Month: October 2006

Currently reading…

The last time I wrote about my reading, I had just started Tristram Hunt’s “Building Jerusalem”. I am still ploughing on with that, but it is something that I am dipping in and out of rather than reading properly. Most of my reading is done before I go to bed or when I am on a bus and so I tend to need something that involves less concentration.

In the meantime, I have read Danuta Reah’s “Silent Playgrounds”. This was another thriller, but this time with the added twist of being set in Sheffield and in particular Hunter’s Bar and Endcliffe Park – an area of the city that I know very well. But this isn’t a book that you should only read it you know Sheffield. Danuta Reah should be up there with the best current thriller writers. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as her first books “Only Darkness” but it was still enjoyable. This book was perhaps too complex in the different characters and how their relationships weaved together. But none the less it was a good read.

I have now start John Major: The Autobiography. His foreword struck a chord immediately with his argument that people are unfairly cynical about politics and the motivations of politicians. But what I have found most appealing about the book so far is John Major’s very easy and straightforward style of writing. He tells you the information that you need to know, but in a way that makes you informed but not bored by too much detail. The one thing I cannot shake out of my head though is the knowledge that we now have, and didn’t when this was published, of John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie. The is particularly the case when he talks about his own father’s infidelities.

AMAZON UK: Silent Playgrounds by Danuta Reah

AMAZON UK: John Major: The Autobiography

Lifting the veil

Following various IT problems, I can now finally write what I was intending to say about Jack Straw’s remarks on his request for Muslim women who wear a veil that they remove it when he is speaking to them at his surgeries.

My stance is fairly simple. I think that it would be better if Muslim women did not cover their faces, indeed I think it would be a lot better if Muslim women wore the same clothes as non-Muslims the majority of the time. This is partly because I think that seeing someone’s face is a big part of communication. It is also partly because I think it would improve integration of different communities if they dressed similarly.

However there is a big but to all of this. It is entirely up to an individual woman, whether Muslim or not, to choose how she dresses. Most Muslim women do not cover their faces, indeed many do not even cover their hair. But this is their choice. Whilst I would also prefer to communicate with someone whose face I could see it is up to them, and I do not believe that Jack Straw should even be asking. This is not like hoodies or balaclavas that are a fashion choice, nor are they like motorcycle helmets which are a safety measure that should rightly be removed when not on a bike. Instead they are a cultural difference. There is great debate about whether they are required by the Koran or not, but that is not something I know the answer to. However, it is up to the wearer whether they wear them or not. There may be times, such as times when ID has to be proven, that the veil will have to be removed, but this would only be temporarily and should be done sensitively.

So despite having some sympathy with some of the motives behind Jack Straw’s comment, I believe he is wrong. He is also wrong for having made the statement in the way that he did. What he said is not improving race relations, indeed it will probably make them worse at a time when there are already more anti-Muslim sentiment that there used to be.

When is a democracy not really a democracy? When it’s a National Trust election

As a member of The National Trust, I recently received my magazine and with it the voting papers for its internal elections and Annual General Meeting. I suspect the majority of members simply throw these away. I used to, until I realised how many issues on which they were voting were areas where I had an opinion.

What is intriguing though is the way they encourage people to vote the ‘right way’. For the election to the National Trust Council (the organisation’s governing body) they helpfully put in bold the names of the people they want you to vote for. If this was proposed for public elections it would be considered highly corrupt and the election would be heavily criticised as neither free nor fair.

I suppose we should be grateful for some progress. They used to have a system that allowed the chairman of the National Trust to have a block vote by being proxy for all those National Trust members who couldn’t be bothered to choose between the candidates. Indeed, in the past the National Trust actually ensured that some of those people elected by the popular vote, were then unelected by making sure they used the block vote to vote for their preferred candidates.

I have noticed today that Chris Patten also raised concerns about it in the House of Lords back in 2001! He said:

The complaint, in brief, is that the National Trust council turns out a list of those standing for election, putting an asterisk next to the names of those whom it favours. If those people do not get enough votes directly cast…the block vote is used by the National Trust to get them home and dry even though they do not have a majority of the popular vote as expressed by those present in the hall and those exercising their undoubted and proper right to vote by post…At the 2000 annual general meeting, a motion against the block voting system was proposed and seconded by two QCs…and supported by 10 silks in all. The motion was supported by a majority of the direct votes of those present and those who had filled in their postal ballots, but then—yes, you have guessed it, my Lords—that vote against the block vote was promptly overturned by the use of the block vote.

However, although this bit of corruption has now been scrapped in favour of more gentle persuasion, (thanks to criticism by the Charity Commission rather than some sudden democratic conversion), it still exists in elections for choosing what they call the ‘Council’s Appointing Bodies’. In effect, those organisations like conservation charities and countryside lobby groups, that are deemed to be interested in the work of the Trust and so deserve to be represented in their decision-making.

As much as I am a supporter of what The National Trust does, and was a volunteer with the Trust for five years, they seem to have a decision-making process that foreign dictators would be proud of. If you consider that The National Trust is both a charity with 3 million members and is also one of the biggest landowners in the country, this should really be a bigger scandal. Alas, arcane voting systems are not something that excites either journalists or the public. So instead I have had my own mini-protest by only voting for candidates who are not recommended by the council. It will probably make no difference, but at least I have expressed my view.

Conference badge blues (and reds)

Just a quick chance for some smugness. Having read this from Iain Dale at the Tory party conference:

The security vetting has stretched to day three. Over 2,000 people have had the conference ruined by a security procedure that amounts to little more than window dressing – no terrorist applies for a pass

and this from Labour:

TONY Blair’s last Labour Party conference as Prime Minister was marred at the start by chaos as hundreds of journalists and delegates queued for up to three hours waiting to get their official passes to the Manchester city centre gathering.

Did you get similar stories from the Liberal Democrat conference? No. So that is the entire reason for my smugness. I worked on registration at the party’s Brighton conference, and for the first time ever we never had a queue that was in more than double figures.

I accept that the security procedures for Liberal Democrat conference may be somewhat less than those for the other two parties, although even the Lib Dems have stepped up what they do. But the major improvement has been in getting badges to people well before they arrive at conference, which is what seems to have gone wrong for the other two. Mind you, as Iain Dale points out, a conference pass is not going to stop a terrorist. Although it could stop other troublemakers, which the Lib Dems could attract just as much as the others.

IAIN DALE’S DIARY: A Message from the queue

MANCHESTER ONLINE: Hacks hacked off by conference queue

Tinsley Cooling Towers – important landmarks or ripe for demolition?

Tinsley Cooling Towers, SheffieldLike most cities, Sheffield has its fair share of architectural triumphs and disasters. Much of the debate has centered on the future of Park Hill flats and the architectural merit of the city centre’s new St. Paul’s Hotel and St. Paul’s Place developments. One debate though that is becoming more high profile is on whether Tinsley Cooling Towers should be retained or demolished.

The future of the cooling towers is not a new debate. But at the very time that E.ON. is planning the demolition of the structures, the argument on their future is now going national thanks to Channel 4’s The Big Art Project.

I say it is going national now, but for those people who regularly travel up and down the M1, the cooling towers may be familiar. They stand on the opposite side of the M1 from Sheffield’s Meadowhall Shopping Centre, immediately next to the Tinsley Viaduct. Indeed it is the motorway that prevented their demolition many years ago when the old Blackburn Meadows Power Station closed down. Their proximity to the M1 makes their demolition quite precarious.

So over the years the debate has raged about whether they are an eyesore that has to go or whether they are landmark structures. Despite my love of industrial buildings, I would not normally look at cooling towers as beautiful. I suppose they’re a bit too commonplace, bland and uniform for that. But in my view, there’s something about Tinsley’s that make them important. From any high point near where I live you can see them in the distance on the other side of the city, and you know that that is more or less where Sheffield ends. They are a sort of full-stop to Sheffield, everything before them is a part of the city and beyond them the land gets flatter and flatter through Rotherham, Doncaster, the Humber Estuary and eventually the North Sea. So I suppose the reason I want to save them is not because they are beautiful or because they are unique, but because they are a clear landmark in the city. Some people have declared them as Sheffield’s equivalent to the Angel of the North, but I think that denegrates the beauty of that sculpture.

But the question then is what do you do with them? Some proposals have been to beautify them, but in a way that would take away their starkness and the way that they stand out so much. But leaving them as they are would just make them look like what they currently are – something that has yet to be demolished. I suppose I don’t know what should be done with them, but I do feel they should be kept.

CHANNEL 4: The Channel 4 The Big Art Project – Sheffield

GUARDIAN: Power station towers in line for cool new use

SHEFFIELD STAR: Opinion divided on cooling towers