Sunday, December 31, 2006
10. Running the local election campaign in Gateshead that saw us grab one seat from Labour, slash Labour's hold on another ward by 90% and trebble our majority in our most marginal ward.
9. Changing jobs from Lib Dem Policy Officer to "Intelligence Officer"! (It's a good ice breaker at parties!)
8. Being in the photographers' scrum around Ming Campbell after the declaration of the leadership result.
7. Catching Francis Maude on his off moment at Tory conference on video and making sure it went on YouTube.
6. Discovering Blogger.
5. Getting the Royal Mail proposals through conference.
4. Photographing old American cars in Havana, Cuba.
3. Seeing the tax proposals go through conference.
2. Visiting the former secret Soviet submarine base in the Crimea.
1. Discovering YouTube (which has revolutionised my video output for constituents!)
If anyone has any highlights - or lowlights - that involve me and are not included above, I'd love to know about them!
Saturday, December 30, 2006
It simply briings home the message that travelling by train is so much easier than car for long distances. Though people like to make jokes about trains, on the East Coast we have a reasonable service through GNER. There is plenty of room for improvement but that will have to come about through investing in the infrastructure which is far from perfect.
Mind you, what happens on the East Coast line in the near future is a sore point. GNER's parent company has gone belly up and the rail franchise is up for grabs again. Basically the system is designed so that the government can milk as much cash from the East Coast line as possible.
Anyway, we are lost somewhere in Peterborough now!
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It is of course chucking it down so if it is like this tomorrow evening, my plan for a garden party can kiss itself goodbye. We'll probably end up in a pub instead.
We are however running later. The plan was to set off at about 10am but I had a constituent call at the house to pick up some papers for a case I am handling and I also needed to sort some files on the pc and back up a large number of photos and video. So it was midday when we hit the road.
It wasnt just Xmas we have just celebrated. Esther, my sister, celebrated her 40th birthday yesterday. She just thought she was going out for a romantic meal for 2 with her boyfriend Ian. When she arrived at the restaurant last night, she found it was a romantic meal for 22! Strangely we had kept it secret given the propensity of our family to talk!
And it had remained secret on Thursday as well for on that day was Esther's proper birthday party at her house. Somehow 30 people were packed in to her house in Newcastle. And somehow the belt bursting quantity of food and drink was consumed as well. I wonder how many people have set weight loss as their New Year resolution!?
The rain outside the car is getting even heavier.
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Thursday, December 28, 2006
On Boxing Day, the family (minus Mam and Dad) went over to Seaton Sluice on the Northumberland Coast, near Blyth. Refreshing is the only word I can think of to describe the weather!
Blyth harbour was fitted out with wind turbines in the 1990s. You get a good view of them on this video.
On Christmas Eve, we decided to burn off some of the Christmas calories in advance of Christmas dinner by going for a walk to Watergate Park in my council ward in Gateshead. This also gave us the opportunity to check out the family of swans living on the lake in the park.
The park was, until the mid 1990s a colliery wasteland. But in the late 1980s, the pit heaps caught fire and the whole area had to be cleared and restored. I feel a bit of pride in having been involved at the start - I was the person who first brought the fire to the attention of Gateshead Council and press for restoration of the site.
Friday, December 22, 2006
- Hamleys toy shop
- Queues for tills
- Couples joined at the hip walking aimlessly along the pavement
- Groups of men (normal 4 men together) walking side by side along the pavement
- Spending money
- People who walk into you because they are concentrating on sending text messages
- People standing in busy doorways having conversations
- Leaving the shopping list at work!
- staff with bubble guns at Hamleys
- Knowing what you buy will be cheaper in a few days' time.
- Hamleys toy shop
- Bringing Richard along (he can carry everything)
- Bringing happiness to my 3 year old niece. She'll love the wrapping paper and packaging even if she thinks the presents are a waste of time
- finishing by 8pm
- realizing my memory is still up to it after forgetting to bring the shopping list
- Kitchen department of John Lewis - an easy and quick source for present for family members for whom you haven't a clue what to get
- err - that's it!
I'm back in the flat now after a very productive day at Cowley St. Got 2 email newsletters out to residents of Gateshead today so a few thousand people will be enjoying my words over the next few days. I'm not returning to Gateshead tonight. As it's Christmas, I'm taking it at a leisurely pace. I'm going up tomorrow afternoon. Thank goodness I'm environmentally sensible and opt for rail rather than air travel. Had I gone for the latter, I think I would have been spending a bleak Xmas in London!
Thursday, December 21, 2006
So shortly I will be venturing into the Xmas jungle of central London, prepared to fight to the death for that last minute bargain and when all else fails, you buy them vouchers. Helpfully, some of the presents family have asked for are vouchers. Do they really not trust me to get them the right things?
The clock is ticking.....deep breathe..... head towards the door armed with debit card. Thankfully this is only once a year.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
We have now added to it a draft council motion which I know one Lib Dem council group in Scotland has submitted for debate already.
Any Lib Dem member wanting a copy of the campaign pack who is not on the Daily Bulletin circulation list (the pack includes a briefing on the closures and the Lib Dem policy, press releases and the motion) should email me on email@example.com to ask for a copy. Make sure you include the name of the local party you are in.
Monday, December 18, 2006
The reason for this is that overall Tyne and Wear is being cut from 13 to 12 constituencies and the greatest effect of this has been felt in Gateshead where the MP for Tyne Bridge, the devastatingly unknown Dave Clelland went head to head with the MP for Gateshead East and Washington West Sharon Rent-a-Quote Hodgson for the new constituency of Gateshead. David (my David that is!) has just texted me the result of this Jurassic Park punch up and the anomoly of a female Labour MP on Tyneside has just been cleared up. A devastated Sharon, 30 years or so the junior of Dave Clelland, is on the outlook for a new parliamentary seat.
All I can say is thank goodness Labour have rid us of this turbulent MP. The last two months have seen a tropical downpour of press releases from her about anything she could think of. We have had calls for the renationalisation of the railways (I put my boot in on that when I spoke at council on Thursday last week), calls for people to put videos on YouTube and worries over disappearing public toilets (after all she needed somewhere to flush away her no-go career.)
Mind you, Clelland has kept up the war for column inches as well though to give him his due, he stuck largely to issues of substance, even though he was spending a large amount of time whining about how terrible his government is (though frankly ever since he was sacked as a whip in 2001 he has sought his revenge on the government through his caustic whit and advanced wisdom. Not that anyone has noticed.)
So Labour, who hold all 13 of the current seats in Tyne and Wear, have just dumped their only female MP here in favour of a guy the same age as Ming. Remind them of this when the spin doctors of Labour try to make out Ming is too old.
Pity the people of Sunderland however. Super high profile MP Bill Etherington, who made it his lifetime achievement never to get off the backbenches or indeed achieve anything of note in Parliament has announced his intention to retire. An all female shortlist is to be imposed. Those public toilets in Sunderland had better watch out. They may be needed again shortly.
I wonder what Sunderland newspapers do for column inches?
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This is my last trip to London before xmas. I'm on the platform at Newcastle now. Pity I didn't get to bed til 2am this morning. And then had to get up at 6.30am. But with a three hour rail journey ahead, I have plenty of time to sleep!
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Thursday, December 14, 2006
In the office in which I work in Cowley Street, my end is occupied by the Political Communications Unit and the other end by the Policy Unit. They are due to be moved out to a new office in Abbey Gardens, a stone's throw from Cowley Street. The Political Communications Unit proper will move in soon once we have evicted the Policy Unit.
This arrangement doesn't stop us joining in with Policy Unit events. One of these was today - the official thank you to Sarah the intern who is heading back to the USA shortly. The thank you party took the form of a tour of the Cabinet War Rooms which I attended as well, though I left early as, with the announcement of yet more Post Office closures due tomorrow, I needed to produce some political warfare material for use by our troops on the ground.
Producing this all had to be crammed in to one afternoon as at 5.30pm I headed down to the press office for a short thank you party for Fred Carver who produces 'Red Eye, the overnight media briefing (on which I base some of the Issues of the Month briefing which goes out at the end of each month.) Fred is leaving soon so this was his thank you party.. Fred is a councillor in Camden so he is smiling at the moment - Labour just got screwed there last week after losing a byelection to the Lib Dems.
I had fifteen minutes between leaving Fred's do and going to the Cowley St xmas party in the Lords to try to finish the Post Office warfare paper. I didn't quite complete it. So tomorow morning, I will do the final changes to the document in Gateshead before emailing it back to London.
The reason I didn't finish it was because Helen Banks, former senior researcher int eh policy Unit turned up to show off her new baby, 2 month old Rosie. I'll put the photos on the blog soon.
I didn't realise we had so many people working either for the party in Parliament or for Cowley Street. They all seemed to be there when I turned up for the staff do. Wall to wall people. Think back a decade and you can see how the party has moved on in terms of its professional organisation.
Alas I couldn't stay too long. I had a train to catch to Newcastle at 9pm. I'm on it now. Tomorrow I have a council meeting in Gateshead, hence the early return.. My group have put me down to second a motion on high speed rail. I can't complain! I was one of the members who said a motion on this was a good idea!
By the way, just to follow up my blog posting about YouTube and ITV from last week, Endemol, the company that is making the programme for broadcast on NY eve that asked for one of my videos, has got back in touch and asked for another six videos from my YouTube channel! I love YouTube, the best invention since the wheel!
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
It turns out that though the membership can vote on who they want to be as their candidate, that is not the final say in the matter. In the Tory World of Democracy, the local executive gets the final say and in Tynemouth they’ve just plumped for outsider Wendy Morton over the choice of the members, Michael McIntyre.
Tynemouth is the only seat the Conservatives can realistically hope to win at the general election in the North East. Labour are sitting on a majority of 5532 in a seat the Tories held continuously from 1950 to 1997.
Helpfully the Tory MEP for the North East Martin Callanan has waded into the controversy with useful comments such as Wendy Morton has been left with a "Herculean challenge" after her selection left the local party "deeply divided".
This is of course the 2nd time on a matter of weeks in which the local Conservative executive has overturned a membership of public participation decision on the choice of a Parliamentary candidate. The other was in Plymouth Sutton.
To read more about the happy Tories in the seaside town of Tynemouth, visit The Journal
Sunday, December 10, 2006
In Gateshead we have been running the petition for the past five months. We have collected over 4000 signatures. And I have just been out this Sunday morning delivering 200 more petition forms and Focus leaflets. I'll be back tonight to collect replies.
If any Lib Dem wants a copy of the petition form, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. State whether you want it as a pdf (for use on Pageplus - just getting the plug in before Duncan Borrowman reminds me!) or Pagemaker 7.
And now I am off to Fiona Hall MEP's xmas party which is being held near Darlington, a horribly long way down the A1 from Gateshead!
Friday, December 08, 2006
With the Conservatives losing overall control of Crawley, that brings to two lost councils in 2 weeks. To lose one is careless, to lose 2 is........
The other one was Dover if you haven't seen the story already.
You can get more news at www.crawleylibdems.org.uk
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I have added up the number of emails of constituents we have on our circulation list and conveniently found it has now hit 1000. Convenient because I had half a page to fill in the North East Democrat to complete it and reaching the 1000 target made a nice story. So the Democrat was finished tonight and emailed out to recipients mainly in the North East though with a scattring from outside the region.
With communication being the name of the game today, I also sent out the eFocus for the northern part of Blaydon constituency, about 300 email addresses. I decided to slip in one seriously political story, about how the Labour MP for Blaydon Dave Anderson has come out in favour of the government line on the Iraqi occupation. Conveniently, figures for the daily cost of the war in Iraq were published yesterday, a mere 2.35 million pounds (yes the daily amount). Anderson had before the election postured as a left wing rebel against new Labour. Once elected he very rapidly turned into a Blairite loyalist bag carrier. And he got his reward for sucking up to the government a month ago when he was made a PPS.
Anyway, my next blog entry will bring a smile to the faces of all Lib Dems. I have advance notice of a defection from the Conservative of a councillor meaning the Ories lose control of another council!
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Wednesday, December 06, 2006
The rather simple idea behind it is to give Lib Dem campaigners some off the peg material that can be quickly turned into something that can be used on the ground. The fewer hurdles to producing this stuff, the better.
So I was rather pleased this evening to have found that members have already started to use the material. It was only sent out on Tuesday evening (to the Daily Bulletin circulation list). I spotted it in someone's publication whilst doing some work on the internet and thought, "That looks familiar!" Keep using it please!
I have also just finished the draft of the next Parliamentary Campaigner. I have increased the amount of ready to use content of that as well.
My next publication is my Blaydon email newsletter eFocus - this is the version for the northern half of the constituency. I'll work on it in the flat tonight. The guy from Lib Dem Calling has just walked into my office here in Cowley Street to tell me he's locking up the building in a few minutes. So I will have to leave shortly!
Monday, December 04, 2006
Election results net changes
Liberal Democrats 6
The fly in the ointment was the two Lib Dem losses to the Conservatives, though we gained one from them as well. Ironically the gain from the Conservatives was in Havant at the start of the month and one of the losses was in the same Council on Thursday 30th. The other loss to the Conservatives was in Stratford.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Labour Deputy Leader on Newcastle Council, Nick Forbes, in response to the loss of Lemington, said, "I think we will win seats in May...People are already showing disillusionment [with the Lib Dems]....."! (In which case I'd love to see what the people do to Labour when they are not "showing disillusionment" with us!!!
Nick Forbes is of course on Newcastle Council for his entertainment value. I famously dubbed him "Newcastle's Comical Ali" in the press in May after he said that the local election results in Newcastle were a disaster for the Lib Dems as we had only managed to pick up two more seats from Labour following their collapse in 2004.
But what of the Tories? Their response to 4th place and a not very appetising 6% of the vote came from Brian Moore, a member of their Newcastle executive. He said, "The Conservatives are doing well in local government across the country, including parts of Tyneside." Quite which part of Tyneside he is referring to is not explained.
Across the Tyne here in Gateshead we had a by-election in September and the Conservatives were again in 4th place on 6%. Whilst the collapse of the Conservatives is not absolute, in Newcastle and Gateshead, as with many other large cities, they barely register even as a fringe party.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
As well as being an unmitigated disaster for Labour it is worth looking at the Conservatives' performance - 4th place.
The votes were:
Lib Dem: 1180
Well done Newcastle.
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Well, typical self-righteous, sanctimonious gobshite from Labour. It took me only a few minutes to dig up Labour uturns on privatisation, renationalisation, unilateralism, council house sales, withdrawal from Europe, independence for the Bank of England and so on. Seems as though Prescott has faced both ways on all the big issues during his Parliamentary career. Now that he has nothing to do, perhaps he should spend some time taking up ballroom dancing.
I'm sitting on the train heading to Victoria at the moment. The train has half the carriages it normally has. So we are packed in like the proverbial sardines and we still have five stations to go!
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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
To ensure I got to the cinema on time, I had to time the collection of our Post Office petitions to perfection. A group of us delivered 900 petition forms in the morning to houses in Whickham, in Blaydon constituency and we returned at 6pm to collect 190 completed forms, amounting to 320 signatures and a fair whack of new emails. We now have well in excess of 4000 signatures.
Sunday was spent in the Moving Forward regional training event in Newcastle. We all had to bring in copies of recent Focus leaflets and spent ages putting them through the "constructive criticism" mincer. There were few survivors!
After I came down to London yesterday I sent out a flurry of emails. Some to councillors asking them to do phone canvassing (I somehow managed to invite Scottish campaigns officers to do phone canvassing for me as well. Quite how they were included on the email distribution list is beyond me!) Other emails to constituents were sent out about plans to introduce car parking charges in Whickham - the Labour council are planning them and the Labour party have put out a leaflet claiming they are, errrr, against them!
Friday, November 24, 2006
Now Duncan Borrowman knows why I know the events of that period so well, and that I don't sit around reading Wikipedia!
Thursday, November 23, 2006
So if you have a credit card, loans, overdrafts or you owe your mates for the last round in the pub that you were supposed to get but had spent the money, you are a tosser, according to the Tories.
But if you are a rich Etonian who doesn't have to borrow to put an expensive windmill on top of your Notting Hill home and can turn to mummy to help pay for your country abode in Oxfordshire, then clearly you are an untossed Tory.
Now, if memory serves me correctly, wasn't a certain David "T" Cameron (T stands for.....) some kind of special adviser to Tory Chancellors in the early 1990s when the then Tosser, sorry I mean Tory, government was borrowing hand over fist, knocking up a record National Debt?
I'm off to spend some money on my credit card now, so as the Tories would say, I'm off for a t...
Visit the Tosser Tory site at:http://www.sort-it.co.uk
It seems to me that there are a huge number of Dr Who fans in the Lib Dems. Is this something to do with the outlook of Lib Dems, breaking out of the straitjacket of conformity to appreciate adventures of a good guy taking on evil, overly powerful, intolerant figures who are attempting to dominate others?......Or is it we just love a good yarn!?
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
If you haven't tried text to voicemail, I recommend it! For those who are not aware of it, you can send a text message to a landline which is then converted to a voicemail message. Very useful. And with my mobile and landline at home I get 300 free text messages a month. So I might as well use them. It took me only a few minutes to send out the messages to last weeks petitioners. I'll do last week's replies shortly.
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And 21 years ago I first met David. 21 years later we are still going strong!
Last night I was going through some video clips I took earlier this year and found these I took of Willie Rennie arriving at Parliament to take his seat. Enjoy!
Meanwhile 43 years minus one day later (ie last night) I got the second of the current email newsletters done for residents in Gateshead, this one to the central part of the borough. Talking of which, when in a training session in Cowley St last week I got into a conversation with Andrew Reeves, constituency organiser for Lynne Featherstone MP, who was telling me about the email newsletters he does in Hornsey and Wood Green. Size is important and alas I was outclassed by Andrew - he has 3500 email addresses on his circulation list whereas I have only 1000 on mine. So that's the target I have to work towards now!
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
My first video to achieve 4 figure viewing numbers. Copacabana Beach has been visited over 1000 times on YouTube. This is still well ahead of my top political/local news film - August 2006 Video Focus - with 340 viewings.
The other good news is that last night the total viewing figures for all my videos reached 10,000. 2600 were to political/local news videos I have produced. Still some way to go there then.
Monday, November 20, 2006
However, this allowed me to see something I haven't seen in my area for 30 years. Whilst waiting in the queue of traffic about 2km down the road from my village of Sunniside, I spotted a roe deer in the woods that are now part of Watergate Forest Park. I wasn't even a teenager when I last saw wild deer living in our area. Seems as though nature is recolonising an area of land that was until fifteen years ago a mining wasteland.
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Saturday, November 18, 2006
And they attack the ending of the Post Office Card Account and highlight the problems this policy (of their own party) will cause to the elderly and to local communities.
Both these issues figure prominently in our campaigning so they are fighting on our agenda. Thank you! I don't know who runs their campaigning, what little there is from the Labour party up here, but if they pay for it, they should be asking for their money back! Or it may be that they have just left it to a fifth rate wannabee council candidate who thinks that the only way to get elected as a Labour councillor is to oppose the plans the party is putting into action. Perhaps Labour candidates in Gateshead should have a campaign slogan - Vote Labour as Labour are crap. Or words to that effect.
Interesting that that same leaflet should feature Dave Anderson, the Labour MP for Blaydon who was first elected last year. He cruised towards the Labour nomination on a sea of naff soundbites about how "working class" he was, how he had "gone to prison" in the 1980s during the miners' strike because of his politics, how he opposed the war and how he was very much against the New Labour project.
And once elected, he underwent a very rapid conversion on the road to Westminster from left wing firebrand to Blairite bag carrier. In October he was even switching to supporting the war and in the Commons even called for UK troops to remain. Strangely at the end of the month he was appointed to the first rung of the ministerial ladder when he became PPS to an unknown education minister. Seems as though never voting against the whip and sucking up to the government has its rewards. I wonder how his members back in Blaydon feel about him backing the war, foundation hospitals, ID cards and Blair plans for schools.
I mentioned earlier the parking charges plan and the axing of Post Office Card Account. I delivered 330 petition and survey forms on these issues today to constituents. I was a bit disappointed that I only collected 54 back tonight. Last Sunday, I collected 87 from 260 households. I'm finding that Saturday is becoming less and less a good day to collect petitions and surveys door to door. Sundays remain by far the best so I'll be out again tomorrow with more petitions and surveys.
Friday, November 17, 2006
The North East Democrat is a monthly newslletter I produce and email out to members in the North East (though there is a growing number of members from outside the region who receive it as well) I completed the typesetting last night but couldn't email it out at that point. This was because I hadn't finished editing the video of the Fiona Hall Question Time, the links for which I wanted to send out at the same time. I completed the editing late last night at the flat and uploded the videos to YouTube. So it was all ready to be emailed out at lunchtime.
The links were also included in the email newsletter I send out this evening to constituents. Afterall, it was constituents who were invited to send in their questions. I wait to see how much interest it generates from constituents. If the format works, I'd like to try it with other Lib Dem politicians.
Interviewed a second candidate for an intern this afternoon. Will need to take a decision soon.
Well as usual on a Friday evening, I am heading north on a train after a meal in London that was rushed down in between leaving the office late and heading for the 9pm train. David has booked himself in tomorrow for a magistrates' training course so I have to be up at 8am to run him over to Washington. Since my train gets in to Newcastle at 1am, I could have done with the lie in. But instead I'll have to make do with the early morning drive and then a trip down to our office to print more of the Post Office petition followed by delivering them in Whickham.
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And just in case they forget to contact me - understandable given that we are all busy people - this is what I would say: the Political Communications Unit for which I work deals with internal party communications. And it seems to me that informing people about significant proposals going before conference is something that internal communications should be about.
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They can be viewed on the following links:
1) Introduction and opencast mining
2) migrant labour
3) council tax
4) UK troops abroad
5) renewable energy part 1
6) renewable energy part 2
7) human rights
Thursday, November 16, 2006
In May however the Lib Dems gained the seat from Labour, taking 56% of the vote, an increase of 32%. Admittedly, some of the gain was down to the cock up by the Conservatives who submitted incorrect nomination forms for seven Newcastle seats and were unable to complete new nomination forms over the weekend prior to close of nominations.
The BNP also failed to field a candidate on May, though they took 5% of the vote when the ward was contested in 2004.
Not all the Lib Dem vote gain came from these two fringe parties' failure to field candidates. Labour's share dropped 12%.
The Conservative and BNP fringe parties are both fielding candidates in the by-election which will be held 2 weeks today. Admittedly that does bring a smile to the faces of Labour's demoralised, leaderless and hopeless troops in the city though they are decreasing in numbers all the time.
Labour are, from what we hear, throwing in everything including the kitchen sink and the Newcastle based call centre they operate. Only one thing they haven't thrown in yet is the towel, but hopefully they'll do that on 30th November.
I'll keep readers in touch with how the Lib Dems get on but anyone wanting to give a hand should contact Anita Lower, tel 0191 271 5625 or email email@example.com
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
After 10 minutes at the dinner table, in come Ming and Archie Kirkwood, for a meal at the next table before heading off to BBC Newsnight.
And then out in the street afterwards we bumped into Stephen Williams, Bristol MP, clutching a bag of Marks and Spencer food for his dinner and breakfast! A convenient encounter. I had been asked to shoot a video with him some time this week about the homophobic bullying campaign so we were able to get some idea of each other's availability.
Sad news when I got to the flat. As the washing machine had finally died, Richard kindly reminded me of the need to buy a new one. I left it to him to find a new machine on the internet. The result is I have just spent more at Currys than I was planning to spend at Christmas!
Monday, November 13, 2006
Here are the responses:
delish bisquits! - Laura Zetterberg
Mmmmm! – Mark Pack
Thank you! It was divine!!! - Heno Clemett
Delicious – Lena Pietsch
If you made those - well done, they are amazing! Thank you!!! The Press Office
Very tasty :-) – Luke Croydon
absolutely awesome thanks! – Kate Heywood
David is offering to make more - if colleagues are really nice to me!
Up at 6.30am to be driven through a gap and glimmer of sunlight to the Central Station. My train to London was late leaving Newcastle but I am now on coach F and will be passing Durham shortly.
My list of things I need to do this week is a rather long one. It includes:
3 Focus leaflets
2 members' newsletters
3 email newsletters
Phone the people who filled in the Post Office petition yesterday
Mailing to leafletters
Edit videos to go out with efocuses
8 news releases
And all the stuff I get paid by Cowley St to do!
So, as an incentive to get this done, I have posted the list on the blog. I'll tell everyone by the weekend how I get on.
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Sunday, November 12, 2006
Afterwards I went up to the village of Byermoor, the smallest settlement in my ward with fewer than 60 houses, to deliver the Post Office petition. I followed this with a trip back down to Whickham to deliver the same petition there. In total, 260 petition forms delivered today. So I was rather pleased to collect in 87 replies this evening. I haven't yet put them onto the database so I don't know the actual number of signatures, but I guess it will be at least 130. We have now collected over 4000 signatures. Also, 9 new email addresses today.
I ploughed my way through a huge pile of planning applications and council papers pulling out useful stories for the next editions of the eFocus email newsletter this evening. I now do three editions. Hopefully, they will be ready before the end of the week.
Having been told this morning that I am a workaholic by one of our council candidates, I decided to take time off this evening by watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then the second half of Carry on Abroad. Fortunately I was at the same time able to work on the laptop, writing up stories for eFocus. I think this is called multi tasking!
Saturday, November 11, 2006
LHB was a "safe" Labour seat in the past but like so many areas in the North East that are "safe" Labour, their organisation has rotted away and the Labour party is characterised by lack of campaigning on the ground. We fought a hard campaign there in May this year and reduced Labour's majority from 900 to 92. It is of course a target for us next year.
People are now used to getting Focus leaflets but the appearance of a Labour leaflet caused a minor surprise. The leaflet carries the banner headline "We are calling on you" and explained that Labour would be knocking on doors in the area this morning (Saturday). Thanks for the tip off Labour! We have a well developed intelligence gathering system in Lobley Hill (lots of helpers who tell us what's happening) so we were aware of the leaflet within minutes of it going through people's doors.
By the time Peter arrived at my house (about 5 minutes later) I had a draft of a leaflet close to being ready. Fortunately, we are in the middle of the next round of Focuses across this cluster of wards and the main story (opencast mining) is common to all these wards. I was therefore able to adapt an existing Focus for Lobley Hill. Peter then went down to the office and printed 100 copies. This morning they were delivered first thing in the area we knew Labour were canvassing.
I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Labour were canvassing, having to answer a number of points we had put into our Focus!
Meanwhile, I spent the morning in Blaydon Library where we were holding a coffee morning. A good venue to sell some of my infamous jams. I had a supply of home made chocolate biscuits left over at the end. If my colleagues are really nice to me, I'll put some in the Cowley St kitchen on Monday!
Friday, November 10, 2006
I have been in a training session in Cowley St today learning how to use Pageplus. If you use Pagemaker and haven't tried the new system, I recommend it! Duncan Borrowman is a dab hand at Pageplus and put on the training event. We have another one next week.
I left the office at 7.30pm to meet up with Richard who lives in my flat and have a meal before heading to KX for the 9pm train to Newcastle. We tried the Colleseum restaurant on Victoria Street, now under new management. It was okay but I think I preferred it under its previous owners. I only just caught the train! The carriage seems to contain some odd people. The guy I was sitting next to until a couple of minutes ago was clinging to his rucksack as if his life depended on it. The space restriction meant his elbows came close to colliding with my ribs on a number of occasions. Plenty of space in the overhead rack as well! The guy who was sitting behind me ate crisps loudly and constantly from KX - crunch, there goes another, and another. He also took the liberty of draping his newpaper over the back of my seat and at times over my head. I think I must be getting less tolerant in my old age!
David's mother has been staying at the house this week. She is still there now but goes back tomorrow. Probably means I won't get the chance to shoot the video I have planned for tomorrow.
Or deliver the Focus leaflet patch I have left.
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Wednesday, November 08, 2006
For those not aware of the background, here it is:
Bernard Jenkin MP has resigned as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative party following allegations he told Ali Miraj, an A-list candidate of Asian ethnic origin that members in safe seats will only select white, middle class, male candidates.
In his blog, Ali Miraj wrote:
Before attending my interview for the Conservative safe seat of Witham on Sunday (5 November), Brooks Newmark, John Whittingdale and Bernard Jenkin - who are losing a chunk of their respective constituencies to the new seat - all told me the same thing. "Good luck Ali, but I would be shocked if they didn’t pick a White middle-class male."
… the values you stand for and the passion with which you fight for them, is more important than the colour of your skin and/or your religion. But I am - for the first time - beginning to question this.
One does begin to wonder what more one has to do to be given a realistic chance of getting to Parliament or whether one has travelled as far as one can on merit alone.
…at the party conference last month, I was constantly told by existing MPs and party members, that the same kind of people will always get selected for the best seats. Code for "White middle-class male", again.
But it is evident that despite his (David Cameron’s] huge efforts to change the Party’s attitude to candidate selection, there is still a mountain to climb. What is gradually becoming clear, is not that the peak may never be assailable, but that some, including myself, may out of frustration, opt to abandon the ascent itself.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
I have summarised the main areas as follows:
Labour were is trouble over Jack Straw's comments on veils, Clare Short's resignation of the Labour Whip and Sion Simon's spoof video.
Labour's favourite issue, crime, was not putting them in a good light: Blunkett had called for prison inmates to be "machine gunned"; reoffending rates were up; robberies were up; prisons were bursting at the seems and police cells had to be used; the effectivenes of control orders was brought into doubt.
As for health: the NHS had clocked up debts of half a billion pounds; 1600 dentists had left the NHS since April; community hospitals were more likely to close in Lib Dem or Tory constituencies; 900 NHS staff posts gone in four months.
And the one that just won't go away, Iraq: Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt said the presence of UK forces exacerbates problems in the country; the cost of the war to the taxpayer was revealed as 4 billion pounds, and the terrorism continues.
On 5th October Labour announced that they were cancelling their spring conference due to be held in Glasgow in the run up to the Scottish Parliament and local elections. Labour denied this was done for cost cutting reasons and said that the event would be replaced by smaller meetings and blogging. BBC
On 6th October Jack Straw sparked a debate about cultural separation after he encouraged Islamic women to stop wearing veils covering their face, saying the practice hindered community relations. Guardian
On 11th October, Clare Short MP was reprimanded by Labour Chief Whip Jacqui Smith for announcing she would campaign for a hung Parliament in the next election. BBC
On 12th October at attempt by Labour backbencher to parody David Cameron’s “Webcameron” backfired, causing embarrassment to Labour. Times
On 16th October it was revealed that David Blunkett had told prison staff to call in the Army and “machine gun” inmates in order to restore order of a riot-torn jail, according to the former Director-General of the service, Martin Narey. [Times]
On 20th October Labour Leadership challenger John McConnell attacks Brown for being too neo-con. [epolitix]
On 20th October, Clare Short MP, resigned the Labour whip to become an independent Labour MP: [Guardian]
On 23rd October Government criticised for letting down children in England and Wales over education: [BBC]
On 23rd October, Government is attacked by opposition parties on re-offending rates: [epolitix]
On 24th October, polls show a majority of voters want troops out of Iraq soon and Beckett admits Iraq could disintegrate: [Guardian], [Telegraph], [Times], politics.co.uk, Independent
On 31st October the government saw off an attempt by opposition parties to force an inquiry into the war in Iraq though the majority in the Commons against the call slumped to only 25. Times
Government policy setbacks:
On 4th October, a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that Gordon Brown's complex tax system makes it more attractive for millions to stay at home rather than go to work. The report showed that the tax credits system was discouraging some 2.2 million people on lower incomes from working more, because if their incomes rise the tax credits will be taken away and they face paying up to half of their extra income in tax. [Telegraph] [Guardian]
On 5th October, it was revealed that there were only 160 prison places left in England and Wales and “bursting point” was expected to be reached in a matter of days. BBC
On 9th October, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt MP revealed that in the last financial year, the NHS ran up debts of over half a billion pounds. Guardian
There is still a significant north-south health divide in England, government data have revealed. The Health Profile of England report published on 10th October shows that northern areas have higher obesity rates, more smoking-related deaths and lower life expectancies. [BBC] [Obesity Rates] [Smoking Deaths] [Life Expectancy]
More than 1,600 dentists have quit the NHS rather than sign new contracts, according to official figures. The figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, published on 10th October, are the first to be released since the controversial contract was introduced in April. [Daily Mail]
The death toll among Iraqis as a result of the US-led invasion has reached an estimated 655,000, a study in the Lancet medical journal reported on 11th October. The figure - which amounts to around 2.5% of the population - is at odds with figures cited by the US and UK. The Lancet says the figures have been independently checked. [BBC]
On 11th October Mail industry regulator Postcomm called on the government to clear up the uncertainty over the future of the Post Office network and said the social role of branches should be taken into consideration when deciding their future. BBC
On 11th October, Tories obtained figures that suggest taxpayers are paying 4 time more that expected for NHS deficit crisis. [The Times]
12th October: more than half of NHS bodies in England need to improve the quality of their services or their financial management, the Healthcare Commission have found. Primary Care Trusts fared particularly badly. Trust re-organisation, was cited as possible reasons for the findings. BBC
On 13th October in an interview with the Daily Mail, the Head of the Army, Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt, said that the presence of UK armed forces in Iraq "exacerbates the security problems" and they should "get out some time soon". He also said that the initial planning for the post war period had been poor. BBC
On 16th October it was revealed that community hospitals that lie in Conservative or Lib Dem constituencies will bear the brunt of the Government’s closure programme, re-igniting accusations of political interference in the NHS. [Times]
On 16th October it was revealed that two alleged terrorism suspects - said by the government to be so dangerous they had to be subjected to highly restrictive control orders - were on the run, with the authorities clueless as to their whereabouts. The incident brought into question the use of the orders and the competence of the Home Office. Guardian
On 17th October the Public Accounts Committee said that almost a million children in England are being let down by poor teaching and inadequate leadership in hundreds of under-performing schools. [Times] [BBC]
On 18th October, the biggest petition ever has been given to Downing Street to save Post Offices. Labour wants to close many as part of a change in subsidizing them. But 28 million use Post Offices and 400 MPs have called for the decision to be reversed. [BBC], [Guardian]
On 18th October, Ministers were accused of spending too much time vetting thousands of controversial freedom of information requests. [The Times]
On 18th October, John Reid comes under fire from opposition parties over control orders [epolitix], [The Times], [The Guardian], [The Guardian 2]
On 19th October, Blair facing criticism on Iraq policy after he says that troops will stay until “the job is done”. [Independent], [Guardian], [BBC]
On 19th October it was announced there was a fall for applications to universities. [Guardian]
On 19th October crime figures show robberies have gone up significantly. [epolitix], [Yahoo], [Times]
On 19th October, education figures show pupils failing in English and Maths. [Yahoo]
On 20th October it was reported that nurses were angry about their pay rise: [Guardian]
On 20th October it was announced that the CSA will have to write off large debts resulting in some parents missing out on payments: [Times]
On 20th October, there is criticism from independent research that teenagers are not getting the best education because of targets. [Yahoo], [BBC]
On 24th October, Government is told it will take ‘years’ to fix immigration system: [BBC]
On 24th October doctors and lawyers say NHS is ‘in illegal immigrants mess’: [BBC]
On 24th October Youth Justice Board say young in custody were in a ‘crisis’: [BBC], [Guardian]
On 24th October overcrowding in English and Welsh jails means police turn to use of prison cells to detain convicted prisoners: [BBC]
On 24th October Ministry of Defence bans ITV from going to war zones: [Times]
On 26th October Education Select Committee criticise Brown for wanting to achieve the same funding for state school children as private school and for the fact children are not achieving at GCSEs: Times
On 27th October, Alan Johnson u-turned on the policy of quotas for faith schools, dropping the requirement to have 25% of pupils from non faith or other faith backgrounds: BBC
On 30th October, figures show there have been 900 NHS jobs cut in the past 4 months because of a financial crisis: politics.co.uk
On 31st October, it was announced that police authorities will have to pay the costs incurred during the botched attempt to merge forces in the summer: politics.co.uk
On 31st October it was revealed that the cost of the war in Iraq to British tax payers was £4 billion. Guardian
Sunday, November 05, 2006
The interview I did with the Evening Chronicle the other day about using video for communicating with residents resulted today in a great photo op. One of their photographers was sent out to my house this afternoon and we rearranged my office to set up the pic. This involved a certain amount of body twisting to get the right pose and, for the photographer, climbing over my piles of paper and squeezing into a tight space between my desk and my microscope!
But it was all worth it in the end. He took some good shots and so I handed him my camera to get some shots I could use in Focus leaflets. Might as well use the professionals whilst we've got them!
I even left lunch early to get this pic done. Mother had suggested we go out for lunch in one of the pubs in our village. My assumption that this was a good ruse to get me to part with some cash was well founded!
Now that I have had time to think about this, and writing with my historian's hat on, the Blair/Beckett position looks more absurd than ever. In 1915 and 1916, when our very independence as a nation was threathened, the forces arranged against us far exceeded those we face today, and millions of our men were on active service in the armed forces fighting abroad, we held inquiries into the Gallipoli landings and the invasion of Mesopotamia (now called Iraq) whilst those campaigns were still underway. Indeed, we even sent Lord Kitchener, then a Cabinet member (War Office) to Gallipoli to see first hand the situation on the ground.
It is not surprising that the government grab any excuse that comes their way to spin their way out of their predicament. What is noteworthy this time was how small the rebellion was amongst Labour MPs. Perhaps the allure of office come the coronation of Flush Gordon is keeping many in line. Also, the fact the Conservatives were voting for the motion would have driven those Labour MPs who want to oppose the government but not defeat it (have cake and eat it Labour MPs are by far the worst sort) would have reduced the rebellion as well to the core opponents.
With the Cameroonies more of a threat to Labour than at any point in recent years, watch out for more Labour discipline. And watch out for Labour MPs shooting off in their local newspapers about how dreadful something is that the government is doing only for them to vote slavishly for the government in Parliament. And with the coronation coming up, look out for a lot of Labour Brown tongues.
Friday, November 03, 2006
Back at the flat in the evening we loaded up the car with everything that had to go back to Gateshead. I hate car journeys between London and the North East, especially when travelling in the dark. With David driving there was nothing for me to do other than listen to the radio or go to sleep. Somehow I did both. Generally I avoid such long distance car journeys and in the near 7 years of doing the London commute, I have taken the train on all but a handful of occasions. I took the car this time simply because it was already in London and both David and I were heading up with a huge amount of luggage. We were home by 11pm.
The reason I headed up was to get to the Gateshead Council meeting being held yesterday (Thursday). Somehow, Labour councillors never learn: I just have to be there and not say anything for them to attack me. This time at least, they were responding to a short speech I gave near the start of the meeting in response to the Council Leader's comments on the Local Government White Paper. My group leader, Councillor Noel Rippeth, asked me only 5 minutes before the council meeting started to do the group response. Thanks Noel! Fortunately I had read the LGA group response to the white paper - I received it via email whilst on holiday.
There were howls of fake disapproval from Labour when someone on our side announced that I had just been on holiday. I'm not sure why that had to be mentioned! And then came one response from the Labour side attacking me for taking a holiday in Gateshead! This was then followed by an invited speaker from the NewcastleGateshead Initiative who, amongst other things, was promoting the idea of, erm, well people visiting Gateshead for holiday and travel! No matter what I say or do, Labour will always attack me on Gateshead Council. But as I said before, they never learn. All they do is boost my ego!
I visited Marley Hill village in my ward twice on Thursday. The village is a former mining community though the mine closed in the early 80s (it was the last in the region to use pit ponies!) and we have a high level of support there. I delivered the post office petition there in the morning and collected replies in the evening. 40 households out of 180 replied but 9 email addresses included.
Talking of which I did an interview with the Evening Chronicle, our daily evening regional newspaper, about my email newsletters and how I am using video to engage with residents. They're sending a photography out on Sunday so hopefully we'll have something in the press next week.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
After the calm of the Black Sea and the Aegean, we hit a stormy patch in the Med. The morning saw a large number of people lying on settees or huddled in chairs clutching their sick bags. Fortunately I was unaffected though this was not what I can claim about the last time I sailed on the Med two years ago. I was rather ill between Benghazi and Tripoli and then off the coast of Italy. Mind you, they were as nothing compared to the crossing I made to Norway three years ago when we saied in the middle of a storm in November!
The Discovery arrived at Limasol in Cyprus at about 1pm, by which time the storm had calmed. We had no time to see anything on the island other than the port and the airport at Larnaka. We were in the air by 7pm at which point watches were put back two hours and we were collecting our luggage before 10pm in Gatwick. We were back to the flat by 11pm.
We then had to go through the irritating process of unpacking everything from the suitcases so that everything that was staying in the flat would not be shipped up to Gateshead. And everyting that was being shipped up to Gateshead had to be repacked ready for the journey home on Wednesday. I got to bed at 2am - seems as though I got back into my routine straight away!
Monday 30th October
Kusadasi is another tourism mecca, on the west coast of Turkey. We made a wistle stop visit this morning to visit the ancient town of Ephesus. It reminded me a bit of Leptis Magna in Libya which I visited two years ago. A considerable part of Ephesus remains to be excavated, just like Leptis Magna but both former Roman towns have restored streets and buildings. At Ephesus, the theatre towers above everything else for it size and architecture. When in use 2000 years ago it could sit 23000 people. That's big enough for a Lib Dem conference. Perhaps I should suggest it as a new venue instead of Bournemouth, Brighton and that vile dump Blackpool.
The ship left at midday and we are now heading towards Cyprus. Indeed, the captain seems to be kicking the sh+t out of the engines and we are sailing at the fastest I have experienced on this ship. This is all to ensure we catch our flight tomorrow evening for, alas, tonight is our last night aboard. We have already packed the cases. Cameras have been put into their cases and the tripod is now in my suitcase. We are awaiting dinner and, with some trepidation, the bill for two weeks bar and wine purchases, use of the internet and so on.
I am already getting into the mindset of being back at work, winding myself up for the ordeal ahead. Most immediate job is to ensure the Issues of the Month is ready for circulation before the end of the week. I've also come up with an idea for use of email and video to engage with members. I need to get it past Ed Davey first so if that fails I'll simply bury the idea in the bad ideas cemetery, never to be seen again. If on the other hand it gets the go ahead, there will be plenty of mentions of it in the blog!
And of course of Wednesday there will be hundreds of emails waiting for me to read when I get back into Cowley Street. Oh joy!
Mind you, the big job for this weekend will be sorting the 1600 photos and 2 hours of video we have taken during this holiday.
Monday, October 30, 2006
The Discovery headed south from Bulgaria on Saturday evening and in the early hours of Sunday morning was makings its way through the Bosphorus from where we started nearly two weeks ago. As it was the early hours and I was tucked up in bed in my cabin, I missed the chance to see again the Bosphorus suspension bridges again. Other passengers did stay up til 3am to watch as we sailed under them. Frankly I was too tired!
The ship was at sea for the whole day, heading through the Marmara and then the Straits of Gallipoli. It did a detour close to land so we could see the main Gallipoli landing beaches from the 1915 campaign. This was followed by a wreath laying ceremony (special permission had to be sought from the Turkish authorities for this as dropping anything overboard is not permitted.)
The evening saw the dinner jacket being dusted down for the second time on this holiday. Yes, it was the Captain's farewell dinner! Quite what the dinner will be called on Monday evening we are yet to be told.
We also went to a party for people who have previously travelled on the ship. Over a free glass of champagne, we were told about forthcoming tours. I have my eye on the Antarctic one! All I have to do is remortgage the house to pay for it!
Neseber is a small town on the Bulgarian coast - too small in fact for the ship to be able to dock at the port. So we had the challenging experience of taking the tenders to the shore.
The town reminded me of North Wales - every street corner seemed to have a redundant church. Meanwhile a walk around the place also showed that is has become something of a tourism mecca. There were as many souvenir shops as there were churches, selling everything from Nazi and Soviet military paraphenalia to post cards of the same churches to jars of rose petal jam (we bought the latter!)
After a visit to the town's museum we headed off to a Bulgarian village for lunch and more folk dancing. This ended with a couple of the dancers walking over hot coals. I've seen this done before, in Kandy in Sri Lanka.
We hot footed it back to Nesebur in the early afternoon. Our original plan had been to stay in the town for a bit but we had had all the churches and souvenir kiosks we needed in the morning. So we took the first tender back to the Discovery we could get. The ship left port at 5.30pm which made for some good sunset photos (watch out for framed editions appearing at forthcoming Lib Dem coffee mornings!)
The housekeeping crew are nearly all Philipino and they put on a show for us in the evening. Carlotta our wine waitress turned out to be a first class dancer! - pole dancing (no not that sort). I have forgotten the name for this type of dancing but it's the sort where you have to step rapidly between heavy bamboo poles which are smacked together. I have also seen this done before - in Borneo (I turned down the opportunity to take part!)
Friday, October 27, 2006
Friday 27th October
The morning was spent at sea, sailiing south westward across the Black Sea to Constanta in Romania, the 2nd biggest port in Europe (largest being Rotterdam). This really was a whistle stop tour. We got off the boat at 3pm, an hour late and then had rushed visits to the museums of the city and some of the Roman remains. Our tour guide was very entertaining and kept slagging off the Communists and talked the wonderful language of the free market economy!
We are back on the ship now and will be heading for dinner in about two hours. We have now taken over 1100 photos and nearly an hour and a half of video. Seems as though I will have a lot of material to put on YouTube!
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Thursday 26th October - Sebastopol
As with Yalta, Sebastopol was a place I visited last year whilst exploring the Crimea. We had three tours fixed up for today. The first was to look at some of the war memorials in the city before heading over to the excavations at Chernosus, the ancient Greek settlement overlooking the city's northern bay. The site also contains the recently restored St Vladimir Cathedral (I visited it last year). We saw a second St Vladimir Cathedral in the morning as well. this one was new to me.
Back to the ship for lunch followed by our next excursion. I always knew this was going to be one of the highlights of the whole holiday - a visit to the former secret Soviet submarine base in the hills overlooking Balaklava. I visited the town last year but the base was not then open to visitors though it has not been used since the 1990s. There was, however, no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see it this time!
The entrance to the base is on the opposite side of the bay to the town and from there all that can be seen is the gateway in the side of the cliff through which the subs sailed plus a personnel entrance. Each has nuclear bomb proof doors.
The base itself was dug out of the hillside in the late fifties and early sixties to house the subs of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The base itself is under 125 metres of solid marble. To get into it we had to enter via the personnel entrance which took us along a long, curving tunnel (curving to help deflect the blast of a nuclear explosion should the Americans have decided to nuke the place). This was like entering a Hollywood worrld of Indiana Jones and James Bond combined.
We followed railway tracks to the nuclear bomb assembly area deep inside the base, and then followed more tunnels to the actual submarine bays, huge caverns with the waters of the Black Sea flowing through them, bringing no more submarines now, but only the local jellyfish that seem to exist in vast numbers. All we were missing were 007 fighting the baddies and stopping them from taking over the world! If you get the chance to visit this area (which was closed to the western world and even most Soviet citizens until 1995) this submarine base is a must see.
And then we entered into the Valley of Death - literallly for this was a visit to the location of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, north of Balaklava. Again, it was a place I visited last year. Apart from the war memorials, all there is to see now are the vineyards.
Tonight we had our third excursion of the day and - we really have been spoilt today - one of the highlights of the tour. If you ever get the chance to see the Black Sea Fleet Choir, do so. Yes I did see them last year in Yalta! But they have to be seen to be believed. This is industrial strength campness, camper than a row of pink tents at an annual gathering of unbelievable camp people. It was a cross between a gangshow and Pans People on viagra! (Pans People - I really am showing my age!). Absolutely well worth it. We bought the cd and dvd afterwards!
Well, this is my second visit to the Ukraine nearly over. As I write this (at 9.50pm local time on Thursday), the ship is getting ready to leave for Romania.
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By a quirk it is exactly a year ago this week I was in Yalta visiting Crimean and World War Two battle sites. So here we are, a year on, back in Yalta. The ship docked before we were up this morning but at 7am we saw from the top deck daylight starting over the town.
All the places visite today I did last year with one exception. In 2005 I went to the Massandra Winery for a wine tasting session. Today we sampled the same wines, though not in the Winery itself. Instead, we went to a wine tasting hall. Other locations visited today included the Vorontsov Palace (which looks like a Scottish manor house and indeed was designed to look precisely like one) - Churchil stayed here during the Yalta conference in 1945. After the wine tasting we went to the Swallow's Nest. This is a tiny mock castle on a rocky outcrop at the top of a cliff overlooking the Black Sea. Much of the rock face collapsed in 1927 due to an earthquake so the building sits precariously on a concrete plinth overhanging the cliff edge. In Britain it would have been condemnded as unsafe. Here it is a rather pleasant though small Italian restaurant. Alas we were not eating there (I ate there last year) but we were there just to take photos.
Next visit was the Livadia Palace, the Tsars' summer home and venue for the 1945 Yalta conference. It was at this location I suddenly got hit by the emails of the previous 2 days. The network out here in the Crimea is rather odd. There appear to be narrow strips of land where I can receive my emails and the rest of the place appears to be a no go area for them. So I rattled off as many replies as I could whilst looking at photos of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. I also sent the previous couple of blog entries that were waiting on the blackberry. The moment I left the Palace, I lost the GPRS signal.
Then to lunch in the Hotel Yalta which is where I stayed last year. This was another of those occasions where we were completely caught out by the number of courses and quantity of food. The two old ladies sitting next to us didn't want their vodka so it was handed on to us. Went well with the glass of local champagne.
Then to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and following that, a visit to Anto Chekov's house. Back to the ship at that point to drop off our bags and then we went back out through passport control - we were waved through with no checks at all - and took a walk along Yalta promenade and around the inevitably named Lenin Square (his statue is opposite McDonalds).
The ship left later than usual, 11pm. The distance to our next port of call - Sebastopol - is a short one.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
News reached me today (Tuesday 24th) that Margaret Beckett, that useless non-entity of a Foreign Secretary, has admitted that history may judge the Iraq invasion as a 'disaster' for British foreign policy. It is worrying to think that as a senior member of the government she has taken this long to see the problem she was a party to creating.
My impression is that ordinary Labour members have fallen into 2 categories in terms of the war: opponents who whinge about it but have sat on their backsides ever since and done nothing to remove those who took us into such a ruinous operation, and those who blindly accepted the war and have continued to back it.
I found the first group to be the most objectionable. Typically (and so many Labour members from my home patch in Gateshead fall into this category) they whinge and whine about how dreadful their own government is but deny any responsibility for getting them elected. They behave as if Blair and the government have nothing to do with them yet come election time they claim the Labour government are the best thing since sliced bread.
The other group, the slavish supporters, who unquestioningly accept anything Tony and Gordon say and who regurgitate the meaningless soundbites they have been spoonfed when placed in a position where they have to argue their corner, are at least consistent over the war. They have been trained to think it was the right thing to do and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the recent Beckett pronouncements. Perhaps in the style of the sheep in Animal Farm they will be trained to say the opposite of what they have been saying since the war 3 years ago.
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Tuesday 24th October
This is our 2nd visit to Russia, though it is our first to the southern part of the country. Our first visit was in 1999 when we went to St Petersburg, Moscow and Novgorod. As is now becoming something of a habit, the ship arrived in port - this in Sochi - before breakfast. Border controls here are much more thorough and without a visa, you cannot just step off the ship and wander around. To go ashore you either have to get a visa before coming here or be part of an organised group. And clearly we are part of the latter. Border control means passport stamps! I was rather disappointed that the passports were not stamped in Georgia. Same as in June this year when I went to Cuba, no passport stamps then either.
Our first trip today was to Mount Akhun. On its peak is a viewing tower that gives a tremendous view of the town to one side and the Caucasus Mountains to the other. From there we went on to Stalin's dacha, fully restored to its former glory from when Uncle Joe was alive. I was worried I might stumble into a meeting of the Canterbury Lib Dems' policy committee! But apparently they were off meeting Trotsky to get policy tips!
All excursions had to be over by 1.30pm as the ship was leaving at 2pm for Yalta. The good news is that tonight we put the clocks back an hour as we move back a time zone.
As the ship was sailing through the day, the lecture programme kicked in again. The first was by Sir Richard Parson on The Ukraine which was interesting and the second was on the Gallipoli operation which I found a bit disappointing.
We have now taken over 600 photos and an hour of video. The memory card on the camera is close to being full so the photos are being transfered to a dvd (too many for a cd). I'll need the memory card back tomorrow morning for the Yalta visit.
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Monday 23rd October
The Discovery arrived at Batumi, the main port of Georgia, around 7am so we were able to go up on deck to watch the docking. This ship is a floating eating factory and since my waistline is beginning to feel the effect, I decided that this day must be the start of a food intake reduction programme. Well sort of. Fruit for breakfast.
Georgia is the 43rd country I have visited (and the 7th former Soviet Republic). The first visit of the day was to the Botanical Gardens which dated back to the Tsarist times. In the intervening 90 odd years some of the trees have grown so well in the sub tropical climate that they are now much bigger than what they would have been if they were grown in their native conditions - the garden contains trees native to the other continents.
I wasn't sure why we went to the next location: the border with Turkey. We saw a customs office and highlight of the visit was a lorry heading into Turkey. Perhaps the point the tour people were making without saying it or alluding to it was that this was the frontline of the cold war 16 years ago and is now relatively open. Or perhaps they were just filling in time.
Next was a visit to the Roman shore fort of Gonio which has a remarkably intact outer wall though the buildings inside were long gone. The walls themselves were about 6 metres high. The tour guide suggested that "the young people" may want to climb to the top of them up the extremely steep and narrow steps with no barrier to stop us falling over the edge. Sounded perfect to me so I headed up there only to find David was not in the mood for experiencing vertigo. Meanwhile a stream of "older people" followed me up though I had to lead one down a little later - I think I was there in case she needed a soft landing!
Lunchtime saw a temporary abandonment of the eating go slow. A Georgian meal which included a large amount of walnuts and aubergines was provided which ran to about six or seven courses. Actually very enjoyable. The meal was then followed by "folk dancing". Normally I can be a bit cynical about how genuine this sort of thing is when I see a "folk" show. This one however was bloody amazing! So I am pleased I went.
Final call was to a market - not a tourist one but one used by the locals. This is the sort of place I really love visiting abroad. They make for fantastic photos though the women serving on the fish stalls were rather amused that I should want to take photos of their goods. Nevertheless,there was a succession of mini sharks, sword fish and flat fish paraded for me to photograph. (They make good pictures to hang up in kitchens which will be on sale - ready framed - at forthcoming Lib Dem fayres and coffee mornings!)
Back to the ship after that. The Discovery left at 7pm and headed north to Sochi in Russia.
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Monday, October 23, 2006
My body clock was screaming at me in the morning. "Okay so we're now operating two hours ahead of UK time but does the alarm really have to go off at 6am?" Well, yes actually. We had an early start for the one hour drive to the Sumela Monastery. Prior to leaving the ship (at 7am) we went onto the upper deck to watch her dock at Trabzon, on the North East Turkish Black Sea Coast.
Sumela is a Byzantine monastery built onto a cliff face well into the mountains.. It is currently under going restoration. The coach could only get so far before we had to transfer to mini buses. And then after a while we had to abandon them and head off on foot along some steep and winding paths through the hills. Yet more photos taken to add to my burgeoning collection.
Back to the ship in time for lunch and then a general tour of Trabzon including a working mosque (shoes off at the door), one of the homes of Kemal Ataturk and St Sophie, the church the last Byzantine emperor built before the empire fell to the Ottomans - at which point it was converted to a mosque (it is now a museum with the original wall and ceiling paintings and iconography undergoing restoration).
Back to the ship again. Instead of eating in the main dining room, we had booked the Yacht Club, the restaurant on the top deck. On our last cruise on the Discovery, we had planned to eat in this restaurant but never got round to booking it. This time we are a bit more clued in so we booked the restaurant on Friday for Sunday evening and as we had such a good meal we have booked it again for this coming Friday. Tonight the meal was Far Eastern - mainly Japanese and Korean. This coming Friday it will be Italian.
The ship left Trabzon at 7pm to head for Batumi in Georgia. And unfortunately, the clocks went forward another hour. The maritime network still can't cope with emails (it happily does texts - and David keeps texting me from the other end of the ship when he can't find me!) so I wrote this originally on my blackberry last night (Sunday evening) only to find the damned thing still sitting there hours later. But I have at least got internet access on the ship to update the blog directly. And at 10p a minute, blogging has suddenly become expensive! (Meanwhile the phone network in Georgia I discovered this morning won't deal with emails either!)
Sunday, October 22, 2006
This entry probably won't get onto the blog til Sunday as the maritime network sends text messages but for some reason won't deal with my emails. Nevertheless I am writing this at the end of Saturday with 7 hours to go before we arrive at Trabzon in North East Turkey.
Saturday is one of two days we will spend entirely at sea on this holiday. So we started this morning with a visit to the bridge and then went to a lecture by Sir Richard Parsons (a former UK ambassador to various countries inc Turkey and former Foreign Office adviser to the late George Brown) about Turkish history.
After lunch we had a lecture on the Crimean War by Major Colin Robins. Then a bit of time catvhing up on my own reading before having to get dressed up in dinner jacket for a more formal captain's reception and dinner.
Yet again I have fellow holiday makers at my dinner table who are Lib Dem supporters (one of whom lives in Vince Cable's constituency and of whom she spoke very highly). Somehow, whenever I am asked what I do for a living, and I explain I work for the party, people become very interested in what my job entails. Years ago, saying I worked for the Lib Dems was a bit of a conversation killer. Not anymore. If anything it is the reverse.
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News that Clare Short has resigned the Labour whiip has reached me today. It is not massively unexpected. It was not a case of jumping before being pushed. The non-entity Labour chief whip Jacqui Who-The-Hell-Is-She Smith had already reprimanded her for her comments about campaigning for a no overall control parliament in the next generql election.
But let's hope no one thinks she should join the Lib Dems. I am yet to hear anything that suggests to me she is liberal, liberal democrat or Liberal Democrat. I don't want our party to be a recycling bin for old Labour leftwingers. Yes let them join if they are genuine converts to liberal democracy. But otherwise, no.
Anyway, Clare Short is better for the cause of voting reform if she is outside the Liberal Democrats. Somehow everyone expects use to be in favour of PR so arguing for voting reform from inside the Lib Dems is hardly going to make the house come crashing down. The more people we have outside the party arguing for PR the better chance we have of getting it.
And finally there is something about her judgement that leaves something to be desired. She waited until after the +raq invasion, when Robin Cook had already resigned, to leave the cabinet. Where were you when we needed you Calre?
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