Sunday, 31 December 2006

To live in a land free of corruption

I’m currently in the second-least corrupt country in the world, according to the annual survey by the politically non-partisan global civil society organisation Transparency International (TI). No, don’t be silly, it's not Wales; I’m in Finland, which ranked just behind Iceland this year.

Wales is not considered a country as far as the TI survey is concerned, but the United Kingdom was ranked equal eleventh, unchanged from 2004. However, the result was published before Tony Blair announced the termination of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into the conduct of BAE Systems plc in the UK’s ‘Al Yamamah’ arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

An SFO statement said it was necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest. It’s horrendous that the Prime Minister should consider there’s a conflict between the two. Since the decision was taken in the ‘wider public interest’, the Government has a duty to explain in detail how the public interest was endangered by the continuation of the criminal investigation.

In a separate statement, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, referred to Article 5 of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, which precludes investigations and prosecutions being influenced by considerations of national economic interest or the potential effect upon relations with another State. Although he claimed that the SFO had not been influenced by those considerations, the Prime Minister’s statement suggested otherwise.

It should be noted that BAE Systems has consistently denied any wrongdoing. So why, then, has the SFO been pressured into prematurely terminating an investigation that had been diligently pursued for over two years by a joint SFO and MOD Police team? In terminating the investigation rather than allowing it to be completed, Lord Goldsmith has relieved himself of the duty of deciding whether or not to prosecute and has undermined any vestige of moral and ethical credibility this government might have maintained internationally.

The message from the Westminster government, therefore, is disturbingly familiar. Britain expects other countries to observe their obligations under international anti-corruption conventions, while reserving for itself the right to ignore its own obligations when this is politically expedient.

It might be that Wales could learn a lot from Finland, a country that achieved independence from Russia only after the revolution of 1917, having been part of the Russian empire for more than a century. For 600 years before that, up until Russia beat Sweden in the war of 1808-1809, it was part of the Swedish empire.

Although run as a group of provinces rather than a national entity, the imposition of the Swedish legal system meant that Finnish peasants were never serfs; in fact, Finns have always maintained their personal freedom. Personal freedom and personal responsibility are considered important here and Finnish women were the first in Europe to gain the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

When the Soviet Union tried to invade in November 1939, Finland’s well organised little army managed to inflict massive casualties on a overwhelming number of Soviet troops, ultimately forcing a peace treaty to be agreed in Moscow the spring of 1940. Finland was forced to give up Eastern Karelia, a region the Russians have failed to return since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Actually, many Finns don’t want it back because of the detrimental effect restoration might have their very high standard of living.)

Then, apart from a hiccup in 1941 when they sided with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union and were, at the end of the war, forced to cede Petsamo on the Arctic Ocean, the Finns have managed to maintain a peaceful, if uneasy coexistence with their massive neighbour ever since.

Having become a member of the European Union in 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Finns are now debating the merits of NATO membership, having maintained a policy of neutrality since the war.

The land area of Finland is approximately 17 times the size of Wales (338,000 square kilometres), which is inhabited by only 5.3 million people. Although 69% of the country is covered by forest and 10% by water (187,888 lakes), electronics (eg. Nokia phones) account for the largest slice of exports, followed by machinery and then wood and paper products.

Despite having two official languages (Finnish and Swedish), having adopted the Euro, having mean temperatures that range between +20C and -20C (I remember it being -45C in Jyväskylä a few winters ago), being covered in snow and ice for 5 months of the year and being in near darkness for 2 of those months, Finland has the highest standard of living in Europe.

If you ask a Finn what they do, they’ll most likely tell you about their hobbies or interests; they won’t assume you mean what they do to get money/status/self-worth. In other words, their value system isn’t focused on wealth. Thus the gap between rich and poor isn’t that great. Consequently, they generally treat each other with kindness and respect and live in a safe environment free of corruption and mostly free of crime (although serious crime now comes over the border from Russia).

They laugh easily and have a great sense of humour despite being the butt of sauna jokes. They used to be the butt of European music jokes too, until Lordy won the Eurovision Song Contest this year. You want to know why a Finnish heavy metal band won a contest known for its sugar-pop-Euro-pap? It was the only entry that wasn’t cynical.

Now, why can’t we build a Finland-like Jerusalem in Wales’ green and pleasant land? I put it to you that it’s only a fear of the unknown holding us back.

Blwyddwyn Newydd Dda. Dal ati!

Click here to check out The Red Dragonhood.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Land of Hope and Glory

Many years ago now, in 1991 to be exact, the conductor Mark Elder got the high profile classical gig of the year, conducting the Last Night of the Proms. Being a man of principle at the time, Mark considered it inappropriate to whip up jingoistic sentiment when the first Gulf War was about to kick off, so he baulked at the idea of playing the ritualistic tub-thumpers for the braying hordes of little Englanders who frequent this anachronistic event.

Mark publicly announced that he thought it best not to have Jerusalem, Rule Britannia and especially not Land of Hope and Glory in the set, and this moral position quickly led him into conflict with John Drummond, then the controller of the Proms. Needless to say, the Tory shires rose in indignation, stirred into a patriotic frenzy by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

Presented with this splendid opportunity, I hurried to Mark’s defence by offering a disarmingly simple compromise. He would agree to play Land of Hope and Glory after all, but I would rewrite Arthur Benson’s bombastic lyrics to make the song more humanistic in spirit. This seemed particularly appropriate since Edward Elgar, who penned the tune, supposedly recanted the lyrics before his death in 1934.

Now, the Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms is one time and place where I’d dearly love to set off bombs (purely in the figurative sense you understand, I wouldn’t actually want to hurt anyone, not even Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Here, I smirked to myself, was a chance to stick one on Margaret Thatcher, then recently deposed as Prime Minister, and on the English middle classes generally. (You don’t remember the Iron Lady? Once upon a time there was a wicked old witch who dismissed compassion, social responsibility and human kindness as weaknesses. She promised sweeties to those who embraced her philosophies of greed and selfishness...)

So, I was hoping to provoke a riot when I wrote the words of the following ‘humanist’ anthem:

Land of hope and glory,
That’s what this could be.
Greed is not the answer,
It cannot make us free.
Subscribe to truth, to love of life,
On other’s toil don’t bet,
There’s glory in compassion,
And hope for all of us yet.

I must admit that the opening four lines are a bit wooden. To be fair though, I had to spin the whole plot out of the title, otherwise it wouldn’t have made much sense. I’m still quite happy with the last four lines.

My personal ‘Gunpowder Plot’ came to nothing, of course. Mark Elder was summarily fired before my heretical ‘dirty bomb’ could be detonated. The status quo held steady. A sympathetic soprano recorded the lyrics a cappella for me and, for all I know, the Decca Record Company may still have the tape in its vaults somewhere. I have the master of a video we made to support a record that was never released, but these things are scant consolation.

In an ironic twist, Mark Elder finally did conduct the Last Night of the Proms earlier this year, with all the traditional pomposity left intact, 15 years after being sacked for having the integrity to stand up for what he believed to be true. Evidently he doesn’t have the same sensibilities any longer for, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a war going on in the Gulf. By the way, which edition of the Gulf War are we up to now; is it still the second or have we moved on to the third?

I’m open to discussing an assignment of copyright if Rhodri Morgan really intends to return the Labour Party in Wales to its pre-New Labour values once the elections are out of the way. The Gulf War, which may ultimately become known as the second 100 Years War, obviously isn’t a ‘Welsh issue’ as far as Rhodri is concerned.

Click here to check out the Red Dragonhood.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Emotional blackmail won't save Burberry jobs but community action just might

It seems crazy that Burberry, a leading fashion brand which made £84.2 million profit in the last six months, would need to make 300 Welsh workers redundant on the basis that its Treorchy factory is no longer viable.

That is until you glance at the summary on page 1 of the firm's Annual Report and Accounts and see that nearly 50% of its business comes from North America and the Asia Pacific region. Burberry wants to switch manufacturing to China and, no matter how loyal and hardworking they may be, there is no way Burberry's Welsh workers can compete.

This is not simply a matter of Chinese workers working for less money than their Welsh counterparts, although of course they do. (The average Chinese textile worker earns approximately 35 pence per hour - £1.51 in Welsh equivalent buying power - whereas Welsh workers receive at least the minimum wage of £5.35 per hour.)

The Chinese currency, the Renminbi or Yuan, is pegged at an artificially low rate by the Chinese government to a basket of foreign currencies, dominated by the US dollar, and trades within a narrow 0.3% band. This gives Chinese manufacturers a massive cost advantage, even over countries with notoriously low labour rates, such as Mexico.

Since the Renminbi is pegged - rather than being allowed to fluctuate with market forces, as does the pound and every other major currency - companies like Burberry do not need to hedge against foreign exchange risks when sourcing from China since the price in dollars or pounds is always predictable. Most Chinese exporters trade in US dollars and, for a British-based business, buying in dollars is very attractive right now.

I'm not party to Burberry's business strategy, of course, but based on the experience of working with several similar companies, China probably offers Burberry greater and faster growth potential than any other territory. (Chinese managers are becoming rich on the basis of their cheap labour costs and favourable exchange rates, and they have developed a voracious appetite for Western luxury goods.) Manufacturing in China will keep prices competitive in the key Chinese market whilst allowing reasonable profit margins to be maintained. This will probably benefit Burberry's bludgeoning Japanese franchises too.

With North American being another important market and the Renminbi being kept artificially low against the dollar, manufacturing in China is win-win for Burberry. It doesn't require a degree in economics to work out that if the dollar is trading at 1.96 to the pound, goods manufactured in Wales will not be anywhere near competitive in the North American and Chinese markets.

A few years ago, Welsh workers would have had the edge over their Chinese counterparts in terms of craftsmanship and quality, but that's no longer the case. Globalisation is not good news for the former industrial heartland of Wales, and Burberry is a global business.

On page 7 of the Burberry Annual Report it says "The Group… took initial steps to rationalise its supply chain by consolidating sourcing of selected key products". Whatever that means, I doubt it offers any reassurance for the communities of Treorchy and Treherbert. 'Corporate social responsibility' extends to helping workers find new jobs but doesn't stretch to losing money if there are no new jobs to be found.

Whilst my heart is entirely with the workers, my head says there is no way Burberry is going to change its position. The emotional campaign currently being championed by Leighton Andrews AM, Chris Bryant MP, Peter Hain MP, actors Rhys Ifans and Ioan Gruffudd and others is unlikely to meet much success unless the government steps in with incentives to keep the factory open. Nevertheless, Ioan Gruffudd should be heartily congratulated for making a genuine personal commitment by risking his endorsement deal with Burberry to support the worker's cause. The interventions of Rhys Ifans and Bryn Terfel are evidently heartfelt too.

Burberry claims a 'distinctive British sensibility' but that doesn't mean 'Made in Wales'. Chris Bryant, the Rhondda MP, tabled an early day motion at Westminster warning that "by withdrawing from UK production Burberry will be irremediably damaging its brand identity". That begs the question; will American or Chinese consumers pay twice as much for a polo shirt 'Made in Treorchy'? I don't believe so. And does Burberry currently source most of its manufacturing in Britain? No, of course it doesn't. The consumer wants the added value that the words 'distinctive' and 'sensibility' imply. The word 'British' merely suggests a certain style. It conjures up images of Big Ben, soldiers in Bearskins, black taxis and red buses, not a factory in the Rhondda. 'Made in Wales' would mean little to Burberry's American consumers and nothing at all to Chinese consumers, who don't care where the product is made anyway. In Burberry's case, the consumer wants the emotional values the product represents more than its functional efficacy, in keeping out the weather, for example.

Chris Bryant went on to "urge investors to think twice about Burberry's commercial decisions". The very next day, Burberry's stock hit new highs on news of its half-year profits, and the price has continued to rise ever since. This demonstrates perfectly the short-term nature of the current investment climate and is a ringing endorsement from investors of the profit focus adopted by Burberry's management. These people don't feel any responsibility for a few Welsh jobs.

Angela Ahrendts, Burberry's new CEO who joined the firm in July, didn't get where she is today by being a mug either. According to Forbes magazine, she'll make $31 million (£16 million) over 5 years if she hits her performance targets at Burberry. That's a hell of an unemotional incentive to reduce costs.

The long and short of it is that the factory is going to close and emotional blackmail is not going to make any difference. 300 good people are going to lose their jobs and the knock-on effect will devastate their communities.

If the little business I'm now launching were two or three years down the road I'd be interested in taking over the factory. But, in the meantime, there may be something practical that I, the supporters of the 'Keep Burberry British' campaign (this name is spurious because the organisers are well aware that Burberry doesn't intend to close its 'British' factories in Yorkshire, but enough of the negativity) and everyone else in Wales can do to help.

If I was organising the campaign to save the Rhondda jobs, I'd ask Bernard Ashley, the co-founder and former Chairman of Laura Ashley, to get involved. Bernard has been a great supporter of Welsh craftsmanship over the years and he still owns an innovative digital printing business for fabric at Llangoed. His son Nick Ashley, a great designer in his own right and the man credited with invigorating Dunhill's menswear range (a competitor to Burberry), might be commissioned to draw up a classical collection the workers at Treorchy could manufacture.

What could I do myself? I would be willing to design, produce and market a t-shirt through The Red Dragonhood ( with the profits going towards funding a new venture to keep Treorchy going.

If Ioan Gruffudd, Charlotte Church, James Hook and Rhys Ifans (maybe some of our musicians too) were to model them, Terry Morris were to take the pictures, Bryn Terfel, Tom Jones and Max Boyce were to lend their fame and the politician's were to help with administration, then we'd be likely to sell enough in Wales alone to fund a new start-up at the factory.

The offer is on the table. If we can raise money for Children In Need and other good causes, why can't we do the same to keep the Rhondda in business? Forget globalisation. Let's start looking after our own.

Click here to check out The Red Dragonhood

Monday, 11 December 2006

Welsh World Champions not valued in England

I don’t want to belittle the achievement of 11th-in-line-to-the-throne Zara Philips in winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award but the fact that Joe Calzaghe and Nicole Cooke both got less than 10% of the vote shows that being a Welsh World Champion counts for nothing in England.

Predictably, neither Cooke nor Calzaghe got a fair hearing in the show. Without knowing the demographics of the vote, it would be impossible to say for sure whether the result was a victory for the campaign waged last week by the Telegraph and Daily Mail but it was certainly a victory for the status quo.

Wales was reduced by the BBC, in effect, to the same status as East Yorkshire/Lincolnshire.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Welsh World Champions reduced to mere contenders

It’s good to see two superb Welsh World Champions nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award on Sunday, even if the bookies have Darren Clarke down as the runaway favourite while the Telegraph and Daily Mail are doing everything they can to rally support for the “dedicated, unbelievably hard-working and equally deserving” 25 year-old eleventh-in-line-to the-throne, Zara Phillips.

At the moment of writing, you can’t get better than 1/4 on Darren Clarke – clearly a pointless bet – while the odds on “committed, competitive and professional” Zara Phillips have shortened to 7/2. The bookies must be fairly certain that a Welsh personality won’t get the award since you can get odds of 50/1 on Joe Calzaghe at Paddy Power and 100/1 on Nicole Cooke at Coral, despite their achievements being by far and away the most deserving of the award.

Darren Clarke showed extraordinary fortitude, not to mention good old-fashioned sportsmanship, in contributing to Europe’s Ryder Cup victory over the United States shortly after the death of his wife from cancer, and Zara Phillips did very well to win the three-day eventing competition at the World Equestrian Games, even though her team mate, whose name is Toytown, actually did all the legwork. But these triumphs pale into insignificance compared to the accomplishments of Joe Calzaghe and Nicole Cooke.

I was lucky enough to be sat at ringside, alongside a few members of the cast of Coronation Street as a guest of ITV Sport, when Joe fought America’s then favourite super-middleweight, Jeff Lacy, at the MEN Arena in Manchester at two in the morning on a bitterly cold day in March this year. It was perhaps the most perfect demonstration of pugilism ever to be delivered by any fighter at any weight, the culmination of the brutally hard work the 34 year-old Calzaghe has put into his sport since the age of 9.

But its not that one fight that defines Joe Calzaghe; it’s all the fights he’s won since 1997, the longest reign of any World Champion in history.

At only 23 years old, Nicole Cooke may be the greatest woman road race cyclist there has ever been. This year she won the individual World Cup crown and captained the World title-winning team. She led the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France (La Grande Boucle) from start to finish and dominated the Magali Pache with perhaps her great ever performance in a time trial.

I’ve never participated in a television vote but I’ll make a point of voting for Joe and Nicole on Sunday. The result will come down to how the BBC producers decide to pitch each little film they make to support the nominations, of course, but I’d have a tenner on Joe to be the first Welshman on the moon at odds of 50/1, and I’ll take a 100/1 patriotic flyer on Nicole while I’m at it.

Since I’ll be at the bookies anyway, I might as well have a piece of the existentialist action at 6/1 on David Beckham getting a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, especially since the idea that such a ludicrous thing might actually come to pass appeals to my wicked, absurdist nature. By comparison with betting on the outcome of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, this is a wager that looks like ridiculously easy money in the upside down world we now inhabit.

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Monday, 4 December 2006

Are the Bluebirds doing the fans a favour?

“WHERE HAVE the 7,000 [fans] gone?” Cardiff’s manager Dave Jones was reported to have asked after only 13,500 turned out to watch the Bluebirds’ wretched home draw with Colchester on Saturday. (He was making a comparison with the 20-odd thousand that watched Cardiff beat current Championship leaders Birmingham back in August.)

And he complained about the attitude of those that did attend, “If they’re going to come then support us, don’t boo us. We are third in the league and we’re being booed. I think the fans should take a long, hard look at themselves.”

A collapse of 32% in the gate might indeed look bad were it not for the fact that everyone knows a game against Colchester is hardly likely to provide compelling entertainment, especially on the first Saturday of December when the missus is banging on about getting the Christmas shopping done.

Then there’s the fact that Cardiff have now failed to score in four matches taking only two points from a possible 12 and falling from first in the Championship, with a commanding lead, to a shaky third. There are other things you can do on a Saturday afternoon when your team is playing badly, but not in Dave Jones' world, obviously.

Jones’ attitude towards the fans, though, is typical of people in football management. To be fair, in the same interview he did praise the diehards who travel to all the away games, but he expects the supporters to turn up irrespective of whether his team manages to do so. It’s not whether the team loses or draws that gets the crowd booing, it’s the lack of application.

Foreign investors are merrily milking the blind loyalty of supporters at clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Hearts. Liverpool, too, will soon be joining their ranks, becoming the personal plaything of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the owner of a theme park in the Arabian Gulf, if media reports are to be believed.

By falling short now rather than later, Cardiff could be doing its fans a favour. Jones went on to warn that “If we are going to dip into the transfer market, we need as many fans here as possible”, presumably suggesting that if the fans don’t turn up, the club will keep its chequebook in the draw.

That might be a good thing given that the club is £30 million in debt and has been losing between £8 and £9 million a year for the last three years. To make matters worse, it has at its helm the same man who nearly destroyed Leeds United, a club where gates used to average 30,000 a week, by borrowing money against future gate receipts that didn’t materialise simply because the team didn’t win. That's what happens when teams don't win.

The Bluebirds average gate this season is 16,583. That’s not enough to support a premiership team over the long haul, not even with the Sky money. Reading, by comparison, are currently averaging 24,000. Chelsea’s average gate of 42,000 is not enough to maintain the club’s current position without the mineral wealth of Russia being squandered on it. Colchester, Cardiff’s Championship opponents last Saturday, average only 5,247, by the way.

With enlightened management, there is no reason why Cardiff City Football Club could not become, over a period of time, a Welsh Barça, a symbol of freedom and identity for Wales in the way that FC Barcelona is for Catalans. Except that Barça is owned by more than 150,000 members who elect their club officials, not by sultans or oligarchs or lunatic businessmen who merely take the fans for granted.

To build the kind of fan base the club needs to compete in the Premiership, the Bluebirds need to involve the whole nation (other than those living in Swansea and Wrexham, of course) in the running of the club for the benefit of the fans and for Welsh football generally.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

The humble leek: Tudor propaganda or devious Welsh camouflage

THERE'S NOT much wrong with the leek as far as I can see. It's a wholesome, robust and flavoursome vegetable that offers some potential as a weapon, but why it symbolises Wales is anyone's guess.

Information Wales says it is a 'fact' that Saint David had his countrymen wear leeks in their caps at the battle of Heathfield in 633 to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes.

However, according to the 11th-century Welsh monk Rhygyfarch, Dewi Sant died on 1st March 589 — the date being the reason why we celebrate Saint David's day on 1st March — 44 years before the battle of Heathfield. Whatever, perhaps he appeared at Heathfield in a vision or something? Information Wales doesn't say.

It is an amalgamation of these 'facts' that causes Welsh soldiers to wear leeks on Saint David's Day each year. Have you ever tried wearing a leek in your cap? Me neither.

Some writers suggest that the battle took place in a field of leeks, presumably inferring that the wearing of leeks in caps was a devious Welsh form of camouflage.

Yet these accounts of leeks as a Welsh emblem all seem to stem from the English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631), a contemporary of Shakespeare, suggesting that the association of leeks with Wales might be some sort of Tudor propaganda, the meaning of which has long been forgotten. It could possibly relate to concerns about the legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth or to ensuring Welsh loyalty at a time of war with Spain.

The fact that Shakespeare's Henry V feels the need to mention he is "wearing a leek, for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman," should be enough to make you wonder whether Shakespeare, an accomplished propagandist for the English cause, just might be blowing smoke up your arse.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Welshmen in blazers

TYPICAL! YOU write an impassioned, idealistic plea for whatever it takes to be invested in making Welsh rugby the equal of the game played by New Zealand (see earlier post - Let's invest in a winning Wales), when the men in blazers immediately remind you of why it might be a bad idea to give them more money and influence.

As a Welsh rugby fan, you know if you pay good money to see the boys play New Zealand, part of the entertainment will involve the men in black doing a little dance before the kickoff. It has always been so. Always - even when we played them at Wembley.

But on Saturday, the hapless, posturing, self-important "village idiots" who run Welsh rugby - the very same people who are still in their positions despite the humiliation they heaped upon their country by mishandling the Ruddock fiasco - ruined proceedings with their points of protocol, which attempted to meddle with convention for no good reason.

What, exactly, was their objective in insisting that Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (the Welsh National Anthem) be played after the haka, apart from cretinous bloody-mindedness? Whatever it was, the board certainly managed to hand New Zealand a massive psychological boost, although I don't mean to suggest that this may have changed the outcome of the game.

The usual suspects fell over themselves in trying to cover their backsides, claiming variously that; Maori chiefs told them to do it, that Kiwi academics had approved their scheme, that it was all to do with Graham Henry playing mind games, that the original haka had been changed to include an offensive throat-cutting routine and that the Kiwis had not objected to the arbitrary reversal of tradition until the last minute.

According to The Western Mail, Roger Lewis, the WRU chief executive, sounded particularly disingenuous in trying to distance himself from the debarkle by saying, "This kind of brinkmanship is not good for rugby and not fair on the fans. It's a great shame we did not see the haka on Saturday, we were all looking forward to it."

He's a master of spin, is Roger Lewis. He has chosen these words carefully to imply sympathy - indeed, empathy - with the fans while suggesting that New Zealand were solely at fault, without specifically saying so. This is slipperiness of the first order.

Lewis' attempt to deflect criticism by implying that the International Rugby Board would support the WRU's position on appeal was immediately scuppered by the IRB press officer, Greg Thomas, who told The Guardian, "If Wales want to raise the subject [with the board] they are free to do so, but what happens in a friendly is up to the two countries involved." He added that in the World Cup, "The countries that traditionally perform the haka - Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand - will be allowed to do so after the anthems." End of argument.

Shame on all the members of the board. What little credibility they had after Ruddock left has now been used up. They should all resign to make way for a more imaginative, honest, and responsible management. Until we have people with integrity running both the Welsh Rugby Union and the country, people who are prepared to take responsibility for their actions when things go awry as well as accept the plaudits when things go well, I'm afraid we'll be on a hiding to nothing.

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New spin on Charles' Marie Antoinette Syndrome

TO AVOID the kind public criticism that met Marie Antoinette's infamous construction of a rural hovel in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, Charles' public relations people continue to spin the story of the Duchy of Cornwall's purchase of a Welsh country estate into something they think might be more palatable to feeble Welsh brains.

Straw poles conducted last week suggested that the public didn't entirely buy the "base for Welsh visits" spin the story was originally given, so the BBC Wales website is now claiming "experts (unnamed) believe interest in the physicians [of Myddfai] may have led Prince Charles to buy Llwynywormwood. The prince was apparently intrigued by the physicians' story when he opened an exhibition on their work at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, a few miles away at Llanarthne." I've highlighted the keywords to illustrate how they con you. There is no substance to any of this rubbish.

The Physicians of Myddfai lived in the area in the 13th Century and were renowned for their healing powers. However, the Myddfai Community Website, in an article written by the property's previous owners, John and Patricia Hegarty, who have researched the subject very thoroughly, says quite clearly that [Llwynywormwood] "is a name with tantalising but unproven connections with the herbal traditions of the Parish of Myddfai.

The Duchy of Cornwall is a business that generates massive profits solely for Charles' benefit. The implication that's its purchase of a Welsh country estate will be of benefit to Welsh people is entirely false propaganda. If Charles really has altruistic motives then he should be answerable for the actuality.

Click here to but the t-shirt (My motives are not altruistic either)

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Let's invest in a winning Wales

On the afternoon of 7th March 2004, I watched Wales (22) get beaten by France (29) on television at my apartment in Paris, smoking cigars and drinking old bas armagnac (the only rugby-watching experience that comes anywhere near actually being there) with two French friends.

I’m a very bad loser so, despite the fact that the boys gave a good account of themselves and pushed France close at the end, I felt the need to quip, “That’s what you get when a big nation of 60 million people takes on a little nation of only 3 million people.”

My friend, Monsieur Freibourg, a graduate of Sciences Po, the elite Parisian academy that educates the French political and diplomatic leadership, not to mention its captains of industry of which Monsieur Freibourg is one (meaning that I should have known better than to try to be clever with him), immediately quipped back that he thought Wales would have “no problem beating China” at rugby.

Apart from being a deftly executed turnover, this was also a good philosophical point, which came into sharp focus as another little nation of 4 million people took us apart in Cardiff today.

The game, for me, conjured up the scene of the Battle of Morannon (The Black Gate) from the movie of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – shot in New Zealand as it happens – in which the tiny Army of the West is vastly outnumbered by Sauron's army of men-and-other-creatures-in-black. In Cardiff this evening, there was no one able to throw Graham Henry’s ring of power into the Taff, so the inevitable happened.

I didn’t think the boys played that badly but there was no way they could win since New Zealand play an entirely superior quality of game with far greater aggression and athleticism. There was no shame in defeat since Wales fought manfully to the end, but the problem is that, despite the best efforts of Mr Giggs, rugby is all we’ve got. New Zealand extracts national pride from having a decent cricket team too.

The priorities in England must be different. After all, rugby union is just one of any number of team games at which England tends to be thrashed nowadays – cricket, football, rugby league and hockey all spring to mind.

But rugby union is the fountain of Welsh national sporting pride and, after today, simply beating England and winning the Six Nations should not be considered important enough objectives. We need to win the World Cup, beating New Zealand by at least twenty points in the final. We should be prepared to invest whatever it takes to achieve this outcome, even to the point of raising taxes in Wales if that’s what’s needed.

It’s only a small step from there to setting out to achieve in Wales a standard of living approaching that of Ireland, population 4 million, which is now ranked 4th in the world after Norway, Sweden and Australia (the UK is ranked 18th). We’d just need inspired representation with our real interests at heart and – crucial point this – the power to go for it.

If little nations like New Zealand and Ireland can achieve these important objectives then so can we. We’re not lacking in heart or intelligence or numbers, we’re simply lacking the tools to do the job.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

The Pendragon Legend

IF YOU happen to pass a bookshop while these words are still in your head, you won't go far wrong by walking in and buying a copy of The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix and published by Pushkin Press, ISBN 1-901285-60-X.

This wonderful little book, written and first published in Hungarian in 1934, is a gently satirical mix of genres; being a gothic, romantic, metaphysical, country house murder mystery psychological thriller - a sort of Gosford Park meets The Da Vinci Code meets The Name of Rose meets The Devil Rides Out.

Set largely in North Wales - which is why I'm drawning your attention to it - the story concerns a young Hungarian scholar-dilettante who is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, a reclusive eccentric and the subject of strange rumours. Invited to stay at the Earl's family seat, Pendragon Castle, the young man receives a mysterious phone call warning him not to go....

The author exhibits a wonderfully sharp intelligence, probing moral, psychological and religious questions without ever reducing the rapid pace of the narrative.

It's particularly sad to know that, having published only two novels, Szerb was beaten to death in a labour camp in 1945. His second novel, Journey By Moonlight, written in 1937 and now also translated by Len Rix and published by Pushkin Press, ISBN 0-901285-50-2, is even better than The Pendragon Legend. Give the first book a go and I defy you not to buy the second.

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Charles and Camilla invest in Welsh hovel

SO, ESTATE agent Les Probert predicted in The Western Mail yesterday that property prices in the Llandovery area are set to boom with the revelation that Charles (and Camilla, apparently) have bought a farmhouse in the area. The Western Mail clearly thought this was a matter worthy of great rejoicing on the part of the populace since it devoted five full pages to the story.

The main feature alluded to "huge benefits for the West Wales economy" and mentioned the "warm welcome" given to the news by unnamed "business experts and economists" but the article failed to spell out why, exactly, we are expected to accept this as good news?

Property prices throughout Carmarthenshire have been booming for some time, driven ever higher by the insatiable demand in England for holiday homes and investment property. It is already the case that local people are priced out of the market and as the more picturesque villages gradually empty of indigenous population, so local schools and businesses are faced with closure.

It might be good news for the locals if they were able to sell up and move to, oh, I don't know, Romania, Bulgaria or Poland, for topical examples. But it's too late! English property investors have already caused booms in those markets too.

Ivor Jackson, the mayor of Llandovery, said he was "delighted" because, "It's going to benefit tourism to Llandovery and Myddfai and hopefully we will be able to have more investment come our way by reason of him taking up residence here. He might also bring in some more high-profile people round here."

I've lifted the above quote in full because I can't believe you really said those things, Mr Jackson. If I understand you correctly, you are encouraging the kind of investment that means your constituents will no longer be able to afford homes; you want to see the villages depopulated and the local schools close; you want an influx of hooray Henry's to grovel to and you want your congested, narrow roads to come to a complete standstill in the summer. Where's your head at? The good people of Llandovery should run you out of town but those that are left are probably blinded by the hype.

Charles may be totally out of touch with reality but his people are not daft. Remove the spin placed on the story by Charles' press office and you have the rather more prosaic news that The Duchy of Cornwall, a business of which Charles is the sole beneficiary, has invested in a 192 acre Welsh estate which happens to include a small coach house. The notion that he intends to use it as "a base for future royal visits to Wales" is clearly nonsense.

Obviously Charles needs the income that will come from renting the place out as a holiday let but the claim that "anyone using the property will be able to enjoy all the facilities, including the bedroom, kitchen and toilet used by the royal couple" is utterly ludicrous. That's how little they think of a Welsh person's intelligence.

I promise to eat my grubby WRU baseball cap if he ever really lives there.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Longing for home

Some years ago Sky Television invited me to a boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno, which was held outdoors in the old Arms Park in October. The rain broke just long enough for Lewis to beat the crap out of a hapless Bruno and the fight was over in no time.

It was a strange set-up, with the curious Welsh locals in the cheap seats in the upper tiers, miles from the ring, and the proper boxing fans, mostly London eastenders, seated on the pitch. The mid-price lower stands were totally empty.

Before the kick-off (punch-off), they played Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (the Welsh national anthem). The upper stands erupted in song, while all around me, sat in the front row, was an uncomprehending silence. At that moment I just wanted to be up there with the boys in the stands.

Hiraeth is such a beautiful word, both in terms of its sound and its meaning. I know I’ve sworn an oath against sentimentality and cliché but, for me, hearing Richard Burton’s recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood brings on this uniquely Welsh emotion every time.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Welsh National Costume or English straightjacket?

THE MORE I delve into Welsh iconography the more I feel like an extra in The Truman Show (a movie about a man who, without realising it, has lived all his life from birth as the subject of a reality television show).

It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the Welsh National Costume was invented by a wealthy English lady in the early-19th century to encourage Welsh women to wear wool produced in mills owned by her friends?

Influenced by fashion, comfort, cost and availability, women - not just in Wales but throughout the British Isles - were wearing garments made of cotton, milled in Britain but imported from the colonies, in place of traditional woollen clothing. As a result, the Welsh wool business was suffering and prices, both at market and at the mill door, were depressed.

Her motives probably weren't entirely as bad as it seems, and I wish I could feel more charitable towards Augusta Hall, also known as Lady Llanofer. She learnt to speak Welsh, which is more than can be said of me, and she even helped to found the first Welsh-language periodical for women. But she was an ultra-conservative hypocrite who believed that "false respectability encourages forms of dress incompatible with active employments".

My guess is that Lady Llanofer's 'Welsh' thing was, as much as anything else, motivated by a romantic fantasy of the rural idyll, a fashionable interest indulged in by the landowning gentry of the time.

Fortunately, she didn't feel the need to design a Welsh national costume for men because the extraordinary outfit in which she dressed her harpist, Thomas Gruffydd, would definitely get you bottled down the pub on a Friday evening.

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Monday, 20 November 2006

Pwllheli Pirates

One fateful day in 1566, a Dutch merchantman laden with sugar, molasses, goat’s skins and other wares on a voyage from North Africa to Antwerp dropped anchor off St Tudwal’s, two small islands a few miles west of Pwllheli. The ship was way off course because pirates had captured it.

The pirates sold the stolen cargo to the inhabitants of Pwllheli, who were desperately short of provisions. Having pocketed the profits, they sailed off into the sunset leaving local brothers Jevan and Richard ap Meredith to face the noose.

Asda is currently in the process of providing a similar service to the people of Pwllheli, riding roughshod over the planning process to build a superstore that will ship profits back to their Wal-Mart shareholders in the USA.

Although Pwllheli will now have the convenience of a superstore on its doorstep, it'll be at the cost of numerous small Welsh businesses that used to put money back into the local economy. There's globalisation for you.

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Sunday, 19 November 2006

The humble daffodil: proper Welsh emblem or a cheap bit of tat

The daffodil, it seems, originated in Portugal, Spain and the southern coast of France, not in Wales. But the daffodil is cheap and cheerful and only lasts for a couple of weeks, which makes it eminently suitable as our national emblem.

The name for daffodil in Welsh (cenhinen Bedr) translates as Peter's Leek. The word for leek is ‘cenhinen’. This allows plenty of scope for conjecture and confusion. I might as well add to it.

Daffodils are also known as Lent Lilies, Easter Lilies, Daffys, Narcissus and by the Latin name Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. The Greek Theophrastus first wrote about narcissi around 300BC in his Enquiry into Plants. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and was turned into a flower by the gods.

Medieval Arabs apparently used the juice of wild daffodils as a cure for baldness. I have no idea if it works. It is said that Roman soldiers carried daffodils with them to eat if they should be mortally wounded in battle, in order to hasten their journey to the underworld.

Mohammed wrote: "He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for some flowers of the Narcissus, for bread is food for the body, but Narcissus is food of the soul."

Mercifully, the Welsh are only encouraged to wear daffodils in their buttonholes on 1st March of year, and the kind of Welshmen who possess buttonholes do actually wear them. But why?

The daffodil became a popular Welsh symbol in the 19th century. Lloyd George, no doubt feeling that leeks were a bit dull and unattractive, used the daffodil to symbolise Wales at the 1911 Investiture of Edward Windsor, the soon-to-be Nazi sympathiser who, having been crowned Edward VIII of England, got sacked for marrying an American divorcee.

I have no idea why you need a plant as a symbol for a country. Is it any wonder some nationalists prefer the rather more powerful and evocative symbol of the white eagle of Snowdonia?

What else do you need to know? There are about 50 species of daffodils, and many thousands of named cultivars and hybrids of garden origin. The Royal Horticultural Society International Daffodil Register lists more than 26,400 named daffodils. They're common as muck!

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