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  • Shadows on the allotment shed wall

    Once upon a time almost everyone could rent a patch at their local allotment garden – a haven of tranquillity where you could grow healthy food and enjoying working alongside your neighbours. In 1943 there were 1.4 million allotments in the UK but by 1993 there were just 300,000. In London today just 30,000 people have an allotment, and in some districts waiting lists are decades long.

    The Allotment Act is 100 years old. After being decimated by opportunistic developers and greedy councils, these little Edens are suddenly a hot topic, with a debate in Parliament this summer and a slew of active websites campaigning for them.  In spite of all that few councils are likely to respond to the Act's obligation to provide an allotment garden at the request of "six registered parliamentary electors or ratepayers".

    Locally at least, allotments are thriving. Today (and for the first time in her parliamentary career) Theresa May MP opened some sheds. Not your average tumbledown shack where something nasty lurks in the shadows, but listed, oak-beamed and tile-hung allotment sheds, carefully restored by a bunch of energetic volunteers in memory of a lecturer and enthusiastic allotment-holder called David Penny.

    Nor were followers of Ms May's footwear disappointed, since she sported not green wellies but fetching knee-high black leather boots.


  • Ladele lack of judgement?


    The unanimous decision of an employment tribunal that a Christian registrar working in Islington was unfairly discriminated against because she refused to perform partnership ceremonies for gay people has stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy. That individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion is rightly enshrined in law – but in this case the law is once again proving itself to be an ass.

    The full judgment upholds a complaint of 'direct discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief'. Miss Ladele (who was in post before same sex partnerships were introduced) affirms that 'a civil partnership is a marriage in all but name... I feel unable to directly facilitate a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God's law' Two colleagues of Miss Ladele (one a Muslim) took demotion (with no loss of pay) to avoid performing the cermony and Miss Ladele was initially accommodated informally by the altering of rotas. But the working atmosphere (particularly with gay and lesbian colleagues) deteriorated and she was informed that she was required to stick to the terms of her contract and perform the ceremonies for people irrespective of their sexuality.

    One council diversity specialist told me he was in complete despair at the judgment. He sees it opening the door to any employee refusing duties on the grounds of religion or belief. "Imagine a BNP supporter refusing to serve immigrants on the grounds of 'belief'!"

    I'm not convinced that an employment tribunal establishes formal legal precedent in this way. But I am absolutely sure the tin marked 'registrar' now lists gay partnerships as one of its key ingredients. Anyone signing up to the job must take it - or leave it.


    A number of lawyers are conviced that the case deserves to be overturned on appeal. Headoflegal writes:

    "if as the Tribunal says, Ms. Ladele's stance is based on her belief that marriage is a life-long bond between a man and a woman, why didn't she kick up this fuss about marrying divorcees?"
  • Pills that make you ill?


    Another health scare made front page news this week. A Danish study pooling 67 randomised trials with 232,550 participants concluding that taking "beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E significantly increased mortality". And taking vitamin C had "no significant benefit".

    The mass media attention is fuelled by our mistrust of 'nasty chemicals' which we forget are in natural foods as well as - in pure form - in test tubes.

    The BBC website reports that "After various factors were taken into account and a further 20 studies excluded, the researchers linked vitamin A supplements to a 16% increased risk of dying, beta-carotene to a 7% increased risk and vitamin E to a 4% increased risk." Scary stuff? Maybe, considering how many vitamins are both naturally present in and added to foods, including bread and cereals. How many realise synthetic vitamin A is added to cod liver oil pills, usually taken as a traditional 'natural' remedy?

    One blogger at least believes it is all lies, damn lies and statistics. Letters from a Tory reports that the studies used on average a dose of around 8 times the recommended amount for vitamin A, and other averages were also well above recommended amounts. 

    Does that make pills that deliver 100% of RDA 100% safe?  I still somehow doubt it, so I'll mostly be sticking to as much fruit and veg as possible, including my own list of so-called 'superfoods' which, whatever the exact merits of the claims made for them, just happen to be delicious:

    • Broccoli: rich in vitamins A and C and anti-cancer ingredients, reduces cholesterol and has anti-viral benefits*
    • Garlic: regulates blood pressure, anti-viral and good for the heart
    • Mushrooms: anti-viral
    • Spinach: high in beta-carotene, good for the eyes, bones and more*
    • Cooked tomatoes: anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory*
    • Watercress: anti-cancer properties
    • Turmeric: anti-inflammatory and anti-viral, resists Alzheimers
    • Ginger: anti-oxidant, anti-coagulant, promotes healing
    • Oily fish: anti-viral and good for the heart
    • Raw olive oil: anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering
    • Apples: cholesterol lowering, eliminate toxins*
    • Blueberries: over-hyped but taste good!*
    • Cranberries: good for the kidney
    • Grapefruit: anti-coagulant, and more
    • Kiwifruit: high in vitamin C, anti-oxidant, eye protecting*
    • Pineapple: anti-inflammatory
    • Pomegranate: good for the heart?
    • Strawberries: lower blood pressure, anti-ageing and good for the heart
    • Walnuts: anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering*
    • Green tea: anti-oxidant and makes you feel good
    • Dark chocolate: lowers blood pressure and makes you feel good
    • Red wine: lowers cholesterol and makes you feel good
    *I'm able to cut down on food miles by growing these at home.
  • Feeding the multitude

    3b9ea4a9d58a12e6ec54e889ce916fbf.gifThe Telegraph today bewails the fact that customers of Indian curry houses in the UK - which imports more rice than any other EU country - can look forward to smaller portions, higher prices, less meat and more vegetable dishes. In other restaurants: "We've heard that people are taking away the little embellishments - fish and chips might now be missing the coleslaw...Where before you might be offered a 4oz and 8oz steak, now you can only have the 4oz."

    These dire depredations aside, it seems likely that most of us fortunate enough to live in Europe and the US will take the consequences of the developing global food crisis in our stride - but what about the rest of the world?

    66490806ca43933f1dd75c6f5bb7c11b.gifWestern motorists are bridling at fuel price rises (petrol up almost 40% in the US in the last year). In the UK, the cost of basic foods, like bread, butter and meat is up by 12%, with overall food prices up 4.6% for the year to February.

    But in places like Nigeria, where people spend about 73% of their income on food (as opposed to around 10% in the developed countries) things are more serious - much more serious. Like one half of the world's 6bn population, many Nigerians are dependent on rice, which has gone up by 75% in just two months. The average cost of rice has doubled in under a year - and the increases are expected to continue for at least another two to three years.

    6f415ddcacb85fb99cb849d1589caf09.pngHow will people survive when their staple foodstuff is unaffordable? No wonder there have been riots and protests in places as diverse as Italy, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philipines. In Haiti the government has just fallen because it did nothing after a week of protests.

    World Bank Group President, Robert B. Zoellick, headlined the crisis this week:

    In Bangladesh, a 2 kilogram bag of rice...now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family...The price of a loaf of bread...has more than doubled. Poor people in Yemen are now spending more than a quarter of their incomes just on bread before they pay for other essential foods for their children, let alone basic health care or shelter. 

    cd394f622cb0eeefd29ff749ccddd8cb.jpgZoellick went on to predict that a total of 33 nations are in danger of unrest caused by rising food prices. "the international community must fill the at least $500 million food gap identified by the UN's World Food Programme". In the Philipines, decades of under-investment in agriculture makes the country heavily dependent on rice imports. Traders are accused of hoarding grain to exploit the resultant price rises. They won't be buying from India any more, since that country has this week re-imposed a ban on all rice exports except high value basmati. China reports that although rice production is increasing, its increasingly affluent population is switching to less efficiently produced meat and dairy foods.

    So it was puzzling (to say the least) to hear the head of the United Nations World Food Programme Josette Sheeran (who says that "we are entering a new era of hunger") admit on R4 this week no-one really knows the cause of the food crisis - let alone its solution. Globalisation has spun a complex and so far indicipherable web of inter-dependencies. 

    Global warming has contributed in at least two ways, with increased flooding and drought causing harvests to repeatedly fail in Australia and elsewhere. World reserves of rice and wheat are now at record lows.

    The mistaken drive for subsidised biofuel is also taking land out of food production.

    Biofuel production feeds oil company profits and makes food grain less affordable. Britain now requires petrol and diesel to contain 2.5% biofuel, rising to 5.75 per cent by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020. Spiralling natural gas and oil prices also mean that fertiliser costs more. In Vietnam dependency on high levels of fertiliser is increasing and prices have doubled. Because of fuel price rises, the cost of farming the land and of delivering crops to consumers is also driving up food prices.

    For free marketeers at least, the answer is simple. They put their faith in the markets' ability to bring about a 'correction'. And anyway, in Europe and the US obesity is at record levels, so people can afford to lose a few kilos. But are we prepared to sit back while the world's most vulnerable pay the price of this necessary 'correction'?

  • Ancient symbolism at the CND


    2d16343a854e57bc3e52a2b8ef12dddd.gifThe CND is 50, and the organisation is commemorating its anniversary by encircling AWE at Aldermaston on Easter Monday, just as they did 50 years ago. A new book commemorates a half century of the campaign's enduring symbol, which according to its pacifist designer Gerald Holtom was based on the semaphore signals for N (nuclear) and D (disarmament).

    Creativity is a mysterious process, unamenable to logical analysis. Much that appears to be original turns out to be an imaginative fusion of things half-remembered. So it may well have been with the peace symbol, which takes the form of a circle around an inverted version of a Norse symbol - yggdrasil, the 'world tree', or great ash at the centre of the universe.

    An Ottawa Citizen review describes how Gerald Holtom asked a shop assistant what she thought of the symbol which was carried by the marchers on what he called 'lollipops'. She liked it, but wondered whether its drooping arms weren't "a bit depressing. Shouldn't peace be something to celebrate?" "He sort of altered his view in that moment," his nephew recalls. "He said, 'Yes, it should be a figure with the hands upwards outstretched'". From then on Holtom always drew the symbol upright.

    fef1de8e77ecd81bc887e2878527a9bc.pngIn his hugely influential 'Book of signs' (first published in German in 1923 as 'Das zeichenbuch' and available on Google Books) Rudolf Koch uses the symbol to stand for a man who undergoes the 'vicissitudes of life'. On his death, the symbol is inverted (and known as the 'todesrune'). With this meaning the symbol was officially specified for the gravestones of SS officers. Gerald Holtom asked to have the symbol - in its upright form - on his gravestone in Kent. That wish was ignored by the letter-cutter.

    In the runic alphabet a similar symbol to the yggdrasil is called algiz, (the elk) and is known as the rune of protection.

    Opponents of CND referred to the logo as 'the chicken's foot' and Hopi Indians use a similar design, based on the footprint of a crane, as a symbol of tribal unification. It can also be thought of as an inverted or broken cross, like that used to crucify St Peter.

    But the roots of the sign may well lie deep within all of us. As a Jungian archetype, it can be read as female genitalia. A sign for the ancient mother goddess, whose message of peace men so often ignore.

    First they came for the Jews
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for the Communists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Communist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left
    to speak out for me.

    Pastor Martin Niemöller

    Rudolf Koch's symbols are available as a set of fonts issued by P22.

  • The better part of valour?


    What chance of the Archbishop of Canterbury's support as pressure mounts on the Home Office to save 19-year-old gay Iranian Mehdi Kazemi from execution? At first the Home Office refused to re-consider his deportation, scheduled once the teenager is returned from hiding in Holland later this week.

    Like around 4,000 gay Iranians executed by the Ayotollahs since they came to power in 1979, Kazemi faces death by hanging if he is returned to his country. There is no logic to the Home Office line that gay Iranians are safe as long as they are 'discreet' and that having once refused to grant him asylum, his case cannot be re-heard unless new facts emerge.

    Kazemi claimed asylum in 2005 after his lover was executed in Tehran. After his asylum application was refused he fled to Holland where a court has decided he must be returned to Britain. He is currently on 'suicide watch'.

    An appeal has been launched through the European Court of Human rights and more than 60 leading peers, including the Bishop of Liverpool, have signed a letter to the Home Office in his support.

    In a moving statement to the Home Office he writes:

    "The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me. I can not stop my attraction towards men. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life. I was born like with feeling and can not change this fact... If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like Parham."

    Will the Archbishop of Canterbury join them? Still bruised by his worthwhile contribution to the debate about Sharia, an urgent intervention by him would seem to be more than timely.

    After this post was written the Home Office announced that after campaigning by his MP, Mehdi Kazemi had been granted five year's 'leave to remain' in the UK.