Thursday, 15 October 2009

Cardiff changes but The Vulcan remains

Cardiff has seen its fair share of changes in the past decade. The Millennium Stadium, the Senedd, the Cardiff Bay Barrage, the Wales Millennium Centre and most recently St David's 2 have all emerged onto the Cardiff landscape. These are all fine examples of architecture and engineering, and all are playing a significant part in the development of Cardiff as a vibrant European capital.

Yet there is a feeling among many Cardiffians that this development has come at too high a price. Huge swathes of the Docklands have been condemned to history in order to build uniform soulless flats and a tacky retail and restaurant quarter by the name of Mermaid Quay. Closer to the city centre the Reformation-savaged ruins of a 13th Century Franciscan friary were demolished decades ago to make way for a tower block.

At the heart of the latest battle between developers and Cardiffians sits The Vulcan Hotel. The Vulcan was built in 1853 and has served the people of Cardiff and the world ever since. The glazed tiles to the exterior were added in 1906 while in 1914 significant alterations were made to the interior – the smoke room was removed from the front bar and the unique brown terracotta urinals were installed.

The current d├ęcor came with landlord Brian Smart and wife Liz when they took over in 1993. A ship's wheel and numerous images of ships, the Docks and other local landmarks give The Vulcan a genuine character that chain pubs can only attempt to manufacture.

Despite its history and its popularity The Vulcan has been under threat of demolition for years. Owners Brains Brewery were issued with a Compulsory Purchase Order several years ago as the land was wanted for the St Davids 2 development.

In August 2008 the Save The Vulcan campaign began with the aim of saving this gem from the bulldozers. Support quickly grew with the petition reaching one thousand before Christmas and currently standing at more than six thousand. Famous names were among them: James Dean Bradfield, Lord Kinnock and Rhys Ifans among others. A public meeting drew a crowd of more than one hundred.

But the developer wasn't listening and the closing date remained fixed for late June. Then a text from the landlady: an extension to the lease was on the table. Three more years. Three more years of good beer, three more years of interesting company and, above all, three more years of Cardiff as it was.

The latest news is that the landlady is moving on. Doubt surrounds the developer's next move since the extension was offered to her and to her alone. We have worked so hard and fought so well that to lose The Vulcan now would be devastating.

We need everyone in Cardiff to experience the atmosphere of The Vulcan. On an international day when six women wedge themselves behind the bar to serve beer to hundreds or on a Tuesday lunchtime when the only soul in the place is you. Once you've been there you'll understand the pub's popularity and you'll understand why the campaign has put so much effort into preserving it.

A Vulcan visitor is a Vulcan supporter is a weapon against needless demolition of Cardiff heritage.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

How to beat Cardiff City

Score first. The Bluebirds have lost four games this season and have conceded first in each of them.

Last season, City lost only 50% of the games in which they went a goal down. City came from behind to win a league game just once last season - on 18 March 2009 against Watford. That required a Ross McCormack penalty in the seventh minute of injury time. Nine times last season City rescued a point after conceding first.

The last ten times City have conceded first, only twice have they avoided defeat. This suggests that when City are hot they are scorching (see the 6-1 demolition of Derby County, 3-0 victory over Bristol City, 4-0 triumph against Scunthorpe United ...) but that when they are slow out of the blocks, concede and are forced to break down a team they struggle.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

What's the Welsh for "the sums don't add up"*?

There's been a lot of bluster recently surrounding the Assembly Commission's decision to stop translating Plenary debates from English into Welsh. The motive behind the Commission's proposal was to save £250,000. In the face of vocal opposition, a compromise of sorts has been proposed: all debates will be translated but within 3-10 days of Plenary rather than the 24-hour deadline that currently exists.

The first thing that bothered me was the idea that the home of Welsh democracy, one of whose self-declared main ambitions is to promote and protect the Welsh language, would consider reducing its own bilingualism. Since when has "do as I say not as I do" been a successful mantra? Then I read the story again. £250,000?!

Plenary takes place every Tuesday and Wednesday, from 1.30pm until anywhere between 5pm and 7pm. So the job consists of transcribing 3.5-5.5 hours of debate and then translating it. Assuming there are two transcribers - allowing them 30 minute mini-shifts to save their wrists and their sanity - and two translators writing up the Welsh the following day (7.5 hours), the total manhours for each Plenary translation should be around 26 hours (11 transcribing plus 15 translating).

Plenary sat 66 times in 2008-09. Using the above calculation gives a total of 1716 manhours. If the Commission's £250,000 figure is correct, then those transcribing and translating the Plenary Record are being paid somewhere in the region of £150 per hour. This equates to an annual salary of around £60,000.

Either the Commission pays transcribers and translators huge sums or *"dydy e ddim yn taro deuddeg".

Discard d'Estaing

Former President of France Valery Giscard d'Estaing has released a romantic novel "whose thinly-disguised plot focuses on himself and Diana", according to the Telegraph.

Obviously someone of Giscard's distinguished nature - studying at ENA and being a member of l'Academie Francaise - would have the imagination to take (possibly) real-life events and to develop characters and a plot that would retain the drama but not descend into god-awful tackiness.

Not a chance. What did he choose to call the 'Diana, Princess of Wales' character? Princess Patricia of Cardiff. With such a cheap tactic, I only hope that the book is as poorly-received as his first effort 15 years ago. Maybe if enough people discard d'Estaing he might put down his pen for good.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Is professional sport corrupt?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, sport is "a game, competition or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job". There is no doubt that professional sportspeople exert terrific physical effort (that's why Andy Fordham isn't a sportsman) and display expert skill. It's what comes next that needs to be examined: "According to rules".

At the top level of professional sport are athletes whose sole purpose is to beat the rest and be the best. Recent news from Formula One and rugby union, coupled with longstanding issues in soccer, athletics and cycling, suggests that contempt for the rules is perhaps more widespread than assumed.

In Formula One this week, the Renault team has been exposed asking one of their drivers to deliberately crash his car in order to help his team-mate. Over the summer, Harlequins rugby union club came under the spotlight for faking blood injuries and therefore enabling substitutions.

Cycling has long had a problem with drugs, as has Athletics. Diving has come out of the pool and onto the football pitch, most notably and recently at the Emirates Stadium.

These examples are more than rule-breaking, they raise serious questions about the morality of those at the top of professional sport. I'm tempted to propose that it is professionalisation - and the monetary concerns that it implies - that has led us to this point.

Paul Rees makes the case that amateur rugby was full of 'cheating': nicking a few yards on the touchline, for example. He also says that 'A difference then was that the game was for the players' and that 'Professionalism has acted as a disinfectant'. In some ways maybe, but likewise I'm not so sure.

The amateur game was indeed for players; the professional game is for money. Whether due to pressure from a club owner or manager, or whether it stems from a misplaced perception of what it means to succeed, that induces a 'win at all costs' mentality that has surely contributed to an erosion of the ethics of sport.

Friday, 11 September 2009

'I won't get a fair trial because I'm a tosser', court hears

A defendant who claims to be a 'tosser' does not want his case to be heard because he believes the jury are prejudiced towards tossers. The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, but who has been nicknamed Mr Tosser by the clerk, thinks that his case should be heard by a single judge - preferably a tosser like himself.

In an irate outburst, Mr Tosser shouted across the court that he had been aware of his "growing propensity to tosserdom" for years and that it had become fully-fledged ever since he started watching Top Gear last month. It was following the programme that Tosser stole an Audi Quattro and sat for fifty minutes outside his ex-wife's house playing 'The Sign' by Ace of Base ten times over at a loud volume with the windows down. When District Judge Llew Williams asked why he did this, Tosser replied "because I could".

Williams eventually agreed to Tosser's request, saying that there would be "no difficulty" in finding a tosser judge. The case was adjourned until Monday.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Tasty Stock but lack of key ingredients hands it to Russia on a plate

Given the reputation that he has built up at Arsenal and in the under 21s, being mistaken for Aaron Ramsey is one of the highest accolades in Welsh football at the moment. That Brian Stock played for 25 minutes before I realised that he was, in fact, Brian Stock of Doncaster Rovers and not Aaron Ramsey, shows how well he played against Russia tonight. (It also shows that I need my glasses back from the optician more urgently than I thought.)

Stock was outstanding in an opening half an hour that saw Wales dominate one of the best teams in Europe. With Ricketts pushing forward down the right and Ramsey supporting the returning Craig Bellamy up front, Wales created more chances in 30 minutes than in the 180 minutes of home qualifiers against Finland and Germany.

And yet. One moment of brilliance from Ramsey's Arsenal team-mate Andrei Arshavin ten minutes before the break brought Toshack's side down to earth. He picked out Igor Semshov's intelligent run, who went on to shoot past Wayne Hennessey into the far corner. The goal flattered Russia who had not seriously threatened the Welsh goal until that point.

Wales were slow to start after the break and I started to fear the worst. But my faith in the future of Welsh football was reinforced when James Collins met Ramsey's corner at the near post and flicked it past Akinfeev. For ten minutes Wales pushed on, encouraged by Collins's second international goal and by the 14,000 crowd who finally had something to sing about.

Having again failed to convert pressure into goals, Wales succumbed once more. Gabbidon gave away a soft free-kick on the edge of the penalty area that Ignashevich drilled past Hennessey, who was misplaced standing behind the wall. Wales never reached the same level of performance in the second half as they had reached in the first and it seemed that the only team to score again would be Russia.

And so it was. Substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko had smashed a shot against the crossbar before taking advantage of a Collins mistake and firing a fine finish across Hennessey.

Wales were unable to capitalise on their good build-up play; nor did they have a Pavlyuchenko to make a goal out of nothing. Currently they are missing a striker who threatens to score each time he plays. Bellamy looked lively and made some good runs down the flanks but never looked like scoring. As I pointed out on Monday, Ched Evans was the only striker in the squad to have scored this season. He watched the whole game from the bench.

Wales lacked ambition when it was needed most. They clearly started the better and after ten minutes should have really grabbed the opportunity that was there to take the lead. After the equaliser Wales didn't capitalise on their momentum, although they weren't helped by some strange refereeing decisions.

Further, Toshack should have made a change at half-time rather than waiting for Wales to go 2-1 down before introducing Sam Vokes. If he'd backed them and their first-half performance, which included the best half hour I've seen Wales play for at least six years, then a half-time change would have taken the game to Russia and given his players the belief that they could go and win. As it was, it didn't look like Wales ever believed that they could win - neither during their opening spell nor at 1-1.

The game also clearly lacked atmosphere due to the Millennium Stadium being only one-fifth full. The FA of Wales's meeting next week to discuss taking the qualifiers to smaller stadia around the country cannot come too soon. It might be that the hotter atmosphere generated by a crowd of that size in the Liberty Stadium or even the Racecourse would have pushed Wales into the lead.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Toshack's goals

Wales face Russia at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday night knowing that they will not be qualifying for the World Cup next year. Their aim is to finish third in the group, thereby improving their seeding for the next round of qualifying games and, so the theory goes, placing them in an easier qualification group for Euro 2012.

This would mean finishing above Finland - the team who embarassed Wales 2-0 in Cardiff in March. The return leg in Helsinki comes next month and given that Wales are four points adrift of Finland that would appear to be a must-win game for Toshack's side. In addition, both teams have a difficult game - Wales play Russia on Wednesday and Finland travel to Germany in October - and a trip to Liechtenstein to negotiate.

But first comes Russia and Wales's lack of goals. Wales haven't scored more than one goal in a game for almost a year - that came against Liechtenstein and was a struggle. Wales have managed just 12 goals in the last 15 games, and 4 in the last 8.

Within the World Cup qualifying groups, only Albania, Malta, Luxembourg, Moldova, San Marino, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein, Armenia, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Georgia and Macedonia have scored fewer than Wales. At the other end of the pitch, Wales have conceded 7 goals in 7 games - the same number as Croatia and France.

The defence isn't perfect but with Gabbidon alongside Collins it starts to look solid again. The young midfield grows with every game and there can be no doubt as to the potential of a Ramsey, Ledley, Edwards, Collison combination. The issue really is one of goals.

Toshack needs to start with Ched Evans, who has two goals this season, alongside Bellamy, who has none. Earnshaw, Church and Vokes are also yet to score this term but Bellamy's experience puts him ahead of the pack.

Toshack also needs to give Ramsey licence to break forward in support and shoot on sight. Ramsey's goal against Italy for the U21s shows the threat he carries. David Edwards chipped in with the winner in Azerbaijan and should be encouraged to join the front two at every opportunity.

Even if Wales beat Finland next month, and assuming that both teams get three points in Liechtenstein, the difference between the two sides will come down to how Wales fare against Russia and how Finland get on in Germany. Finland did push Germany all the way in a 3-3 draw earlier in the campaign but with Germany potentially needing a win to secure top place in the group, victory should be within Germany's grasp.

All this makes the Russia game crucial for Toshack's stated aim of finishing third in the group. Russia will score in Cardiff; the question is how many will Wales manage?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Estate Agents: Taylors

"Er, no."
"Just interested in ethical banking and stuff?"
"Er, yeah."
"That's cool."

Having come into contact with several estate agents in recent months, I've become aware of the huge variety in their hairstyles and dress sense, as well as their approach to what they do. Taylors are the worst I've encountered.

1) They are based in a supermarket. In Morrisons in what they like to call Cardiff Bay. Only it's not Cardiff Bay, it's a shopping estate on the no-man's land between Cardiff Bay and Penarth. A box of twelve Stella stubbies was on the man's desk.

2) We had an appointment at 5pm and had left work early to be there. The mortgage man nipped outside on his mobile just as we arrived so we had to wait with his colleague - who said nothing useful or interesting - for the next ten minutes. Eventually he went to fetch mortgage man from his private phone call.

3) The mortgage man wasn't very good with customers. He told us we needed an Agreement in Principle. We said that the Co-op wouldn't do one of those until we had applied for a mortgage, which we couldn't do until we'd had an offer on a house accepted. But every estate agent will ask you for one of these, he replied. (No-one else has.)

We repeated what we had said, adding that the Britannia Building Society had said the same thing as the Co-op - no agreement until you apply. Seemingly unable to move on, mortgage man pulled a sheet of A4 paper with the header 'Mortgage Agreement' from one of his drawers. This is what you need, he said, holding it up for us to see. He called his colleague over and asked whether that was what all estate agents need. After this onslaught, he told us not to be defensive.

Staggering on with the conversation, he asked whether we had received mortgage advice.

"Yes, we've arranged things with the Co-op."
"Ah, but I'm independent. [What are you doing sitting in a Taylors branch in Morrisons then?] The Co-op will only show you Co-op products. What if I show you some deals here that could save you £90 a month?"
"It depends who they're with."
"Oh, like ethical banking?"

4) They either lied or broke the law. When I rang to book a viewing I was told that as it was a "repo" (repossession) legally they had to make sure that we could afford it before they showed it to us. I agreed to visit said branch - travelling far across Cardiff in rush hour. The mortgage guy in the branch asked if we'd arranged finance, we said yes thank you and he gave us his blessing to see the property.

"But you haven't seen any proof - it's just us saying we can afford it", I protested.
"It's ok - I've asked if you can afford it. If you put an offer in and can't afford it then we'll know."

Either they just wanted us to go there so they could flog us a mortgage, in which case they lied about it being a legal requirement for them to check our finances as this was a "repo", or they broke the law as they let us see it without checking our finances beyond us saying what we could afford.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Climate Camp Cymru 2009: Ffos-y-Fran

I attended my first Climate Camp yesterday, catching the train to Merthyr Tudful and walking to the camp near the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine.

I had been invited months ago but had let the invitation sit in Facebook without a response. Friends have been to previous UK Climate Camps at Heathrow and Kingsnorth. They sounded like interesting places where ideas were hatched and debated. They were places where action was planned and taken to highlight the Governments' contradictory decisions regarding climate change: "we'll cut emissions by 80% but we're also going to increase airport capacity". But I didn't sign up straight away, probably because I was still quite dubious about the nature of these camps (what could they achieve?) and the people attending them (just how hard-core were they?).

Talk in the pub a couple of weeks ago reminded me about the Ffos-y-Fran camp and I decided to go. Not to camp overnight, mind you, but to go and see for myself one Saturday afternoon. On the train I asked myself why I was going. The urgency of climate change: one. Two: support the locals in Merthyr who I know have been fighting the mine hard. Three: take myself out of my comfort zone and experience something new. Four: see this mine that I'd read about.

First impressions were good. The camp looked organised, there were plenty of people milling around and ducking into one large tent I heard a few minutes of informed, impassioned debate about credit unions and the current banking mess. Things got even better when I found the kitchen tent and, parched from the slog up the hill from the train station, was able to procure a cup of Rosy Lea.

I wandered around, into and between the Bicycology tent (free repairs!), the face-painting tent, the Toilets: Poo Only, Gwagle Gweithdy 2, the Toilets: Wee Only. I noticed in the Handbook that had been given to me at the Welcome tent that Gwagle Gweithdy 3 would, at 2.15pm, see a discussion on the effectiveness of internet-based activism. As I'd only be around for one workshop before catching the train back to Cardiff, this looked like the one.

When I got to Gwagle Gweithdy 3, which was next to/part of Gwagle Gweithdy 2, the chalk on the small blackboard outside had been drizzle-smudged. I stuck my head in. Another similarly novice-looking guy came in behind me. A few people were applying clown face-paint. "Have you got mobile phones?" we were asked. I fumbled in my pocket while my novice friend said "I've turned it off." "You need to take the battery out." Stupidly, I did this without asking why. Having complied with the clown's request, I asked if this was where the internet activism workshop would be. "Dunno. But if you find it, mate, will you come back and tell me about it cos I'm interested in that." "Err, yeah, if I find it." I left the tent.

Feeling as though I really shouldn't have come I began wandering around the camp again. "Site meeting!" someone suddenly shouted through a loud-hailer. "Everyone meet!"

A circle of about 80 people gathered in the drizzle. Apparently there was some confusion over just what had been decided on Friday regarding a march on Saturday afternoon. Could someone clarify what they thought had been agreed upon?, a lady asked. Someone did. Could I take any points on that?, the lady asked. Lots of people did. 45 minutes of points simple, technical and directly-relevant. Lots of frustration.

It seemed the issue was that locals (and some protestors) were not happy with "breaking the law direct action" as compared with going on a march up the hill to the mine. If we all went together, so it appeared, then the police would not be able to distinguish between who was marching and who was more intent on mischief. Fair enough. But this was talked over, under, around and through for 45 minutes in an attempt to reach consensus and we didn't get anywhere.

After about 20 minutes, someone pointed out that we had arranged to meet local residents for the march at 2.30pm and if we didn't leave now then the locals might get annoyed waiting. Not even that shook people out of the discussion. Someone proposed that the Affinity Groups (small groups of people willing to take direct action) should leave 2-3 minutes later than the march to show the police that they were separate. 2-3 minutes wasn't enough time to make that distinction, someone countered. Does anyone have a proposal to make that distinction more obvious, asked the lady. Ummm, I pondered, how about more minutes? Bonkers.

I had gone from being impressed by the organisation - erecting a squatted camp and sustaining themselves for days is a truly impressive achievement, to being utterly disengaged. The principle of consensus decision-making is a valid one but I couldn't help thinking that people with even less experience of it than I have would not stick around for the action that it might produce.

I wandered off again, not sure whether I'd go on this march. I didn't know whether it was illegal, whether I'd be arrested, the route we were taking even. I spoke to a nice woman weaving baskets. When I looked back at the meeting the meeting had dissipated. Had the march actually started? I walked over, thinking about whether I should join, and saw another meeting circle. The people who were staying behind to protect the camp were talking tactics. Bloody hell. I ran to catch up with the marchers.

Over the stile and up the hill. A woman applauded out of the window of her car in support of the protest, others beeped. The mine was further than I had hoped. Near the top of the hill, the police had erected a human wall and informed us that the road was closed. People milled about. I had no idea what was happening; no-one had talked about this eventuality at the meeting. What were we doing?

Some people drifted onto the common land at the roadside to circumnavigate the police roadblock. I, too, walked up the hillside as there was no view of the mine from the road. What I saw from the top was truly upsetting and I didn't see half of it. This mine is huge. The plan is to extract 11 million tons of coal over the next 15 years, burn it to produce electricity and pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as Mozambique over the same period. Despite having been live for more than two years, the 'Environment' pages of the official website are conveniently and unbelievably still 'under construction'.

This mine is also ridiculously close to people, just 37 metres in some places. Looking down from the hilltop it was easy to see (and hear) the nuisance caused by this proximity. Merthyr has been shat on.

While clowns and protesters dressed as penguins spread across the common land to avoid the police, I came down off the hill and caught my train back to Cardiff. I feel I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. In marching up the hill I demonstrated support for the people of Merthyr and their campaign. In being at the camp I took myself out of my comfort zone. In being frustrated at the site meeting's circular arguments, seemingly without urgency, I experienced something new. And in climbing the hill I saw the mine. I saw the mine and I was ashamed.

A pregnant pause

Nine months since my last post. Why?

I started a new job in November that left me less free time, December brought Christmas and fun and games, January...well since January I've been particularly busy with the campaign to save The Vulcan, one of Cardiff's oldest pubs, from demolition.

I'm glad to say that we succeeded, at least temporarily. The developer Rapport has offered a three-year extension to the lease. He has now submitted plans to build the multi-storey car park at the back of the site off Adam Street; the original plans would have built it where The Vulcan currently stands.