March 30, 2009
Billed as ‘Fifty years of democratic reform in Tibet’ the meeting held on Tuesday at Westminster University’s Regent Street campus was destined for controversy.
Fifty years to the month since a major and bloody Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule led to thousands fleeing the country and the Dalai Lama’s exile, three scholars from the People’s Republic took the stage in Fyvie Hall and invited questions from anyone who cared to attend.
Many of those who turned up are Tibetans and as Dr Zhang Yun, Dr Zha Luo and Ms Deji Droma introduced themselves there was a ripple of anticipation in the air. The young Tibetan man sitting next to me had brought along a copy of a report made to the International Commission of Jurists about the suppression of the 1959 rebellion. He had marked several passages which referred to the killing of children and babies.
The first questioner, a Tibetan, described his homeland as “caged”. He rejected Chinese claims of ‘democracy’ and ‘reform’. How could Tibetans be happy when monasteries were destroyed and exiles were forbidden to return?
Dr Yun mustered the Chinese defence. Tibet had moved from feudalism to socialism. Before China took over most Tibetans were serfs, now they are equal members of society.
An elderly monk stood up, fragile but imposing in his deep red robe. He had been sentenced to 33 years in prison for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in 1959 and asked: “Why are people still rising up and asking for freedom?”
The audience murmured in sympathy. Ms Droma fiddled with the strap of her handbag.
Dr Luo spoke out: “Tibetans want many different things. Some want to make money, some want to become officials, some want to be monks.” That is Tibetans, like most people, are a mixture of materialists, spiritualists and opportunists. According to Dr Luo none of these callings is a problem so long as they are pursued “within the law”.
And so the meeting went on. Rather like a mis-buttoned coat questions and responses never matched up. The panel spoke through an interpreter but the language barrier was not the real difficulty. Each side is simply living in a different reality. The audience spoke of invasion and destruction, the panel of liberation and development.
At one point Dr Dibyesh Anand, chair of the meeting, turned in exasperation to a particularly vocal audience member who was demanding a panel member “answer the question”.
“He won’t. We can bring people here but we can’t make them answer questions.”
It was a rare moment of shared truth.
The most frustrating aspect of the whole event was that all the panel members are very knowledgeable about Tibet and almost certainly have a genuine affection for the place.
Dr Yun is a specialist on ancient Tibetan history. Ms Droma and Dr Luo are both ethnic Tibetans. Ms Droma is an expert on Tibetan religions. Dr Luo is interested in development and was obviously keen to discuss environmental issues – China plans to spend £1.5 billion on environmental projects in Tibet. In another setting they could have had a fascinating discussion with many audience members.
So was the meeting a waste of time? Well, no. Audience and panel had at least to acknowledge each other’s presence. After the meeting ended Tibetans clustered around Ms Droma and Dr Luo, chatting. More seemed to be achieved over a glass of wine than in a formal meeting, one rule which probably holds true in London, Lhasa or Beijing.
By Brigitte Istim
From BBC background:
March 24, 2009
Long-time retiree Jenny Hunts thinks now, given the recession, is the perfect time for people to switch to an alternative economic system and currency.
Jenny has been exchanging goods and services with people in her local area without using cash since 1992, when she started running the Local Exchange Trading System (Lets) network in Harrow.
Lets networks operate locally in city boroughs, towns and villages across the UK – there were about 300 in 2006 according to Letslink UK.
“Person A could do some gardening for person B, and person B will do somebody else’s hair - somebody quite different,” explains Jenny. “And then person C will do something for somebody else, and each time a cheque is paid. The people agree between them what they should pay per hour or for the job as a whole.”
Each scheme has its own fictional currency and cheque-sheets. Brixton Lets in South London for example has Bricks. Harrow Lets in North West London has Harmonies - short for Harrow Monies - valued at roughly £1 (though it cannot be exchanged for cash).
Sometimes members pay with a mix of the fictional currency – which covers time and skill - and Sterling, which, say, covers the cost of petrol for a lift to the airport or materials for a DIY job.
Popular in hard times
Lets was started in Canada in 1983 by Michael Linton. But the concept has been around for much longer. During the Great Depression, communities across America relied on their own local currencies as a means of helping each other survive.
Nowadays, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper, experts estimate that there are some 2,000 local currencies in the world - and they tend to multiply during economic downturns.
But membership of Harrow Lets has remained fairly constant at around 60.
Jenny thinks this is partly because people do not know about the scheme because it is not-for-profit and cannot afford to advertise. The £4 joining fee is only enough to cover the cost of postage of the Lets catalogue.
People are also more likely to turn to a Credit Union than a Lets scheme, Jenny thinks. Many people “cannot get their head around a separate currency”, and have got too used to borrowing money to pay for goods, she says.
Financial system crashes
Jenny, who has never been in debt, thinks Lets is superior to what banks can offer.
“In the Middle Ages, to lend money for interest was called usury, and that was considered to be a sin,” she says. “Nowadays, of course, lending money no matter how much interest is considered a virtue, not a sin. I still think it’s a sin. But you see, there you are, I’m very old fashioned perhaps. But it didn’t work, did it. It hasn’t worked. It has come crashing down now.”
The scheme works better in provincial towns than in “a sprawling great big mass of people” such as in Harrow, says Jenny.
“I don’t know that there is that much of a community feeling here,” she says. “On my particular road I know a few people. But I don’t know as many as I would if it were a country town. My idea of a community is in a village or a small town where nearly everyone knows everybody else.”
There is a “huge” Lets scheme in the “smallish town” of Stroud in Gloucestershire. “Not just a little directory like we have here,” says Jenny. “But a huge catalogue – about five inches thick.”
She thinks environmental people gravitate to Lets because they get the concept of helping yourself and helping your fellow people at the same time. Stroud is very “green” politically, as is Jenny who is Secretary of Harrow Green Party.
But she stresses: “Lets is completely and utterly apolitical. It cannot be political. We want as many people to join no matter who they are. I keep the two completely separate.”
Jenny holds regular “bring and share” parties where members of all ages can get to know each other better over salads, pizza, canapés and cakes.
“We’ve had some lovely young couples but unfortunately they tend to move around a bit more,” says Jenny. “[Age range] varies really. It’s a mix altogether. Quite a lot of retired people. It’s very good for retired people because there are certain things that they need that they couldn’t have any other way really.”
Jenny would like to see Harrow Lets attract many more members – though she would need more administrative help to run it. But she would not want to change the feel of the group.
“It’s all done in a kind of shoe string way,” she says. “We’re not glossy and if we could afford to be glossy we wouldn’t want to be because that’s not what it’s about. We keep everything basic and minimal really.”
To find your local Lets group, go to www.letslinkuk.net
Do you think Lets is a good alternative economic system?
By Marianne Halavage
March 23, 2009
Going to the dog racing is a long-standing British tradition, but while tracks across the country seem to be disappearing, the Wimbledon Stadium is still waving a proud flag.
It is a common misconception that greyhound racing has lost touch with young people and that the only people who attend the dogs are lonesome old men with a little change to spare.
Walking into the Wimbledon dog tracks turns this stereotype on its head. The stadium is filled with an energetic youthfulness that even took a large group of German school children by surprise.
Stefan Winckler, 16, from Germany, said: “At first I thought my teachers were joking when they told us that we were going to the dogs, but now that we are here I have to admit that I am enjoying myself and I think my class mates are too.”
He continued: “I was stunned to see that so many people in their 20s and 30s are here and that they are all wearing suits, because I always thought that dog racing is very smelly and dirty.”
The big money races on Tuesday night were races six to 11, but it was race six that caused the most uproar.
Droopys Wren was leading the pack from the second the dogs were let loose from the stalls, but Baby Stardust was fast approaching and levelling with Wren at the last bend, overtaking Boherash Hanna from the outside and taking it to a photo finish.
But Droopys Wren hung on, fought off all contenders and won by a whisker.
Bernice Frame, a Race Steward at Wimbledon, said: “When I first started working here I was surprised at how many people show up at every race day.
Fridays I have to say, though, is the most exciting, watching all those people getting into the gambling zone is very fascinating to watch. Sometimes even better than the actual races.”
By Ijeoma Igbokwe
March 23, 2009
Over three quarters of British adults believe that jobless migrants should face deportation according to a recent Financial Times-Harris poll.
Many of those questioned did not approve of other European citizens having the right to work in the UK.
The London School of Economics’ most recent figures suggest that there are around 725,000 illegal migrants in the UK - a 300,000 rise on figures from 2001.
It seems that with recession in the air and competition for jobs on the rise public opinion is souring on the idea of economic immigration, legal or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Mayor of London Boris Johnson has called for a “morally right” amnesty but the suggestion has been met with mixed reactions.
Immigration and borders chief Phil Woolas called that idea “a well intended road to hell”. He isn’t alone. Groups like Migrant Watch UK have also challenged an amnesty.
When asked about the FT poll, the group’s chairman Sir Andrew Green told WNOL: “This is certainly no surprise. As unemployment climbs towards three million there will be a growing concern about migrant workers.
“I think the British are fair-minded, but immigration is out of control.”
Those at the heart of this numbers debate have – out of necessity - been some of the least vocal.
For those like Alice* the threat of workplace immigration raids, like double-decker buses, are just another part of London life.
She arrived in the UK from Atlanta to visit friends two years ago on a six-month holiday visa and has been here since.
While working in hospitality she has contributed around quarter of her earnings in “emergency tax” because of her lack of a national insurance number.
“Well I shouldn’t be here, that’s true, but the country is still benefiting from me and it feels unfair,” she said.
Due to her circumstances she doesn’t believe she will ever receive a rebate.
“I’ve saved some – but it still hurts – good thing I’m planning to go home soon anyway. I’m tired of doing this day to day,” she added.
Others like Michel* intend to become full citizens. Having lived for a time in Paris under an assumed identity Algeria-born Michel made his way to the UK in 1999 using a forged passport.
He had to leave his catering job last year when his employers questioned his right to work in the UK.
Despite having a bank account, mobile phone contract and all the other fixtures of a normal life, Michel has never felt secure.
Though he is now applying for a marriage visa he believes an amnesty would have made his life a lot easier.
“Always moving, it takes a lot of work to come like this: the long way. I’ve been here for almost 10 years now. I’ve always worked. If I wasn’t needed there wouldn’t have been work… I would have had to go,” he said.
Business owners found employing an illegal immigrant are liable for a fine of up to £10,000.
In many cases the benefits of paying low wages and avoiding taxation costs means that the risks are worth the gains for unscrupulous employers.
As a harsh economic climate feeds a backlash against migrant workers it also makes the multi-billion pound tax injection an amnesty represents more appealing to the government.
The move may yet become one more unpopular – yet necessary – piggy bank to smash open.
*Name have been changed to protect the individuals’ identites.
March 23, 2009
The editor of the BBC news website, Steve Herrmann, says that user-generated content is useful but creates added work for the online team.
Outside news sources using platforms such as Twitter can actually hinder the vigilant work of BBC journalists. Herrmann says that it has created an attitude of “we don’t need journalists anymore” from the public, “but it creates more of a challenge for us”.
He added: “In order for us to be able to make use of it, we have to check stuff out and that doesn’t come for free.
“We need verification and also to distinguish what’s good and what’s not.”
Recerntly an error was made when the BBC ran a misleading Twitter rumour during the reporting of the Mumbai attacks.
When talking about unsourced Twitters Herrmann said: “We ignore that at our peril. We were caught out in Mumbai.”
In his BBC editor’s blog, Herrmann rhetorically asks: “Is it confusing to have reports from our own correspondents, along with official statements, pictures, video, accounts from other media, bloggers, emails and Twitter, all together on the same page?”
Despite this potential confusion Herrmann still believes that
Twittering is an effective way of spreading news for three main reasons.
It is a “fantastic social network tool, letting people know you are around.
“It is a news-gathering tool – we have to keep an eye on what’s happening. It is now part and parcel of our journalism.
“Thirdly, it is a publishing platform and “the Twitter universe is big”, according to Herrmann, although not as large as the BBC website which receives millions of hits per day.
At just 140 characters per ‘tweet’, a Twitter report must get straight to the point.
Herrmann said that ‘Twitter style’ is having an increasing impact on the BBC news website: “Getting more reporting that is Twitter-like is something which we are working towards.”
Story by Charlotte Hanger
March 20, 2009
Daniel Duncan went to the dentist and was told he needed a filling and other dental work carried out but two years on, he still hasn’t had the work done.
The 23-year-old from South London says: “I had a pain in my tooth, went along for a check-up and was told I needed a filling. The cost was around ₤100, which I could not afford at the time and certainly can’t now.”
He says he has had no choice but to leave it, and bear the pain. He adds: “ It’s a nightmare trying to find an NHS dentist and when you do you’re lucky to even get on the list. NHS prices are bad enough, let alone the cost of going private.”
His story is not uncommon, and with the UK in a recession the problem looks set to worsen.
Recent figures from the NHS information centre show, since March 2006 to September 2008, the percentage of the adult population who had seen an NHS dentist in London dropped from 48.4% to 43.8%. Although a relatively small drop, visits to the dentist are predicted to plummet further, the longer the recession continues.
Decline in regular checks
The decline in the number of regular visits to the dentist does not necessarily mean there is a drop in dental work that needs to be carried out.
Research by the Conservative Party shows there has been a 13 per cent rise in hospital admissions relating to tooth decay in children in the last five years.
The implication is that people are only seeking treatment when problems become more severe, rather than going for regular checks which could prevent more serious problems.
A senior nurse from a dental unit in a London hospital who does not wish to be named says: “I’ve noticed a higher volume of patients recently. I think it’s because patients don’t have to pay, if for example they have a temporary filling here.
“They should go to their regular dentist afterwards to get a permanent one fitted, but if they can manage with their temporary filling for a while you can understand why some people avoid the substantial cost of a permanent one.”
Some patients find the costs of treatment confusing, Duncan says: “It’s bizarre because you can go in for a check-up and leave having made a follow up appointment for a list of dental work costing hundreds of pounds. Who can afford that at the moment?”
He believes that’s why many people “avoid it like the plague”.
The British Dental Association (BDA) believes there has been an overall improvement in dental health care in the last 30 years, but accepts there are “still inequalities between those with the best and worst oral health”.
The BDA says dental awareness should start at a young age with parents making sure children look after their teeth. A spokesperson says: “Regular visits to the dentist, brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and a healthy diet all help to maintain good oral health.”
Story By Sade Laja
March 19, 2009
Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate, according to reports from Europe and the United States. Helen Varley meets some British beekeepers and hears about plans to promote beekeeping in our cities.
Amongst the suits and briefcases on Old Street, East London, it is not difficult to spot urban beekeeper Alessia Bolis.
Dressed from head to toe in a bee suit and riding a bicycle that looks like it belongs in an antique store, she’s here to show me some urban honeybees at Hackney City Farm.
“The whole population of bees is at risk,” she tells me. “The bees have been affected by man. Man has interfered with the natural way that bees act.”
She refers to recent data from the National Audit Office (NAO) about declining bee numbers over the past few years. The NAO estimates there are 20,000 amateur beekeepers whose hives potentially harvest a blood-sucking parasite known as varroa.
The varroa mite lowers a honeybee’s immune system, leaving them and the whole colony more susceptible to diseases. It is a huge problem for urban beekeepers with colonies often within close proximity to one another.
“You have to take responsibility for your bees,” said Alessia, who trained as a beekeeper four years ago. “Your bees can affect other people’s bees.”
In the urban environment, bees can live anywhere from penthouse rooftops to city farms and can collect nectar from the wide variety of plants and flowers in London gardens.
Conventionally, honeybees are kept by farmers to increase crop production. The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) said that bees contribute £165 million to the agricultural economy through pollination of plants and crops.
They estimate that two billion bees were lost this past winter – a loss that will cost the economy £54 million. Disease and poor husbandry by beekeepers has been given the blame.
But the Vice-President of the East Scotland Beekeepers Association (ESBA) has said that amateur beekeepers should not be blamed for the decline in honeybee populations.
Stan Franklin from Carnoustie has been beekeeping for 49 years. He says that the government should be spending more money on finding a treatment for the varroa parasite rather than hunting down amateur beekeepers.
“The problem is a lack of an approved treatment for varroa,” he said. “Professional beekeepers are using unapproved treatments from the continent because beekeeping is their livelihood.”
By using such treatments, beekeepers are exposing themselves to risk of prosecution.
The treatments that are available for British Beekeepers are known as “strips”, but since their introduction, the varroa has built up a resistance to them and now there is an urgent need for an alternative treatment.
When asked why the NAO reported just three cases of bee disease in Scotland compared with 8,534 in England and Wales, Stan told me that the strips still work in Scotland.
Varroa is believed to have spread north from Europe, meaning Scotland was the last area of the UK to be affected. The varroa there are still building up a resistance, but it is only a matter of time before they also become immune to the treatment.
Stan believes that the reduction in population can also be credited to poor weather conditions. A succession of wet summers and cold winters had a huge effect on the life and work of the honeybee.
The honeybees work output will increase during high temperatures of up to 35°C, but will slow when the temperature drops below 20°C. Activity ceases below 8°C as bees will choose to stay indoors to keep warm.
Bees will also stay inside the hive when it rains and will not venture out to collect food or pollinate. When this happens, bees survive on the honey. If temperatures drop or rain continues for a significant period, honey stocks can run low and famine will occur.
For this reason, Alessia says it is easier to keep bees in an urban environment, where temperatures are milder and bees are less exposed to the elements. We arrive at the farm where the bees are busy at work, enjoying the sunshine.
“It is unusual to see the bees out so early,” she says as they buzz around her. “The normal beekeeping season runs between May and September.”
With more government funding and the launch of a ‘Healthy Bees’ plan from the Department of environment, food and rural affairs, it is hoped honeybee populations will be on the rise again soon.
As Albert Einstein said: “No more bees means no more pollination, means no more plants, means no more animals, means no more man.”
March 18, 2009
The new F1 season is lurking around the corner and with less than two weeks to the opening race in Australia on the 29th of March, all teams should be feeling the pre-season stress.
The FIA (motor racing’s governing body) has made a few changes to the rules and regulations which may well influence the outcome of the championship.
From 2009 the driver who wins the most races will be crowned F1 champion at the end of the season, as opposed to the driver who has the most points. If two drivers have the same number of victories the one with the most points will be awarded with the crown.
It was also announced that the new season will see the return of the infamous slick tyres and that the pit lane will remain open for drivers to re-fuel their cars during safety car periods.
Miriam Jones, 26, from London, said: “I think that the new rules will bring a fresh breeze to F1 and that things will be shaking up as the drivers now have to race for victory.”
Michael Giant, 23, from Essex, added: “I always felt that the driver who wins the most Grand Prixs should be made the overall winner. I hope that the changes will see a decrease in strategy and an increase in race driving, because the drivers are forced to give it their all, competing from race to race.”
BBC to the rescue
This season will also mark the return of F1 to the BBC after a 12 year absence. The corporation has promised to deliver wide-ranging live and interactive season coverage that guarantees no misses.
Roger Mosey, Head of BBC Sport, said: “We are very excited to have Formula One back at the BBC. And with David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle in the mix we will do our best to cater to the fans’ needs.”
Asked who he predicts to be the top three this season, Mosey said: “To be honest I don’t know enough about Formula One to make such a prediction and as BBC Head of Sport I like to remain impartial.”
By Ijeoma Igbokwe
March 18, 2009
Students from the University of Westminster are in two minds over the proposal to impose a minimum price for alcohol.
The Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer has been published suggesting that the best way to combat binge drinking is to charge a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol.
Business student Andrew Charles said: “I think the majority of the population would oppose the 50p per unit recommendation. As a student I do not have that much money so tend to spend more time drinking in halls than in the pub.
“At the moment I can buy a cheap litre of vodka for around £6. This change would take it up to nearly £20 which I just cannot afford. It would certainly stop me getting drunk.”
Aaron Dixon, a photography student said: “A big part of the student lifestyle is going out and getting drunk with your friends. It’s not always healthy but it’s what we do. If the cost of drinks double, I’d be really unhappy. It probably wouldn’t stop me drinking, I’d just do it less often.”
But not all students oppose the proposed rise. Amereet Sanga said: “I don’t drink, and sometimes find very drunk people intimidating. By raising the price people would be more sober and more in control of themselves. They would probably be healthier too.”
According to the Guardian, Gordon Brown will probably reject the proposal because he is aware that “with a general election little more than a year away” doubling drinks prices could damage his popularity
The British Beer and Pub association say that alcohol consumption fell by about 3% in 2008. They think this suggests that people are becoming more aware of the health risks involved with excessive drinking.
But the report says that if the 50p minimum price per unit was implemented there would be:
· 3,393 less deaths a year
· 97,900 less hospital admissions
· 45,800 fewer crimes committed
· 296,900 less sick days taken a year.
This would save the country around £1 billion a year.
Accident and Emergency Nurse Jess Kyle says: “We get a lot of people coming in with alcohol-related illnesses, and it would obviously be a great benefit if that number was reduced. But why punish the majority who like a casual drink?”
In the report Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson also highlights the issue of passive drinking, where children and babies are affected by other people’s drinking.
Story by Alexandra Murphy
Video package by Rose Hawkins
March 17, 2009
Far from the romantic melodies and powerful operas one usually associates with this genre of theatre, Avenue Q songs, such as ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’, ‘The internet is for porn’ and ‘There is life outside your apartment’ offer a deliciously funny realism.
The story is about Princeton, an unemployed English graduate looking for his purpose in New York City. Upon moving to Avenue Q, he becomes friends with local residents Brian, Christmas Eve, pervert Trekkie Monster, closet-gay Rod and his roommate Nicky. He also meets Kate Monster, the girl of his dreams – but is she more important than his own personal fulfillment?
Combining a mixture of puppets and real actors, the show is a kind of adult Sesame Street hybrid – although certainly not for children.
It may sound bizarre but the puppets swearing, being promiscuous and getting drunk makes the whole thing even more hilarious, particularly in comparison to their human counterparts.
From the moment the curtains opened, the audience was in stitches. The cast of seven delivered the jokes with perfect timing and the puppet acting, both movement and voice, was simply flawless.
This is comedy, pure and simple and thus you do find yourself not particularly caring about the characters, although you can relate to them.
It is the conclusion at the end of the show, that “everyone is a little unsatisfied” that leaves you feeling relieved that problems are temporary and like most musicals, everything will work out in the end.
A modern miracle amongst a selection of traditional musicals, Avenue Q is a breath of fresh air in London’s West End.
By Helen Varley