Month: October 2015

It can’t be done…

Cycling around the coast of the UK, it can’t be done. Not enough roads or tracks run parallel with the sea. Farming also gets in the way. Then there’s those vast swathes of land, owned by us all but managed exclusively by the Ministry of Defence. I gave it my best shot, pedalling 6,194 miles in just over 4 months on a fully-laden, too heavy to lift, £350 Dawes Mojave. And I only pushed once, 23 miles into Oban, when a weary derailleur shifted into the back wheel.

I’m not yet sure if I enjoyed myself. I was relieved, rather than elated, to cross the finishing line. Memories of the misery induced by the really challenging climbs and descents in South West England remain. Maybe things will change with the benefit of rose-tinted vision but I definitely left a bit of me, both physically and mentally, behind.

I was lucky with the weather though. Whilst my home town flooded twice I was baked on the west coast of Scotland and only halted in my tracks for 2 days by the late September deluge when making my way north along Cardigan Bay.

Fortunately there were some real highlights. The deserted beaches of Sandwood Bay, Kearvaig on Cape Wrath, the amazing wildlife at Newburgh estuary, Findhorn bay, the Pineapple (not too far from Stirling), an idyllic morning spent drying out at Aberdour and overwhelmingly courteous motorists were all big plusses. Less impressive moments, apart from much of Devon and Cornwall, and many over-caravanised coastal stretches, were climbing and descending Sgurr A’ Chaorachain in a thunderstorm, my wild camping pitch coinciding with a boy-racer meet near Fishguard, and some useless signage and surfaces on more than a few “cycle” paths.

Only 4 punctures to report, though 2 new tyres and 1 rear wheel were needed, the pannier rack also cracked near Aberystwyth, but I was fortunate to receive an excellent free service, about half way into the trip, from Dave the volunteer at Middlesbrough’s superb Cycle Centre. That, along with many of the people who stopped for a chat, or even pedalled alongside, gave me and the bike, much needed boosts and encouragement to keep going.

Originally published in The Cycle magazine April 2013.

In search of justice for Jean Charles

Originally published in the Morning Star on July 22nd 2015.

10 years ago today a young Brazilian electrician on his way to repair a broken fire alarm was murdered on the London Underground.

Jean Charles de Menezes was just 27 years old when he was shot seven times in the head by plain-clothed firearms officers on a train at Stockwell station. His horrific death was apparently solely due to him being mistakenly identified as a suspected suicide bomber when he left home for work that morning. This uncorrected fatal mistake was then compounded by a series of further blunders made by officers from the Metropolitan Police. No attempt was made to confirm John Charles’ identity nor apprehend him during his 33-minute bus journey or before he entered a busy Stockwell station. An innocent man, who was given no chance to surrender, was executed.

In the immediate aftermath of Jean Charles’ death, which came just two weeks after the atrocities caused by the July 7th London bus and tube bombings and four attempted attacks on the transport system the previous day, mainstream media reports included wholesale inaccuracies, speculation and malicious insinuations. Billboards for the Evening Standard newspaper that read “Bomber Shot Dead” were even left on view across London all weekend.

Scandalously the Metropolitan Police did not correct the misinformation it had initially provided about Jean Charles’ death once the facts became clear. Some of the immediate so-called eye-witness accounts also proved to be inaccurate, misleading and contradictory. A dead innocent man was falsely accused of being an illegal immigrant, acting in a suspicious manner, wearing a padded jacket with wires protruding from it, ignoring a police warning and attempting to escape. Even the pathologist’s post mortem report, which was written less than a week after his murder, incorrectly recorded that Jean Charles had vaulted over the ticket barriers and ran down the stairs at the tube station.

Although the Metropolitan Police was found to have committed health and safety failures, the Crown Prosecution Service decided in 2006 that no individual should face prosecution. No police officer has even been disciplined for any offence arising from the tragic circumstances surrounding the murder of Jean Charles. And yet an inquest jury in 2008, despite returning an open verdict, implicitly suggested that it was an unlawful killing after rejecting the official police account of the shooting. It also decided that the officers probably did not honestly believe they were under imminent threat before they shot Jean Charles.  The legal advisors for Jean Charles’ family argued that there was enough evidence for a jury to conclude that high-ranking police officers, including the Designated Senior Officer, Cressida Dick, could have been charged with gross negligence manslaughter.

Jean Charles’ family lodged a claim in the European Court of Human Rights against the UK government over the failure to prosecute the officers involved in January 2008. It has taken seven years for it to be listed for a hearing and a judgement may not be delivered until the end of the year. For his cousin, Patricia Armani da Silva, whilst Jean’s death is a pain that never goes away, she hopes that “this legal challenge will change the law so that so no other family has to face what we did.”

The murder of Jean Charles de Menezes once again brought the issue of police accountability to prominence. The failure to bring any criminal prosecutions against the officers responsible for his death has raised significant questions about how the state and its agents are held to account for killing its citizens. A truly democratic society needs a criminal justice system that ensures scrutiny and accountability of the police and ensures that prosecutions for human rights violations are brought in appropriate cases. Public confidence in the police must not be undermined by any suggestion that the rule of law does not apply equally to all people, including those in uniform.

There has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter or murder in any case involving the British police, even where an inquest jury has returned a finding of “unlawful killing”.

Going to the dogs..?

Despite traditionally being regarded as a relatively inexpensive form of working class entertainment, attendances at greyhound racing in the UK have been suffering an almost steady decline for the last 50 years. From a peak of 34 million paying spectators in 1946 they now hover around the 2 million mark.

There will be many amongst us who will not mourn this apparent drop in popularity. This is a “sport” that is largely driven by the need to make profit, where the dogs are often regarded as mere commodities, literally running for their lives, and deemed surplus to requirements if not successful.

Evidence of the abuse and doping of racing dogs, race fixing, and the disappearance of thousands of dogs at the end of their careers has become more widely available. To a nation of supposed animal-lovers this should perhaps resonate and further lessen the appeal of a night at the dogs. It might even challenge the devoted fan’s happy memories of dogs made famous by BBC’s Sportsnight televised races. It wasn’t that long ago that Mick The Miller, Scurlough Champ and Ballyregan Bob, who completed an incredible 32 consecutive wins, were household names.

But whilst the attendance figures might suggest an industry in terminal decline, any reports of its demise are somewhat exaggerated. An eye-watering £2.5bn is still gambled on the 70,000+ races held each year, it supports an estimated 7,000 jobs, and Towcester Racecourse bucked the recent trend in dog-track closures by opening a £1.8m purpose-built greyhound circuit at the end of 2014.

The tracks and paying customers have been disappearing but greyhound racing has never been more popular as a gambling product. BBC’s Panorama suggested that the bookies’ annual profits from greyhound racing touched £237m in 2013. The government also gains about £55m in taxation each year. For the bookmakers it’s a highly efficient industry, the bigger companies even own and operate greyhound tracks, but without their financial backing it wouldn’t exist.

It was all very different in the early days of greyhound racing though. The UK’s first purpose built track had opened at Belle Vue, Manchester in 1926 and within weeks it claimed to be attracting average crowds of 11,000. London’s White City and at least 16 other stadiums had begun racing a year later and 4½ million spectators had reportedly attended tracks by the end of 1927. Its popularity continued up until the war years and a peak was reached for attendances, along with many other sports, in the years after 1945.

In the late 1940s there were 77 licensed dog tracks in the UK with at least 15 in London. Today there are 35 recognised venues dotted throughout the country, nine of them are unlicensed. Following Walthamstow’s closure in 2008, Wimbledon is the sole track in the capital but there are even plans for it to cease operations and become the new home of AFC Wimbledon.

By the late 1990s, as evidence of massive over-breeding of dogs for racing and the most notorious examples of greyhound abuse had begun to surface, the welfare of these racing dogs made headlines well away from the back pages. In the most infamous cases thousands of former racing greyhounds were found buried in makeshift graves at Seaham in 2006, and in May 2008, the Sunday Times exposed Britain’s largest greyhound breeder selling puppies, which would not chase or had proved too slow, to Liverpool University for research and dissection.

The rosy picture of dogs enjoying their competitive racing lives before being re-homed at the end of their careers was becoming ever-more tarnished. Whilst recognising that some owners, including greyhound racing enthusiast MP Ian Lavery, do keep their dogs as family pets or pass them onto reputable re-homing organisations at the end of their careers, the welfare provision for many dogs remains inadequate and firmly under the spotlight.

Approximately 8,000 racing dogs are “retired” due to injury each year before they reach the age of four. Although the Greyhound Board of Great Britain does not release its own figures to account for their ultimate destiny, the Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare estimates that a minimum of 4,700 dogs “disappear without trace” from the system annually and animal welfare charities openly admit that they cannot cater for all of the retired dogs. Greyhound Action has estimated that each of Britain’s major greyhound stadiums is responsible, on average, for the slaughter of over 500 greyhounds each year.

Whilst it continues to operate under such primitive, largely self-regulated and opaque conditions, without any recognisable drastic improvement in welfare provision, greyhound racing and its bookmaker paymasters will continue to face prolonged opposition from organisations concerned with animal welfare. Like smoking in cinemas or semi-naked women in so-called newspapers, greyhound racing is looking ever more like a relic from a bygone age and undeserving of our patronage.

Originally published as When did we stop going to the dogs? in the Morning Star.

Scratching the surface

“Scratching the Surface: Posties, Privatisation and Strikes in the Royal Mail”
– Phil Chadwick

If you were in any doubt that Royal Mail and its workforce have been continually subjected to mismanagement and treated as a political football by successive governments, this book will dispel any such thoughts.

Phil Chadwick, who spent much of his 30 years with the Post Office representing the Communication Workers Union locally and regionally, has produced a highly informative and interesting view from the front line which sets the record straight.

He painstakingly describes the systematic destruction of a much-loved great British industry and years of appalling industrial relations.

The first airings of privatisation had arisen during the Thatcher years but despite a crucial lack of investment the workforce continued to create a highly profitable and efficient Royal Mail throughout the 1990s. 1998-9 was a notable high point, with profits reaching £496m and the workplace relatively stable.

There were still two deliveries a day, Sunday collections, the price of a stamp was low by any comparison and even the pension fund was in surplus.

Then, just 12 months later, despite more mail being posted, a huge loss was recorded, with most of it caused by the colossal £571m write-off of a failed IT scheme for Post Office counters.

What followed, Labour’s Postal Services Act of 2000 and the disastrously managed Consignia and PostComm periods, began a concerted drive to privatise Royal Mail while effectively prohibiting it from competing on a level playing field.

Throughout this time the workforce endured persistent crisis management, instability, job losses, industrial disputes and perennial bullying and harassment.

All of which culminated in last year’s hideously botched sell-off. Royal Mail’s death warrant had been prepared by Labour and signed off by the coalition government. The nation, and especially the postal service’s employees, have paid a hideous price.

The grotesque experiment, as this book tellingly shows, wrecked our postal service and must be reversed.

Originally published in the Morning Star

Understanding Nonviolence

“Understanding Nonviolence” edited by Maia Carter Hallward and Julie M Norman

THIS collection of extended essays, gathered internationally from academics and activists, is a textbook primarily and unashamedly aimed at those engaged with peace and nonviolence studies.

But its relevance to the rest of us should not be under-estimated in an environment where the mass media continually misrepresents the value and successes of nonviolent political strategies. It’s a hugely informative and thought-provoking publication, providing numerous case studies and a general examination of the theory, practise, challenges and opportunities afforded by the nonviolent action which usually takes place outside traditional campaigning channels.

In attempting to outflank those in power — and in the  belief that a natural majority support social justice — the contributors question the apparent consent and obedience in everyday society. Nonviolence is not a passive or pacifist form of political resistance and it is clearly distinct from reconciliation, negotiation and mediation, although it does not preclude using these tactics too.

Conventional voting, marches, rallies and lobbying are not commonly regarded as nonviolent action, which instead is regularly based on boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, non-co-operation, blockades and creating organisations and institutions that run parallell to the state.

In Britain, small-scale contemporary nonviolent action is everywhere — think South Yorkshire’s very own Freedom Riders or the Focus E15 Mothers to get a glimpse of its potential power.

Criticism of its usefulness, especially in societies where violence has become normalised, is forcefully rebuffed. While recognising the likelihood of a physically abusive response from those who do not share a commitment to nonviolence, and accepting that few struggles are purely nonviolent, the authors consistently emphasise that such action has proved more successful than armed resistance throughout history.

Empirical evidence shows that nonviolent methodology is more likely to result in more peaceful transitions, sustainable changes and democratic conclusions. It can also lay foundations for the empowerment of an engaged and politicised citizenry and, unlike armed uprisings, cannot succeed without broad coalitions and mass support.

From undermining racist lunch counter segregation in Nashville to supporting the worldwide food sovereignty movements, this book demonstrates that nonviolent action continues to play a vital role in creating social justice and real change.

Originally published in the Morning Star.