young to know what was going on, or thought they were on holiday. (And I don't mean that in a dismissive, 'they're all fine' way - it's obviously sad that they're in such a situation, but I couldn't see any evidence that they were traumatised by their experience; in fact, Yarl's Wood was probably for many of them a far better environment than where they'd previously lived.) There's also a youth club for the kid, from the age of 7 upwards, which is done out with Ikea furniture and is a colourful, cheerful place.

Some of the women there seemed a bit bored, but were mostly socialising together: doing each other's hair in the salons, having manicures, or just sitting around talking. The Director wants to provide more adult education, but it's obviously difficult when people are there for such short periods of time. It was visiting time, but only a few families were in the open-plan visiting centre.

I was also shown the health centre, which is the cause of most concern from those who lobby me on such issues. I was told that all new residents are subject to a triage check, and their health/ medication discussed with them. Yes, their medication is usually confiscated, because staff have no way of knowing whether it's the genuine article or not, but they're then given a replacement. GPs come into the centre; there's a dentist; there's a counsellor. (Although I was told that mental health problems are not anywhere near as common as they are in prisons, where it's around the 80% mark.)

I'm sure there's lots more that I could say, but I'll end with this because it's getting on for midnight and I've promised my researcher I'll look at some emails tonight. My lasting impression was that, given the circumstances, Yarl's Wood is about as decent a place as it can be. The Director and her staff make a huge effort to minimise the impact on children in particular, and are a million miles removed from what most people's impressions of prison officers would be. (Not that they regard themselves as prison staff; they're not.)

I've had conversations in the past with organisations who oppose children being held in detention, and I'll be talking to them again. I was at Yarl's Wood for two and a half hours, so I think I saw pretty much everything there was to be seen, and I don't think the wool was pulled over my eyes. Wasn't what I was expecting at all. Will be tracking down some of those organisations at Labour conference, and will see what they have to say about it.

The more you ignore me, the closer I get (5)

Oops, should also have included a link to this article: "Tory leader David Cameron's publicity stunt flight to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to assure the local regime of his support against the Russians is outrageous cheek. The expression 'punching above his weight' doesn't cover it." And yup, that's the Daily Mail.

To save you the bother of checking out the rest of the Mail site, I can report that Fern Britton is showing off her new figure in a bikini, a python has crawled up a weatherman's shorts on live TV and Sacha Baron Cohen's partner did a cartwheel on the beach.

But for those looking for something more substantial, less 'silly season': here's Dave again, revealing how a dreadfully common white van man tried to push him off his bike once, and criticising:

"the target culture that has been imposed on police by Labour, which means that they tend to go after easy cases rather than difficult cases, and that means obviously demonising the middle classes to a certain extent and targeting people who are fundamentally law-abiding".

So... someone interpret that for me please. Is he saying that the "real" crimes are committed by working-class oiks?

The more you ignore me, the closer I get (4)

Revered international statesman and bringer of peace to troubled parts of the world, David Cameron, has hit on a solution to the Georgia crisis. Stop those Russians shopping in Selfridges (sandwiched, naturally, between suspending Russia's membership of the G8 and inviting Georgia to join NATO.)

'Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges' says Diplomat Dave. (Erm.... Hasn't he got that the wrong way round?)

Regular readers of this blog will note that I have resisted the temptation to use 'Georgia on my Mind' or 'Midnight Train to Georgia' or 'The Devil went down to Georgia' as a title. So far...

How can I love you? (If you won't lie down)

Important breaking news from Australia - don't all rush at once girls!

Sunday 17 August 2008

Too much to ask (2)

Really shouldn't still be blogging - it's 1.30am and I have to attend the Bristol's Got Talent event at the Felix Road adventure playground tomorrow - but this caught my eye from tomorrow's (today's) Observer. "Kidney cancer drugs could be produced for about a tenth of their current cost".

I was emailed a couple of days ago from the constituent who'd successfully won his appeal to be prescribed Sutent on the NHS; he's doing really well already, putting on weight, feeling much better (see The drugs don't work - not a statement of opinion on my part, I just couldn't think of another vaguely relevant song title at the time).

Crazy horses

Got myself a new motor today. Feeling rather virtuous, although haven't quite reached this level of eco-smugness. (Have I just made that up? Quick Google - no, I haven't).

In fact, before anyone quotes it back at me, here's their definition:

"...the conspicuous aura of self-congratulation that accompanies any act of eco-altruism, no matter how trivial or self-serving, eco-smugness can be seen in everything from Greenfleet bumper stickers (just so everyone knows you're offsetting your automotive emissions) to growing your own vegies - then quietly letting everyone know about it."

Or blogging about getting an greener model of car? Yup, guilty as charged. (Glad to see Cameron getting an honourable mention though).

The more you ignore me, the closer I get (3)

I think the Indy's leader column gets it spot on:

"Although Gordon Brown has been conspicuous by his low profile, at least he has avoided making a dash to Tblisi, as David Cameron has done, to show disingenuous solidarity with the Georgian people and to repeat – apparently on behalf of the British Government – the promise of Nato membership. Instead of looking statesmanlike, which may have been the intention, he looks concerned but unworldly and immature."

Except I don't think he comes across as 'concerned' about anything except getting his picture in the paper.

Saturday 16 August 2008


Thanks to Mrs Blogs - of Mrs Blogs blogs fame - for showing me where to find the full list of the 8 booklets in the Guardian's great lyricists series. I'd got 7 out of the 8 booklets, and was going to muse as to who else should have been included in there, but couldn't do that without knowing who the missing no. 8 was - or potentially looking rather foolish. (Old hat now, I know, but that's what recess is for - catching up on those things you meant to do but didn't have time. And it puts off the moment I have to start reading that Larry Elliott book I'm supposed to be reviewing).

The Guardian went for: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Chuck D, Morrissey, Joni Mitchell, Alex Turner and Leonard Cohen. I'd definitely have gone for Dylan, but different songs; definitely Alex Turner (ditto); and Chuck D probably deserves it too. But as for others, I'd have gone for Gil Scott-Heron, Jarvis Cocker, Stephen Malkmus, Ian Curtis, and... someone from the Motown stable - can't decide between Smokey Robinson, Eddie Holland or Barratt Strong; how do you choose between You Really Got a Hold on Me, Bernadette and Heard it Through the Grapevine? OK, you could argue it's the amazing vocals that make the songs, not the lyrics, but lyrics don't have to be 'clever-clever' to be great.

The more you ignore me, the closer I get (2)

Another knock-back, but nothing deters Dave... Next stop, Sunderland.

Friday 15 August 2008

California uber alles

For those of you who don't read Popbitch.... (OK, I know he's from Indiana, but let's face it 'Indiana wants me' probably wouldn't have been appropriate). To be honest, I thought this was a spoof to start with.

The more you ignore me, the closer I get

Cameron declared on Tuesday 'no smugness, no triumphalism, no complacency'... (No smugness? Has anyone spoken to Michael Gove?)

Cameron also let it be known he'd tried to get hold of Barack Obama to tell the presidential candidate what words of wisdom he would be imparting on the situation in Georgia at his monthly press conference. Obama was apparently not available for a chat, which I find hard to believe. Surely he couldn't have had more important things to do than talk to Dave?


Took two nieces (aged 3 and 8) and a nephew (very nearly 6) to Castle Park for a picnic today. Exhausting. And I've promised to take not just them, but another nearly 6 nephew too, to Kew Gardens next week. (Three of my sisters gave birth within 32 days of each other in 2002. I'm convinced this can't be entirely coincidental but must have been due to the intervention of some devilish force, who will reveal his true intentions for them when they reach 6,6,6.... Not long to go now.)

My sisters have babies rather frequently; it can sometimes be difficult to keep track. A couple of years ago an intern in the London office took a call, and said, Kerry, it's your mother on the phone, your sister's just given birth. OK I said, matter-of-factly, trying to remember which one had looked pregnant when I'd seen them a month earlier at Christmas. Then my researcher said, are you sure she didn't ask for Chloe? It's just that my sister went into labour last night... Turns out I didn't actually have a pregnant sister at that time. But an easy mistake to make.

So I am far too tired to blog, and am going to have an early night. Might be getting a new car tomorrow! It's about as eco-friendly as you can get... but now that I've developed the walking almost everywhere habit I'm going to try to keep that up too.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Fell in love with a boy

Apparently Barack Obama has chosen Joss Stone to sing his official campaign theme. That is plain wrong on so many levels. Should have gone for the White Stripes. That would have been fun. (A friend of mine has asked if I'm deliberately trying to alienate as many groups of voters as possible between now and the next election by slagging off their musical heroes. That is why I'm holding fire on Cliff Richard. Just in case. Hell hath no fury like a Cliff fan scorned.)

The White Stripes.

Handsome devil

Just logged onto Facebook for the first time in ages. Paul Smith (Labour candidate for Bristol West) has changed his photo. Put that on the campaign posters and Stephen Williams will be history. Paul has a degree in astrophysics. I now see why.


Quite often I forget that I know things, if you know what I mean. But I don't think I knew that only ladies are allowed to launch ships (sorry, but women just sounds plain wrong in this context). Presumably it's a superstitious thing?

Goin' back

High point in the office today for me was cleaning out the kitchen cupboards and throwing out lots of old crockery. I also went into town and bought some mugs. That is what recess is for.

On Monday, however, I've arranged to visit Yarls Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire, where failed asylum seekers are taken before deportation. In the past year I've made a few last minute interventions in cases where families had been taken to Yarls Wood, and managed to get them released so that they can submit further representations in support of their applications to stay in the UK. I've also spoken to organisations like the Children's Society and Barnado's about the detention of children in such places. So I thought it was about time I saw it for myself, to see what conditions are like and how the centre is managed.

I'm also going to be sending out an immigration survey to several thousand constituents soon. In the next parliamentary session there'll be a huge Immigration Bill, consolidating all previous immigration legislation and introducing further changes. I think it's important to know what constituents think before I get stuck into that.

In particular, I've tried to flag up in the survey some of the dilemmas facing those who have the responsibility for making decisions on immigration issues. Should we deport anyone and everyone who is here in breach of the immigration rules? What if someone has found themselves a partner, or had a child since they arrived here? Do we break up a family, or tell them that if they want to be together they will all have to leave the country? And if we allow them to stay, won't that just encourage people to enter into sham marriages or have a child just so they can stay here?

And what about foreign nationals who have committed criminal offences? To give an example; someone marries a British citizen, so has the right to be here by virtue of marriage, but then receives a conviction for dealing Class A drugs. I've got a few such cases at the moment, not necessarily involving drug dealers, but all involving people serving custodial sentences. Most of them have young children. Under current law, they'll be deported at the end of their sentences - which either means depriving a child of contact with its father, or sending a child that has been born and brought up in Britain away to another country.

This is suddenly starting to ring bells, and I'm remembering that I've blogged about this before. So all I will add is that I'm going to see if it's possible to post the survey on my website too, so that constituents (and only constituents) will be able to print it out and return it to me. Will no doubt attract some racist comments, but I hope it's nuanced enough to make people think a little bit before automatically entering into knee-jerk 'send them all back' or 'keep them all here' modes.

Untitled III

Very sad news about John MacDougall's death, although it had been expected for some time as he had been very seriously ill. He was a nice guy, and a decent man, who I got to know quite soon after I was elected. Used to watch him play pool in Annie's Bar, where he'd give us newbies the benefit of his wisdom. He was funny too, and not a bad pool player. We'll miss him.

Born slippy

I was trying to cut down on the cute animal pics, but who could resist this?

He'd send in the army

Been a while since we've heard from James, our very own Bristol Tory Boy, so thought I'd check out his website for his unique take on recent international events. He reveals to his reader(s) that Bristol and Tbilisi are twinned - which is very apt as "both cities are constantly assailed by ex-communists. Fortunately the local bunch don't have tanks."

Glad to see you're keeping things in perspective James.

Jump around

That was a miserable picture (below), wasn't it? Here's a nicer one, and some good news too. (And yes, I do realise ducks don't read my blog. They have far better things to do).

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Do me a favour

Not really in blogging mood tonight. Been reading tributes to Deasy on this website, and not looking forward to having to switch into by-election campaign mode very soon.

Have also just heard on Points West that a constituent of mine has been committed to stand trial at the Old Bailey in September on charges under the Terrorism Act; he's an 18 year old lad, who'd been studying sport at the City Academy. I know him, I met him again on Friday, and I have to weigh up what is and isn't appropriate for me to say in public before I speak out, but... let's just say I'm not happy

Anyway, she sighed.... Musings on the role of a constituency MP (Pt. 1) It seems to me that a large part of what I do could be described as 'making sure people aren't fobbed off'. To give a couple of examples...

A woman has been writing to me rather a lot about the lake in St George's Park, complaining that discarded fishing lines cause injuries to ducks. Bristol City Council replied: not a problem, only been one incident, basically, she doesn't like fishing and is making a big fuss about nothing. It could have ended there, but I spent a day with the RSPCA last week. (Very interesting, I should blog about it). I took the opportunity to ask about the lake - and was told that, yes, it's a huge problem, they make 100 visits or so each year, ducks get injured, birds are trapped in lines caught up in the trees on the island. They take a boat out on the lake every now and again, and every few feet or so in the water they pull up loads of line. Eastville is even worse. But they don't bother reporting it to the Council anymore. So it's my job to convince the Council this is a problem, and what's more: it's their problem.

Another recent case. A constituent made an application to the Borders and Immigration Agency (don't need details but basically he wanted to travel abroad). He could have applied by post, which would have taken up to 14 weeks, or could pay a premium fee to get a same-day service. He went for the latter. That was February. His application is still 'being considered'. We made enquiries and were referred to a website which says there's no guarantee that the same-day service actually means it will be dealt with in one day, and they don't refund premium rate fees if it isn't. To use one of my favourite phrases: 'not good enough'. He's missed his holiday, it's cost him money, they've messed him around - and they still won't say how long it will take to deal with it. Again, my job to tell them that they can't really treat people like this, and that they need to get their act together.

I could cite numerous other examples. Quite often we start from the premise that we probably can't do anything about it, but ought at least to try: only to find that a letter from an MP has a miraculous effect and bureaucrats start admitting that things might perhaps be their fault, or that people might just be entitled to compensation, or that something is a lot more urgent than they originally thought. Sometimes we have to go backwards and forwards rather a lot, making the same points over and over again until we get an answer - or the answer we want. (And sometimes we have to accept that the constituent isn't always right.) What I have learned though, during my 3 years in this job, is always to question what I'm being told when I get an official response. Are we - me and the constituent - being told the truth, or are we being fobbed off? Far too often it's the latter.

P.S. Note to the ducks who kept me awake for hours last night, in what seemed to be a (very) prolonged courting ritual. See - I'm on your side. Any chance you could shut up?

Something's gone wrong again

Recess Monkey congratulates Sky News on its expert coverage of the war in South Ossetia. Almost as good as the Daily Mail's take on it. (Katie Melua is worried about her family out there. She should definitely have been in the Top Ten).

Monday 11 August 2008

The light at the end of the tunnel (is the light of an oncoming train)

Charlotte Leslie is posting poetry on her blog. I'm posting pictures of semi-naked Russian politicians in dubious trousers. I have also in the past week posted pics of bingo wings, Keanu Reeves, and the Leader of the Opposition in a wetsuit. I promise to try at least a little to be more intellectual tomorrow. But in a last burst of frivolity can I just say:
  • * New Beck album, Modern Guilt - very good, especially 'Orphans' which sounds a bit like 'You're so Vain' but none the worse for that;
* The Last of the Shadow Puppets album, The Age of Understatement - very good, especially 'I Don't Like You Anymore' (joins 'Like a Rolling Stone' and 'Positively 4th Street' as great songs to play when you don't like someone anymore);

* And if you haven't seen the graffiti art in a disused railway tunnel at Waterloo station, you should try to do so before it's completely trashed by untalented no-marks who think it's cool to scrawl their names over what are actually pretty stunning works of art. (This one below has already been ruined since I took the pic. It's a Banksy.)

Ready for the floor

We seem to be heading inexorably down a path where a politician's suitability to assume high office will be judged primarily on how fit they are - in both senses of the word. And quite right too. Putin didn't get to be President/ Prime Minister by hiding his pecs under a pullover.

So while Gordon is being put through his paces by his personal trainer, and Cameron is squeezing into his 'trendy wetsuit' (see earlier post/ pic, if you really want to) where are the other boys hiding? When do we get to see Des Browne in his Speedos, Michael Gove in his lycra cycling shorts, George Osborne pumping iron? Random selection there on my part - not wishful thinking! While you're reflecting on those images - or trying your best to delete them from your mind - let me introduce you to Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, ex-Governor of Nizhni Novgorod, leading light in the Union of Right Forces, adviser to the Ukrainian government, with a choice selection of pictures from the 'Sport' and 'Glamour' sections of his website.

Boris actually spoke at a conference in London a few months ago, organised by the Foreign Policy Centre. Much to my disappointment someone called a last minute DFID debate and I couldn't make it. Delightful as the hon. members of the International Development Select Committee are, they don't quite match up to the prospect of seeing Boris in the flesh, in those trousers.

In fact I think it should be made compulsory for all male politicians to have their own 'glamour' sections on their websites. And all lady MPs should be made to follow the French example and wear evening gowns to the office. Only then will the voters start to treat us with the respect we deserve.

Too much to ask

Breaking news from the Guardian... which doesn't particularly surprise me where Bristol is concerned, but it's very useful to have the figures with which to confirm my suspicions. Although it doesn't necessarily mean that the PCTs who turned down appeals are in the wrong; NICE is there for a purpose, and generally I would back its decisions. But I see its role primarily as ensuring that public money doesn't get wasted on virtually useless products being pushed by big pharmaceutical companies. It gets more difficult when there is clear proof that the drug does have some positive effect, but it comes down to a cost-benefit-analysis, which is roughly based on cost of the drug cf. additional years of quality life. How do you decide whether giving someone an average six months extra is worth £30,000?

The PCT exceptional funding appeals panels are meant to look not at whether someone's personal circumstances are exceptional, but whether their potential response to treatment sets them apart from other applicants. So it's not about whether you've got young children, or have led a blameless life, or whatever (which would get you into very difficult territory); it's about whether you're likely to live longer, respond better, etc. (Correct me if I'm wrong on that, someone).

I had one constituent recently who appealed successfully against being refused the kidney cancer drug Sutent - see my The Drugs Don't Work post from July, and no I didn't really mean that the drugs don't work as one email correspondent thought. On Friday however I was visited at my surgery by another constituent whose father has kidney cancer and is being denied Sutent. The family are faced with selling their belongings to try to fund the drug privately. They could also fall foul of the ridiculous NHS co-payment guidelines, which basically mean that if you pay for the drugs privately, you have to pay for everything privately. (We're doing something about that, thank God, although it won't come quickly enough for my constituent's father.)

Although my constituent's father doesn't live in Bristol, I've said I'll do what I can to support his appeal, along with his own MP. I'm not sure we'll succeed this time, given the NICE interim guidelines. But how do you tell someone what price you think should be put on a year of her father's life?

Sunday 10 August 2008

Time for heroes

I don't tend to watch much TV, although it's generally on as background noise. But tonight I started watching one documentary - Kill it, Skin it, Wear it - about the fur trade and then got sidetracked (OK, I couldn't bear watching animals being skinned while I was having my tea) by a BBC2 documentary about the Ugandan hurdler John Akii-Bua, who won gold at the 1972 Olympics, breaking the world record in the process.

The fur documentary was OK, a bit simplistic. The Akii-Bua one was phenomenal, really fascinating. For me, partly because I've been to Uganda a couple of times and it brought back memories, but more so because of what it told you about the man and how much he put into achieving his Olympic dream, and then how politics - Africa's boycott of the 1976 Olympics; Amin's genocide and the subsequent Tanzanian invasion; being forced to flee to a Kenyan refugee camp - stopped him realising his full potential. He was rescued from the camp by an executive from Puma and given a job at their German HQ. When he died he was made a national hero and all the MPs in the Ugandan Parliament pledged money to support his 11 orphaned children. Only 8 of them paid up.

I must admit, I was a bit bored with this year's Olympics before it even started (if I see one more news item about smog...) but even if you're not into athletics, this documentary really brings home to you just how much people put into their chosen sport. And puts the trials and tribulations of the likes of Dwain Chambers somewhat into perspective! If you didn't see it, try to track it down. Or read this Guardian piece.

Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury

'Careerism, opportunism, can turn the politics into cartoonism'.

I'm not usually that keen on Catherine Bennett's comment pieces, but I liked this one. At last - someone who's not prepared to give Cameron an easy ride.

Especially refreshing after reading the Mail gushing about the 'surfer dude' with his 'slicked back hair, toned pecs and trendy wetsuit'. (Part chipolata, part black pudding I thought, 'though you have to admit, his wife looks pretty good in a bikini).

Still, it gives me the excuse I've been waiting for to post a pic of a real surfer dude.

And here are some great quotes from Point Break too. 'You know nothing. In fact, you know less than nothing. If you knew that you knew nothing, then that would be something, but you don't.' Right.

Lazy flies

Article in today's Sunday Times. Not of much interest to anyone except those who might have an opinion on the use of the word 'inertia'.

And while we're on the subject, here's a diagram illustrating different 'moments of inertia' for a solid disk versus a thin pipe. Two wheels of the same mass and radius roll down incline. Different speeds are recorded. Different moments of inertia are calculated.

Total Energy = Potential Energy at the top of the board = Translational Energy (m*v*v/2) + Rotational Energy (I*w*w/2). Since the hoop has an I value of M*R*R and the wooden disk is half that, the hoop will only have 3/4 of the velocity of the disk at a particular height. By the equation V2=V2o+2a(x-xo), the distance the hoop travels by a particular time will be the square root of 3/4 times the distance travelled by the disk.

Hope you've got that.

Living for the city

Don't know quite what I'm doing up at this uncivilised hour on a Sunday morning. Can't sleep. Anyway...

Have been doing a few interesting things this week. On Friday I met GPs from Charlotte Keel Health Centre, who are concerned about the Government's plans for extended opening hours and the PCT's plans for another GP service at Eastville Health Centre. The thrust of what they were saying 'though, is that the Government's primary health care agenda doesn't take into account the differences between running 'normal' GP practices and inner-city ones.

First issue is about funding. They are paid according to the number of patients on their books; they have 17,000. But, they say, whereas a GP service in Westbury-on-Trym might have a similar number of patients, the amount of attention they require is vastly different. In Westbury, an average patient might pop in to see their doctor once a year, if that. They are pretty good at managing their own conditions. At Charlotte Keel, it's a different picture. Many patients have a multitude of problems, from chronic illnesses to mental health problems to what could be termed lifestyle issues (drug addictions, obesity, poor housing conditions). A very high proportion are from BME communities; many have English as a second language or don't speak it at all. A fair proportion are asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers. So even the process for registering a new patient takes a lot longer, and then there's the need for interpreters, longer appointments, etc. But it doesn't matter whether a patient comes in once a year, or twice a month; whether they take 2 minutes to ask for a repeat prescription, or 20 minutes to explain with the aid of an interpreter what exactly is wrong with them. The funding is the same. (I've had similar representations made to me by the advice services sector - running a CAB in central Bristol is a different kettle of fish to running one in Tunbridge Wells, but they get funded on the same 'average case' basis.)

The second point was about choice. Their argument was - to summarise very crudely, possibly at the risk of misrepresenting them slightly - that choice is a middle-class issue. Their patients don't need extended opening hours (mostly because they don't work, or could take time off or don't like going out after dark) and shouldn't be using walk-in centres because GPs there wouldn't have experience of dealing with people from BME/ deprived communities and they wouldn't be able to explain their conditions to a GP who didn't know their full medical history. (Although some of this could of course be addressed by a shared database). I wasn't convinced by their arguments on these points, but I did appreciate their unhappiness that GPs tend to be portrayed in the media as overpaid fatcats who want to knock off early so they can go and play golf, whereas the reality for an inner-city GP is very different. (Same with solicitors - being a Legal Aid lawyer and a corporate lawyer are completely different jobs - and I speak as someone who's done both - but they get lumped together (although in defence of the latter, they do work incredibly long hours for their hefty pay packets). And a big difference between being an inner-city MP and Sir Somebody-or-Other who represents a leafy constituency in Surrey or Hampshire. But I never seem to get anywhere when I make that point, so let's leave it at that). I'm going to do a constituents survey on GP opening hours soon, and this has served as a reminder that I ought to make sure some of those surveyed live in the inner-city wards.

One of the interesting minor points the GPs mentioned was Vitamin D deficiency. They said it affects a huge number of people on their books, particularly within those BME communities who tend not to expose their skin to sunlight, or, indeed, to go outdoors as much. It can be easily treated with vitamin drops but, the GPs said, it would be far better if these were distributed to people as a matter of course, e.g. given to everyone in inner-city schools, or available for cheap over-the-counter purchase. That would be far more effective than requiring GPs to diagnose a deficiency and then prescribe treatment. I'm going to look into where we are on that issue; I know it's not the first time it's been raised.

Saturday 9 August 2008

World domination

Last night I started trying to write something about Georgia, but decided there were probably other people out there far more qualified to do so. But here's my two pennyworth... Last time I was in Russia (I did Russian at uni, been there 5 or 6 times) the persecution of Georgians was becoming widespread, with mass rounding up of ethnic Georgians (even those born in Russia), deportations and racial attacks. I met someone involved in the St Petersburg Youth Movement, who told me about an anti-racism campaign, where everyone wore T-shirts in sympathy declaring 'I'm a Georgian'. No-one else at the Conference - which was a couple of years ago - would admit there was a problem at all, which is typically Russian. There was 'no racism' in Russia. This was at a Conference of centre-left/ left Russian political parties.

The other thing I was going to mention was the fear that the Crimea could be next; it's part of the Ukraine, but ethnically Russian and obviously strategically important. About 60% I think are Russians, cf 25% Ukrainians and 12-13% Tatars; nearly 80% speak Russian as their first language, but Ukrainian is the only official language. When I was there (2003 I think, went to Simferopol which is a god forsaken place and then took the world's longest trolley bus ride down through the mountains to Yalta, which is much nicer, tho' a bit touristy) I asked a few people whether they'd prefer to be part of Russia; some did, some wanted to be independent. Needless to say, both would be resisted strongly by Ukraine.

The milkman of human kindness

I've been browsing a vegan blog by Soul Veggie, where he describes his 'vegan tipping point' - i.e. what finally made him decide, after 22 years of vegetarianism, to go vegan. It was a column by the No Milk Man, also known as Robert Cohen:

'Robert, bless his feisty soul, pulled out statistics from the U.S. government detailing the average measured amount of pus cells per liter of milk by State. 400 millions cells is the European limit (little over half of ours). He wrote: "...we learn that pus cell counts continue to rise in America. They have been doing so since the advent of genetically engineered milk. Stressed cows become sick and their milk contains more pus. It's as simple as that."

Robert pointed out that the U.S. numbers were ALL over recommended European levels.

Sick cows. Pus cells. It wasn't the hormones, it wasn't the fat, it wasn't the relationship to many bodily disorders, it wasn't that it was Mother's Milk from another species. It wasn't these truths and the inhumane conditions the cows were raised in, that tipped me over. It was the cold, hard, and unassailable fact: you drink milk, you eat cheese, you consume cow pus cells. They are concentrated in cheese and our government allows this to be.

It was like eating an Apple at the Garden of Eden. Once ya know, ya can't forget.
Pus cells...... "I be Vegan!" I declared to myself. And that was that.'