Wednesday, March 31, 2004

From the website stats I see that someone at Cauldron Foods has been taking a look -- presumably drawn by my posting about their popularity in the BBC's Tehran bureau.

If the good people at Cauldron would like to send me a crate of veggie Lincolnshire sausages c/o BBC Television Centre I'll make sure they get to Iran.

Lou calls with more news of Ho Chi Minh's Culinary London.

As well as toiling in the kitchens of the Drayton Court, he also worked as a chef in the former Carlton Hotel on the Haymarket in the centre of town.

It used to be a favourite dinner spot for politicians.

Apparently Ho Chi Minh was working there when Winston Churchill and David Lloyd-George, later prime minister himself, came to dinner at the outset of World War I.

The Carlton is now New Zealand House -- and the Uncle Ho connection is marked by a blue plaque on the wall.
The International Federation of Journalists issues a new call for international solidarity with journalists in Iraq:
IFJ: More Killings, Death Threats and Closure of Paper Deepen Iraq Media Crisis
Lynn e-mails with a link to a great piece by Wendell Steavenson about an English professor in Baghdad who collects the slogans scrawled onto the city's walls.

My favourites:




Tuesday, March 30, 2004


Since I've moved house, my local is now the Drayton Court, just a short stagger from BNI Towers.

Someone once told me a great urban myth about the place but this evening I did some research and found out it's actually true.

In 1919, a Vietnamese man called Nguyen Van Thanh worked in the Drayton as a cook.

After adopting the name Ho Chi Minh, or "He Who Enlightens," he returned to Vietnam in 1941 and declared the nation's independence from France.

He led the Viet Minh independence movement in 1941, directed successful military actions against the Japanese occupation forces and later against the French bid to reoccupy the country and became President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) in 1954.

I can't believe it. Ho Chi Minh worked in my local.

The Drayton also featured in the final story of the last season of Doctor Who to be made by the BBC.

Strange but apparently true.

"If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?" -- Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, March 18th 2003.

Fox News's breathtakingly partisan and ill-informed reporting never ceases to amaze.

In Salon, David J. Sirota analyses the extent of the cosy relationship between Fox and the White House.

Sirota's conclusion: "Fox was an enthusiastic participant in the White House's campaign of disinformation leading the country into war."


Police say the threat in Britain from terrorism "remains very real" following the discovery of more than half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertiliser in a storage unit in west London.

I, however, am far more concerned about the threat to the value of my new house, considering it's about two miles from Hanwell, where the fertiliser was found.
As I suggested earlier this month, Alistair Cooke's decision to give up Letter From America was a clear sign that he was not long for the world.

BBC News: Broadcaster Cooke dies aged 95

Acting BBC director general Mark Byford said "Alistair Cooke was one of the greatest broadcasters ever in the history of the BBC" -- and few would disagree.

You can listen again to some of Cooke's most memorable despatches here.

In other media news, 13 episodes of the surreal 70s TV show Monkey have been found.

I remember watching it as a kid and it made no sense whatsoever but that doesn't seem to matter when you're 6 years old -- although I couldn't understand why Monkey et al kept insisting that Tripitaka was a bloke when she clearly wasn't.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Despite what Thomas Friedman says, the Lexus hasn't yet won out over the olive tree -- and the world's not as small a place as we may like to think.

This became abundantly clear today, when I began researching a possible assignment to Zambia and Angola.

The idea is to travel with the UNHCR and follow a family of Angolan refugees from the Meheba camp in western Zambia to Cazombo in eastern Angola and then on to their home villages, some of which have been cleared of landmines by MAG.

They're able to return thanks to a peace agreement signed last year, ending three decades of civil strife in Angola.

(There's a map of the camps here and more about the programme of returning refugees to Angola here.)

But the logistics involved are a nightmare. Dodgy internal flights, the prospect of travelling hundreds of kilometres along bad roads make this trip a difficult, if fascinating, proposition.

I hope we can pull it off.
Last September I wrote about the Channel 4 documentary "A Tale of Two Alis," which contrasted the fates of two Iraqi boys injured during the war.

Ali Abbas was offered lucrative media exclusive deals and received medical treatment in the UK, while Ali Hussein returned to an uncertain future in Iraq.

The charity Facing The World read what I wrote and have been in touch with some good news.

They say:

"Ali has in fact received the reconstructive surgery that he needs (although he will need further surgery when he is 16 and finishes growing).

"He is in London at the moment awaiting the second part of his procedure and the fitting of his prosthetic eye and will return home with his father (who accompanied him) back to Iraq in mid April.

"Sadly, of course, the family farm is still unworkable as it is littered with unexploded bombs left over from the attack that injured Ali and killed so many of his family. Hopefully in due course we will be able to highlight the need to have these safely removed.

"Facing the World is a relatively new craniofacial and facial reconstruction charity who offer surgery to children with severe disfigurements who are unable to receive treatment in their own countries. There are - as you mentioned - so many children in Iraq still needing assistance who we would desperately love to help."

Details of how to help are on the Facing The World website.

Friday, March 26, 2004

My comments about the Magic Bag have prompted a deluge of e-mails about the make, model and contents of my box of tricks.

So, for those who've asked, it's a Lowe Omni Pro Extreme case, which comes with my 100% recommendation. It's a fine piece of kit which is well worth the cost (can I have a freebie, please?)

Alex also alerts me to the fact that Tilly from the kid's TV series Tots TV had a sac magique which is still available by mail order for £7.99.
A watching brief on a story that'll be figuring highly on this blog in the months ahead -- the Athens Olympics.

I'll be in Athens for the duration of the Games.

With 140 days to go, Greek political commentator George Kassimeris surveys the scene for BBC News Online.

I still have mixed views about the Athens Games. As I wrote two months ago, the timetable for the completion of the Olympic venues is worryingly tight.

The Greeks could yet pull it off -- and even if the city is in chaos, if it all looks good on TV the Games will be judged a success.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the response of the athletes taking part. If they give Athens the thumbs up the Olympics will be judged a success, regardless of the barely-finished venues.

If the athletes start complaining about transport, facilities and accommodation, though, the media will pounce on their comments -- and the Games will quickly turn into a fiasco.

It's going to be an interesting Summer.

Richard Branson shows an understanding of the PR industry rather than the landmine issue by calling on Libya to invest in a scheme using airships to detect landmines.

The balloons -- presumably branded with the Virgin logo -- would use a radar to scan the soil for mines from above the ground and send the pictures back to a computer.

It's a nice idea -- and the Libya connection ensures acres of column inches for Branson (again). However, it's just another of those landmine clearance ideas -- along with pigs, rats, bees, dogs and genetically modified plants -- that are better in theory than they are in practice.

Although technology can help, ultimately there's no alternative to checking the ground by hand to ensure every single mine has been cleared. It's laborious -- but it's more cost effective than fanciful schemes costing millions of pounds and it's the only way to be 100% sure that the ground is free from mines.
Great news from MAG -- they've cleared more than a million mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Iraq since the beginning of the war.
IRAQ: MAG clears over one million mines and bombs since the war and says the work must continue

Thursday, March 25, 2004


Joy of joys.

The Magic Bag has turned up -- thereby proving its magical powers. It was offloaded from a flight to Lisbon just minutes before takeoff and I was reunited with it at Heathrow Terminal One.

The flak jacket and helmet have also been found -- although the Montecristos are still missing in action.

Still, two out of three ain't bad.
We spend millions of pounds on satellite dishes and trucks, on cameras, edit packs and equipment and on flying journalists around the world to cover the news.

But there are times when we only manage to get on air by the very slimmest sliver of skin from our teeth.

Yesterday was one such day.

Wherever I go, I always take what I call my "magic bag." It's a case full of every wire, cable, tape and connector I'll ever need in the field. It's absolutely essential. It holds every single thing I need to do my job.

I checked the Magic Bag in at Heathrow....and more than 24 hours later its whereabouts is still is the whereabouts of my flak jacket, my suitcase and everything except the clothes I'm standing up in.

I watched the carousel at Lisbon Airport go round and round but my kit never appeared. I had nothing.

With Tony Blair set to give a press conference in Lisbon just a few hours after my arrival, this was a major crisis.

The problem we had was that most of the cables we use are specialist ones you can't buy over the counter at Radio Shack. I had a few wires with my laptop, which I'd carried onto the plane, and one of my colleagues had a few more. We dashed into an electrical store and bought whatever cables we could find along with a roll of insulating tape and a pair of wire strippers.

An hour before Blair was due to set out his strategy on defeating global terrorism, we were frantically stripping cables and trying to patch them back together so that we could broadcast. It felt like an episode of the A-Team, where BA takes a Ford Cortina and welds it together to make a Sherman tank.

It wasn't pretty, but amazingly it worked. Our tangle of wires and insulating tape enabled us to connect our mics and minidisc recorders to the satellite equipment and broadcast. We got on air and -- more importantly -- stayed on air.

In the midst of this, I received a call from the bureau chief in Jerusalem telling me things had gone quiet and I didn't need to go. This was a huge relief. I didn't even have a clean pair of underpants, let alone body armour.

So now I'm at Lisbon Airport, heading back to London to stock up with a completely new set of equipment and clothes. Whether I ever see my bags again is anyone's guess. If I don't I'll be putting in a compensation claim for the box of Montecristo Number 4's I was carrying to share with my colleagues in the Jerusalem bureau.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

It's been a while since I've needed them but this evening I dusted off my flak jacket and helmet for my return to the Middle East on Thursday.

Stuffed in the bottom of my holdall I found a tangle of generator leads, a hotel key for the Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel and a tin of molasses tobacco -- reminders of the last time I wore the jacket, in Northern Iraq exactly a year ago. The belongings scattered around my hotel room were hurriedly thrown into the bag by colleagues after my accident and brought back with me on the medevac flight to Britain. They were still in the bag, just where they'd been packed.

Unzipping the holdall was like opening one of those lead-lined time capsules buried in the ground, packed with mementoes for future generations.

I feel a strange mixture of emotions about heading back to Israel after just over a year away -- excitement at the thought of seeing my friends there, depression at the fact that I'm only going back because the seemingly endless cycle of violence is set to intensify and -- I don't mind admitting it -- a hint of apprehension.

Will my time there be uneventful? Or will it be marked by suicide bombings, rocket attacks and helicopter gunship raids?

I sincerely hope the flak jacket won't be needed -- but I'm fully prepared if it is.


Bruce e-mails to draw my attention to the Dude, Where's My Leg? range of essential amputee merchandise.

I'm going to give the classic thong a miss because it'll get wedged up my crack, but I'm very keen on the mug bearing the slogan "I've only got one foot. Don't make me put it up your ass."
Reuters chief David Schlesinger says the safety of journalists in Iraq has "deteriorated significantly" over the past few months -- and calls on the US government to do more to prevent the deaths of media workers.

I get a mention in the article -- although I'm not sure why.
Off again tomorrow, following Tony Blair to Lisbon before flying on to Jerusalem for a week to cover the anticipated retaliation for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin who -- I've just realised -- was the inspiration for Saruman in Lord of the Rings:

Monday, March 22, 2004


I should have learned my lesson last time.

Over the weekend I made a return visit to the inappropriately named Affordable Art Fair -- and my new babies have just been delivered to my door.

The last time I went I came back with a Louise Braithwaite painting which I've only just managed to pay off.

But I'm a sucker for the smooth sales patter of the art dealers. Before I could say "I don't know much about art but I know what I like" I was the proud owner of an oil by the illustrator Andrew Dillon entitled "The Improbable Launch of Big Fish."

This is it -- it makes me grin with contentment every time I look at it -- especially the sign in the top right hand corner saying "Giant Killer Squid Awareness Week" (see more of Andrew Dillon's work here.)

I also bagged a couple of large photographs of hawthorns printed onto canvas by Paul Tucker.

The only question now is where to put the damned things.
The Israeli army has guaranteed another round of bloodshed by assassinating the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

His death will do nothing to stop the terror and the suicide bombings.

The US, which has done so little to move the peace process forward, has appealed for calm -- but that call will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. Hamas will now be looking to carry out a huge and murderous atrocity to avenge Sheikh Yassin's killing.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been asked by BBC News Online to write a piece reflecting on my experiences one year after the beginning of the war.

The article should be going live in the next day or two, but here's a sneak preview:

On the afternoon of April 2nd 2003 I smelled explosives and burnt meat and I knew my life would never be the same again.

I had been in Iraq for two months, waiting for the war to begin and then reporting on the unfolding conflict from the north of the country.

As the front line between the Kurdish-controlled north and the central and southern territories held by Saddam Hussein began to crumble, my team travelled to Kifri, a town on the road heading towards the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Accompanied by a local Kurdish soldier, we drove towards an abandoned Iraqi trench. As I stepped out of our vehicle I triggered an unmarked anti-personnel landmine, which blew my right heel wide open.

Thinking we were coming under attack my cameraman, Kaveh Golestan, tried to run for safety. In doing so he set off another two landmines. He was killed instantly.

Doctors tried their best to save my limb but five days after being flown back to the UK my right leg was amputated below the knee.

Since the war began thousands of people, military and civilian, have been robbed of their limbs. Soft flesh is no match for mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenade fragments and shrapnel thrown out in all directions by roadside bombs.

12 months ago, as I lay in a hospital bed recovering from my amputation, the future looked bleak. But the overwhelming support of family, friends and my employers, have got me through.

I returned to work as a World Affairs Producer last autumn. Once again I’m covering news stories around the globe. Most people have no idea I wear a prosthetic limb – except when fatigue gets the better of me and I need to take the leg off in public.

I’ve also found a worthwhile cause into which to channel much of my energy. I’ve become a patron of the Mines Advisory Group, a charity which clears landmines around the world and which made safe the area around Kifri where I was injured.

In November, I travelled with MAG to Cambodia – one of the most heavily mined countries in the world – to see the organisation’s work at first hand.

To roll up my trouser leg and compare prostheses with a Cambodian street beggar maimed by a landmine was a moving experience – and to walk along a “safe lane” just centimetres from an uncleared minefield was terrifying.

I was inspired by the difference MAG is making to the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet and saddened by the lack of opportunities available to Cambodian landmine victims.

The thought which hurtled through my mind in the seconds following my accident has proved to be correct – my life will never be the same again.

But it’s certainly not over.

I would give anything to turn back the clock – but my life has been enriched beyond measure by experiences I never would have had if I had not trodden on that landmine one year ago.

Most noticeably I’ve lost some of that brittle veneer of detachment most journalists cultivate in order to do their job.

A year ago, the personal tragedies and life-changing events I reported on did not seem to bother me.

Now, though, every tragic news story, every journalist colleague killed or injured in the course of their work, every limb lost affects me deeply and personally.


Saturday, March 20, 2004


A year ago to the day the bombs started falling in Baghdad. I was in Northern Iraq, my two feet intact, waiting for the fall of Kirkuk and blissly ignorant of what would happen to me less than a fortnight later.

I never got to see the Kirkuk fall. By then I was in hospital in the UK, facing an uncertain future -- which thankfully has turned out to be far brighter than I could have possibly hoped for.

Journalists love anniversaries -- and the first birthday of the War In Iraq is no exception. We've sent special teams to Baghdad and Basra and every news outlet is examining the state of the country one year on. In fact, I've been asked to write my own "one year on" piece for BBC News Online.

For me, though, the fact that the invasion of Iraq began 365 days ago is of little importance.

Today's demonstration in London
looked like something of a damp squib -- around 25,000 protestors compared with the hundreds of thousands who turned out a year ago.

In February 2003, opposition to the war here in Britain was so strong that it prompted the country's biggest ever turnout. Has the world moved on so quickly that the public has forgotten the deep anger it felt last year? Have people changed their minds about the validity of the war? Or have they simply accepted that they lost the argument and moved on?

If hundreds of thousands of people were angry enough to take to the streets a year ago, they should be absolutely furious now -- but strangely it seems they aren't.

Another Jayson Blair?
Ex-USA TODAY reporter faked major stories

Meanwhile, the International News Safety Institute reiterates its call for the independence and impartiality of journalists to be respected, as five more media workers are killed in Iraq.

Friday, March 19, 2004


Proof that there is some justice in the world. Coca-Cola gets its come-uppance for ripping off consumers by flogging bottled tap water at 85p a pop.

Half a million bottles of Dasani -- launched earlier this month amid claims that its NASA-tested filtration process made it "as pure as bottled water gets" -- are being recalled because they could contain high levels of the potentially carcinogenic chemical, bromate.

"Coca-Cola has indicated that the bromate was caused by its manufacturing process," sniffed a spokesman for Thames Water, whose H20 was being palmed off as "pure, still water."

A well-deserved PR disaster for Coke.

I've long maintained that Glenn Reynolds is a clueless idiot, but it was only this morning that I realised what a complete clueless idiot he really is.

Scanning over his recent postings, I saw that he got very excited about reports of "unrest" in Iran -- predicting the downfall of the Islamic regime in a hail of home-made bombs and molotov cocktails.

Or it could have just been the Chaharshanbeh Suri, or Red Wednesday, festival -- officially recognised this year for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Glenn -- you really should stop pontificating and get out of your office once in a while.

A new digital pay TV service called Top Up TV will be launched at the end of the month.

It'll charge £7.99 to viewers Now where's my copy of the Trade Descriptions Act?
At last -- someone at the New York Times talks some sense over the reasons for last weekend's Spanish election upset.

Paul Krugman echoes exactly what I said yesterday:

"The Aznar government had taken the country into Iraq against the wishes of 90 percent of the public.

"Spanish voters weren't intimidated by the terrorist bombings — they turned on a ruling party they didn't trust. When the government rushed to blame the wrong people for the attack, tried to suppress growing evidence to the contrary and used its control over state television and radio both to push its false accusation and to play down antigovernment protests, it reminded people of the broader lies about the war.

"By voting for a new government, in other words, the Spaniards were enforcing the accountability that is the essence of democracy. But in the world according to Mr. Bush's supporters, anyone who demands accountability is on the side of the evildoers."

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland also makes a similar point.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

I've found an ally in Suw over at Chocolate and Vodka, who steps up the pressure on the Guardian to hand the Best British Blog prize money to its rightful owner.

She says:

"I think The Guardian really ought to demand repayment of the prize money and give it and the title to Stuart Hughes, whose blog was essentially the runner up. I never liked the fact that the slut won - I had the feeling that she won because of her subject material and the shock value that afforded The Guardian, not because of any inherant worth in her blog. It's like titillation value was more important than ability to touch or affect other people's lives.

"Hughes, on the other hand, has been through and blogged with honesty and emotion about life-changing events - he stepped on a land mine in Iraq and subsequently went through a below the knee amputation. His is a blog which it not only well written, but emotive, interesting, thoughtful and at times even awe-inspiring. He has reached not only other amputees with his writing, but also helped to give non-amputees more understanding of what it's like to go through the loss of a limb. And, of course, he blogs about a wide range of other subjects that makes his blog more well-round and interesting than most.

"Frankly, I think that's far more valuable to the the blogging community than some woman in Manchester pretending to be a call girl in London."

Still no sign of that cheque yet.

Thomas Friedman misses the point completely in the NY Times today, just as his fellow Times columnist
David Brooks did.

He says that by pledging to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, the newly-elected president Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero "is planning to do something crazy: to try to appease radical evil...even though those troops are now supporting the first democracy-building project ever in the Arab world."

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Zapatero is withdrawing his country's soldiers because his ousted predecesor, Jose Maria Aznar, committed troops to a war opposed by up to 90% of Spanish people, lied to the public about who was behind the Madrid bombings -- and subsequently paid the price at the polls.

That's not appeasement -- it's democracy in action. Friedman, Brooks, et al would do well to scrutinise the validity of their president's war in Iraq, instead of condemning the European fallout.

Kofi Annan realises this. He understands that José María Aznar paid for backing the Iraq war and blaming the terrorist attacks on ETA.

Zapatero does, however, need a crash course in diplomacy. He's stirred things up still further by suggesting American voters should kick out Bush and vote for John Kerry.

I suspect President Bush won't be inviting Mr Z for a cosy chat at the White House anytime soon.
The Times claims to have outed the "call girl" I lost out to in the Guardian's British blog awards.

The Thunderer claims that the anonymous "London hooker" is in fact Sarah Champion, a 33-year-old author from Manchester.

On the weekend, the Times's Sunday edition claimed that "Belle De Jour" is the novelist Christopher Hart.

Whoever he/she is, it seems increasingly likely that (s)he ain't a call girl.

Will the Guardian take back its award and demand the prize money be repaid? I'm watching the mail for my cheque.
The International Federation of Journalists accuses the American authorities in Iraq of attempting to “control and intimidate” the media following the recent detention of Korean journalists in Baghdad.
No prizes for the Economist's coverage of the Madrid bombings, which I've been catching up on this morning. The paper's analysis -- normally razor sharp and right on the money -- was embarrassingly wide of the mark in last week's edition.

The Economist says "the ruling conservatives now seem even more likely to win" the election. Of the Socialists, it says their "chances of taking office next week, in Madrid, look even slimmer.

Er......wrong on both counts.

The article is subscription only so I've uploaded it here as a Word document and here in plain text.

The Economist makes amends, though, with this piece, which is spot on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

With the Madrid bombings story becoming more international in scope I've headed back to London.

Its been an amazing few days marked by a succession of intriguing new developments.

First the Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, caused an explosion of his own on the eve of the election by admitting what most of us had suspected -- that it was probably Al-Qaida rather than ETA that was behind Thursday's attacks. The timing of the admission -- just a few hours before Spaniards went to the polls -- was breathtaking. It seemed like the act of a government desperate to claw back some credibility, after trying to hold back the full truth for days.

Mr Acebes' words came too late. The Spanish people vented their outrage at being "lied" to as they saw it by Jose Maria Aznar and his Partido Popular by voting the Socialists into power in the general election.

But no sooner had Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero clinched the presidency than he stuck the knife into George Bush and Tony Blair by carrying out a complete U-turn in Spanish foreign policy. He vowed to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq by June 30, calling the war a "fiasco" and urging Bush and Blair to engage in some self-criticism. The coalition that waged war against Saddam Hussein exactly a year ago suddenly looked paper thin.

Yesterday, the full extent of the Partido Popular's media manipulation became clearer. Reports came out suggesting that Jose Maria Aznar had personally telephoned newspaper editors to insist that ETA was responsible for the Madrid bombings and journalists from the Spanish news agency EFE demanded the resignation of their editor in chief. They claimed that from the very start they'd been prevented from writing reports suggesting Al Qaida was behind the attacks.

On the one hand, Al Qaida changed the course of the Spanish elections, hardening opposition to a government that waged a war that the overwhelming majority of Spanish people disagreed with.

But the PP could still have won the election if it had toned down its insistence that it was ETA, and not Al Qaida, that had bombed the Madrid trains.

In a sense, then, the events of the last week have been a triumph for democracy -- governments oppose the will of their own people at their peril...and that's something Tony Blair needs to remember as he prepares for his re-election campaign.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Our work in Madrid continues, with the focus of our attention on the fact that the Spanish authorities believe they have the names of at least six and perhaps as many as eight Moroccans who carried bombs onto the trains which exploded last Thursday.

However, the story is slowing shifting away from Madrid and becoming a wider debate about European terrorism -- especially now that the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens has said a terror attack on London is inevitable.

I´ve been predicting the very same thing for some time. My gut feeling is that the attack will either take the form of a Madrid-style series of coordinated bombings in the capital or a suicide bombing in a major London location (such as Oxford Street or a tube train.)

It´s going to happen -- and it´s just a question of when rather than if.
I´m a little slow off the mark with this story from the New York Times because my attention´s been elsewhere.

What I don´t understand is why the white House needs to pay people to pose as journalists for video news releases praising Bush administration policies -- isn´t that what Fox News does already?
Thanks to David for flagging up an organisation I´d never heard of -- Stunts Ability -- an American group which trains amputees and people with "disabilities" for stunts, acting, and effects in the film industry.

I guess we amputees have got less to break or fall off if the stunt goes wrong.

I feel a career change coming on.

Monday, March 15, 2004

To misquote a famous Sun headline "It´s Al Qaeda wot won it."

A few weeks ago, Spain´s ruling Popular Party had a slim lead in the polls and was looking set to win a third term in office.

Then Al Qaeda (probably) carried out a series of bomb attacks in Madrid and by doing so changed the outcome of an election in a major western democracy.

Of course, AQ can´t take all the credit for the Socialist win in last night´s election. The PP´s clumsy handling of the tragedy -- blaming ETA completely and all but ruling out any possible Al Qaeda -- made many Spaniards suspicious that the government wasn´t telling them all the facts.

But even so, anger at the possibility that Spain´s support for the war in Iraq led to the Madrid bombings undoubtedly had a major effect on the outcome of the election.

Spain´s Prime Minister elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has already announced a major policy shift, saying he will pull Spanish soldiers out of Iraq if there is no change by the 30 June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty.

And in London Tony Blair must be increasingly concerned over what his support for the war in Iraq will mean for his own electoral chances -- and whether London will be the next target for Al Qaeda´s bombs.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

I had planned to give regular updates on developments here in Madrid as the investigation continues into who was responsible for Thursday´s bombing and Spain goes to the polls...but since I arrived just keeping up with the demands of my "real" job has been tough enough.

We´ve been putting in 20 hour days and last night, just as we were calling it a day, a man claiming to be from Al Qaeda admitted responsibility for the attacks, meaning we were up for most of the night covering the development.

To give a sense of the mood here....the sense of solidarity in the immediate aftermath of the attacks has given way to anger and a feeling among many people that Spain´s ruling Partido Popular tried to pin the bombings on ETA when it knew Al Qaeda was most probably blame. The reason for this is that the PP supported the War in Iraq and, some argue, a bombing linked to Spain´s support for the war would have hit its electoral chances. I went to a demo outside the PP headquarters last night in which thousands of people held up banners calling the government mentirosos -- liars -- and urging the government to come clean about who carried out the attacks.

There are two possible outcomes that we´re considering as we plan our post-election coverage:
1) That the PP wins the election and opposition supporters take to the streets again, accusing them of "stealing" the election by hiding the truth about who carried out the train attacks.

2) That criticism of the PP´s support for the Iraq War and the resulting bombings is reflected in the outcome of the vote. If the Socialists win, it could be argued that Al Qaeda influenced the outcome of the election in a major western democracy -- an incredible turn of events.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

It´s been too long and draining a day to begin to write.

I´m tired, soaked and exhausted.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Madrid is a city in shock.

Throughout the city, people have hung Spanish flags covered with a black ribbon on their balconies. Others have hung out banners proclaiming "ETA NO."

The scale of yesterday´s attacks still hasn´t fully sunk in.

Madrillenos will show their disgust at 1900 local time tonight when a mass demonstration is held near Atocha station, the site of the explosions. I´ll be there. There will also be demos at many other Spanish cities.

More later.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

I'll be on the 0720 to Madrid in the morning. This story's got a long way to go yet.

From the start, the extent and scale of the this morning's bomb attacks made many of us suspect that terrorists other than ETA, or working alongside the Basque separatists, must have had some involvement.

It's still too early to say who was behind the attacks but there are several competing theories:

1) A crack down by the authorities has given birth to a new, younger and more bloodthirsty leadership within ETA, which is more prepared to use indiscriminate force (perhaps "inspired" by the likes of Al-Qaeda.)

2) The blasts were a joint operation between ETA and Al-Qaeda, the two organisations forming an alliance in order to cause mass destruction.

3) The blasts were the work of Al-Qaeda alone -- the co-ordinated explosions, Spain's support for the War in Iraq and the fact that AQ cells have been uncovered in Spain in the past all lend weight to this theory.

Of course, if it could happen in Madrid it could happen anywhere in the world. Britain's police and intelligence agencies must be increasingly nervous.
Looks like I'm on the first flight to Madrid tomorrow morning to pick up on the train explosion story.

More when I get there...
My comments yesterday on the disability issue have prompted a flurry of e-mails, the most eloquent and thought provoking of which came from Bruce, a below knee amputee in San Francisco.

The general thrust of his e-mail -- GET OVER IT!!

I may not agree with every point you make, Bruce, but I thank you for making them.

Here's an excerpt:
"I don't so much consider myself disabled as I do inconvenienced. But technically, we are disabled. That's it.

"Look at the definition in your questionnaire: adverse effect...significant...long term. Let's see--yes, it's adverse--besides the parking space and the sick humor value, there aren't any benefits. As you correctly pointed out, it's definitely long-term. I suspect your quibble is with significant--sorry to tell you this mate, but without our prostheses we're reduced to acting like lopsided kangaroos.

"We may go through one or more days giving it hardly a thought. However, we still have to put on the leg and use whatever coping strategies we have developed to deal with our altered appendages. Then, at regular intervals we have to haul the leg in for maintenance or replacement.

"I've tried to come up with a really memorable nomination for amputee of the week, and I still might someday. But for now, I would like to nominate the "average, every-day amputee" (sort of like the Unknown Soldier). These are the folks who deal with limb loss every day, largely unheralded and unnoticed. For every dramatic amputation story with its resulting notoriety there are thousands of men, women, and children who deal with it and move on with their lives."
Thanks to Alex and Lynn for this link.

If the US military wants to know what landmines do to peoples' feet they needn't blow up dead bodies. They can just call me and I'll tell them -- they do this.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

This is a story I'm looking at with the guys from MAG.

We're thinking of travelling from Zambia to Angola later in the Spring to follow the journey of refugees from transit camps to their home villages, which have been cleared of landmines. The trip will be for a half hour documentary for the World Service.

There are still lots of issues to sort out -- but watch this space.

Ah, it's the old disability question again.

In my work inbox this morning I received an e-mail inviting me to complete a "Disability Survey" (I think it was sent to everyone -- I wasn't being singled out because I'm a gimp.)

Here it is in full:

The DDA defines disability as ‘a disability or impairment that has an adverse effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities, is significant and is long term’. According to this definition do you consider you have a disability?

No Yes

If NO, please return this questionnaire now.

If YES, please indicate with an ‘x’ the appropriate disability category (if the significant effects of your disability fall into more than one category please ‘x’ all the relevant boxes) and return the form.

If you are unsure whether you are covered by the above definition(s) please contact the Disability Employment Advisor. If you have any access requirements (e.g. adapted equipment, special software, ad-hoc facilitation, etc) or need help dealing with Access to Work etc., you can contact the Access Unit.

Thank you for completing this questionnaire. If you have any queries, please email 'disability survey'.

So how do I respond?

I have a foot missing. It's "significant and long term" (unless I wake up one morning to find it's grown back in the night). But does it have "an adverse effect on my ability to carry out day-to-day activities?" Not really. I just get on with it.

So back to the core question. "Do you consider you have a disability?"

I can only answer no.

I could, of course, ring the Disability Employment Advisor but frankly the idea of phoning someone to ask them whether I have a disability seems absurd.

Or maybe I'm just afraid he'll say that I have.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Word has reached me that this blog has been barred by the Iranian authorities.

Can anyone confirm this?

Looks like that's my chances of getting another visa out of the window...
A sign of the much-feared clampdown on freedom of speech following the election win by Iran's hardliners? Probably still too early to say:
CNN: Hardline vigilantes disrupt women's rally in Iran
In a change of tack, the British Medical Association has said today that there is "very little potential" for Genetically Modified food to produce harmful health effects and has called for an end to "the hysteria" it says often surrounds the GM debate.

That's it, then -- doctors say GM food is safe and opposition to GM crops is just Flat Earth-ism, right?

Not quite.

The GM debate is as much about economics as it is about health.

The food and seed industry, worth around $2000 billion a year, represents a huge source of profits for corporate interests.

Patenting the world's food supply by genetically modifying seeds so that they cannot be saved by farmers and must be bought anew each year means a handful of companies -- principally Du Pont, Pharmacia (Monsanto), Syngenta, and Advanta -- will tighten their hold on the worldwide food chain, making farmers in developing countries increasingly dependent on foreign firms.

As one rice farmer in the Philippines puts it: "‘If seeds are patented, it’s like cutting off a farmer’s arm since you are removing the farmer’s freedom to choose seeds and preserve them.’" (Source: New Internationalist)

(Genetic Resources Action International, ActionAid and Genewatch have much more on this.)
Thanks to Alex for this tale about a one-handed golf ace -- just don't ask him what his handicap is.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Tragic news of another journalistic casualty, this time in Haiti.

RSF has more on the story here.
Jim's documentary about Iran-born photographer Zahra Kazemi, which was shown on BBC World over the weekend, wins plaudits from Hoder, who describes it as "very well-written, coherent, good-looking, fair, and insightful."

He's right, you know.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

AP reports that the man who oversees the cadaver program at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been arrested on suspicion of grand theft, but -- and here's the kicker -- "authorities would not say what he is accused of stealing."

I think we can guess.

Top class telly tonight in the form of live coverage from Crufts.

I sat transfixed for the full two hours on BBC2 but was disappointed when the skinny old whippet won.

I was rooting for the Bichon Frise.

One of my most treasured possessions is a Kinky Friedman lucky plectrum.

It was given to me by the Texas Jewboy himself after a show at the Borderline a few years ago, with the guarantee of good fortune within 48 hours. The Kinkster assured me it was the very same pick used by Hank Williams when he wrote "Kawlija" -- and I believe him.

I'm therefore delighted to learn that Kinky is running for Governor of Texas, promising "I will not kiss babies. I'll kiss their mothers."

C&W legends Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam have pledged their support and magicians Penn and Teller have promised to make any opponent disappear.

He's a dead cert.

Meanwhile, anyone wishing to stump up the $36 to ordain me as an Honorary Texas Jewboy will earn an eternal place in my heart and a big up on my blog.
There's a good reason why my blogging has been so light over the past week -- I've moved house....or rather my house was moved for me by the removal men while I was in Iran.

I've got cardboard boxes piled sky-high all over the place and I can't find a thing. Miraculously, though, both the broadband connection and the Sky satellite TV hook-up were moved over without a hitch so at least I can watch television and surf the internet as I sit in my empty living room staring at four bare walls.

I've spent the week sawing, sanding, drilling, plastering and painting. Four days last week were spent in the attic putting boards down and fitting lights -- hence, there's now enough fibreglass trapped in my nostrils to insulate a mansion. I also managed to fill a skip to overflowing with the junk the previous owners had left behind.

It's going to be months before the new place feels like home. Still at least its got a little garden and -- once the decorators have been in -- a study.

If I can find my camera amid all the boxes I'll upload some photos tomorrow.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan launches the latest salvo in his attempt to avoid prosecution by the planned U.N-backed genocide trial for Cambodia.

In a book just published Samphan admits he knew ome of the suffering taking place in the country but insists there was nothing he could do to intervene against the Communist party machinery.

Reuters: Ex-Khmer Rouge leader launches defence in new book

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Thanks to Sherine for flagging up this article in Salon about Iranian bloggers.

It's not a great piece -- I suspect it was written in the US rather than Tehran and there's not a single quote from the very bloggers the article's about.

Still, it's an accessible -- if not particularly comprehensive -- overview of the Persian blogging phenomenon.

After 58 years and around 3,000 programmes, Alistair Cooke has finally read his last Letter From America, bringing to an end the world's longest running speech radio show.

Not bad considering LFA was originally intended to last only 13 weeks.

One can only assume that 95-year old Cooke is not long for this world. He's weathered decades of speculation about the future of the programme -- why else would he choose to bow out now if not because of increasingly poor health.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Been there, done that story four months ago. Not a bad piece, though:
Reuters: Girl power finds foothold in Cambodia's minefields

Meanwhile, mine experts from a number of countries are meeting in Jordan do discuss how best to prioritise mine clearance programmes:
Jordan Times: Experts say landmine threat hinders socio-economic development

Monday, March 01, 2004

Apologies for the lack of updates over the last couple of days.

The two day public holiday in Iran to mark the shi'a festival of Ashura meant the chances of any stories breaking over the next couple of days seemed slim.

This, plus the depressing thought of a birthday without booze, prompted me to head back to London this morning to celebrate the start of my 32nd year at home.