Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Tales of the Caribbean - Part 2

After working our way northwards from Barbados to the British Virgin Isles, visiting four former British colonies and two French overseas d├ępartements, our ship headed west towards three much larger islands – two former Spanish territories and one former British.

The first of these was the island of Hispaniola, the eastern two-thirds of which comprises the Dominican Republic while Haiti occupies the western part. The capital of the Dominican Republic is the city of Santo Domingo which proudly claims to have been the first permanent city established by European settlers in the Americas. Christopher Columbus visited Hispaniola on his first visit to the Western hemisphere in 1492 and established a small community in what is now Haiti, followed by one further east on the north coast the following year.  But it was his brother Bartholomew who founded what is now called Santo Domingo in 1496 when he led 1300 Spanish settlers to establish a permanent settlement on the south coast. Today Santo Domingo is a vibrant city of approaching 2.5 million people – the largest city in the Caribbean.

Christopher Columbus' statue dominates the main square

Like most Caribbean islands, the Dominican Republic is not a wealthy nation and the contrast between the well-kept squares and buildings in the heart of the old city and the crumbling buildings only a few blocks away is quite dramatic.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Tales of the Caribbean

It's been quite a long time since my last post, but the main reason is that my wife and I have been on a most enjoyable cruise in the Caribbean.

A beach in Barbados
Our cruise started in Barbados, where we spent our first day cruising by catamaran along the coast near Bridgetown, snorkelling with the sea turtles and sting rays (which were harmless) and tiny jellyfish (which were not!) and exploring sunken wrecks. It was a great way to acclimatise!

The mark of the (tiny) jellyfish!
Fortunately the guys on the catamaran had an extremely effective spray which took away all the pain from the jellyfish stings – although the marks remained for almost two weeks!

After leaving Barbados that evening we worked our way northwards through the Windward Isles, stopping at St Vincent, Martinique, Guadaloupe, Montserrat and Tortola (in the British Virgin Isles).

It is sometimes said that once you've been to one Caribbean Island then you've been to them all, but believe me, that could not be further from the truth.

Barbados is, I know from a previous visit, a beautiful and lush island – as is St Vincent.  But whereas Barbados is reputedly the 3rd most developed nation in the Western hemisphere (after the USA and Canada) St Vincent is desperately poor.  Barbados has a stable democratic parliamentary system which, as one Barbadian told me, operates like the British government in that after an election there is an orderly transfer of power to the party gaining the most seats.  In St Vincent, on the other hand, the result of the recent General Election, which was narrowly won by the ruling Unity Labour Party (whose funding comes mainly from Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and Iran!), has been challenged by the opposition New Democratic Party who claim massive vote-rigging was all that enabled the ULP to cling on to power. The new government then passed a law banning such challenges, although that has not stopped the NDP from appealing to higher authority and promising, if necessary, to go all the way to the Privy Council in Britain. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out – although such problems are hardly likely to encourage the investment that the country so desperately needs.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Democracy - then and now – and the People's Pledge

Today is an interesting day for me.

As my regular readers will know, I have an abiding love for Hungary – and today is that country's National Day – in memory of the ill-fated revolution and War of Independence in 1848. I have posted a short article about it on my other blog – A Taste of Hungary – which also contains a short YouTube video of the Hungarian National Anthem, which is widely regarded as the most beautiful of all National Anthems. Click over there and listen to it if you don't believe me.

Hungary's 1848 revolution was an attempt by an oppressed nation to break free of its oppressor – the Austrian Hapsburg empire. It failed mainly due to Russian support for Austria, but twenty years later, following the end of the Austro-Prussian War, a 'compromise' was negotiated under which Austria and Hungary had a Dual Monarchy and, up to a point, separate parliaments and laws on matters other than defence, foreign affairs and finance, which were still determined in Vienna. Although hardly the independence for which most Hungarians yearned, it did provide a degree of autonomy until the end of the First World war and the disastrous Treaty of Trianon.

So March 15th is an important day for Hungarians – and one which always has a special meaning for me.

But this year it is doubly important because today is the official launch day of the People's Pledge – a cross-party campaign for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. It used to be said that referendums were, somehow, not British and that voters delegated to their MPs the right to make their own decisions on each and every topic that they were required to take a position on. But that concept has been thoroughly demolished in recent years by a succession of referenda on issues ranging from major constitutional changes such as the establishment of an independent Parliament in Scotland or an Assembly in Wales to more minor issues such as whether individual local authorities should have elected mayors. Most recently the people of Wales were asked to determine whether their Assembly should have increased law-making powers, while the whole country will shortly be asked to vote on whether to change the system by which Members of Parliament are elected from the traditional 'first past the post' method to some form of alternative vote.

And yet successive governments keep refusing to allow the people of Britain to vote on whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should remain as a part of a European Union which continues to take control of more and more aspects of our daily lives, or whether we should withdraw and revert to the independent role which we have held dear for many hundreds of years.

My views on this are probably very clear, but the really important thing is that we, the people of Britain, have never been asked what we want (the referendum in 1975 was simply to confirm the decision already made by Edward Heath's government to join the Common Market – a quite different type of organisation from today's European Union) and, despite many promises to do so while in opposition, no government has ever been willing to actually put its belief in membership of the European Union to the democratic test. It is very noticeable that many of those supporting the call for a referendum are, themselves, supporters of that membership. But even more than that, MPs such as Caroline Lucas and Keith Vaz believe in democracy and the right of the people of Great Britain to express their own views on that membership through the ultimate medium of the ballot box.

Sadly our Prime Minister, like his two predecessors, reneged on his promise to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and has made it very clear that he does not intend to allow the electorate to express their opinion on this topic in a referendum.

Which brings me back to the title of this blog. In 1848 (and again in 1956) Hungarians fought to free themselves from oppressors. They failed. But they stood up for their beliefs and eventually, in 1989, they once again won the right to control their own destiny.

Today, on the 163rd anniversary of the events that led to the 1848 revolution, we British have a chance to start a process which might allow us to win the right to once again control our own destiny.

So I urge everyone reading these words to link to the People's Pledge web-site and sign the pledge – and to follow that by bringing pressure on your MP to support the call for a referendum and encouraging friends, relatives and colleagues to do the same.

Then, perhaps, in future years we too can have something to celebrate on March 15th.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A 19th Century Engineering Masterpiece

Middleton Top on the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire
The other day my wife and I went for a most enjoyable walk along part of the High Peak Trail near Cromford. The trail follows the line of the old Cromford and High Peak Railway which was considered to be an engineering masterpiece when it was opened in 1831 – not least because it was really part of the nationwide canal system!

In 1794 the Cromford Canal had been opened, primarily to enable limestone, coal and iron ore to be transported from the Derwent and the upper Erewash valleys to the Erewash Canal and hence, via the River Trent and the network of rivers and canals which criss-crossed the southern half of England, to where it could be used in the growing industrialisation of the country. One problem, however, was that the mountains of the Peak District and the southern Pennines prevented any transfer of goods from further south via the Cromford Canal to the north-west of the country. In 1800, however, the Peak Forest Canal, running from Whaley Bridge to Manchester, had been opened primarily to carry limestone from the quarries around Doveholes and it was not long before proposals started to be made to link these two canals.

Eventually it was decided that it would be impossibly expensive to build a canal through such hilly terrain and a railway was proposed instead. The Eastern end would be about a mile south of the Cromford terminus of the Cromford Canal at a height of 277 feet above sea level, while the western end would be at the Whaley Bridge terminus of the Peak Forest Canal at a height of 517 feet. The highest point between these two termini would be 1266 feet above sea level at Ladmanlow, near Buxton. Quite a profile for a railway line!

In 1825 an Act of Parliament approved the construction of the line. Astonishingly, given that Stephenson's pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway would only open in September of that same year, the Act approved the construction of the Cromford and High Peak Railway for a 'railway or tramroad', to be propelled by 'stationary or locomotive steam engines.'

The line was opened six years later, and initially the wagons were hauled by horses along the flat parts of the line, while powerful fixed steam engines were used to haul them up the nine steep inclines along the thirty-three mile route, ranging from a fearsome 1 in 7 on the descent from Ladmanlow to a more modest 1 in 14 on the final drop into Whaley Bridge. At the Cromford end of the line there were two inclines of 1 in 8 as the line rose up to Middleton Top. The photograph at the head of this blog shows the top of the Middleton Incline, where the steam engine which hauled the trucks up this long steep hill is still in operation for visitors on Bank Holidays and other special days – although the continuous cable that was used to pull the trucks up the incline is no longer connected!

Middleton Top Engine House
Today the old railway line, which finally ceased operation only in 1967, is a popular place for walkers, cyclists and occasional horse-riders. But most of them are probably unaware of the fact that the trail along which they are travelling was once considered to be one of the engineering masterpieces of its day and attracted railway enthusiasts from all over the world to see it in action.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

World Friendship Day

Today, although very few people will realise it, is World Friendship Day.

And, I hear you ask, what is that?

The short answer is that it is special day, created by Friendship Force International five years ago, to celebrate global friendships and understanding. Which, of course, leads to the next question: what is Friendship Force International?
The Friendship Force was established in March 1977 with the support of U.S. President Jimmy Carter whose wife, Rosalynn Carter, served as the Honorary Chairperson of the Friendship Force for the first 25 years of its existence. The objective of the Friendship Force is best summed up by its original motto – "A World of Friends is a World of Peace" – and what makes the Friendship Force different from many other organisations with similar aims is its emphasis on "home stay".

The first ever Friendship Force exchange took place in July 1977 when a Boeing 747 loaded with 381 British "Ambassadors" flew from Newcastle upon Tyne to Atlanta, Georgia, where the ambassadors would stay in the homes of American hosts in and around Atlanta for the next two weeks. The next day the plane returned with a similar number of American ambassadors, who spent the following two weeks staying in the homes of British hosts in and around Newcastle. Many of the friendships that were made during that initial exchange still continue to this day.

Since then more than 600,000 people in 70 countries have stayed in the homes of new friends in other countries and learned that sharing a home for a few days is an ideal way to make new friendships, to learn about life, culture, beliefs, and even misunderstandings, in other countries – both well-known and less well-known. The Friendship Force consists of clubs representing a particular geographical area, and today exchanges typically involve 15-20 ambassadors from one club visiting another club for a week-long stay, during which the ambassadors will get to know their hosts, as well as other members of the host club, and will spend the week in a mixture of organised visits to places of interest in the locality and private excursions with their own individual hosts.

I am a member of the Friendship Force of Derbyshire, one of 19 UK clubs, which was founded in 1982. In that year our first exchange involved some 80 ambassadors from Oklahoma visiting Derbyshire and staying in the homes of local people, followed by a similar number visiting Oklahoma later the same year. Since then our club has made a total of 45 visits to clubs in 13 countries, plus six to other UK clubs, while we have welcomed visitors from 16 countries during the course of 50 exchanges, as well as six visits by members of other UK clubs.

This picture was taken during the exchange visit by the Friendship Force of Bavaria in 2007 when the Mayor of Derby welcomed both hosts and ambassadors to a reception in the Derby Council House. Some of the ambassadors were surprised to see a painting of a Lancaster bomber hanging on the wall until it was explained that the famous 617 Squadron had practised their bouncing bomb runs at the nearby Derwent Dams before the Dambusters Raid in 1943. Many of our German guests had seen the film!