2004-12-31

List: Best Pop Song of All Time

'Led Zeppelin's' haunting 1970's classic 'Stairway To Heaven' has been voted the best pop song of all time -- just a week after bagging best rock song in another poll. More than 20_000 music fans voted. The 'Virgin Radio' poll also revealed the 1980s was the most popular decade -- polling more votes in the top 500 than any other. The decade that gave us Madonna, 'Wham!' and 'Duran Duran' gave the list 158, compared to 141 from the 1970s, 95 from the 1990s and only 60 from the 1960s. The rest were from the past five years. Former 'Madness' frontman and 'Virgin Radio' DJ 'Suggs' was delighted the 1980s had proved so popular.
'It's great to be back in fashion, although personally I've never felt like anything but a trend-setter', he said. 'The 80s produced loads of great songs from a host of talented bands, from 'The Specials' and 'The Police' to 'The Jam' and 'U2' -- and of course 'Madness', although how 'Baggy Trousers' was only at number 486, I don't know'.
Top 20:
  1. 'Stairway to Heaven' -- 'Led Zeppelin';
  2. 'One' -- 'U2' ;
  3. 'Sweet Child O' Mine' -- 'Guns N' Roses' ;
  4. 'Everybody Hurts' -- 'REM';
  5. 'Angels' -- Robbie Williams;
  6. 'Imagine' -- John Lennon;
  7. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' -- 'Queen' ;
  8. Bitter Sweet Symphony' -- 'The Verve' ;
  9. 'Hotel California' -- 'The Eagles' ;
  10. 'Trouble' -- 'Coldplay';
  11. 'Let It Be' -- 'The Beatles' ;
  12. 'Brown Eyed Girl' -- Van Morrison;
  13. 'Under The Bridge' -- 'Red Hot Chili Peppers' ;
  14. 'Space Oddity' -- David Bowie;
  15. 'Pride' -- 'U2';
  16. 'Every Breath You Take' -- 'The Police' ;
  17. 'Heart Of Glass' -- 'Blondie' ;
  18. 'Don't You Want Me' -- 'The Human League' ;
  19. 'Wonderwall' -- 'Oasis' ;
  20. 'Another Brick In The Wall' -- 'Pink Floyd'.
'Led Zeppelin Top Best Song Poll', Yahoo! News, 2004-12-31, Fr 05:53

New Year's Honours

Golfer Mr.Colin Montgomerie and Olympic gold medallists Mr.Chris Hoy and Ms.Shirley Robertson are among the Scots who feature in the 'New Year Honours List'. Cyclist Mr.Hoy becomes an 'MBE', while there are 'OBEs' for Mr.Montgomery and yachtsman Ms.Robertson. Strathclyde Firemaster Mr.Brian Sweeney, whose leadership was praised after the 'Stockline Factory Explosion', receives the 'Queen's Fire Service Medal'. Musicians the 'Alexander Brothers' and sculptor Mr.George Wyllie become MBEs. The Gourock artist is the man behind such internationally-renowned works as the 'Straw Locomotive' and the 'Paper Boat'. Monty Mr.Montgomerie, who was already an 'MBE', has been made an 'OBE' for services to golf. He sank the winning putt to clinch victory over the USA for Europe's 'Ryder Cup' team in 2004-09. He said he had enjoyed being part of 'a great team'.
'This honour is wonderful for me personally and I'm very pleased to get it', he said. 'I feel I have a lot more to give and it fills me with confidence going into 2005'.
Shirley Robertson Ms.Robertson led her crew to a 'Gold' medal in the demanding 'Yngling Class' in the Olympics in Athens. The 36-year-old, who was also already an 'MBE', said:
'I'm thrilled. It's a great honour to get an upgrade!'
Chris Hoy Mr.Hoy won 'Gold' in the kilometre time-trial in Athens by recording the fastest-ever time at sea level. He said:
'Obviously, it's a massive honour. It's not something you expect to happen but now that it has I'm delighted'.
There was also an 'MBE' for swimmer Mr.Jim Anderson, from Broxburn, who won four 'Golds' at the 'Paralympic Games'. The 41-year-old, who has 'Cerebral palsy', was also named 'BBC Scotland Sports Personality of the Year in 2004'. He said:
'The "MBE" really is the icing on the cake for me'.
The honour for Mr.Brian Sweeney was one of several received by those in the emergency services north of the border. He said he would collect the 'Queen's medal' on behalf of all the firefighters involved in the 'Maryhill' rescue operation in May 2004. Nine people died after an explosion destroyed the factory, and fire crews worked round the clock to rescue workers from the rubble. Mr.Sweeney said:
'I wouldn't be comfortable in accepting it just for myself. 'I got the easy job -- speaking to the camera and leading a group of determined, professional people. 'At "Maryhill", there were 800 firefighters there. This award is a reflection on each and every one of them'.
Mountain rescuer Mr.David Gunn was appointed an 'MBE' after more than 30 years of life-saving work. The team medical officer and first-aider for 'Glencoe Mountain Rescue' received the honour in recognition of his services to the voluntary group. Mr.Gunn, 47, said:
'I had no idea, I am a little bit in shock. Obviously I am very pleased that I have been given this award'.
A number of business figures also featured in 'The New Year Honours list'. Mr.John Shepherd-Barron from Tain in Ross-shire, who is credited with inventing the automated cash machine (ATM) , has been appointed an 'OBE'. Keith Miller Susan Rice Mr.Keith Miller, chief executive of 'The Miller Group', becomes a 'CBE', as does Lloyds TSB Scotland's Chief Executive Ms.Susan Rice. There is an 'OBE' honour for Ms.Marjorie Walker, joint managing director of 'Walkers Shortbread'. Mr.Peter Lederer, the chairman of 'VisitScotland', and Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley Tourist Board' Chief Executive Mr.Edward Friel are both appointed 'CBEs' for services to tourism. Elsewhere, there is an appointment as an 'MBE' for Mr.Donald Morrison, janitor at Lionel School on the Isle of Lewis. 'Sporting stars top honours list ', BBC NEWS, 2004-12-31

2004-12-30

Stats: Population Growth in Edinburgh Alarming

Edinburgh is on course to overtake Glasgow as Scotland's biggest city. Official projections by government statisticians forecast that the capital will become Scotland's most populous city in just 38 years -- although some experts predict it could happen much sooner. At present, there are 120_000 more people living in Glasgow than in Edinburgh, but that gap is closing very quickly -- by 31_000 every decade. Glasgow is losing 20_000 citizens every ten years while Edinburgh is gaining 11_000. Edinburgh city strategists, worried that the rate of migration might increase, are starting to plan for an even more rapid rise in the capital's population. Indeed, one of the projections made by official government statisticians shows Glasgow declining at a rate of 2_600 every year, which would make Edinburgh Scotland's biggest city in less than 30 years.
If Edinburgh does become Scotland's most populous city, it would act as a fitting cap to its rising strength and dominance over the past couple of decades. Glasgow was always Scotland's biggest and most influential city when the traditional industries were at their height through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it revelled in the title 'Second City of the Empire', after London. Even until the 1950s and 1960s, Glasgow's position as Scotland's powerhouse and population centre was unrivalled. But, as the heavy industries declined and the financial services sector boomed, Scotland's economic centre of gravity shifted from the Clyde to the Forth.
A spokesman for Edinburgh City Council said the authority was working as fast as possible to build the houses necessary to cope with the extra residents drawn to the capital. However, a female spokesman for Glasgow's council said it did not agree with the official projections from government experts and stressed that the city was doing all it could to reverse the trend. She acknowledged that the General Register Office for Scotland predicted a loss of 2_600 people from Glasgow every year but said that the city's own figures suggested the rate would be much less than that, even as little as 1_054. The burgeoning success of the Edinburgh festivals and the arrival of the Scottish Parliament have added to the pull of the capital, which is now attracting hundreds of migrants from the rest of Scotland, England and across the world every year. As this is happening, so Glasgow's population is falling as many decide to move east in search of work. The latest estimates from the government's General Register Office reveal that Glasgow's population for 2005 will be 569_000, while Edinburgh's will be 120_000 fewer -- 449_000. The forecast for 2015 gives Glasgow 549_000 and Edinburgh 460_000, a gap of less than 90_000. One of Glasgow's problems is that its boundaries do not include the huge conurbations round its edge, which still provide homes for most of Scotland's population. So, while the cities are on course to swap the crown of Scotland's biggest, it will be a long, long time -- if ever -- before the Strathclyde area is overtaken by the Lothians. The Edinburgh effect is not influencing population only in the capital, however. The surrounding areas, particularly East and West Lothian, the Borders and Fife, are also experiencing a housing boom, as those working in Edinburgh look for affordable accommodation outside the city. All this is happening as the population of Scotland as a whole decreases, making Edinburgh's success in bucking the trend all the more stark. Alistair Harvey, the professional officer in the planning and strategy department at Edinburgh City Council, said he and others in his team were working all the time to try to find ways of satisfying the demands of people wanting to move to the capital. He said there was a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' in the official projections put out by the General Register Office for Scotland. He said that planners reacted to the forecasts and made sure enough new homes were built in Edinburgh. But, because the new homes are then made available, people move into them, fulfilling the initial projections and leading to even bigger estimates for Edinburgh's population, which then result in even more new houses -- and so on. Mr.Harvey said:
'What we are trying to do is find enough land for our planning process to accommodate the houses the registrar and the Scottish Executive is saying we need'.
The projections remained broadly the same over time, but sometimes the actual changes were slower than forecast and sometimes quicker. Mr.Harvey said it was very possible that Edinburgh's rate of growth might accelerate in the next couple of decades.
'It is largely inward migration rather than births and deaths', he said. 'The general trend is people moving into the area for work. There is a very strong economy in Edinburgh and it is growing strongly as well'.
Mr.Harvey stressed that employment projections were notoriously hard to predict at a local level because they were influenced by so much by single big decisions -- whether or not a major business was going to site its headquarters in the city. Leith -- particularly around 'Ocean Terminal' -- Cramond and the north of the city are the big growth areas at the moment, soaking up much of the demand for new housing. The Glasgow council female spokesman said city leaders did not believe the decline in its population would be as dramatic as predicted by the General Register Office. She said the city council had put together its own projections and these suggested the population would fall by 11_000 in the ten years between 2003 and 2013, not the 26_000 over ten years forecast by the government's experts. The city was doing all it could to reverse the rate of population loss. She said:
'Within the context of a nationally declining population trend, it is inevitable that Glasgow, as the largest city, will see a significant impact'.
The female spokesman said that every authority in Scotland was worried about Edinburgh's rapid rate of growth. She added:
'We are working to improve the physical, social and economic attractiveness of their respective areas, and working with all relevant authorities to ensure a balanced approach to the future development of Scotland as a whole'.
'Capital to be biggest city in Scotland by 2042', Hamish Macdonell, The Scotsman, 2004-12-30 Previously on this Blog... Stats: Population to fall below five million 2003-12 Stats: Top Ten Conditions for Happiness 2003-10 Plans to Boost Population 2003-02 Stats: Census Figures Reveal Concerns 2002-10 Stats: Scotland Depopulating 2002-09

Money: Plastic overtakes Cash

Spending on credit cards and debit cards has overtaken cash spending for the first time, it was revealed yesterday. British shoppers are expected to have spent 269_000_million_GBP using plastic during 2004, compared with 268_000_million_GBP in cash payments.
The 'Association for Payment Clearing Services' has calculated that a transaction made at 10:38 yesterday, 2004-12-29 was the point at which plastic became the most popular payment method.
Experts think that the shift towards plastic has been driven by the convenience and security of card transactions. Nine in ten people own at least one credit or debit card. The news comes as Halifax prepares to launch an innovative current account in February that pays customers cashback of 1 per cent of spending on debit cards. The account is likely to shake up the current-account market, which is dominated by the big four banks: Barclays, HSBC, NatWest and Lloyds TSB. Paul Freathy, a director of 'The Institute for Retail Studies' at the University of Stirling, said the findings were proof of a move towards a cashless society. Mr.Freathy said:
'Using cash transactions is more risky for retailers, as they are liable if the money is stolen, whereas it is the debit-card companies which take responsibility if money is lost through them. 'Debit cards are unlikely to replace small-change purchases, but with an increase in on-line buying they will continue to be used more and more', he added. 'Debit cards are a good thing for the consumer, as it means they don't have to carry round large sums of cash and, given that we now consume in one-stop-shop-style premises, for example in supermarkets, it's easier to use a debit card than to go back and forth to the cash point if you run out of money'. He added: 'It's safer and more secure to use plastic, and now that we can also use our cards in shops on the Continent, they are going to have an impact on travellers' cheques'.
Stuart Glendinning, marketing director of the personal finance website moneysupermarket.com warned that some people should stick to using cash if they have a history of getting into debt. He said:
'Using plastic cards is a good thing for most people, as it offers the benefit that your money is covered by insurance. However, it isn't so good for the less disciplined, who shouldn't use credit or debit cards. 'A plus for using debit cards, though, is the fact that you aren't restricted by the 200_GBP limit that most accounts have on ATM [automatic teller machine] withdrawals, as you can easily spend more than that in a day, especially at Christmas time. 'I think the convenience will keep people using their debit cards, and with internet shopping really starting to kick in, we are seeing a result of our ever-increasingly busy lifestyles, where we don't have time to stand queuing at ATMs'.
There are more than 130_million plastic cards in use in the UK -- with debit cards accounting for 65 per cent of card spending.
The first charge card was launched in the UK in 1951, allowing shoppers to delay paying for goods until the end of the month. It was not until June 1966 that the first full credit card -- the Barclaycard -- arrived, allowing consumers to extend the period over which they paid, as long as they covered a specified minimum. The first debit card went into operation in 1987.
'Credit where credit's due -- plastic overtakes cash for the first time', Angie Brown, The Scotsman, 2004-12-30 Previously on this Blog: Money: Credit Card Changing Conditions, 2004-11-27

2004-12-29

Money: Fears About Arrival of The Licensing Act 2003

Call for 24-hour drink slowdown (2004-12-28) The move to allow pubs to stay open 24 hours a day needs to be 'slowed down' and 'given more consideration', England's top police chief has warned. Sir John Stevens, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who is to stand down in 2005-01, said 'binge-drinking' was a growing problem. It is hoped permitting pubs and clubs to stay open all day will stagger closing times and avoid drinkers spilling onto the streets at the same time. But Mr.Stevens said such a move would take resources away from other areas of policing, as officers will be diverted to manning the streets in the early hours.
'The fact that large groups of people will be coming out at 03:00 or 04:00 will mean that we have to "man up the streets" to deliver a service to ensure these people behave'.
He also said 'binge-drinking' was a growing problem.
'I think there has been a deterioration in how people behave on the streets', he said. 'You can see excessive drinking in extraordinary amounts on a Friday or Saturday night. 'That's one of the reasons I think that assaults against the police have gone up. The number of assaults on police officers in London had risen 40 per cent this year', he said.
This was also partly because they have become more 'pro-active', with 30_000 more arrests this year (2004) than two years ago. New powers The government's Licensing Act 2003 -- due to be introduced next year, 2005 -- will give 'Local Authorities', and not magistrates, the powerto grant Licences. Not only will it allow round-the-clock drinking, but it will combine alcohol and entertainment licences into a single licence. 'Local Authorities' will also get discretion to apply flexible opening hours. And the bill aims to combat drink-related Disorder. Police will have new powers to close any licensed premises -- without notice -- for up to 24 hours if there are problems with Disorder or Noise Nuisance. Culture Secretary, Ms.Tessa Jowell has said the bill will treat people 'like grown-ups' and give the current laws a much-needed 'overhaul'. 'Call for 24-hour drink slowdown', BBC NEWS,2004/12/28 09:33:15 GMT Head-to-head: 24-hour drinking (2005-01-14) Former health secretary Mr.Frank Dobson is the latest figure to pour scorn on the government's plans to allow pubs to open around-the-clock. Critics are now arguing that if opening hours are extended, the drinks industry should be subject to a levy to pay for the extra cost of policing. And with politicians and police officers divided, even the drinks industry cannot agree on whether to relax licensing hours. Mr.Mark Jones, chief executive of 'Yates Group', the owner of 153 pubs formerly known as 'Yates's Wine Lodges', is vehemently opposed to the reforms. He said:
'We are totally opposed to the change in the law. We won't apply for any licences that extend our opening hours to 24 hours. A handful will open one or two hours later. 'The latest we open is 02:00. We have spent hundreds of thousands opening late, we provide food until 01:00. There is already saturation on the number of late licences. 'You could have a situation where an arms race develops. If one pub moves its hours on, another will have to. It could well spiral out of control. 'Everyone seems to think it is a city centre issue. I'm talking about smaller towns. 'Where are the transport structures and the number of police? We operate in Taunton. I can't see the bus company running lots of extra buses at04:00. 'This is coming at the wrong time for the industry. We are under pressure over "binge drinking". We are going to lose support. 'The industry is at a "crossroads". We were the first company to ban "happy hours". We launched an initiative to tackle "binge drinking". These changes would also mean a pub could open at 08:00. There is already "licence staggering", so not every pub closes at the same time. How does The Local Authority decide which pub will be "anointed" as the last one to close? That will be the most profitable. In a perfect world, we would be sipping "Pernod" and smoking "Gauloises" in outside caf�s -- but that isn't the UK. If you operate in the "late-night" economy, you probably have to make a "contribution"... it would depend on how much we are "talking about". What I wouldn't want to see is if I'm going to spend [on a levy for extra policing] I don't want to see them "nicking" motorists on the M4, I want them in town centres. We are very "forward looking" -- if we were "short-term" we would be in favour of this bill.
But Mr.Mark Hastings, of 'The British Beer and Pub Association' disagrees:
'We are in favour of "flexible" drinking. All the stories about 24-hour drinking are wrong. 'There is not a single pub in the country that intends to open for 24 hours and not a single one of our customers that wants to drink for 24 hours. 'Under the current law of this country, at 23:00 you face two choices: you go home, or you go to a nightclub (or bar) pumping out loud music. 'We want all adults, not just young adults, to have a social life after 23:00. 'We have just undertaken the latest in a regular series of surveys. The latest any pub is planning to open is until 02:00. They will do that on a Friday or Saturday. 'Most people have jobs or families and don't want to be in pubs or bars until 03:00 or 04:00 in the morning. 'People might want to go out to dinner and have a drink afterwards. We don't live in a "9 to 5" society, we live in a 24-hour society. 'If you have a fixed closing time, you just shift all the problems until another time in the evening. 'If you treat adults like grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. 'There is already a levy on the alcoholic drinks industry called tax -- we are paying 22_000_million_GBP/year. 'This year, the government will spend 10_000_million_GBP on all policing. 'From the sums we give to the government they could pay for two entire police forces and still have change left. 'In every other country that has a flexible licensing system people behave in a different way than in Britain'.
'Call for 24-hour drink slowdown', BBC NEWS,2005/01/14 23:38:15 GMT

2004-12-27

Greenhouse Gases versus Nuclear Power

Article 1: Allan Wilson MSP Allan Wilson, (Scottish Labour, Cunninghame North, allan.wilson.msp@scottish.parliament.uk, Tel: (0131) 348 5773), the Scottish Executive's minister for 'Renewable Energy', said it was wrong to reject the idea of nuclear power stations at a time when there was a growing movement against gas powered stations, because of the damage they do to the environment.
The minister did not say he definitely wanted to see more nuclear plants in Scotland but suggested a proper debate had to take place and that an expansion of nuclear energy might be inevitable.
A spokesman for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) said there was absolutely no justification for any expansion of nuclear energy because Scotland was 'the Saudi Arabia of renewables', insisting there was so much potential in wind and wave power that nuclear plants were not necessary. Mr.Wilson, in an article in a 'Sunday newspaper', said:
'Does it make sense, at the very time when climate change and greenhouse gas reduction have shot up the political agenda, to be planning the total elimination of nuclear power? Many environmentalists have decided that it most definitely does not make sense to head in that direction'.
'Anger over support for nuclear power', Hamish Macdonell, The Scotsman, 2004-12-27 Article 2: Nuclear Power conjures up many images in the eyes of the British public, almost all of them negative. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remembered by the Second World War generation, while the fear and paranoia of 'The Cold War' is pertinent to the next. To environmentalists, there is the potentially horrific impact of nuclear waste. The correct way to dispose of radioactive material remains a matter of dispute and some of the UK's power stations still need an armed security force. To the business world -- and taxpayers -- the controversial bail-outs of 'British Energy' (BE)and 'BNFL' are fresh examples of the tribulations of nuclear power. East Kilbride-based BE was privatised in 1995, but was set for collapse just seven years later. Its publicly-funded restructuring package is still to be granted final approval by the European Union, but many say that The Government had no choice but to come up with a scheme. BE runs eight ageing power stations across the UK, including Torness in East Lothian, and would not have been able to safeguard their decommissioning programmes had the firm been allowed to hit the wall. Mark Johnston, a Brussels-based lobbyist for 'Friends of the Earth', says the company's rescue scheme 'effectively blackmailed the government'. He added:
'What they said is: "If you don't give us money, there could be a nasty accident"'.
But despite all this negativity, the government is faced with a dilemma: we may need to build more nuclear power stations in the UK and soon. The evidence is clear-cut: nuclear power is responsible for 22 per cent of all energy generated in the UK; yet of the 13 stations still active, only three will still be pumping out power in ten years. That means around 15 per cent of our current usage needs to be replaced soon. This is a key argument for the often desperate push to build windfarms. A related problem is that this winter the UK will become a net importer of gas for the first time. 'Scottish Gas'-owner 'Centrica' was recently said to be in talks with Russian giant 'Gazprom'. Many observers are uneasy about this development, partly because relying on foreign governments has never been popular in the UK. Another concern is that the further gas travels, the more likely it is to leak. This is not just expensive, it also hampers the UK's obligation to 'The Kyoto Agreement' -- a third key reason why greater nuclear power is becoming such a realistic possibility. The current 'New Labour' government promised in 1994 that, by 2010, it would reduce emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels. That was in opposition, of course, but Tony Blair and co. have repeated the target in election manifestos. Then last month, 'New Labour' announced that it would only cut emissions by 14 per cent. This will still be up on Kyoto-set targets of 12.5 per cent, but it remains an embarrassment and only serves to intensify the debate over nuclear power. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which will ultimately make the decision to re-invest or not, is determined that the construction of new stations should not be seen as an inevitability. A DTI spokesman said:
'We are not ruling it out for the future but, as it stands, it's not happening'.
The decision is based on the idea that wind -- followed by tidal and wave power -- will be enough to offset the gas shortage and boost the decline in 'carbon emissions'. The DTI has the support of 'The Carbon Trust', the organisation set up by the government to promote awareness of carbon emission targets. Tom Delay, the group's director, says that
'All figures show that if renewables are combined with increased energy efficiencies -- particularly by businesses -- then we don't need nuclear power'.
But Delay is quick to point out that the group's conclusions are only theoretical.
'The government may prefer to have a choice', he says.
Renewables remain untested as a primary source of energy, with distribution networks yet to be upgraded to accommodate it. The Nuclear Industry Association (NAI) says its chief concern is the increase of gas imports, which it claims will pose unnecessary risks to the security of fossil fuels. A female spokesman says that the solution should be an increase in homegrown power.
'Look at Finland', she argues. 'They said no to Russian gas and became pro-nuclear, even though they are much closer than we are'.
Nick Kuenssberg, a board member of 'ScottishPower' for 13 years, is adamant that the NAI is right. As a neutral observer, he acknowledges that nuclear waste remains close to the public conscience, but insists that a reliance on the outside world should be avoided at all costs.
'The growth of China and India will create a huge demand on world supply, meaning we might not always be" first in the queue"', he warns. 'Besides, how sensible is it to rely on "unstable" regions such as Russia and the Middle East?'
Alongside fears of international dependence come the problems of constructing new stations in the UK. On this, the DTI spokesman has another rebuke up his sleeve:
'The industry is not banging down the door in support of nuclear power stations', he says. 'The industry does not want to build them'.
This sounds plausible -- the experience of 'British Energy' is not likely to whet the appetite of most companies -- but the argument is not sound. Either publicly or privately, the major utilities believe that nuclear power will make a comeback; they know that it is yet to be in their financial interests to call for it. Ian Marchant, the chief executive of 'Scottish & Southern Energy', has been the most emphatic. He said at the firm's most recent results that nuclear power has a future in the UK, but when asked whether he is keen to get involved, he replied:
'No, but I may have to'.
What he means is that it would not be in his business interests to ignore the development should it come about. The government would almost certainly offer cash incentives -- as it does with 'Renewable Obligation Certificates' -- to convince power companies to join the party. Furthermore, the NAI adds that there is no reason why international firms should not get involved. Companies in France may be better set up to build new power stations and could compete with UK rivals. With the case for a return to nuclear generation gathering speed, it will come down to the government to make a decision. The problem is when? It could take up to seven years to complete a project of this scale, meaning the wheels must be in motion within three. Nothing will happen soon. The brief of new energy minister Mike O'Brien is almost certainly restricted to keeping the lights on until after the election. But in the following years, nuclear energy may be back on the agenda once again. The public, as well as the utilities, must be ready for it. 'Dilemma as case grows for more reliance on nuclear energy', John Bowker, The Scotsman via Yahoo! News, 2005-01-04, Tu, 03:00 Previously on this Blog: Gizmo: Unlimited New Energy from Sun and Water 2004-11-23 Gizmo: New Turbine Wind Farm for 2007 2004-11-01 Gizmo: Shoes That Generate Electricity 2004-02-11

Gizmo: The Demented to be Electronically Tagged

Pensioners in Scotland could be electronically tagged to stop them disappearing from hospitals and care homes, it emerged yesterday. The plans, aimed at helping those with 'dementia' by giving them more freedom to leave hospitals and care homes for short periods, are being drawn up by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. The group's recommendations will be published in the spring and, if adopted, could be brought in for institutions across the country by the end of the year. The commission believes the tags could save lives by preventing patients with 'dementia' and other mental 'disorders' straying into danger. Donny Lyons, director of the commission, said:
'We are not saying it is right or wrong but for some people it may improve their lives, so we have tried to give advice on best clinical practice, and also how we can do this within the law'.
Dr.Lyons added:
'We are not saying it should be used indiscriminately, nor should it ever be used to save on the cost of appropriate staffing, but there is a balance between the person's freedom and the right to safety and security, and the duty of care homes to provide that safety and security'.
'Electronic tags for pensioners', Hamish Macdonell, The Scotsman, 2004-12-27

2004-12-25

Science & Stats: The 'God Gene'

Ms.Margaret Cook (The Scotsman columnist) loathes the commercial Christmas 'kitsch' as much as any 'Christian', yet she is an 'atheist'. Christmas to her is more than a family feast and nostalgia for childhood memories. The feast is immeasurably ancient, a superimposing of a 'Christian' gloss on a 'pagan fest' in days of yore, and she loves the 'pagan' element; all that mistletoe, ivy and holly, angst of the winter solstice, 'figgy' pudding, bells, 'wassail', 'yule-logs', garlanded boar's head, 'Twelfth Night'. Christmas music has the power to stop her in her tracks, and she has always argued religion has inspired the best of 'art' and music, which may yet be admired with purely 'secular' senses. ...And now she has been altogether vindicated because there is solid science to prove spirituality is a 'psychogenic' trait, selectively conserved through 'aeons' for its beneficial effects. An American geneticist even claims to have found a gene for it, which he calls, controversially, 'the God-gene'.
Because the 'sacred' and the 'scientific' occupy separate 'modules' in the mind and seem to be mutually incompatible, Ms.Cook asked 'The Moderator of the Church of Scotland', Ms.Alison Eliot, for her reaction and she raised her eyebrows at the idea, but did not dismiss it altogether. Mr.Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, was also inclined to be sceptical. He thought that the infinitely varied mysteries of human nature could not be reduced to a mere chemical:
'We've had the "gay" gene, the "God" gene, whatever next, a "mountain-climbing" gene?'
Yet he did accept that it was wholly human to ask big questions and seek answers, implying we did not always have the humility to accept there was something beyond our human capacity to know and understand.
Mr.Dean Hamer, the geneticist-author of 'The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes', wanted to explore, in a scientific way, our human need to believe in something larger than ourselves. His first task was to pin down the elusive quality of spirituality to a definition that could be measured. He used a 'self-transcendence scale' invented by a 'psychiatrist', which recognises three attributes:
  • 'self forgetfulness',
  • 'transpersonal identification' and
  • 'mysticism'.
There is a quiz (see below) -- of the type so beloved of magazines -- in which you can test yourself in all three areas on a scale from 'natural guru' to 'complete sceptic'. 'Self-forgetfulness' involves, among other things, a capacity for total absorption in an activity, or an ability to love someone to the extent of losing a sense of boundary between yourself and them. 'Transpersonal identification' is expressed in a sense of 'oneness' with the natural world, a need to conserve and protect animals and plants, a veneration for things beyond oneself. 'Mysticism' is all about being moved profoundly by beauty, believing in the 'supernatural', anticipating an event with 'sixth sense', experiencing 'extra-sensory perception', believing in 'miracles'.
The quiz was tried on 1_001 people picked as randomly as possible and the answers checked for coherence and consistency. The conclusion reached was that spirituality/'self-transcendence' is indeed a valid 'psychological' trait with no overlap with other measurable traits in established personality inventories, such as 'neuroticism', 'extroversion' and others. There was no bias for age or race, but there was for gender -- women scoring 18 per cent higher than men. The lack of variation with age hinted it might not be a learned characteristic. This leads on to the next question: whether the trait is acquired or inherited, or both.
To improve our understanding of how inherited elements contribute to behaviour, is by the comparative studies of twins (identical and fraternal) and of siblings. Twenty years ago in the University of Minnesota, a team explored by this method the origin of 'religious fervour', and showed consistently that at least half of the motivation was 'genetic'. This study enquired into 'orthodox' beliefs, church attendance and other practices. They were asking questions about 'religion' rather than 'spirituality', an important distinction. Yet it means the concept of an instinct for the 'metaphysical' is not new.
Later studies have teased these two features apart, and shown that a 'spiritual leaning' as gauged by the 'self-transcendence' scale is significantly innate or instinctive, not learned from parents, teachers or priests, whereas the customs, creeds and general baggage of an established religion are more culturally acquired. Indeed, it is what you would expect.
Mr.Hamer's next quest -- to find a 'genetic determinant' for a sense of 'mysticism' -- was much harder, involving a certain amount of inspired guesswork.
He reasoned that altered states of 'consciousness' induced, for instance, when certain 'psychoactive' plants have been 'ingested', resemble 'mystical' trances and visions. These plants have been used for centuries past in sacred tribal rituals: 'psilocybin' from mushrooms, 'mescaline' from the 'peyote cactus' and others. Now these 'mind-bending' plants act on brain chemicals called 'monoamines', the most important of which are 'serotonin' and 'dopamine'. 'Genes' affecting the function and transport of these chemicals were analysed, using material from the 1_001 volunteer candidates. And, to cut a long research story short, after 'trial and error', one gene showed variations (called 'polymorphisms') which tied in with the gene-owners' levels of assessed 'self-transcendence'. It is the 'VMAT2 gene' (or 'vesicular monoamine transporter'), dubbed the 'spiritual allele'. And of course it is a gross oversimplification to label it thus.
It must be emphasised that the received wisdom of a 'hard-wired circuit' for 'spirituality' in no way proves or disproves anything about 'God'. 'Orthodox' believers do not need to be defensive. A deity might reasonably insert some positive discriminatory material, one would suppose. A conserved trait, in evolutionary terms, must have conveyed a selective survival/reproductive advantage, or else it would not be there. Why and how it does so is another question altogether. Ms.Cook thinks that the need for a capacity for faith beyond the rational became essential in 'prehistory', when human brains got sufficiently perceptive to understand that death would come to everyone; that the centre of the universe -- I -- shall some day die. It is a thought not to be borne, which is why religions, without exception, promise eternal life in some shape or form. For the rest of us 'non-believers', who seem to be in the majority in the UK, those who can counteract the depressing thought with an ebullient, if irrational, optimism will both survive better and are more likely to live life as if oblivious of our own mortality; which serves evolution's purpose (metaphorically speaking) well. At a 'molecular' level, 'dopamine' -- the happy, confident, feel-good chemical -- plays a part in partner diversity and novelty-seeking. That is to say, in philandering, which is good for seed dispersal. 'Serotonin' likewise influences sexual frequency. The 'VMA2 gene' facilitates this wanton activity, entirely detached from emotional or moral dimensions.
It may or may not be a surprise to find such a sensual link between 'sacred' and 'secular'. But the benefits of a 'spiritual' life should perhaps be left to the faith of the individual, as well as an acceptance of the scientific basis of otherworldliness. Ms.Margaret Cook personally has received a distinct lift from being able to recognise and acknowledge her 'spiritual' side, without having to bend the knee to any dogma or discipline. She shall enjoy Christmas all the more for that revelation.
QUIZ: HOW SPIRITUAL ARE YOU?
  1. I often feel so connected to the people around me, that it is like there is no separation between us. TRUE/FALSE
  2. I often do things to help protect animals and plants from extinction. TRUE/FALSE
  3. I am fascinated by the things in life that cannot be scientifically explained. TRUE/FALSE
  4. Often I have unexpected flashes of insight or understanding while relaxing. TRUE/FALSE
  5. I sometimes feel so connected to nature that everything seems to be part of one living organism. TRUE/FALSE
  6. I seem to have a 'sixth sense' that sometimes allows me to know what's going to happen. TRUE/FALSE
  7. Sometimes, I have felt like I was part of something with no limits or boundaries in time and space. TRUE/FALSE
  8. I am often called 'absent-minded' because I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I lose track of everything else. TRUE/FALSE
  9. I often feel a strong sense of unity with all the things around me. TRUE/FALSE
  10. Even after thinking about something for a long time, I have learned to trust my feelings more than my 'logical' reasons. TRUE/FALSE
  11. I often feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with all the people around me. TRUE/FALSE
  12. Often when I am concentrating on something, I lose awareness of the passage of time. TRUE/FALSE
  13. I have made real personal sacrifices in order to make the world a better place TRUE/FALSE
  14. I have had experiences that made my role in life so clear to me that I felt very happy and excited. TRUE/FALSE
  15. I believe that I have experienced 'extrasensory perception'. TRUE/FALSE
  16. I feel a sense of 'oneness' with all that exists. TRUE/FALSE
  17. Often when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens. I get the feeling that I am seeing it fresh for the first time. TRUE/FALSE
  18. I love the blooming of flowers in the spring as much as seeing an old friend. TRUE/FALSE
  19. It often seems to other people like I am in another world because I am so completely unaware of things going on around me. TRUE/FALSE
  20. I believe that 'miracles' happen. TRUE/FALSE
SCORING: Give yourself one point for each TRUE answer and 0 points for each FALSE answer.
14 and above: highly spiritual, a real 'mystic' 12-13: spiritually aware, easily lost in the moment 08-11: spiritually average, could develop more spiritual life if desired 06-07: a practical 'empiricist' lacking 'self-transcendence' 01-05: highly sceptical, resistant to developing spiritual awareness
This test is an adaptation of the personality inventory devised by Mr.Robert Cloninger, Washington University psychiatrist and author of 'Feeling Good: the Science of Well-being'.
'Do you have the God gene? -- Susceptibility to the Christmas spirit may be genetic', Margaret Cook, The Scotsman, 2004-12-24

Money: Too High Council Tax makes Surplus

Article 1: 2004-12-24 Scotland's 'Local Authorities' are sitting on more than 300_million_GBP of surplus cash -- allowing for generous council tax refunds instead of the 13 per cent rate hike expected. 'The Scotsman' newspaper has established that town halls have ignored official warnings and continued to charge far more council tax than they needed last year -- leading to cash reserves which vary wildly across the country. But each of them plans to embark on new projects rather than return unused cash to taxpayers, setting them on a collision course with 'The Scottish Executive' and 'New Labour Party' MPs seeking re-election next year. Last year's average council tax rise of 4.4 per cent -- almost twice the then rate of inflation -- brought a windfall to several councils who failed to spend all the money. The leftovers are put into a general reserve fund. Glasgow's balances were 36_million_GBP -- a relatively modest figure for a council which spends 1_000_million_GBP a year and presides over vast, deprived housing schemes. But the city, whose council tax is the highest in Scotland, could afford a 7 per cent cut next April if it decided to return its unused money. Edinburgh City Council has ended its financial year with 24.8_million_GBP set aside with no specific use -- enough to reduce council tax by 10_GBP/month. Donald Anderson But Mr.Donald Anderson, its leader, recently said its finances were so tight there was 'not a snowball's chance in hell' of keeping next year's tax rise below the 2.5 per cent target suggested by the Executive. He predicts a hike of 4 per cent. Dumfries & Galloway has yet again emerged as the worst offender. It collected an extra 2_million_GBP by raising council taxes over the year, but did not spend a penny of the increase. The council finished the year with a reserve fund of 25_million_GBP by last March, up 5_million_GBP from the year before. A spokesman said it was saving towards a swimming pool and a large schools building project, and needed several million pounds more. Dumfries & Galloway was criticised by 'Audit Scotland' last April for its 20_million_GBP surplus -- described as excessive for a council which raises 40_million_GBP in council tax. Mr.David Mcletchie, 'The Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party' leader, said yesterday that the towering cash balances showed Scotland could easily avoid the predicted rises.
David Mcletchie 'It's incumbent on these councils to explain why this cash is being put aside and if it can't be put to good use, it should be returned', he said. 'We are sleepwalking towards council tax rises'.
Council tax, which serves to top up the money sent from central government, is an incendiary topic in Westminster, where 'New Labour Party' MPs fear being punished at the polls if higher bills come just weeks before an election. Chancellor Mr.Gordon Brown recently announced a 1_000_million_GBP package to help English and Welsh councils keep their tax rises down. 'The Scottish Executive' will receive around 12_million_GBP under the formula which gives Scotland a proportion of UK spending increases. But The First Minister Mr.Jack Mcconnell, has refused to send this to Scottish councils, arguing they should instead tighten their belts. Mr.John Mcfall, the Dumbarton MP and the chairman of the 'Treasury Select Committee', has criticised The First Minister for denying councils a settlement generous enough to close down the need for tax rises. The rates will be agreed on 2005-02-10, and negotiations between local authorities and the Scottish Executive are expected to be frantic until that date. One Local Authority finance director, who asked not to be named, said The First Minister had left them in an impossible position.
'Staff costs are rising by 3 per cent, and our energy costs by 10 per cent -- so if we're only given a 2 per cent increase from the Scottish Executive, of course we will have to turn to taxpayers for the rest'.
While all councils run a general reserve, 'Audit Scotland' warned some town halls were hoarding excessive amounts of cash and should unload it by forgoing council tax rises. Dundee, for instance, increased its reserve by 2.2_million_GBP to 8.6_million_GBP. But none of the councils it identified has taken heed.
Prudent councils keep a surplus -- but the scale of some is stunning
Edinburgh will be lucky to escape with a 4 per cent rise. Glasgow's council tax is already the highest in Scotland, and is set to soar higher still. Already, The First Minister's plea for a 2.5 per cent rise already looks hopeless. The Chancellor may have set aside a 1_000_million_GBP bribe for Local Authorities in England & Wales but Westminster MPs are facing an election: 'Holyrood' is not. So, just as Scotland's councils are sitting on more than 300_million_GBP in unspent cash, the First Minister is hoarding 12_million_GBP he received as a direct result of The Chancellor's 'largesse'. Councils believe it should be sent to them. Every council runs a cash surplus: the question, which no-one seems able to answer, is how much that surplus should be. For all their millions, Dundee and Glasgow are towards the prudent end of the scale: the spare cash is less than 3 per cent of their budget. But in others, the ratio is more than doubled. Aberdeen's 24_million_GBP surplus keeps rising, for reasons the council is hard-pressed to explain. It talks about snow strikes but Highland Council, equally at the mercy of the weather, keeps only 18.9_million_GBP in reserve. The figures in 'The Scotsman' newpaper today [2004-12-24] will be published next spring, when 'Audit Scotland' looks again at the situation -- to find that few authorities have heeded its warning. Dumfries & Galloway, the worst offender last year, has increased its surplus by 26 per cent. But all councils are locked in a battle with 'The Scottish Executive', demanding the 12_million_GBP -- and implicitly warning The First Minister they will punish Scottish council tax payers if he does not buckle. 'The Scottish Executive' has the ability to cap council tax rates if it believes local authority rises are excessive -- but ministers have said this is a nuclear option unlikely to be used. 'The Scottish Conservative & Unionists' intend to campaign strongly on this throughout the coming election, saying their plans could reduce council tax by an average 35 per cent. 'Scotland's councils keeping their hands on �300m nest-egg', Fraser Nelson, The Scotsman, 2004-12-24 Article 2: 2005-02-07 Councillors who will impose substantial council tax rises on Scottish householders this week could get pay rises of up to 250 per cent, it emerged yesterday 2005-02-06. A report into councillors' salaries is due to be published and, if accepted by 'The Scottish Executive', it will pave the way for salaries of 25_000_GBP -- up from the current basic of 7_000_GBP. Such a rise would force up the wage bill for Scotland's councillors to 30_million_GBP/year, all of which is met by the taxpayer. The report has been prepared by Lord Sewel, a Labour peer and a former Scottish Office minister. It is understood Lord Sewel's report will recommend a salary of between 20_000_GBP and 25_000_GBP for all of Scotland's councillors. The aim of the wage increase would be to encourage more people to get involved in local politics and end the current system under which councillors vie to receive special responsibility allowances. Under the proposals, the allowances would be completely scrapped and, instead, councillors would get a flat wage. However, the report is due to be published in the same week as councils announce council tax rates for the coming year.
The average rise is expected to be nearly three times the rate of inflation, and some council leaders are understood to be unhappy with the timing of the report, believing it to be a blatant attempt to make councils look bad this week, when they announce the council tax rises.
The new pay rates for councillors will come on top of 'golden goodbyes' of up to 25_000_GBP which will be paid to long-serving councillors who stand down ahead of the 2007 elections. 'The Scottish Executive' is introducing a new electoral system for the 2007 elections which will end the political careers of many councillors, particularly New Labour representatives in west and central Scotland. Ministers are expected to make payments of thousands of pounds to veteran councillors who say they are willing to go before the election. However, if members stand and lose in 2007, they will receive nothing. Lord Sewel's report is expected to find favour with 'The Scottish Executive'. Ministers have been looking for ways to make local government more attractive to young, successful people. They also want to eradicate the impression that councillors scramble for allowances, even at the expense of other work they should be doing for their communities. The idea of paying councillors a salary is expected to get around that problem, but ministers are aware that they will still have to sell the idea to a sceptical public. A spokesman for 'The Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party'said:
'We have favoured increasing the remuneration of councillors in order to reflect the responsibilities they hold, but we would argue that the charge should be self-financing, by reducing the number of councillors'.
Mr.Alasdair Morgan, for 'The Scottish National Party' said:
'There is not a problem with individual councils. 'The real problem lies with central government who are putting ever-increasing burdens on to Local Authorities without giving them the means to pay for them'.
''Council tax bills to soar, Hamish Macdonnell, The Scotsman, 2005-02-07, Mo Article 3: 2005-02-07 The funding war between Local Authorities and 'The Scottish Executive' intensified yesterday 2005-02-06, as indications emerged of how much council tax will rise. Most bills in Scotland will increase by more than 5 per cent this year. An average rise of 4.6 per cent -- almost three times the annualised inflation rate of 1.6 per cent -- is set to be announced on Thursday 2005-02-10, to come into effect in 2005-04. And as the bitter row between town halls and 'Holyrood' worsens -- with council taxpayers caught in the middle -- Local Authorities warn that their next move may be a rise of 10 per cent in 2006-2007, unless ministers hand over more money. The increases will be revealed as councils demand that Finance Minister Mr.Tom Mccabe, gives them a cash sweetener which The Chancellor Mr.Gordon Brown, handed to English & Welsh counterparts.
Draft budgets for each of Scotland's 32 Local Authorities have just been published, showing what they expect to charge when council tax is agreed at meetings to be held throughout council chambers this week.
Shetland is planning the highest rise, of 6.7 per cent. Then comes Highland Council, whose draft proposals envisage a 5.8 per cent hike to 1_099_GBP for an average Band D property. A rise of 5 per cent or over is being proposed by 21 councils including Aberdeen, Dundee, Falkirk, Moray, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and Midlothian. Edinburgh and Stirling are planning a 4 per cent rise, while Glasgow has said it will post an inflation-only increase -- suggesting a rise of 1.8 per cent. COSLA, which represents all Local Authorities, warned that this year's increases will be nothing compared to the hard decisions facing them next year for 2006-2007. The third 'Holyrood' general election is in 2007-05. The council tax rises expose a growing tension between local government and 'The Scottish Executive'. COSLA are behind a series of press advertisements this week, blaming ministers for the rises, and claiming councils have no option but to raise taxes because of a financial squeeze by 'The Scottish Executive'. 'The Scottish Executive', however, maintains that councils can keep rises down by making better use of money and by efficiency savings. The dispute between a large number of 'Scottish New Labour' councils and 'The Scottish New Labour Party' -led 'Executive' is straining party relationships to breaking point, a rift which can probably only be resolved by a concession in the near future to give councils more government money. A COSLA spokesman said councils were finding it hard to maintain services on the money given to them by 'The Scottish Executive'.
'Councils will experience difficulties in maintaining core services', he said.
COSLA said that it was willing to work with 'The Scottish Executive' on finding efficiency savings and that these would not be enough to maintain services. However, speaking on BBC Scotland's 'The Politics Show', Finance Minister Mr.Mccabe, called on councils to drive forward the government agenda to keep council taxes low. He said:
'There is an awful lot of money in the system and what we would ask Local Authorities to exercise as much restraint as they possibly can'.
Mr.Donald Anderson, the leader of Edinburgh City Council, said councils were already working 'as hard as possible' to keep taxes low and would work with the government to cut inefficiency, but he also called for more help from 'The Scottish Executive'.
If 'The Executive' wants to see council tax rises as low as 2.5 per cent, then we should be looking at specific additional help for Local Authorities to do that, as part of an agenda looking at modernisation of councils', he said.
'The Scottish Conservative and Unionists' accused 'The Scottish Executive' of using the council tax to raise funds because it is too afraid to raise income tax. Mr.Brian Monteith, said:
'It's a form of disguise... yet again we see that council tax is being used as a way of passing on costs'. 'With 'The Executive' scared of actually using its three pence income tax that it could put up, what we've seen over the years is more and more burdens being put on to local authorities and the council taxpayer having to pick up the bill'.
However, of the top ten council tax rises, none is posted from 'Scottish New Labour Party'-controlled councils. Independents emerge as the most profligate. Angus, the only Scottish National Party' council, is raising its council tax by 5.3 per cent. Indeed, Glasgow City Council -- a 'Scottish New Labour Party' strong-hold -- has kept control of its costs better than any other city in Scotland and has offset an 8 per cent rise in social work cost with savings elsewhere. But the city has high deprivation and a dwindling band of taxpayers. The typical Glasgow council tax bill of 1_200_GBP will cover the bill for three people this year -- as only one in three in the city pays council tax. Rubbish collection -- the service most associated with council tax -- takes up only 0.40_GBP of the average monthly bill. Similarly, small monthly charges are needed for museums (1.62_GBP), libraries (4.50_GBP) sports facilities (4.90_GBP) and parks (6.10_GBP). But social work amounts to 83_GBP/month for everyone in the country. Social work costs rose by 100_million_GBP across Scotland this year. The bill for drug abuse has risen by over 50 per cent in Midlothian, Fife and East Ayrshire. Edinburgh City has the highest cost of homelessness in Scotland -- which, at 3.3_million_GBP, outstrips that of Glasgow. This week's rises will make Glasgow's council tax higher than London's. Since 'Devolution', council tax has doubled in the Scottish Borders and trebled in Orkney and Shetland. The highest council tax in Britain is charged by 'The New LabourParty'-controlled council of Sedgefield, Prime Minister Tony Blair's constituency, where a Band D property is 1_375_GBP. Ms.Linda Knox, director of 'The Scottish Local Authority Management Centre' at 'The University of Strathclyde', told BBC Scotland that education would be protected from cuts but that meant other services would suffer. She said:
'In practice, that will mean a 4 to 5 per cent cut for other services'.
'Politicians play blame game while you pay more', Fraser Nelson & Hamish Macdonell, The Scotsman, 2005-02-07, Mo

2004-12-24

Intolerance: Violence Beats Behzti

Article 1 Give the playwright her stage back, 2004-12-23 The decision of one group of 'Sikhs' to lobby for changes to a play written and performed by members of their own community in their town is one thing. Their refusal to rule out violence and consequently force its closure is quite another. This censorship of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's black comedy 'Behzti' should not be allowed to stand. The cheering thing about the debate that preceded the opening of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's black comedy 'Behzti' at 'Birmingham Rep Theatre', was that it was held at all. Both sides -- theatre and 'Sikh' community -- met to make their points before the show opened. Significant concessions were made by the theatre: A statement from the local 'Sikh' community would be distributed at the venue; peaceful public protest would not be opposed; the programme would include positive messages about the 'Sikh' faith. But throughout it was understood that the play could not be censored, let alone banned. Until the weekend's violent events and the change to the 'Sikh' community's agenda that followed. Under pressure from their own mob, Birmingham's 'Sikhs' abandoned negotiation. Refusing to guarantee that there would be no more attacks on the theatre, they stood back and let the men of violence take over. The staff of 'The Birmingham Rep' -- in the middle of a season packed with children's shows -- felt they had to pull the play on public safety grounds.
'We are determined not to go down the road of censorship', said theatre executive director Stuart Rogers, 'But when one stands in the foyer with 800 women and children and sees stones being thrown and police officers injured, then security and safety issues come to the fore. They have to'.
For any person involved in the theatre or freedom of expression, censorship is the line that cannot be crossed. Hanif Kureishi, the author and playwright best known for the 1985 film 'My Beautiful Launderette', put it well when he compared the destruction of a theatre to the destruction of a temple.
'Without our culture, we are nothing', he said. 'Our culture is as crucial to the liberal community as temples are to the religious community'.
And in this explanation as to why theatre is essential lies a message to the 'Sikh' community of Birmingham. The theatre has been challenging belief, faith and principle for hundreds of years. From 'Euripides' to Shakespeare to Sean O'Casey and through to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, theatre has challenged the men that run organised religion on earth to earn the loyalty and respect of its congregations. Those who presume to speak for morality, faith, principle -- for 'God', even -- had better be sure they get their words and their lives straight. In the 'Sikh' faith, surely one the most open, democratic and community focused of all Britain's major faiths, that responsibility is understood. 'Sikhs' believe religion should be practiced by living in the world and coping with life's everyday problems; they don't retreat from the world, they participate. That explains the attempt to debate. Some believed that the answer was to relocate the key action of the play from a 'Gurudwara' (a 'Sikh' religious centre) to an ordinary community centre. Others argue that the kind of scenes portrayed in the play, including rape and murder, would never take place in a 'Gurudwara' anyway. But 'Gurudwaras' -- a Punjabi word meaning 'gateway to the Guru' -- are open places. They are focal points for community support activities as well as preaching. Any experienced 'Sikh', man or woman, may lead prayers there. But, as a result, the proper management of this kind of open public space is left to ordinary men and women. What if those men and women are not up to the task? This is the question Gurpreet addresses. In the foreword to the play's published programme, she praises 'Sikhism'. But she adds:
'Clearly the fallibility of human nature means that simple "Sikh" principles of equality, compassion and modesty are sometimes discarded in favour of outward appearance, wealth and the quest for power. 'I feel that distortion in practice must be confronted and our great ideals must be restored. 'I believe that drama should be provocative and relevant. I wrote "Behzti" because I passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy'.
She has recieved threats from members of Brirmigham's 'Sikh' community and is now in hiding.
'The name of the play is important here', said Asian media commentator Sunny Hundal. 'The central premise is that there are people in the Asian community who are more afraid of "dishonour" -- "behzti" -- than actually confronting injustice. 'Ironically that is exactly what is being played out here. 'People are objecting to the play not because of its content (that's merely a distraction, confirmed by the new demands that the play shut down entirely under all circumstances), but because it raises issues they'd rather not discuss. 'Especially in front of white people, in a major venue, and at such a "sensitive" time'.
What is going on here is not about Birmingham theatres -- though the management of 'The Birmingham Rep Theatre' deserve praise for their solid stand in defence of free expression for as long it was possible -- it's about a debate within the 'Sikh community' itself. Says Stuart Rogers:
'The play is written by a "Sikh", it has an all-Asian cast. Some of the members of the cast are "Sikhs"'.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has something to say to her own community and the wider world that that community lives within. She deserves a hearing.
Footnote: 'The Royal Court Theatre' in London has expressed an interest in showing Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's 'Behzti' it emerged today, possibly in the next few months. Actor/manager Neal Foster of 'The Birmingham Stage Company' said he had abandoned his own plans to revive it after a request from the author herself. The management for 'The Royal Court Theatre' say they have obtained a copy of the play and are looking into bringing it back next year. Ramin Gray, associate director of 'The Royal Court Theatre' said:
'Irrespective of the quality of this play I think we have to see it. We cannot allow this to be simply shunted aside and forgotten about but I don't think this will happen' .
Links:
'Give the playwright her stage back', Index, 2004-12-23 [beginning of article] Article 2 Sikh voice for Behzti writer, 2004-12-25 'Sikh' leaders in Britain have appealed for withdrawal of the death threats against Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the writer of the controversial play "Behzti" (Dishonour), who is now in hiding. 'The British Sikh Consultative Forum', the national body of 'Sikh' organisations, in its statement said it did not support any form of threat to the author.
'We unequivocally appeal to anyone who may have made these threats to withdraw them. They have no endorsement from the "Sikh" community. 'We understand the high tensions on all sides of this unfortunate incident and regret that matters went beyond the process of dialogue and reason. 'We hope that further progress on the balance between liberty to offend and right to dignity can proceed within the law and with civility', the statement added.
'Behzti' was being staged at 'The Birmingham Repertory Theatre' but was stopped after violent protests from some members of the 'Sikh' community. The play featured sexual abuse, kissing, dancing, homosexuality and murder in a 'gurdwara', which is said to have infuriated many 'Sikhs'. Officials at 'The Birmingham Rep' decided to abandon the three-week run last week on grounds of safety as 'Sikh' leaders said they could not ensure there would not be a repeat of violence. 'The Birmingham Stage Company' later offered to stage the play but then abandoned the plan after a request from Bhatti. 'The Birmingham Stage Company's' actor-manager Neal Foster said the request was made because of 'increased threats' to her safety. He said he, too, had received several threatening phone calls. The row has led many to criticise the demonstrations as a curb on 'free speech'. On Thursday, more than 400 known figures from the world of art signed a letter supporting the playwright. Poet laureate Andrew Motion, director Richard Eyre and writer Willy Russell were among those who wrote to 'The Guardian' newspaper supporting Bhatti. The letter said:
'Those who use violent means to silence it must be vigorously opposed and challenged'.
''Sikh' voice for "Behzti' writer', Telegraph India,2004-12-25 [beginning of article] Article 3 Scared Behzti Author Pleads for Cancellation of Further Readings; UK Arts Personalities Send Protest Letter, 2004-12-27 A series of planned readings of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's controversial play 'Behzti' seem to have been shelved at the author's own request. Still in hiding for fear of her life, Bhatti has reportedly said that she's worried about violent reprisals if the readings go ahead. A cultural summit, however, has been hastily scheduled in the wake of religious protests that led to the cancellation of the play at 'The Birmingham Rep Theatre'. The show depicts a rape and a murder in a 'Sikh' temple. It provoked riots outside the theatre by hundreds of angry 'Sikhs', until the theatre agreed to cancel the rest of the play's run. That has, of course, sparked a widespread debate about the potential curbing of 'freedom of speech' principles. Other theatres were considering staging the play (and may still be) ? and those considering the co-ordinated rehearsed readings included 'The West Yorkshire Playhouse' and 'The Bush' and 'Royal Court' in London -- as a protest against the incident. On 2004-12-22, 'The Commission for Racial Equality' (CRE) and 'Arts Council England' announced talks for early in 2005. According to 'The Guardian' newspaper, the CRE chairman, Trevor Philips, has said that the summit plans to bring together community, artistic and cultural leaders to discuss what to do in the future when a work of art causes offence.
'It's not an attempt to lay limits to free speech or artistic expression', he told the paper, 'But to find a way of talking that does not involve bricks going through people's windows'.
An open letter of complaint (published in 'The Guardian' newspaper) about the violent 'Sikh' demonstrations and the play's cancellation has been signed by hundreds of the UK's most high-profile arts figures. Among them are Sheila Hancock, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Nick Starr (executive director of 'The National Theatre'), Terry Jones, Andrew Motion (the UK's poet laureate), Richard Eyre, Willy Russell, Sonia Friedman, Steven Pimlott, Michael Attenborough, Michael Blakemore, Miriam Margolyes, Jude Kelly and Arnold Wesker. The letter says, among other things,
'We deplore the violent events that have very regrettably led to the cancelling of the remaining performances of Behsti (Dishonour) . . . on grounds of the safety of the audience, performers and staff of the theatre. We all have the right to protest peacefully if a work of art offends us. We do not have the right to use violence and intimidation to prevent that work of art from being seen by others. To verbally and physically threaten a writer, audience members, performers and theatre staff is unacceptable. To attempt to censor a play because some incidents in it would thereby be rendered less offensive to some people if they were set elsewhere is unacceptable. To stop the production of a work of art by means of force and continued threats of force is unacceptable. To make death threats against a writer and a writer's relatives is illegal . . . Those who use violent means to silence (debate) must be vigorously opposed and challenged by all of us, whatever our faith, belief or opinions'.
'Scared Behzti Author Pleads for Cancellation of Further Readings; UK Arts Personalities Send Protest Letter', James Inverne,Playbill, 2004-12-27 [beginning of article] Article 4 Threats stirred courage, says 'Behzti' author, 2005-01-13 Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose play 'Behzti' generated so much controversy that it was cancelled because it was considered offensive to British 'Sikhs', has broken her silence saying that the threats 'had only stirred tolerance and courage'. The play, which depicts sexual abuse and murder in a 'gurdwara', was considered by many British 'Sikhs' as offensive to their religion and was taken off stage by 'The Birmingham Repertory' last month.
'My play, "Behzti", has been cancelled, I've been physically threatened and verbally abused by people who don't know me. 'My family has been harassed and I've had to leave my home. 'I have been deeply angered by the upset caused to my family and I ask people to see sense and leave them alone', Bhatti wrote in 'The Guardian' newspaper on Thursday.
Bhatti said she still wanted her work and she 'wholeheartedly' stood by the play, adding it was not fear that kept her silent but 'practical issues' about her own safety and that of those closest to her. The threats and hate mail had 'stirred only tolerance and courage within me'. Death threats had forced Bhatti into hiding. The writer wrote that she was 'very saddened' by the decision to cancel the production, but accepted that the theatre had no choice because of the danger of more violence. In the article, Bhatti wrote that her faith in 'God' remained strong and condemned people who used the row over her play to condemn 'Sikhism'.
'There can never be any excuse for the demonisation of a religion or its followers. The 'Sikh' heritage is one of valour and victory over adversity'. She continued: 'I am proud to come from this remarkable people and do not fear the disdain of some, because I know my work is rooted in honesty and passion. 'I hope bridges can be built, but whether this prodigal daughter can ever return home remains to be seen'.
Bhatti wrote that the play was taken out of context by some people and was not intended to offend, and added that it was meant 'to explore how human frailties can lead people into a prison of hypocrisy'. Artists and writers in Britain and around the world expressed their support for the playwright. Bhatti wrote that the artist's right to free expression was vital.
'I believe that it is my right as a human being and my role as a writer to think, create and challenge. 'The dramatists who I admire are brave. They tell us life is ferocious and terrifying, that we are imperfect and only when we face our imperfections truthfully can we have hope. 'Theatre is not necessarily a cosy space, designed to make us feel good about ourselves. It is a place where the most basic human expression -- that of the imagination -- must be allowed to flourish'.
'Threats stirred courage, says 'Behzti' author', Web India, 2005-01-13 [beginning of article]