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 départements, 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!

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Hungarian Love Affair

Today is St Valentine's Day.

A couple of days ago I posted an article about Budapest and my links with the city going back almost fifty years. I could say a lot about Budapest, Hungary and everything Hungarian, and so today I have started a new blog called A Taste of Hungary in which I shall bring together my thoughts, comments, memories, and anything else that comes to mind relating to Hungary. The title of the first post to that blog is almost the same as the title of this short note. It somehow seems appropriate today!
Me at the top of Gellért Hill overlooking the Danube

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Latest Attempt to Destroy Our Universities

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Destruction of British Universities over the last few decades, but I had not expected another assault on their academic standing to come quite so quickly.

Last week Nick Clegg announced that Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, would not be allowed to charge fees of more than £6000 unless they offer places to more people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds. At no point did he seem to be remotely concerned about the academic ability of the students that the government proposed to require Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities to accept - simply that they must come from certain sectors of society that are currently under-represented at the best universities. The fact that, for example, Cambridge University has already said that it will use some of the money from the higher fees to reduce fees and provide bursaries for students from poorer families, and that the rest will barely compensate for the dramatic reduction in state funding already announced by the government, was obviously of no concern to the Deputy Prime Minister in his self-proclaimed push for social engineering.

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph Simon Heffer spelled out most eloquently how the government's policy would destroy our universities, describing it as an evil proposal that verges on the wicked. Strong words, to be sure, but the destruction of the academic excellence built up over more than 800 years justifies such language. Anyone who cares for the future of our country and the academic excellence of its best universities must surely bring pressure on their MP to stop this insane vendetta against one of the few remaining areas of excellence in our educational system.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Budapest - Queen of the Danube

Those who know me, or who have read my most recent book, The Budapest Betrayal, will probably realise that I have a deep love for Budapest, Hungary and, indeed, all things Hungarian.

Heroes Square, Budapest

My first visit to Hungary was in 1962, while I was spending part of the summer learning German in Vienna. It was a short, long-weekend, trip and was the only time that I have ever had a loaded rifle pointed at me. It was less than six years after Hungary's gallant attempt to throw off their Soviet oppressors and the border with Austria was still a heavily guarded crossing point between East and West. Our coach-load of (mostly) young people had never seen anything like this before and, naturally, several of us took out our cameras to record this new experience. It was only when I saw that the guard whose photograph I was about to take had raised his rifle to point directly at me that I realised that perhaps this was not a good subject for a photograph!

Even then, however, Budapest was a beautiful city - although the ravages of both the events of October and November 1956 and the 'liberation' of the city by the Red Army twelve years earlier were still plainly visible wherever one looked. One of my lasting images of that time was the window of a department store which contained a single pair of women's stockings - and nothing else.

It was another fourteen years before I returned - this time at the invitation of the Computer and Automation Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. As I was driven into the centre of the city, which was alive with neon advertising signs, I found it hard to believe that this was the same city as the one I had visited a decade and a half earlier.

But it was the following year that really began my love affair with the city and, by extension, the whole Hungarian nation. At the end of my earlier visit I had been invited to return for a year and, thanks to the generosity of the University of Sheffield, who granted me a year's leave of absence, I was able to take my wife and two small children to spend a year in this wonderful city.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Six Nations in the rain

Yesterday it rained. It was raining when I drew the curtains back in the morning. And it was still raining when I shut them again in the evening. It was, in short, a thoroughly unpleasant day. So I needed no excuse to sit in my arm-chair all afternoon watching, first, Ireland scrape to a narrow 13-11 victory over Italy, and then Scotland fight bravely against a classic running display from France before going down by 34 points to 21.

The start of the Six Nations rugby tournament is always a harbinger of Spring - although it is usually not until the later stages of the series in March that it is accompanied by sunny, or even warm, weather. But the two matches I watched yesterday were played in Rome and Paris, respectively, where the television pictures showed most clearly that the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky. But the third match, between Wales and England was played in the dark!

For reasons best known to the powers-that-be - but probably not unconnected with television sponsorship - this year's Six Nations tournament began on a Friday evening instead of a Saturday afternoon, as it always has in the past. Which meant that I couldn't watch it as my wife and I were otherwise engaged at the quarterly meeting of the Derbyshire Friendship Force. And even if we hadn't been I suspect that, after watching the final part of Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journey through the West Highlands of Scotland we would have stayed with BBC2 right through until the end of Mastermind - if not later. So England's slightly scrappy victory over Wales by 26-18 will exist only in the form of a few highlights and the written report in the newspaper. At least the next four rounds of matches will all take place at the weekends!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Destruction of British Universities

There has been a lot of talk about universities recently - ranging from undergraduate fees to graduate unemployment, and from vice-chancellors' salaries to funding for research. But there seems to be very little discussion of what universities are for, and how they can best achieve their true purpose.

I spent almost thirty years working in universities - first at Sheffield and then at Oxford - and observed at first hand the gradual loss of morale amongst the many fine academics that I knew well. And yet the situation is far worse now than when I left Oxford just under a decade ago. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Simon Head says that "The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship."

Over the last fifty years the whole higher education landscape in Britain has changed in a way that would have been unthinkable in the immediate post-war years. At the end of the war there were only nineteen universities in the whole United Kingdom, of which twelve were in England, four in Scotland, two in Wales, and one in Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1960s this number had more than doubled following the recognition of a number of existing University Colleges and Colleges of Advanced Technology as independent universities, together with the creation of seven completely new institutions and the revolutionary, non-residential, Open University.

All of these universities followed the long-established tradition in which research and teaching went hand-in-hand. Both institutions and their academic staff believed that the benefits of being tutored by someone who was actively carrying out research at the leading edge of their field more than outweighed the theoretical disadvantage of professors and lecturers only being part-time teachers.

But there were already signs of a change in the official view of the role of universities within the wider society. I well remember an occasion in the mid 1970s when Fred Mulley, Secretary of State for Education and Science in Harold Wilson's government, visited Sheffield University. He was a Sheffield MP and during his visit he was asked by the head of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers if he could do something to assist in the current pay negotiations. His reply was blunt and to the point: "If you won't go on strike you can't expect more money."

Friday, 21 January 2011

Big Brother in the Peak District

The other day I had to drive over to Lancashire, where my father lives, and I was struck - not for the first time - by the incongruity of a succession of CCTV cameras suspended from gantries above the wild and isolated Cat and Fiddle pass. I am currently reading a collection of Mary Beard's wonderful Don's Life blogs which have been published in book form, and one of her earlier blogs contrasts the passive acceptance of CCTV by the younger generation with the strong dislike felt by Mary and others of her generation. Like Mary I am unhappy about the fact that we British are spied upon in this way more than any other people in the world, and I am fed up with the constant mantra that 'if you've nothing to hide you've no need to worry.' Tell that to all the innocent people in Stalin's Russia or Rákosi's Hungary who were arrested, tortured, locked up and often murdered by the KGB or the ÁVO.

Living in the country, as I do, I am not normally exposed to cameras on every street corner as, for example, my daughter is in London - although there are more that one often realises even in such rural areas as Bakewell or Matlock Bath. But I was surprised when the road across the Pennines into Cheshire suddenly sprouted regularly spaced cameras a few months ago. Ostensibly these are to enforce an 'average speed limit' of 50 mph but, as we all know, the pictures recorded by CCTV cameras on our roads and in our city streets are a valuable source of information for the police and anyone else who can provide an acceptable reason for looking at them.

Although it is, to say the least, disconcerting that the open countryside of the Peak District National Park now has Big Brother cameras dominating the skyline it might just be acceptable if only the images of vehicles exceeding the speed limit between two sets of cameras were retained. But we know that this will not be the case - and that is my main complaint. I really do not see why the powers-that-be need to know, still less have any right to know, where I go and what I do unless I am breaking some law by going there or doing whatever I am doing there. And driving along a public road at a speed within the appropriate speed limit is still, as far as I am aware, a perfectly legal activity.

The official reason for these cameras is to slow down the motorcyclists whose irresponsible behaviour makes this road the most dangerous in Britain - even though it is, apparently, one of the safest if motorcycle-related accidents are excluded. But it seems a pity that the glorious views over the southern Pennines have to be spoiled in this way. A couple of mobile police camera cars at the weekend would probably do a much more effective job at substantially lower cost, and without the despoiling of the countryside and - my main complaint - the further extension of George Orwell's vision into our everyday lives. But these days a technology-based solution to any problem always seems to be preferred to one using human beings.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

My First Blog

Today has been the first really nice day we have had for quite a long time. Blue skies and sunshine, although there was a bitterly cold wind when my wife Katy and I went out for a short walk. But it's a lot better than the rain and fog - to say nothing of the snow - that has been our lot for the last six weeks or so. This was the view of our garden shortly before Christmas:

But now spring is coming - we have seen the first snowdrops and daffodils trying to force their way above the surface of the soil - and in two months we shall be off to the Caribbean!

As the title of this post says, this is my first blog, so it is probably appropriate to tell anyone out there who reads this a little about myself before I go any further.

My name is Miles Ratcliffe and I am fortunate enough to live on the edge of the Peak District National Park – Britain's first National Park. If you are not familiar with the Peak District then Wikipedia is as good a place to start finding out about it as anywhere. I don't come from here originally, though. I was born in Wigan, in Lancashire, and spent the first eighteen years of my life there before leaving to go to Cambridge University. After that I spent eight years working in the computer industry before moving to Sheffield University, where I taught computing for twelve years before moving to Oxford University, where I worked until I took early retirement at the tender age of 59. I hadn't planned to retire that early, but some major structural changes in the university made it a sensible thing to do. Shortly afterwards I moved to Derbyshire, where I have lived ever since.

During my time at Sheffield and Oxford I was fortunate enough to write several successful text-books, and also wrote, presented and directed a number of video programmes covering subjects from computer programming to 16th century warships. Since then I have turned my hand to other types of writing and, as well as publishing a detailed history of my direct male line back to the mid-17th century was fortunate enough to win a prize for one of my poems. More recently I have completed my first novel, but I shall have more to say about that another time.

That's probably all you want to know about me for now, but I shall certainly tell you more as this blog develops!