Friday, 15 December 2006

Christmas light

Last Saturday, there was a Christmas meal for international students at East London Tabernacle. On Friday night, a few of us were there to help set up. After peeling and chopping the last spuds, ending up with more than we needed, we were mainly setting up tables and decorating.

Christmas earwearWhile I don't think my Greek carols were widely appreciated, BJ did get the silly mood going, with his headwear. The next night @lex and Nick* did their best to convince some that tinsel and baubles are traditional English Christmas fashion (see right). I think the highlight of the decorating was the lights on the Christmas tree, particularly that big star covered in light globes at the top.

The Christmas lights are up all over the place now, with bells, trees and candles outside our house, as well as the shapeless coloured lights that hve been up since Eid/Diwali/Guy Fawkes. The lights are definitely a welcome cheery addition to the long nights and a contrast to the sun, which for the few hours that it is up each day, is right on the horizon, and in my eyes through my south-facing window. They are definitely appropriate for any sort of winter festival, but have extra significance when we think of the Christ of Christmas. His birth was announced by a throng of angels and a star that would put tree-topper to shame. More than that, John says that not only is this baby the word of God that said "Let there be light", he is also the ultimate light of the world, brightening a darkness much deeper than any winter.

(* according to their name tags. "Nick" was claimed to be the name of the silent central character in the life of King David, but that's another matter...)

Saturday, 2 December 2006

1 December

The winter midday sunIt's now December, meaning that it's summer in Australia. In the northern hemisphere, there doesn't seem to be a uniform idea of when the seasons start. In the United Kingdom, the start of winter seems to be as often thought of as the winter solstice (the astronomical definition) or 1 November as the beginning of December. However, the meteorological definition of the seasons is the same as that used in Australia, and so it was announced today that the just completed autumn was the warmest since some time in the 70s. It has been fairly nice. In fact, I only got my scarves and gloves out yesterday.

When this report was mentioned on the radio this morning, it was tied in with several other stories related to today's date. It is five years since museums of galleries here were opened to the public for free, with entry fees only applying to special exhibitions. Given the number of such institutions in London, we really could make more use of that! It is also World AIDS Day. I think the red ribbon was the first of the now numerous coloured ribbons for various causes, in this case the plight of those suffering from a disease that looks likely to be more of a killer than the Black Death. Speaking of ribbons, the ABC reports that this weekend New South Wales Cricket Umpires and Scorers Association umpires in Sydney Grade Cricket will be wearing black ribbons for a cause of signficantly less importance. Once a member of this association, I agree with their point, whatever it's place in the scheme of things. However, the wearing ribbons of any colour, no matter how worthy the cause, pales into insignificance when I think of the work of the Christ Church Christian Care Centre and many others round the world actually working with the victims of AIDS and other problems.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Forget the spies, where are the doctors?

Despite my statement at the birth of this blog, all my posts so far have been about Australia and England, or at least have mentioned Aussies in England. (There were three of us watching the Lord Mayor and ghosts, together with a German, a Japanese, several Chinese and three Brits.*) This is about to change, as by request, this post will not involve interactions between antipodes, but is a matter of East and West, in the Cold War sense. I haven't been paying enough attention to this issue to do it justice, but hopefully it iwll be interesting and not too inaccurate.

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died last week in London. He first became prominent in the news when he was rushed to Universtiy College Hospital halfway through the month with a mystery illness contracted just after a meeting with "a contact" in a sushi bar. The media were quick to point out that Litvinenko was a major critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin and raise the possibility that he had been poisoned on the orders of the Russian government. This was repeatedly mentioned in news reports over the following weeks, interspersed with references to many other connections of Litvinenko who might also like to see him gone and suggestions that the FSB (the KGB's successor) might be being framed.

There was some discussion of Litvinenko's background, possibly motives for killing him, and exactly what he had been doing/who he had contacted on the day he fell ill, but the focus of the media turned reasonably quickly to his deteriorating condition and the question of what was wrong with him. Initial reports mentioned thallium poisoning, but later doctors said they might never know what the cause was and announced that x-rays had revealed "objects" in Litvinenko's stomach. It wasn't until after his death that the cause was identified as polonium radiation.

Litvinenko's death on the 23rd also turned the spotlight back on the issue of possible Kremlin involvement, particularly fuelled by comments attributed to Litvinenko hours before he became unconscious. Scotland Yard's "suspected deliberate poisoning" became an "unexplained death" and then suspicious. Russia's new law concerning extra-judicial killings was brought up and the politicians got involved. Members of opposition parties were outspoken, calling for statements from the government and saying that relations with Russia could be affected, without saying anything definite. The government was even more cautious, limited by ongoing investigations and most probably a sensible desire to avoid any unnecessary diplomatic troubles. The Home Minister said that the Russian ambassador had been told that full assistance was expected from the Russian authorities, but apart from that, but his statement focussed mainly on the actions of the health authorities.

The attention of the media understandably also swept back to public health implications, as traces of polonium radiation were discovered first in hotels and Litvinenko's house and then on BA planes. While these discoveries are potentially quite helpful for the police investigation, the general tone in the media seems to still be as it was described on a BBC panel game about a week ago: not so much concern that foreign spies might be killing in our capital, as an episode of House. I wonder whether this is simply because the health aspects might affect us more generally, or whether they are also more interesting to the modern audience. Even the detective genre of TV shows seems to be showing a trend towards more emphasis on the medical side of investigations. Maybe the medics are taking over from Bond and the like. (I'd defintely rate House ahead of Casino Royale!)

(*I have a question, particularly relevant at the moment: Are the Welsh "poms"?)

Sunday, 26 November 2006

London in winter: freezing outdoors, boiling inside

Here we go again. Another sweltering summer while we freeze in our air-conditioned offices. Just so men can work without the faintest glow of perspiration trussed up in their ties and suits that don't seem to change weight from winter to summer, socks and closed shoes. I suppose it's so we can all pretend we're working in London.

I see women smartly dressed for the climate in bare legs and strappy sandals. Fools, because they're blue with cold by 11am. On Wednesday there were a couple of brief outages as the electricity grid struggled to cope with keeping us in a state of mild refrigeration. But God forbid men should turn up in short sleeves, shorts or sandals.

Can't we design a professional summer dress code for men? At least ditch the socks. Mind you, those sandals men wear on weekends look as though they're made of ripped-up car tyres.

Can we get Mr Armani to design smart men's shoes with perforations that let feet breathe? And how about designing buildings with awnings instead of glasshouses that force us to work the air-con even harder?

Ilma Cave, North Sydney

-Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 2006.

Sydneysiders might be pretending to work in London, but here in my office in London, we have been wearing short sleeves and sweating in stuffy rooms over 30 degrees for over a week. Ouside, it's been more like 10 degrees. To be fair, this is caused by a fault in the "heating algorithm", but even where the heating is under control, buildings are heated much more than they really need to be. Why should an office be the same temperature all year round?

Obviously well built buildings should shield us from the extreme temperatures of summer and winter, and this may require colling and heating systems, but I really don't like it when the temperature difference is extreme, either.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Lord Mayors and ghosts

On the Saturday before last, a group of us (mainly international studenty-people) went to see the Lord Mayor's Show. The Lord Mayor's Show's history stretches back to 1215, when King John's charter allowing the citizens of London to elect their Lord Mayor stipulated that each year the new Lord Mayor must make his way to Westminster and swear fealty to the Sovereign. These days, it is an hour-long parade with bands and all sorts of floats, including figures of the City's mythical guardians Gog and Magog (recently inflatable, but now made of wickerwork).

Last year, Amy was in the parade with a group of children from the school she was working at:

This year, however, we were all standing on the Victoria Embankment on a fairly chilly November day. When the parade finally finished, we headed to find somewhere to sit down and have some warm drinks before the fireworks in the evening. We ended up in the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, and discovered that as part of the London Jazz Festival, there was a free event, so decided to wait and see it.

It was called Gathering Ghosts, and featured a saxophone, double bass and a vocalist. The three of them proceeded to make all sorts of ghostly noises, with great enthusiasm. We didn't hang around for very long, and not just because we wanted to find a good spot for the fireworks. I guess it was a work of art, but I am very hesitant to call it music. Sebastian took a short video, so you can judge for yourselves by watching it here (AVI file, 6.76MB).

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Indepently parallel news

Living in London, but still reading news from Australia, I find it interesting how often there are parallels in the news, especially to do with political issues. Sometimes there is a clear link between events on different sides of the world, but on other occasions it seems to be a coincedence

Here in the UK, there has been a bit of scandal about the ruling Labour Party giving out peerages in exchange for "loans". There is an ongoing police investigation which it is thought envolve Tony Blair, as well other other prominent Labour figures. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have said they will stand aside from decisions relating to the case, due their close connections with Blair. Earlier this week, there were suggestions that the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, should also not be involved. He said that to step aside would not be right due to his constitutional position, and promised to act "in the interests of justice", seeking indepedent advice and making sure that reasons are explained.

Later in the week, the New South Wales Labor government, having already had ministers accused of misleading parliament, speeding offences in a ministerial car, corruption and child sex offences, was hit by another allegation. The opposition leader, Peter Debnam, implied in parliament that another minister was under investigation by the Police Integrity Commission (PIC). The following day, he referred to a "complaint lodged with the PIC" about the Attorney-General, Bob Debus and suggested that as the PIC is overseen by the Attorney-General's department, the process is not independent enough. The response from Debus so far seems to have been focussing on Debnam's original wording "under investigation", ignoring the possibility of a complaint and how that should be dealt with.

How much independence is needed in these situations? Being appointed by a minister might well be a conflict of interest when dealing when that minister is under suspiscion, but if we take that principle strictly, it is hard to imagine a system which can satisfactorily deal with any possible event. Clearly, if Lord Goldsmith cannot be trusted to act appropriately he wasn't the right person for the job in the first place, but justice must be seen to be done. Is it enough for him to give detailed reasons for a decision not to prosecute, and be accountable to parliament? Would it be better if the PIC's usually secret operations were made public in this sort of case, or is some other body needed? Who should be the judge, when it is the independent umpire that is accused?

(Yes, that does make me think of something else, but that's enough for now...)

Friday, 17 November 2006


Welcome to my new blog! I don't expect it will have too much of a theme, but will just be my ramblings on whatever comes into my head.