marcussteaduk

Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

On Tuesday 4 July, I visited the Grenfell Tower site. This is a detailed account of my visit. It was an experience I will never forget.

leave a comment »

Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower, taken from outside Kensington Leisure Centre on Tuesday 4 July 2017

By MARCUS STEAD

THE FULL horror of Grenfell Tower has to be witnessed to be believed. No pictures I have seen in newspapers or on TV came close to preparing me for what came into view as my train approached Latimer Rd tube station.

To say the burnt out shell looks like a something from a war zone does not really do it justice. The tower is surrounded by peaceful, orderly streets, with obvious signs of wealth, where upmarket terraced housing sits alongside what we used to call ‘council flats’.

That’s not to say this is an area without problems. The Lancaster West estate, where the tower is situated, has a complex, troubled history. The area experienced racial tensions over many decades from the 1950s onwards. In an attempt to bring residents together, the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, personally led the Good Friday service in the shadow of Grenfell Tower following a period of unrest in 1979.

In the 1990s, the estate also suffered from gun violence and drug wars, and a police patrol was shot at after using Grenfell Tower’s underground car park in February 1993.

During my visit, it was not easy to gauge the extent to which the area had been gentrified in recent years, but my overall first impression was that it was a pleasant area in which to live.

As soon as I stepped off the train, a recorded announcement was played on the station intercom asking us not to take photographs of the tower, as it may upset local residents.

My short walk towards the site was calm and eerie. There were not many people about. Two police officers chatted to each other as they guarded the sealed-off quickest route from the station to the tower.

The short diversion took me past St Francis of Assisi Primary School, where I could hear infant-aged children cheerfully playing at morning break time. Other buildings, trees and hedges protected children from the sight of the burnt-out tower. To what extent are they aware of what has happened? How are grief-stricken teachers answering difficult questions about where their missing classmates are? I can only guess.

A left turn took me to St Clement’s Church, where the hundreds of messages on the railings offered some clues as to the mood in the area, nearly three weeks after the fire. There were many posters containing pictures of the missing with requests for information as to their whereabouts.

There were flowers, candles, and cards containing messages of condolence for those presumed dead. The tone of the written messages varied hugely. Some were of a religious nature – it was clear that members of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish faiths perished in the fire, and that by and large, this was a close-knit community where people lived together in harmony.

There were poems, general messages of support, and some expressions of anger broadly aimed that the political classes for allowing this situation to develop, and for Kensington and Chelsea Council’s crass handling of the aftermath to date.

There were also notices offering various forms of practical help, including a poster from Royal Mail informing Grenfell Tower residents that their post was being held for collection at a nearby sorting office.

There was information about an upcoming church memorial service, which would begin with 20 minutes of silence, followed by music and prayers, and also a large notice saying that they could not accept further donations of money or clothing, but that people were welcome to leave flowers.

A right turn took me to the courtyard of the Clement Jones Centre, a community facility which normally offers information, advice and guidance, English classes and employment support. For the time being, this is a place that provides practical help as well as being a place for quiet, contemplative thought.

It was a sunny, if slightly hazy day, and the information desk situated in the courtyard was staffed by a delightful young black lady with a strong London accent. I asked her if there was a book of condolence I could sign, to which she replied that they operated a system by which people could write on cards and drop them into a box, which would be checked and posted onto the railings by staff later on. She then kindly walked me around the corner, back to the side of the church, where I left a personal message on a card and placed it in the box.

A four-storey block of flats shielded my view of the tower while I paid my respects, but I was now ready to get as close to the site as I possibly could.

I walked along Treadgold St, a row of quaint terraced houses, window boxes, trimmed hedges and pseudo-Victorian street lamps. But a closer look reveals that this was a sad, angry street. I spotted several strongly-worded window posters demanding the Kensington and Chelsea council leadership resigns immediately.

Treadgold St bears left, and then a right turn took me on to Bodmore Rd, where I walked towards the plush, recently-refurbished Kensington Leisure Centre.

At the front of the leisure centre was a patio, to my left were several large trees in full bloom, and as I walked past, the exceedingly grim sight of the tower came back into view.

A long row of temporary boards sealed off the grassland and footpath that would normally link the leisure centre to the tower. On one of the boards was an A4 sheet of paper with a notice reminding visitors that this is a community in mourning, to behave responsibly, and that if they must take pictures of the tower, to refrain from taking selfies.

Incredibly, quite a few people had been treating the burnt out tower as a tourist attraction in the previous few weeks, turning up in bright clothing and taking selfies with big smiles on their faces. But when I was there, it was just me and one other man quietly paying our respects and taking pictures, he with an old-style camera, me with my smartphone.

A walk along the boarding brought me to within a few yards of the tower. This gave me a new perspective on the sheer scale of what had taken place. There was row upon row of empty window frames with bent, twisted metal, which seemed increasingly severe the higher up I looked.

In the bottom left of the tower was a small section unaffected by the fire, with its window glass and fancy cladding still intact.

In each of those burnt out boxes in the sky was a story. In many cases, it will be of lives lost. The fire burned for at least 24 hours, which will mean that in some cases, identifying people will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. We can broadly assume that the registered occupants of the flats who are thus far unaccounted for have perished. But inevitably, sub-letting will have taken place, which will swell the numbers of the deceased.

But that is not the end of it. The whereabouts of others are far less certain.  It’s entirely possible that people currently on the missing persons register had been visiting someone in the tower that evening, but there are no remains, and their families will never know for certain whether they were there, or are still alive, somewhere.

The survivors escaped with their lives, but will have no possessions left. They will need help in the months ahead, long after the news agenda has moved on. We would all do well to remember them if we are clearing out old furniture or clothes for many months to come. Finding them clothes and furniture will not be that difficult, but some things cannot be replaced – family photos, items of sentimental value, and a lifetime of memories. But they are the lucky ones.

There were some signs of life carrying on at the leisure centre. The café was open, though I spotted just one customer, and I could hear music from one of the upstairs rooms, in what was probably an aerobics class.

With the short walkway to the tube station blocked off, I had little choice but to make the same journey in reverse to get back to Latimer Rd. When I reached the Clement Jones Centre and the church, I took one final look at the flowers, cards and notices. This time, a male about my age stood alongside. We said nothing to each other as we gathered our own thoughts.

As I reached the primary school, I again heard that innocent sound of young children playing, largely unaware that their lives have been changed forever. Sooner or later, they will come to realise that missing classmates and other people they saw in their daily lives have gone, never to return.

When I returned to Latimer Rd station, I read several A4-sized posters containing strongly-worded, but incoherent attacks on the political establishment, written in pure anger. They did not seem to know who or what exactly they were blaming, but they knew this situation should never have been allowed to happen.

There were other notices, including a poster inviting youngsters distressed or affected by the fire to attend a free boxing training session, where they would receive coaching from professionals, one of many small, kind gestures that will bring a degree of comfort to a distraught community.

I stood on the platform for some time while waiting for my train to arrive, and the recorded message asking people not to take pictures was replayed every few minutes.

Later in the day, I was stood on a platform at Wood Lane station, just one tube stop away from the tower, opposite the famous BBC Television Centre (currently being redeveloped), not far from Loftus Rd football stadium and close to the Westfield Shopping Centre.

The north-east bound platform of the station provides a striking, unobstructed, especially bleak view of the tower from around half a mile away. This vantage point also provides a unique sense of perspective.

There I was, surrounded on one side by the biggest shopping centre in London, full of high-end fashion stores. On another side was the iconic Television Centre, home of many classic TV programmes, which is currently being redeveloped, partly as modern TV studios, and party as luxury apartments, yet straight in front of me was a burnt-out giant filing cabinet in the sky, where unknown numbers of less well-off people died because insufficient regard was paid to their safety by those in power.

Which brings us on to where we go from here. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s appointment as head of the inquiry has not been universally welcomed. Labour MP David Lammy’s characteristically stupid remarks about a ‘white, upper-middle class man’ being chosen for the job, like so much of what he says, are best ignored by all sensible people, but other concerns are more legitimate.

As a Court of Appeal judge in November 2014, Sir Martin, along with two other judges, ruled that when Westminster City Council offered housing 50 miles away in Bletchley to Titina Nzolameso, who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing, it was not necessary for the council to explain in detail what accommodation was available within its area.

Instead, it could take a broad range of factors into account. The decision was subsequently reversed by the Court of Appeal, but the tenant’s solicitor in that case, Jayesh Kunwardia, said, following Sir Martin’s ruling, “It gives the green light for councils to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale.”

This, in itself, suggests that Sir Martin’s appointment is insensitive to say the least. We do not know enough about his personal life, but his CV and career path suggests it is likely he attends the same dinner parties and mixes in the same social circles as those close to power.

Governments of all colours do not have a good track record in appointing those to lead wide-ranging inquiries or setting the terms under which they work.

The late Lord Justice Taylor did not seek to deceive or mislead in his inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster in the early 1990s, indeed football stadia around the country are a great deal safer because of his recommendations, but he was severely restricted by the set parameters of his investigation (the 3:15pm cut-off point being the most obvious), which meant that families had to campaign doggedly for 30 years before the full truth began to emerge.

Similarly, as Home Secretary, Theresa May went through a series of wholly unsuitable appointments for the inquiry into alleged historical child abuse by establishment figures. First of all, Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down because she believed her position to be untenable. Her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s. The fact that she was 81-years-old at the time and was taking on a complex task that would have taken several years to complete would probably have been a factor as well. Yet, absurdly, she was Mrs May’s first choice.

Mrs May’s second choice was Fiona Woolf, who resigned a month after being appointed when it was revealed that she lived in the same street and mixed in the same social circles as Leon Brittan, one of the accused.

It was another four months before, Mrs May appointed a New Zealand High Court judge, Dame Lowell Goddard, to take charge, only for her to resign 18 months later, citing, among other reasons, the inquiry’s ‘legacy of failure’.

By the time of Goddard’s departure, Theresa May had become Prime Minister, and Alexis Jay was appointed to continue the inquiry’s work, but not before the group, ‘Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse’ formally withdrew cooperation, saying the investigation is ‘not fit for purpose’.

The Hillsborough and historic child abuse inquiries are just two examples of the establishment investigating itself that have been unsatisfactory. There are plenty of others. Lord Cullen was a key figure in the investigations into the Lockerbie fight and Dunblane massacre, and I am not satisfied with his work into either, the most pressing question being: Why is there a 100 year ban on his Dunblame report, and who is it protecting? (I think I know, but can’t prove it).

I wish Sir Martin well. I hope the Nzolameso case was an error of judgement on his part from which he has learnt, and that he will put any personal friendships with those in positions of power to one side as he seeks to get to the truth of what happened, but the precedents are not good. I have a horrible feeling that the community in and around Lancaster West estate will have to show the same stubborn, tenacious qualities the Hillsborough families have shown over nearly 30 years to find out what happened.

So what is likely to have happened? No one single event or individual is likely to be held solely responsible for the fire, but two key developments offer major clues:
First of all, dangerous alterations to entrance and exit points were made long ago in a bid to combat crime. These changes possibly took place as long ago as the late 1970s, though it could have been as recently as the early 1990s.

Prior to these changes, there were two means of entrance and escape from the Grenfell Tower, but subsequently, this was reduced to one, that led through a cramped lobby.

The second, and most obvious, was that cheap, flammable cladding was put on the exterior of the building during renovation work that was completed in May 2016.

Other factors did not help. Prior to 1986, all buildings in London were subject to the London Buildings Acts, which stipulated that external walls must have at least one hour of fire resistance to prevent flames from spreading between flats or entering inside.

But those rules were replaced by the National Buildings Regulations and the vital time stipulation was scrapped. Instead, materials on the outside of buildings only had to have met ‘Class O’ regulations, to show they did not add to the heat or intensity of the fire, but they did not have to be non-combustible.

A recent London Fire Brigade investigation into the fire at a tower block at the nearby Shepherd Court in August 2016 found that external cladding had helped the fire to spread.

They discovered that when exposed to high flames, the metal sheet of the cladding had melted away, which in turn set the inner polystyrene from on fire, allowing ‘flaming droplets’ to fall onto lower floors while helping flames to spread higher up.

Fire chiefs wrote to every council to warn them of the dangers, but no action was taken.

Furthermore, a fire safety expert warned Government advisers three years ago that a tragedy such as this was likely to happen unless they changed the rules to ban the use of cheap, flammable insulation, which was already outlawed in Germany and in the USA.

Arnold Turling said the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable” and that a gap between the panels acted as a ‘wind tunnel’, fanning the flames, and allowing the fire to spread to upper levels.

Mr Turling, a member of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, said: “Any burning material falls down the gaps and the fire spreads up very rapidly – it acts as its own chimney.”

The cladding used on Grenfell Tower was sold under the brand Reynobond which comes in three different varieties: one with a flammable plastic core and two with fire-resistant cores. It is very likely the cladding used on the tower had a polythene or plastic core.

Reynobond’s fire-resistant panel costs £24 per square metre, just £2 more expensive than the plastic/polythene version.

In the Grenfell Tower, there was no central sprinkler system, which members of the Fire Protection Association said would have ‘undoubtedly’ have saved lives. In 2014, housing minister Brandon Lewis stopped short of forcing builders to fit sprinklers over fears it could discourage house building. Yet in Wales, all new homes from 2016 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems.

Furthermore, it seems possible that not all the front doors in the block were fire-proofed. Official fire brigade advice to stay put in the event of a fire is based on there being fire-proofed doors to stop the fire spreading rapidly through the building.

Regulations state that all newly-built tower blocks must have fire doors on the flat, the stairwell and the riser doors, which provide access to the pipes.

Building regulations are not retrospective, so cannot force the installation of modern equipment on old buildings, but Richard Brownlee, Managing Director of Surrey Fire and Safety Ltd, said that it would be expected that fire doors were installed as part of any refurbishment and installation would be recommended as part of any refurbishment.

Routine safety checks did not take place. According to information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act, the last time that Grenfell Tower was subject to a full Fire Risk Assessment was December 2015.

There is no law that specifies the frequency of such inspections, but industry experts say they should take place every 12 months. However, there is a legal requirement to have a fire risk assessment carried out if there is a ‘material change’ to the building, but they do not specify a timescale. Needless to say, an inspection had not taken place in the period since the cladding work was completed in May 2016.

Building Regulations from warn developers that they must install systems to prevent flames from leaping from floor to floor, which in the case of cladding such as this means firebreaks ie gaps in the external envelope to prevent the continual burning of material.

However, this is only guidance, not regulation. There may or may not have been such firebreaks in the cladding, and they possibly wouldn’t have been much use due to the highly combustible cladding material, but it would be useful to know if the guidelines had been followed.

In 2013, the Grenfell Action Group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a tenant management organisation Health and Safety Officer which recorded safety concerns. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word “condemned” written on them because they were so old. It is clear that fire safety at the tower had been treated as an afterthought by the authorities for some considerable time.

Was the recent renovation and installation of cladding partly motivated by ‘climate change’ dogma originating from our EU masters demanding insulation at all costs? Probably. Was the cladding carried out on the cheap and in haste to make the view better for those living in more luxurious accommodation nearby? Perhaps. Have you heard of many (any?) instances of refrigerators exploding before? No? Me neither. Therefore, are modern fridges safe? Should there ever be a gas supply in such buildings?
More pressingly, why, in a supposedly rich and safety-conscious society, are human being forced to live in tall buildings which no fire-fighter’s ladder or hose can reach?

We live in a country of absurd health and safety regulations that too often emphasises all the wrong things. The council employee who maintains your local park is forced to wear high-visibility jackets and goggles while trimming the hedges, before going ‘home’ to a flat hundreds of feet in the sky with a single entrance, no sprinkler system, and highly flammable cladding on the outside.

Political figures like the repulsive Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, are seeking to make political capital from the fire by saying the victims were ‘murdered by political decisions’. Such language is stupid and irresponsible, but I would expect nothing less from a nasty little Marxist who twice ‘joked’ about the duly elected former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, being murdered by the IRA.

Similarly, his boss, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that the fire was a ‘terrible consequence’ of ‘austerity’. He has conveniently ignored all the evidence I have listed about decisions taken long before the supposed ‘austerity’ of recent years. Corbyn, too, is a cheap opportunist who plays on people’s emotions for his own ends.

An appropriate long-term legacy would be to leave the burnt-out Grenfell Tower standing, as a reminder to us all, visible from miles around, of the crass incompetence and neglect that led to huge numbers of utterly needless deaths.

It should be fenced off, and an annual televised memorial service held on the grassland outside, to which all major political figures and senior members of the Royal Family feel obliged to attend.

Unlike other remembrance ceremonies, where we spend quite enough time congratulating ourselves, this should be about humiliating and chastising ourselves for the complacent, self-satisfied society we created. The only ‘heroes’ of this are the fire service and medical personnel who worked on the night and in the days that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

July 9, 2017 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Stephen Rhodes Obituary

leave a comment »

stephen-rhodes-this-morning-3

Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘This Morning’ during the 1990s.

By MARCUS STEAD

Stephen Rhodes, who has died aged 66 following a battle with motor neurone disease, was a journalist and broadcaster who became a household name in the 1990s as a regular cover presenter on ITV’s ‘This Morning’, but it was his feisty, belligerent, yet good-humoured handling of consumer affairs during his long spell as presenter of the mid-morning show on BBC Three Counties Radio that brought out the best in him as a campaigning hack.

Born in Dublin and the son of a dentist, Rhodes, whose real name was Tommy Keenan, was a restless, noisy child, who frequently irritated his parents by arguing and challenging everything from a young age.

Shortly before his mother’s death, she said to him: “The trouble is, we just didn’t have a name for it when you were little.” He never found out what she was talking about, but he assumed she was referring to his hyperactivity.

Rhodes was educated at St Conleth’s College, a fee-paying Catholic school in Dublin, and the Irish Retail Management Institute, after which he worked for six years in sales and marketing at Mackey’s Seeds in Dublin.

In 1978, Rhodes sent a showreel to Alternative Radio Dublin (colloquially known as ARD), a pirate station that had a strong following in the city, as well as along the west coast of Great Britain, where the 1161 MW signal could be received at night, and his radio career was born.

He rose through the ranks quickly to become station manager, and supplemented his income by lending his voice to TV and radio commercials.

A migration across the water to Birmingham station BRMB followed in 1980, where his ‘Yes-No Quiz’ quickly became a hit with listeners, and by in middle of the decade he moved up the M6 to Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton.

Rhodes’s Irish lilt and intense delivery meant he was much in-demand as a voiceover artist, which led to many TV commercials, and his relationship with Central Television saw him being given the chance to become the voice of ‘Family Fortunes’ in 1987, a role he continued for the next 12 years, spanning most of Les Dennis’s reign as host of the programme.

During the early 1990s, Rhodes migrated to Beacon’s ‘oldies’ sister station WABC, and within a few years he had moved on to BBC Radio Shropshire as the breakfast show presenter, where he won the first of seven Sony Radio Academy Awards.

stephen-rhodes-central-weekend-live

Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘Central Weekend Live’.

It was around this period that Rhodes’s career in front of the TV cameras began to take off. He presented a number of editions of audience debate show ‘Central Weekend Live’ in the Midlands, where the adversarial nature of the programme was an excellent fit for Rhodes’s tenacious personality.

Rhodes’s talents gained the attention of Granada TV, who made him and his then-wife Alison Keenan the main cover presenters for Richard and Judy on ‘This Morning’ between 1994 and 1998, a role in which he appeared at ease, but years later, he said of it: “I never really liked being on television. I didn’t enjoy This Morning because I hated cooking – there were lots of things I just didn’t like about it. But I enjoyed the money – it paid off the mortgage! I much prefer the spontaneity of radio.”

In mid-1995, Rhodes began his 15-year association with BBC Three Counties Radio, then based in Luton. Following a brief spell on the drivetime show, he began his long stint as presenter of the mid-morning consumer affairs programme, as well as hosting topical phone-ins.

From the outset, Rhodes was determined to bring his own style of championing consumer journalism to the show, where he would open the phone lines to listeners in need of help, and take on all manner of wrongdoers from individual rogue traders to major corporations on their behalf.

Challenging and forthright, yet personable and possessing a mischievous sense of humour, Rhodes was perhaps at his best when making special in-depth reports for the programme, which led to many memorable moments.

With his reputation as a skilled interrogator firmly established, Rhodes became the face of the BBC’s regional political and current affairs TV programmes in the East of England, where he presented ‘Inside Out East’ and the region’s Sunday politics slot, though he claimed he was forced to step down from the latter when he found that he couldn’t get into political meetings because he’d rubbed too many local politicians up the wrong way.

In 2008, Rhodes moved to the breakfast show on BBC Three Counties, but his tenure came to an abrupt end on the afternoon of 16 March 2010 when in characteristically maverick style, he announced to the press that he was resigning from his radio job with immediate effect to stand as a candidate in Luton South in the general election due to the expenses controversies surrounding the constituency’s outgoing Labour MP, Margaret Moran.

The subsequent contest saw Rhodes face a challenge from another media personality, Esther Rantzen, and they gave vastly differing accounts to the media as to what motivated the other to stand. It was not to be either of their finest hours. Neither candidate fared well, with Rhodes receiving a paltry 463 votes to Rantzen’s 1,872, both falling massively short of the 14,725 of the successful Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker.

Rhodes quickly bounced back from this embarrassing episode with typical dynamism by setting up Bullet Point Media, a company specialising in making marketing videos, and he continued to be an active campaigner on local issues in Eaton Bray near Dunstable, where he lived with his Filipino wife Greggy, who he married in 2012.

Having suffered with back problems for some years, a water skiing accident in 2013 left Rhodes requiring an operation to repair two vertebrae. In the months that followed, he found himself becoming increasingly weak in his legs, and in October 2014 he received the devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

After coming to terms with the bleak prognosis, Rhodes threw himself into campaigning tirelessly, to be, in his own words a ‘noisy old geezer’ for better support and treatment for MND sufferers, and leant his name to fundraising efforts for research into the condition.

By late 2015, Rhodes was dependant on a motorised wheelchair and his voice was already weakening, but on 28 December that year, he returned to BBC Three Counties for a farewell show, where he looked back on some of the most memorable moments from his long spell at the station.

Rhodes continued his work with characteristic vigour for much of 2016 despite increasing physical frailty, which included a meeting with MND Association patron Princess Anne, and on Twitter, he kept followers entertained with his blunt assessments of leading politicians in a turbulent year. He also managed one final trip to Ireland to see family and friends.

Away from work, his hobbies included tennis, cycling, water skiing, and buying beaten up old Land Rovers, which had a habit of breaking down at inopportune moments, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

 

Tommy Keenan, known professionally as Stephen Rhodes.

Married broadcaster Alison Keenan, divorced.

Married Greggy Lluz, 2012.

Sons: Nick, 37, Sam, 27, Jack, 24.

Daughter: Beck, 35.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

ExtraOARdinary Victory for Novices

leave a comment »

L-R: Richard Phipps, Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, Arthur Williams

By MARCUS STEAD

A team of newcomers who had been in training for just four weeks were the surprise winners of the Splash and Dash Men’s Regatta at Llandaff Rowing Club.

The team of Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, all aged 32, and last-minute replacement Richard Phipps formed a team called ‘Love Dem Oars’ and saw off competitors in three races, including a comfortable victory against a more experienced group of firefighters in the final.

The event was held last Saturday as a fundraiser for Velindre Cancer Care and Keep Wales Tidy.

Robert, who works as an accountant for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, said: “I entered this event a few years ago with other people, and this year I suggested to my friends that we should take part, because it raises money for good causes and there’s a decent party afterwards at the club.

“I meant it as a bit of fun and a chance to raise money for local charities. I certainly didn’t expect us to win it!”

The original quartet began training in August under the guidance of Arthur Williams, 69, an accomplished rowing instructor, who was equally surprised by their win. He said: “I have to give them credit. They were a pleasure to work with because they were keen to learn and they have a good sense of humour.”

The team were dealt a blow just two days before the race when their most athletic team member, daily gym-goer Robert Kinsella, was forced to withdraw after being called into hospital for a hand operation, and he was substituted on the day by established rower Richard Phipps, who took part in eight races for different teams during the day. He said: “It’s been a very long, tiring day for me though it was a pleasure to step in and help ‘Love Dem Oars’. They’re a great bunch of lads and we’ve raised money for two good causes.”

The team are still accepting sponsorship money and anyone wishing to donate can do so by visiting: goo.gl/CbPTLS

Written by Marcus Stead

September 29, 2016 at 2:25 am

Posted in Cardiff

The Day I Met Owen Smith

with one comment

Owen_Smith_2013_(cropped)

‘Where’s Wally?’ Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith

The context was the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent following the death of independent MP Peter Law from a brain tumour.

I was doing a week’s work experience at the BBC Wales Political Unit (a MUCH bigger operation in those days than it is today), and spent quite a bit of time shadowing Owain Clarke, who is now BBC Wales’s Health Correspondent.

At the previous year’s general election, Law, an established but outspoken Labour Welsh Assembly member, had fallen out with the party over its policy of all-women shortlists. He quit the party and stood as an independent candidate at the general election, despite having recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour. He won the seat, and remained both an MP and an AM for the remainder of his life.

Following his death, Law’s widow, Trish, and his election agent, Dai Davies, set up Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. In the subsequent by-elections, Trish contested the Assembly seat and Davies the Westminster seat. Both won their respective elections.

I found both Trish and Davies to be delightful people, really down-to-earth types. They later fell out, but Davies was a decent, hard-working MP between 2005 and 2010.

Owen Smith was the Labour candidate for the Westminster seat, in what was an increasingly dirty campaign. The then-Welsh Secretary, the odious Peter Hain, told people they ‘ought to think very carefully’ before voting for Law and Davies. The implication was that the area wouldn’t get public grant money spent on it if they didn’t elect official Labour representatives.

Smith looked, sounded and behaved in exactly the same way as he does now – slippery, opportunistic, on-message. There was one comical moment when we were trying to interview his agent on the street. I was wearing a shirt and tie (though I probably looked a bit scruffy) while Owain Clarke was even more casually dressed.

As Clarke was setting up the camera, she assumed I was the interviewer and Clarke was my cameraman – in fact, Clarke was both interviewer and cameraman, I was ‘observing’. She turned to me and asked, “What questions will you be asking me?” I gave her a sharp rebuke, “I am not the interviewer – Owain is, but if I was the interviewer, you can be sure I wouldn’t be telling you my questions in advance.” 

A bit later on, we interviewed Owen Smith outside the house of an elderly Labour supporter. As we, and other assembled press gathered, the resident, an old woman, began shouting by her front door about how all working people had a duty to support Labour candidates no matter what, blah, blah blah.

Clarke interviewed Smith, and I stood by and watched. He was as ‘on message’ as ever. The interview ended, and Smith spent a few moments talking to other people stood around us. The old woman started shouting again, and then she fell over, and appeared injured. I’ll never forget what happened next:

Clarke and I had spent several minutes chatting to each other after the interview with Smith ended, and this delayed Clarke dismantling his camera equipment. When the woman fell, the first thing Smith did was turn around to see that our camera was still up. Then, and then only, did he go to assist the woman.

Smith’s instincts in that split second were to see that our camera was still rolling, then and then only did he go to assist her.

That tells you a LOT about the sort of man he is.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 29, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Welsh Snooker’s Next Generation

leave a comment »

IMG_20160623_172502

Wales junior snooker internationals L-R: Oscar Vaughan, Jacob Boyle, Ryan Bowgen and Alfie Davies

Anthony Davies, the former world number 26, now combines his role as Wales’s national snooker coach with a day job working at an autistic college for 16-24-year-olds in Sully near Cardiff.

Two of Davies’s snooker pupils, Jacob Boyle and Oscar Vaughan, have autism, and recently made their debuts for Wales in the under 14 team at the Celtic Challenge.

Davies, now aged 46, said: “I have to approach coaching them in a slightly different way. I explain to the other youngsters that Oscar and Jacob are a bit special and they sometimes lose their tempers when frustration kicks in.

“I’m lucky because they’re both passionate about it. They want to be here, they love being here, and I try to make it fun.”

Boyle, 12, from Cardiff, first became interested in snooker as a toddler while watching the World Championship on TV alongside his father, Joe, who said: “I don’t know whether it was the colours or the numbers that first sparked Jacob’s interest, but he quickly became very enthusiastic, and started commentating in front of the TV.

“We bought him a miniature table, and by the time he was six or seven he was playing on a 4ft table. About a year after that, he wanted to play on a full-sized table, so I took him to the [now closed] Riley’s club on City Rd near our home, and I saw a poster for a boys’ coaching club. We turned up one Sunday and it went from there, and now a few years later he’s about to represent his country.”

As well as commentating on the game in front of the TV, Boyle is avid recorder of results and statistics for both snooker and darts.

Vaughan, 14, attends Cantonian High School in Cardiff and began playing snooker around five years ago. He said: “My favourite players are Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump. I don’t have a career plan but I’m really looking forward to playing for Wales.”

Written by Marcus Stead

August 29, 2016 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Sport

Team GB’s Olympic Glory: A Sense of Perspective

leave a comment »

What is the point of sport? What is the point of the Olympics? If you play sport for a living, the answer is obvious – you’re in it to win, to become the best you can possibly be, and, yes, to make money.

If you’re a spectator, there are four main reasons why you watch. In no particular order: You want to be entertained; you enjoy watching the pursuit of excellence; you find it a form of escapism from the humdrum of daily life; you identify with certain individuals or teams, and because of this, your mood correlates with their success or lack of it.

There is nothing wrong with any of these four reasons for watching sport. I tick all four boxes. But we should be very careful not to exaggerate the extent to which it impacts on our own lives. Collecting Olympic medals is becoming a very expensive hobby for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. More on that later.

In terms of medals, Britain has never had it so good. ‘Team GB’, as it’s now known, came home from Rio de Janeiro with 27 gold medals, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes.

Let us take nothing away from the competitors. Success does not come without enormous sacrifices on their part, regardless of how much money is thrown at their sports. This means early morning and late night training sessions, as well as missing out on parties and various other pleasures young people enjoy.

Credit must also be given to their families, who have to make sacrifices of their own, both in terms of finance and of time used ferrying their children around. There’s no denying the fact that the majority of Britain’s Olympians come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds, and have parents who have the time and the means to support them, but they still have to put the work in.

Mo FarahMany of the competitors are a true credit to our nation. Mo Farah is an extraordinary individual who overcame extreme hardship as a child in Somalia to become arguably the greatest British athlete of all time.

Kate Richardson-Walsh’s inspiring words about hard work and achievement during her interview following the gold medal hockey match should be played in every school in the country.

Lutalo Muhammad was utterly devastated after missing out on a gold medal in taekwondo by a single second, but still handled his media duties with tremendous dignity.

The Islamic community in Britain would do well to hail Farah and Muhammad both as role models to impressionable young Muslims, and as examples to wider society of the positive contribution members of their faith make to our nation.

Yet there is another, less appealing side to the Olympic fever that we are told has infected the entire country over the last few weeks. People older than me will remember how Brits used to ridicule the Soviet nations in the 1970s and 80s for ruthlessly targeting Olympic glory by whatever means necessary as a political propaganda tool, while their countries were grim, shabby, secretive, authoritarian dictatorships. We’re now doing something very similar ourselves, albeit using money, rather than performance-enhancing drugs.

Our national debt is increasing by £5,170 per second, and is currently somewhere in the region of £1.7 trillion, more than double what it was in 2010, in spite of George Osborne’s ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ agenda. UK productivity is currently at the lowest level since records began, yet we work far longer hours than those who are doing better.  Our armed forces are a  fraction of the size they once were. Our public services are creaking and inefficient. Millions of people still have to travel on creaking Pacer trains that should have been retired for scrap decades ago. Libraries are closing, council provisions are being cut back, and the bins are being emptied much less frequently. The success of strangers who happen to come from the same country at us in a sporting festival on the other side of the world will not change any of this one iota.

There is no relationship between the number of Olympic medals a nation wins and its overall wellbeing. If British people were given a choice, would the majority have swapped the London 2012 medal tally for the economic growth Australia experienced around that time? They probably would.

Or what about Singapore, who went from Third World to First World during the second half of the 20th century, and is now one of the most developed countries on earth, but didn’t have a single Olympic gold medal to its name until Joseph Schooling won the 100 meter butterfly this year?

National Lottery.jpgThe turnaround in Team GB’s fortunes began with the creation of the National Lottery in 1994, which created a steady flow of millions of pounds that was invested in ‘elite’ athletes.

The money was channelled in very specific ways. It was targeted at hiring coaches, buying equipment and subsidising athletes in events where competition is weak. They went for the keirin cycling rather than the men’s 100 meter sprint, and the kayaking rather than the 110 meter hurdles.

And it paid off. The process began to bear fruit as the children of the mid-1990s became the medal winners of the 2008 Olympics, and the medal haul has grown with every four year cycle since.

Again, well done to the competitors involved. I’m happy for them. But their success in half-empty arenas in Brazil in no way reflects the overall state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The BBC appeared to lose all sense of proportion during the Olympics. Far too much of the Olympic coverage itself consisted of BBC staff interviewing each other, killing time with endless waffle and platitudes about how amazing Team GB were, swapping journalistic impartiality for sycophantic cheerleading.

For instance, quite a few BBC presenters and commentators need reminding that there are no teams called ‘We’ and ‘They’. The BBC’s sport department has developed an irritating habit of treating sport as a branch of light entertainment in recent years, and this was evident in the overall tone of the coverage, from Helen Skelton, who seems lovely but still has the persona of a Blue Peter presenter, to the talented but over-exposed Clare Balding appearing excessively impressed by each and every achievement of a Team GB member.

Far worse was the way Team GB’s success was treated by BBC News, who day after day relegated important stories down the running order to make way for Soviet-style propaganda about how well our competitors were doing. Sport has its place in TV news bulletins, but only in highly exceptional circumstances should it be placed at the top of the bulletin.

People who relied on BBC News for information could be forgiven for thinking that for the two-and-a-half weeks of the Olympics, the conflict in Syria had stopped, the situation in Turkey had stabilised, and nothing unpleasant or tragic happened in Britain.

Perhaps the worst example of this came on the Tuesday night of the second week, when the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News was delayed for an hour and a half while we waited for a three minute race, which Jason Kenny was expected to win. Apparently it was too much to ask of viewers to switch to BBC Two at 10pm as scheduled to witness the race.

When the news eventually started at 11:30pm, the lead story was, you’ve guessed it, a report on Jason Kenny winning the race I’d watched just minutes earlier, followed by one about his partner, Laura Trott winning her race earlier in the evening, followed by a further report summarising Team GB’s achievements that day.

In the minds of the BBC News editors, this was worthy of top billing, ahead of Anjem Choudary’s conviction, huge tax fines and the possibility of ‘special status’ for Britain in the upcoming Brexit talks. All three stories will affect the people of Britain to a far greater extent than two heavily-subsidised cyclists winning their respective races.

I am a sports fan and always enjoy the Olympics, but I keep its importance in the grand scheme of things firmly in perspective. I am also very aware that a significant number of people have no interest whatsoever in the Olympics, and were extremely irritated by the BBC’s propaganda machine at work in what were supposed to be ‘news’ bulletins.

It is also worth asking whether money targeted at a tiny number of elite athletes is the most appropriate use of National Lottery funds. Each medal won by Team GB equated to £4.1 million of lottery money.

There is a strong argument that in these austere times, the money could be better invested in keeping community facilities open and well-equipped including swimming pools, leisure centres and recreation grounds, as well as ensuring schools do not have to sell off their playing fields, which places severe limitations on the access children have to sports that require a large playing area.

Questions are also being asked as to whether lottery money is always being used for its intended purpose. While British cycling’s headquarters are a hub of activity focussed on Olympic excellence, there are increasing suspicions that the training base of the boxing squad in Sheffield is being treated as a finishing school, as a number of current professionals take advantage of facilities and coaching available.

With this in mind, would it not be better to divert a generous portion of this money towards amateur boxing clubs the length and breadth of Great Britain that have bills to pay and facilities to maintain?

It is these clubs that get youngsters off the streets and instil the discipline and skills required to start their journey in boxing. Without these clubs and the volunteers who give up their time to maintain them, there would be no Team GB.

Yes, it’s wonderful to see Team GB winning all these medals. Well done to them all. No doubt they’ll be richly rewarded in the honours system, and in some cases, with sponsorship opportunities. In six months’ time, quite a few of them will have faded into relative obscurity, known to few outside discerning followers of their particular sports.

But as a nation, we need to rediscover a sense of perspective. A heavily-subsidised athlete winning a medal is not more worthy of leading a news bulletin ahead of a city being bombed in Syria, or a major political development in Britain.

A child might be inspired by Adam Peaty winning a gold medal, but he may not have the opportunity to try to emulate his hero because the council has closed his local swimming pool.

As a nation, we need to regain a sense of perspective about the level of importance we place on the Olympics and the heavily-subsidised elite athletes. The Olympics are interesting to many, but not to all. They bring temporary enjoyment to many, but not to all. But they make a lasting difference to the lives of very, very few.

This reality should not be lost on the editors of newspapers or broadcast news bulletins, nor on the ‘powers that be’ who decide how National Lottery funding is spent.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 25, 2016 at 1:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Theatre Review: King Charles III at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

leave a comment »

This play isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in constitutional matters, or are not a serious thinker, it’s probably best that you stay away.

I have long believed that the death of our current Queen will have a far deeper and more profound effect on this country than most people realise. When that sad day comes, as it inevitably will at some point within the next 15 years or so, a lot we currently take for granted will suddenly and abruptly become far less certain.

Nobody under the age of 70 has any meaningful recollection of a time when Elizabeth II wasn’t our Head of State. Our current Queen is kind and dignified, but it is a myth that she has remained carefully neutral on political matters.

For example, she did not speak out when she might have done about the surrender of our independence to the European Union, which badly damaged her own position, turning her from a Sovereign into just another EU citizen.

In 1998, Her Majesty went out of her way to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement, and helped Mr Blair bamboozle Ulster’s Protestants into voting ‘Yes’ to a gradual and on-going surrender to the IRA godfathers.

In her 2004 Christmas Day broadcast, she proclaimed that ‘diversity is indeed a strength’ effectively endorsing the multiculturalism many oppose and dislike.

In other words, the Queen has always sided with, and aided, the government of the day, even if it damages herself and the Crown. Her reign has been steady but highly predictable.

By contrast, Prince Charles is a man of unfashionable opinions and strong conservative instincts (not Tory, by the way, a party which often does some very un-conservative things). I am sorry that the climate change lobby has got to him, but he has a great deal of value to say when he expresses opinions that embarrass the government on matters such as selection in education, rural affairs, medicine, social cohesion, opportunities for young people and modern architecture.

And it’s this entirely plausible conflict between Charles and the government of the day that provides the pretext of this play. The plot is relatively simple to understand: The Queen has died, and Charles, as King, holds his first weekly audience with a slippery Labour Prime Minister, Tristram Evans, who explains that he will shortly be asking Charles for royal assent for a parliamentary Bill that will severely restrict the freedom of the press.

The King’s respect for our country’s ancient liberties kick in, overriding any personal bitterness he may feel for the treatment he has received in the press over many decades. He refuses to support or sign the Bill, thereby invalidating the unwritten rule that the Monarch will give royal assent to all Bills passed by Parliament. The battle between government (supported by a two-faced Tory Opposition leader) and Monarch develops, yet Charles stands firm. He appears to share my sentiment that Parliament, on all sides, is dominated by career politicians who think and behave like teenage social liberals who know little and care nothing of our national heritage and ancient liberties.

Charles attempts to exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which triggers protests, especially in London. The Duchess of Cambridge plots a solution, which involves William publicly offering to be a mediator between the government and his father. He announces this at a press conference without his father’s knowledge, and, seeing this as betrayal, Charles reacts angrily but ultimately finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William (and Kate), who signs the Bill and restores the status quo between king and parliament.

The playwright Mike Bartlett, still only 35, clearly has a deep appreciation of Shakespeare and has borrowed ideas from Macbeth, with the ghost of Diana meddling as she plays Charles and William against each other, while the Duchess of Cambridge is revealed to have a ruthless, cruel and ambitious streak.

Robert Powell, one of Britain’s most versatile and diligent actors, is excellent as Charles, while his appearance has barely changed at all since I watched him alongside Jasper Carrott in The Detectives during my childhood in the 1990s.

Jennifer Bryden is spookily convincing as the Duchess of Cambridge. She looks, sounds and dresses exactly like her, while adding a much darker side to her character.

Another stand-out performance comes from Tim Treloar as the shifty, devious Prime Minister with a comically exaggerated Welsh accent thrown in for some light relief, while Lucy Phelps as Prince Harry’s rebellious, socialist, republican girlfriend Jess Edwards provides an important subplot.

A favourite scene of mine is when Prince Harry gets talking to a kebab vendor, who ponders: “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?” He goes on to list the shrinking of the armed forces, and the demise of the NHS and Post Office as signs that Britain is a shadow of the country it once was.

Director Rupert Goold’s careful casting and attention to detail gave the play authenticity. It gets the balance right between entertainment, fun and wit, while still providing a powerful commentary on the monarch’s role in society and an entirely possible conflict in the not too distant future.

The play left me even more concerned about the future of this country than I was before. Britain is an increasingly divided and mistrusting country, and there are simmering tensions behind the orderly façade of law-abiding civility. The political classes consist of youthful, careerist politicians, PR men, retread Marxists and Europhiles who think the country should be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The political establishment is loathed by millions, with both major political parties kept afloat by State funding and dodgy millionaires, rather than the membership fees and donations of ordinary people. If Charles did get involved in such a conflict for real, he could, with some legitimacy, claim to speak for many of the majority of people who did not vote for the government of the day.

Reform of the political establishment is a much more pressing concern than reform of the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the judiciary.

One of the biggest contrasts in the play is between the reassuringly wise yet outspoken Charles and William and Kate, who are youthful and popular.

William and Kate’s popularity, both in the play and in real life, is worthy of further analysis. Unlike Charles, they have never expressed a controversial view on anything. Like the current Queen, they play it safe and are never likely to criticise, let alone attempt to block, the government of the day.

Their popularity is superficial. Young British people, especially women in their teens and 20s, very often treat celebrity gossip with a religious reverence, and feel they must take a deep interest to fit in with their friends. They are interested in William and Kate in much the same way they are interested in the Beckhams and the Kardashians. It’s the celebrity they want, not their role as a constitutional monarch and defender of ancient liberties, which few know nor care very much about thanks to nearly half a century of inadequate comprehensive education.

If you managed to make it this far into my review, you’re the type of person who absolutely must go and see the play if it tours within reasonable commuting distance. I travelled from my Cardiff home to Cheltenham, and it was worth every penny and every bit of inevitable inconvenience on the creaking rail network.

This play deserves much greater attention, and should be made into a film or a TV serial. It provides a thought-provoking yet entertaining peek into a scenario that may well unfold for real one day quite soon. 10/10

Written by Marcus Stead

March 6, 2016 at 6:18 am