Saturday 29 September 2007

Abortion uproar

Abortion is suddenly a burning issue again here in Northern Ireland, where the anti-abortion group Precious Life is organising a campaign against the new legal guidelines from the Department of Health.

They claim the new guidance on interpreting the abortion law amounts to "abortion on demand through the back door".

They're backing a motion due to be debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly, tabled by DUP* MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Iris Robinson, that claims the new guidelines are flawed and opposes "any attempt to make abortion more widely available".

How exactly the new guidelines could possibly mean abortion on demand is a mystery, as neither the MPs or Precious Life have explained this extraordinary accusation.

Since the document runs to 40 pages, it's difficult to know whereabouts this scurrilous proposal is lurking. Give us a clue, Jeffrey!

In fact the guidelines are merely a response to a court case brought by the Family Planning Association asking for clarification of the current abortion law, which allows abortion only if there is a threat to the mother's life or her physical or mental health. The court didn't change the law in any way.

Just who started this absurd scare story and how many people will believe it? And why is no other politician brave enough to demolish it?

Footnote: Several Catholic schools in Belfast recently cut their links with Amnesty International after it supported abortion in certain circumstances such as rape. What a green light for male violence and female servitude! Thanks so much, boys and girls.

* The Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Green fatigue

"Oh no, not more melting glaciers and dying polar bears. We saw all that last week. Change the channel, sweetheart, that Keira Knightley film's just starting. I need something entertaining, I've had a bastard of a day."

There's more and more talk of green fatigue, the idea that global warming is too vast and too complex a problem for individuals to do much about. So we just get apathetic and stop thinking about it.

Even if we do everything we're supposed to do, from recycling rubbish to turning the heating down, becoming neurotic fussbags in the process, global temperatures just keep on rising and damage to the planet gets worse.

As scientist Susanne Moser puts it, it's like going on a strict diet for months, while other people eat as much as they like, and the only result is you don't gain weight quite as fast. Sooner or later, bang goes the diet.

It doesn't help to see the reeking hypocrisy of politicians and celebrities telling us to curb our extravagant lifestyles while they're jetting round the world and buying yet more luxury mansions. Move into a caravan, Mister, and we might do the same.

The other daunting thing is the neverendingness of it all. It's not a simple matter of sending a tenner and saving a starving child. Just when you think you're on top of the 101 daily routines that need to be made greener (and you're exhausted), some poxy environmentalist comes along with half a dozen more to think about. What about cruise ships? What about mobile phones? Aaarrgh!

No wonder people give up in despair. Stopping global warming has become a full-time job and we're not even getting paid for it. Of course I care as much as anybody - but isn't there a simpler way?

Saturday 22 September 2007

Toxic islands

As you innocently unpeel a nice creamy banana, spare a thought for the banana-growers on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which have been thoroughly poisoned by years of illegal pesticide-spraying.

A French cancer specialist says the 800,000 inhabitants of the islands face a health disaster from toxins that have wrecked the soil and water supplies for up to a century.

Such are the soaring rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects that complete evacuation of the islands would probably be the best course of action.

Chlordecone, a highly toxic pesticide, was sprayed illegally over the islands from 1993 to 2002, to kill weevils. Every child in Guadeloupe is contaminated with it and they will pass it on to their own children in turn.

As if that isn't enough, the residents are still trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Dean, which ruined about three quarters of all the banana plantations. Many growers are unable to replant their crops because of the ravaged soil and water.

It's yet another graphic example of how capitalists will go to ruthless extremes to up their profits at the expense of people's health and quality of life. In this case however they've shat in their own beds and sabotaged future economic prospects for everyone. Thanks a bunch, you might say.

It's also a vivid reminder that all the health and safety regulations you can think of (whatever they might be on these two islands) are of no avail if one greedy bastard is determined to trample all over them. They may as well be soap bubbles.

(See the article in the London Independent 19.09.07)

NB: the bananas themselves are not affected by the poison (or so they say)

Wednesday 19 September 2007


Relationships* have certainly changed since my childhood, when rigid sex roles were so normal it was enough for my father and mother to be a typical male and female and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Nowadays as sex roles blur around the edges, couples expect each other to break out of these limited boxes and be capable of just about anything - to be Superspouses.

It's not enough for the man to be able to put up shelves or repair the car or get horny. Now he has to look after the baby, do some cooking, be emotionally sensitive and be a good socialiser. A Jack of all trades, infinitely adaptable.

Likewise the woman can't get by on looking sexy, getting the dinner on the table and changing nappies. She has to be good with money, do some heavy lifting, sort out minor repairs and be emotionally resilient. If she can't do all that, she's sadly lacking.

You'd think these increasing demands for mutual perfection would put an impossible strain on relationships and send the separation rate through the roof, but strangely enough that hasn't happened. People obviously like the idea of dumping the straitjackets and being a bit more versatile, they rise to the challenge rather than dragging their heels.

Though I must say that Jenny and I, despite both of us trailing years of anti-sexist conditioning, are not too hard on each other. Of course we want to show we're not slaves to laughable stereotypes, but we do recognise our natural limitations.

I don't seriously expect Jenny to retile the kitchen when I wouldn't dare to attempt it myself. Nor does she ask me to whip up a three-course dinner for twenty when women themselves would panic at the prospect. But wherever we can push the boundaries back and make our skills more interchangeable, we do.

We're not quite Superspouses but we're moving in the right direction. And our parents are already looking pretty prehistoric.

* Heterosexual relationships obviously. I can't speak for anyone of a different persuasion....

Sunday 16 September 2007

To Sydney by bus

Being a bit of a greenie as you know, and concerned about the toxic effects of air travel, I was interested to hear of OzBus, which is running trips direct from London to Sydney overland, taking three months to complete the journey.

I also noticed the story because one third of the 38 passengers for today's departure are Irish (plus one third Australian and one third British).

The trip costs a whopping £3750, which is some seven times the price of a scheduled flight from London to Sydney, but of course allows you to see all the spectacular scenery rather than just flying over it.

However if you're imagining some luxury journey along the lines of a Mediterranean cruise or the Orient Express, think again. This is strictly a DIY, rough-and-ready enterprise where not much is laid on and you're expected to muck in and help organise it all.

When the bus comes to its overnight halt in Nepal or Laos, forget five star hotels or room service. It'll probably be a campsite where you have to put up your own tent (tent and sleeping equipment not provided, by the way), then help with food-shopping, cooking, washing-up and anything else that needs doing. Oh, and cleaning the bus as well.

It's all designed to encourage camaraderie and make the trip more fun, says OzBus owner and founder Mark Creasey. As he puts it, "Bush camping allows us to return to the great outdoors and really be at one with nature."

I'm not sure about that. Be at one with the frying pan and the sleeping bag perhaps, but nature's just as close to a holiday chalet in the Rockies. Still, if you want to avoid an identikit tourist package and have a more down-to-earth experience, this looks just the thing.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the bus doesn't look too comfortable either. It's hardly your state of the art touring coach, more one of those rather beaten-up old rural buses on its last tour of duty before the scrapyard. But maybe the picture gives a false impression....

Photo: a village in Nepal

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Baby blues

I really don't understand why some women are so desperate to have children they resort to round after round of gruelling and costly fertility treatments to get them.

Isn't it enough to have tried for pregnancy, failed, and made new plans that don't include children? For a startlingly large number of women (and men), it isn't.

Being childless seems to leave them with such a black hole, such a sense of something missing, they just can't accept the situation.

The average child-seeking couple spends £4782 on fertility treatments, even though only 47% of women end up with a baby*. Some couples take on mortgage-size debts to carry on with treatment to the bitter end, they are so unwilling to admit defeat and their physical failings.

I'm baffled as to what prompts this raging obsession. I suppose some women are still convinced they're not a real woman unless they've borne a child. Or it's a variation on plastic surgery - they just can't accept their 'flawed body' and have to put it right. Or else it's the men putting pressure on them to continue the family or they'll find another woman who can.

And surprise surprise, many women feel guilty that their hedonistic lifestyles may have jeopardised their ability to get pregnant, while most men don't think about that and still assume it must be the woman's fault - even though 30% of all fertility problems in Northern Ireland are due to male infertility*.

It also annoys me that 23% of infertility treatment is paid for by the NHS, when the UK is hardly under-populated in the first place. I could think of some much better uses for the money - improving hospital hygiene and wiping out superbugs, for a start. Cleaning not weaning!

* Red magazine survey, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph 5.9.07

Sunday 9 September 2007

Old gold

As a fully paid-up sexagenarian, I'm glad ageism is a hot topic nowadays, with new laws recently passed on the subject. But there are still some hoary old stereotypes about oldies. To mention but a few:

(1) They can't do anything active any more, they're physically over the hill. Actually we're getting so adventurous doctors are seeing more and more sports injuries among oldies who just refuse to slow down.

(2) They're set in their ways, stuck in the past. But there are loads of Silver Surfers glued to their computers and grey-haired militants rooting for radical issues like global warming and third-world poverty.

(3) They're grumpy and cranky, all they do is moan. Tell that to the sprightly volunteers in the charity shop or the beaming grandma looking after her adored grandchildren.

(4) They never have sex, the vital juices have dried up. On the contrary, oldies are having so much sex with so many partners there's been a big increase in STIs in that age group. Viagra has a lot to answer for!

(5) They hate young people. Not if they have the charming grandchildren just mentioned. Not if they're going to evening classes full of youngsters. Not if they're avidly reading books by young authors.

(6) They're afraid of everything and everyone and scared to go out the front door. My 85 year old mother has just set off on a coach holiday to the South of France, on her own, and expects to have a whale of a time. There are oldies doing parachute jumps, climbing mountains and sailing around the world.

Certainly I surprise myself with my complete non-resemblance to any of the ageist clich├ęs, feeling and acting much the same as I did ten or twenty years ago. I still work, I'm still healthy, my brain's still buzzing, I'm still insatiably curious about all sort of things. If I hear one more reference to doddery pensioners playing bingo, I think I might lash out with my razor-tipped zimmer frame. Clapped-out oldies? Harumph.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Going native

The Canadian authorities make a big thing of respecting the First Nations (i.e. the indigenous peoples) by appreciating their culture, upholding their human rights and not treating them as second-class citizens.

But this public stance seems to be at odds with the First Nations sections in museums and other tourist attractions which strike me not as respectful but as somewhat condescending and insulting.

I visited several of these displays in Vancouver and Victoria, expecting to find explanations of how sophisticated and intelligent these people really are and how they could teach us a thing or two about our supposedly superior 21st century culture.

But surprisingly all I found was collections of artefacts and tools and descriptions of traditional ceremonies and rituals, which to me suggested not sophisticated human beings but goofy dullards incapable of anything more than weaving rugs, carving totem poles and observing mindless superstitions about giant ravens and supernatural frogs.

Is this really the message I should be getting or am I missing something?

I kept wondering what they thought about the big questions - what is the meaning of life, why are we on this planet, how can we live together in peace and harmony? - but I didn't find any answers, or even any sign they thought about such things at all.

I couldn't help supposing that underneath the public honouring of the First Nations, there is a furtive counter-agenda to depict them as quaint and laughable rather than worthy of serious consideration and esteem. If so, it's succeeding brilliantly and misleading an awful lot of people.

Still, better keep an eye on them ravens, they might be up to something.

Sunday 2 September 2007

The Rocky Mountaineer

We spent the last two days of our holiday on the Rocky Mountaineer train, which winds nearly 700 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Calgary.

As you can imagine, it's just mile after mile of breathtaking scenery - soaring mountains, some topped with snow and glaciers; sprawling lakes rolling on endlessly; wild rivers tumbling between sheer rockfaces; and stretches of quasi-desert where trees and vegetation all but disappear.

I kept looking down or looking up to see landscapes so extraordinary I thought I must be dreaming. The train just climbs up and up until at one point it's 5,500 feet above sea level and still the mountains are streaking to 10,000 feet.

There're two levels of service on the train - Gold Leaf and Red Leaf. On Gold Leaf you get cordon bleu food, extra personal attention and higher windows so the scenery is more visible. We opted for Red Leaf, which was just fine - we still had delicious food in large quantities and didn't miss any of the scenery. And it costs about half as much.

The only weak link on the trip was the overnight stay at Kamloops, a hideously ugly town with second-rate hotels that made us glad to be back on the train in the morning. With some 2000 passengers from three trains all stopping overnight, the company needs to find much better accommodation, maybe by building its own deluxe hotel.

Some passengers think the train is too slow but I enjoyed the leisurely, laid-back crawl that gives you time to appreciate the most dazzling sights without feeling rushed.

Even on this idyllic ride, the effects of global warming are evident. Huge swathes of pine forest are being killed by the ubiquitous pine beetle, which up till now was largely wiped out by plummeting winter temperatures but is now thriving in the much warmer climate. If it can't be controlled, much of the forest cover will vanish in a few years and with it the massive timber industry.

It's a sobering thought that our flights to Canada and back contributed to this carnage. But what do we do instead - stay home and watch the telly? We may all be facing some hard choices before long.

PS: Have just read that the spruce bark beetle is also chomping its way through Alaska's Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage).