Gallipoli and ANZAC Day – One of the biggest disasters in history

The Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles region of modern day Turkey was a landmark battle of World War One.  It is counted as perhaps the greatest Ottoman Turkish victory in the war and set about creating a Turkish nationalism that went on to create a modern country out of the ashes of defeat at the end of the Great War.  Gallipoli is also pivotal in the creation of a modern national consciousness for Australia and New Zealand, separate to that with its historic links with the United Kingdom but for altogether more tragic reasons.

Dardanelles Map

Map of the Dardanelles by Thomas Steiner. The Gallipoli Peninsula is northwest of Canakkalle

Gallipoli sits on the Dardanelles Straits which linked the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and which could have linked the Royal Navy with the Russian Navy if only the Dardanelles were not just controlled by the Ottomans but only a short distance from their capital, Istanbul. By the end of 1914, the Western Front was already at stalemate and there was no overland trade route between western Europe and Russia and so a plan was drawn up to capture the Dardanelle Straits which would not just open up the seaways for the Allies but possibly lead to a quick capture Istanbul, putting the Ottoman Empire out of the war before it had almost began.

Your country needs you

Possibly the most famous poster of all time. Lord Kitchener reminding us that our country needs us.

The plan for the attack was largely at the behest of Winston Churchill who at the time was the heading up the Admiralty in the Royal Navy.  Though today we know it ended in disaster, its original goals were laudable and if they had worked might have saved millions of lives.  The fact that the Turkish capital at Istanbul was so close to the sea made it theoretically possible to knock out one of the Axis powers very quickly and the Ottomans were the weak link.  However the Ottomans well knew that this was their achilles heel and so made the already difficult terrain and cliffs of the Dardanelles possibly the most fortified coastal region in the world. The 17th February 1915 saw a British seaplane from HMS Ark Royal followed by a huge bombardment two days later by a powerful joint British-French force headed up by the Battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth which began bombarding and ultimately destroying many of the outlying forts and a detachment of Royal Marines even landed to blow up Ottoman artillery.  However bad weather and a mobile Ottoman military, frustrated the Allies from being able to complete their task. The 18th March saw a large attack composed of no less than 18 Battleships and aided by a number of destroyers and cruisers bombarded the coasts as mine-sweepers attempted to clear the straits but a number of important ships were damaged by a new and unknown minefield which had only been laid a few days earlier.   Despite many British officers believing they were close to victory on account that the few remaining Ottoman artillery posts were low on ammunition, the order was given to withdraw and instead attempts to secure the straits fell to the land forces. At this point 78,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were undergoing training in Egypt in preparation for deployment to the Western Front but with the focus on Gallipoli, these men were put in the newly created Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).   The men had not trained for making a landing under fire and it was not thought that the Ottoman defenders would put up much of a fight but both turned out to be terrible mistakes. The Ottomans under Kemal Attaturk and with the assistance of German officers had prepared a robust defence especially as the Allies invasion of the 23rd April was pushed back two days due to bad conditions.  Six beaches were chosen for the landings composed of British, French and Anzac groups followed shortly afterwards by Indian troops.    Only 10% of the British soldiers at ‘V’ beach made it ashore due to heavy machine-gun fire and similar events took place at what would be known as Anzac Cove where Ottoman defenders stopped any potential invasion either on or just above the beach and who held fortified positions with good vantage points on the Allied soldiers below.

On W Beach the Lancashires lost 600 of their 1,000 men but still managed to take the Ottoman positions whilst of over 1,000 Irish troops only 11 were to get through the campaign unscathed. The Allied attack stalled because of the slaughter on the beaches and the fact that those positions that managed to get off the beach didn’t push onwards and maximise their advantages which allowed ample time for the Ottomans to rush in re-enforcements although an Australian submarine did manage to get through the minefield and cause panic amongst Ottoman shipping. April 27th saw 12 Ottoman battalion reinforcements arrive but still the Allies pushed forward, assisted greatly by the naval bombardment but eventually the advance was halted and like elsewhere the landings turned into a long drawn out war of attrition.  Allied ships were successful at the nearby Sea of Marmara and several Ottoman ships were lost including the Gul Djemal which was carrying 6,000 men and a field battery in reinforcements. The 5th May saw the Allies launch a major attack and they made a few hundred metres before heavy fire from the Ottomans eventually caused the whole plan to be abandoned on the 7th May and both sides consolidated their positions with the Ottomans using their superior position to pick off men and officers with sniper fire.

John Kirkpatrick Simpson

John Kirkpatrick Simpson who gave his life so that others might live.

On May 19th the Ottomans launched a 42,000 strong counter-attack with the aim of driving the Anzacs into the sea, their surprise attack ruined when they were spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft resulting in them suffering 3,000 men killed and more than 4 times that injured.   Only 160 Anzacs were killed but one of them was British born stretcher bearer named John Simpson Kirkpatrick who barely known in his birth country  came to prominence in his adopted country of Australia for his repeated evacuation of wounded men on the back of a donkey. His story quickly became the stuff of legends amongst the Australian forces and in Australia generally.   Such were the heavy Ottoman losses that the Anzacs agreed to a truce to allow the Ottomans to recover their dead which allowed men from both sides to mingle in a similar manner to the famous Christmas truce on the Western Front. Though the British ship HMS Goliath was torpedoed which greatly affected their ability to launch effective onshore bombardments, HMS E11 managed to pass through the Dardanelles and disabled or sank 11 enemy vessels and even reached Constantinople harbour itself where it damaged a gunboat and the harbour side which saw its Captain Martin Nasmith awarded a Victoria Cross, just one of many in the Gallipoli campaign. Due to the lack of heavy artillery and an unwillingness to repeat the slaughter of their last major attack against the Anzacs, the Ottomans became unwilling to mount further frontal assaults and instead saw increased use of tunnelling. June and July saw more of the same with the both sides seeing casualty rates of around 25%.  The Allies seemed unable to make inroads whilst the Ottomans couldn’t push them back into the sea with the Divisional strength of both sides increasing from 5 and 6 to 15 and 16 respectively.  The stalemate forced the Allies to come up with a new plan to capture the high ground with 2 new divisions landing 5 miles north of Anzac Cove at Suvla Bay on August 6th whilst a renewed attempt on the high ground at Sari Blair would be made by existing troops.  The landing was successful but the Ottomans on high ground stopped the Allied force really getting off the beach despite successful Australian diversion attacks nearby.

The Sphinx in Gallipoli

The Sphinx in Gallipoli – The rugged and rocky terrain made it a natural fortress for the Ottoman Turks and a nightmare for invading Allied forces.

New Zealand forces managed to get within 500 metres of their objective without actually making it and nearby Australian and Indian groups actually got lost in the dark and were easily seen off by the Ottoman defenders. Back in Europe Lord Kitchener decided it was time to make a big push in France which meant there were only limited men left to reinforce the troops at Gallipoli and with Bulgaria now entering the war it meant the Ottomans could more easily get substantial German reinforcements.    On 25th September Kitchener ordered that 3 Divisions leave the Dardanelles for Salonika in Greece. The summer heat affected both sides with many succumbing to outbreaks of disease and both sides suffering from supply problems leading to ordinary men to strike up conversation and bartering with their opponents.  In the autumn it was a different story with the Allied troops in their poor positions being deluged by 3 days of rain and then snow and so it was decided that the Allies withdraw from Gallipoli, leaving their flooded trenches and unburied dead where they were.  Most troops were recovered in an orderly fashion throughout December with the last men leaving on 8th January 1916.  Allied vehicles were sabotaged and over 500 mules were killed to prevent them falling into Ottoman hands. The Gallipoli campaign is often looked at as an unmitigated disaster and while the Allies didn’t come close to meeting their objectives they did succeed in using up vast amount of Ottoman resources.  The Allies suffered from bad planning, poor logistics, inaccurate maps and intelligence and undefined goals whilst the Turks held onto all the high and most defensive positions.  Additionally, Allied submarines had all but stopped the Ottoman navy from venturing out to sea with all the supply problems this created. Some of the Anzac officers were promoted after the campaign whilst Gallipoli was at last the undoing of Lord Kitchener with the new coalition government quickly losing faith in him.  Meanwhile the Ottoman successes inspired their men in future actions against the British in the Middle-East, notably in Iraq. However there can be no doubt that the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for Allied morale and the mistakes made went on to influence much more successful amphibious landings at D-Day, the American Pacific WW2 campaign and more recently the incredible British landings at the Falklands in 1982. It seemed that those in charge of the Gallipoli campaign forgot one of the basic tenants of both the military and human nature in that soldiers are likely going to resist all the harder when their homeland is under attack regardless of what side of the war they are on. Turkey went on to lose the war and her empire and one day after the Armistice, French, British and Italian forces occupied Istanbul, the first time western forces had occupied the great city since the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, war-time soldier and Father of modern Turkey

The successful defence of  Gallipoli went on to shape the future of modern Turkey which rallied around the man who had led the Turkish defences, Ataturk who ordered and urged his men not just to fight but to die.  Following the end of the war, Ataturk successfully repelled a Greek invasion of western Anatolia and when the Ottoman Empire ended, he because the first President of the modern, western orientated, secular state a tradition that has been strongly followed until the last few years.  President Kemal himself once said

“You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

For Winston Churchill, the disaster weighed on him severely although in fairness what scuppered the invasion was largely due to the military forces in the area often planning badly and acting indecisively.

He was still be taunted by Gallipoli right up until WW2 and perhaps his experience allowed him to become the strong and inspirational leader when his own nation was threatened with invasion.

Anzac Day is now remembered in Australia and New Zealand annually on the 25th April to commemorate the over 11,000 dead out of their force of 35,000. It was a pivotal moment in the history of both countries and their first major actions as independent nations and they desperately wanted to stand by their mother country.  Almost their entire armed forces at the time were involved in the campaign and it was the focus of everyone back home so when it went badly it became a rallying point due to the devastating effect it had on the male population in the fledgling nations.

However it wasn’t just the Anzacs that suffered as the Ottomans lost over 56,000, the British 34,000 and France nearly 10,000.  British Indian and Newfoundland forces also suffered high casualty rates.   Gallipoli is not widely remembered in the U.K. most likely as even the great number of deaths here are overshadowed by the even bigger battles that were to come.  Only in the county of Lancashire and city of Manchester does it hold a status similar to in Australia and New Zealand where men from Lancashire alone suffered more deaths than their Kiwi comrades.  However generally Gallipoli is always primarily remembered by the ANZAC nations.

The Gallipoli campaign is being remembered in Istanbul with representatives from Turkey, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France on April 24th, one day before the 100th anniversary, possibly due to Turkish plans to divert attention from the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide which occurs on this day.

Other big commemorative events are taking place in Gallipoli itself as well as in London, Sydney and New Zealand.

Gallipoli Grave

A British Tommy pauses at the grave of his friend, one of thousands who lost their lives before the evacuation was ordered

If you’d like to read more about WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats. Lest We Forget

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100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Most of us are familiar with the holocaust in WW2 enacted by Nazi Germany against Jewish people, Gypsies, communists and the mentally ill but this week sees the 100th anniversary of another holocaust or Genocide, the Armenian Genocide in Turkey.

Historically The Ottoman Empire had far outshone most European states for centuries in terms of arts, racial and religious equality, technology, civil institutions and warfare and  their Empire stretched from the walls of Vienna all the way to Yemen and across North Africa.  Over the 19th Century though the subjected Christian nations of Eastern Europe gradually fought to gain their independence against an old Empire that hadn’t kept up with technological or societal reform.

When WW1 was declared, The Ottomans quickly sided with Germany and Austro-Hungary in the belief it would be a quick war but they miscalculated on almost every front.  A number of newly built and powerful warships about to be sailed from Great Britain to Turkey were impounded in the first days of the war and that set the tone for the war to come.

Ottoman Empire

Map showing the greatest extent of The Ottoman Empire (taken from Enclopædia Britannica Kids)

Though Ottoman Turkey did have some relative successes in the war especially for a time in Iraq against the British, the writing was on the wall for them and for the next few years with the help of such luminaries as Lawrence of Arabia, the British with the support of Arab nationalists pushed the Turks entirely out of Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.  To the North-East Russia had for a century or two been conquering Ottoman lands around the Black Sea and the Caucuses and had a long term ambition to make Istanbul once again a great Orthodox city but this time not a Greek but a Russian city and only British support had kept the Russian wolves at bay in the interests of not rocking the boat too much and now that was no longer the case.  In a World War though, Turkey was clearly dependent on German aid but not only might it not be enough, midway through the war their land connections to Germany were broken by the newly independent Allied nations.

The Christian Armenians came under Muslim Ottoman rule in the 15th Century and lived both in Istanbul and in eastern Anatolia. Though allowed to practice their religion, they increasingly were treated as second class citizens. Whilst other Christian groups rebelled following Turkish attempts at reform, the 3 million Armenians stayed loyal. However, it did them little good and up to 300,000 were massacred under the tacit approval of the Bloody Sultan, Abdul Hamid II. In 1909 a further 30,000 were massacred at Adana.

Armenian_Genocide_Map-en.svg

Map of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Each size shows a massacre. There are three types of massacre: in a control centre (red dot), in a station (pink dot), in a concentration and annihilation center (black dot). The size of the dot shows the relative number of killed Armenians. Each pair of swords shows an area of Armenian resistance: greater resistance (red swords) or lesser resistance (black swords). The different size of swords is to save space into the map, it means nothing. Dots in Black Sea representing Armenians (mainly women and children) drowned into the sea. Map by Sémhur on Wikipedia

Following the loss of most of their European territories, the Ottomans saw Anatolia (modern day Turkey) as their final refuge and many took the view that minorities should be expelled or eliminated to ensure the stability of the homeland. Around 850,000 Muslim refugees were re-settled from Europe to Armenian homelands and they were keen to get revenge on Christian minorities, something which was encouraged by government propaganda and later revelations of military orders to massacre civilians.

When war came, many Armenians were naturally sympathetic to Russian forces who they hoped might win them their freedom. Fearful of an uprising from those armed Armenian units in the Ottoman Army, the Armenians were disbanded into labour squads.

On the 19th April 1915, Jevdet Bey arrived at the city of Van and ordered that 4,000 Armenian men be handed over under the pretext that they would be conscripted. The reality was that they were likely to be massacred, an idea made more likely by the Turk announcing he would kill every Christian man, woman and child above knee height as he had done in small villages nearby. The city of Van went under siege, defended by 1,500 Armenian riflemen who held off the Ottomans until the Russians arrived on 17th May.

It is generally assumed that this policy started on 24th April 1915 when 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Istanbul. Ottoman military forces then forced Armenians from their home and marched them hundreds of miles to the Syrian Desert without food, water or supplies. On the way there were massacres and sexual abuses regardless of age or sex.

One terrible occasion saw 5,000 Armenian villagers rounded up and burned alive, something that shocked even Turkish witnesses many of whom reported it drove them mad and that the air smelt of burning flesh for days afterwards. In the city of Trabzon, thousands of Armenians were sent out into the Black Sea on wooden boats that were then deliberately capsized with their inhabitants drowning. Others were killed by morphine injections or poison gas.

As early as the May 1915, the Allies condemned the genocide that was occurring and issued a statement that those responsible would be held accountable after the war.

On 29th May the Temporary Law of Deportation was passed and soon laws were passed to appropriate abandoned property even though not all Turks agreed with it. Some such as Ottoman parliamentarian Ahmed Riza protested that the laws were unconscionable and illegal. German engineers working on train lines protested at having to work amongst such awful events. Concentration style camps were established in the Ottoman borderlines with Syria and Iraq though some were only temporary transit camps or places of mass-graves.

After the war a number of Ottoman officials were taken to Malta whilst a thorough investigation was made, however they were all released after three years when Mustafa Attaturk held a number of British prisoners. One man was taken to trial in Berlin but assassinated by an Armenian group in protest at the genocide before he could be sentenced.

After the war some survivors tried to return home but were turned back. In addition to the many deaths, the Armenians lost their wealth and much of their culture. The peace treaty at the end of WW1 allowed the formation of a small Armenian nation-state but this was almost immediately attacked by the Ottomans and soon afterwards was subsumed by Russia until they again achieved independence in 1991.

The modern state of Turkey denies the Armenian Holocaust.  It insists that no more than 500,000 Armenians died and that there was no grand plan to eliminate Armenians from the Turkish heartlands of Anatolia.  It also argues that the very word Holocaust is inappropriate as it was first coined to describe the WW2 Holocaust and that there was no such concept 25 years earlier.  Of course this is nonsensical, just because their wasn’t an official term around the time of the events, doesn’t mean that when one is created that it is not applicable.

Germany has of course fully apologised for its Holocaust and more recently even for throwing the world into war generally.  There is a large memorial to the Holocaust right in the centre of Berlin rather like having Trafalgar Square in London or Time Square in New York dedicated to highlighting their own dreadful history.  Even making jokes about aspects of WW2 are illegal.

Turkey though is different, they thoroughly 100% deny that any Genocide took place in WW1 and even its recent history is full of human rights abuses with ethnic groups such as the Armenians and Kurds denied being able to express and enjoy their cultural heritage and in some cases even speak their language in public.  It is a sad state of affairs when for centuries The Ottoman Empire was much more tolerant about race and religion than the European states.

There are only very slow signs that change is occurring in Turkey which is being run by a President that famously said that democracy for him was like a bus ride “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.”  The Turkish Prime Minister has expressed sympathies for the Armenian deaths and for the first time ever there will be a service of remembrance in Istanbul.  Turkish Human Rights organisations and liberal minded people have recognised the Armenian Genocide though the Turkish President Erdogan has been reported as saying “Now, what will they do on the 24th; they are going to get together in Armenia, and they will play and dance on their own”.

United Armenia

Map showing the core modern-day Armenia as well as lands in neighbouring nations which they lost, mostly due to Turkey and Russia.

Armenia can’t even remember at its national symbol of Mount Ararat as it lies inside modern day Turkey.  Armenia didn’t just lose many lives but most of its rightful territories in WW1 and the Turkish government has said that Armenia should realise where its actual borders and forget its territorial claims on Eastern Turkey though even these are much less than they once were.

armenia Khor Virap monastery

The Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia overlooked by the massive Biblical Mount Ararat in Turkey.

Many countries now recognise these events as genocide and in the last month The Pope has described the events as being what many would call genocide.  Due to it’s geo-political importance for NATO against the Soviet Union and now Russia many countries have not put pressure on Turkey for an apology.  The United States does not officially recognise the genocide and while the local governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recognise it, the national UK government has not yet done so.  In the last 24 hours a former ally of Ottoman Turkey in WW1, Austria, has seen their government issue a statement that it is it’s duty to recognise and condemn these horrific events as genocide and said of Turkey  “It is Turkey’s duty to face the dark and painful chapter of its past and recognise the crimes committed against Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide“.

Like most other historians,  I think it is very much a genocide and all countries with a past should acknowledge and apologise for genocides and massacres without necessarily the current people of that country being somehow being legally punished for the crimes of their ancestors.  The countries that tend to overlook the notorious parts of their history whether they be nations “unfriendly” nations like China and Russia or supposably democratic nations like Japan or Israel are greatly lessened in the eyes of the wider world if not by their spoon-fed citizens.

Nations that recognise the Armenian Genocide

Nations that recognise the Armenian Genocide. Dark Green areas have officially recognised it whilst light green areas have major political or national groups that recognised it .

Most European nations including off the top of my head (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany) committed at times reprehensible crimes by the standard of today and the entirety of North and South America was stolen from native peoples before and after Independence from Europe but that doesn’t take away the positive aspects of nations either and if you go back in time even Britain and France were occupied by foreign empires or civilians were massacred by invaders and at one time or other.

The Ottoman Empire and modern day Turks have a lot to be proud of but not in this instance.  If Armenia can’t yet have it’s land back, its 1.5 million people who were systematically murdered should be remembered outside of the carnage of war as a separate war-crime and genocide.

The modern state of Turkey denies that the events were genocide even though many leading nations have officially backed the use of the term. Genocide Day is remembered in Armenia, the Armenian Diaspora and many others around the world annually on April 24th.

If you’d like to read more about WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

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My latest news!

I hope this post find everyone well.  We’re already in mid-April and so far this year I haven’t posted any updates on what I’m doing and my various projects which superficially might give the impression that I’m rather busy.

Actually I am rather busy with my blog, writing and my tours.  I don’t know about other bloggers but there are occasional times when it is hard to come up with something worthwhile to write about let alone be of interest to readers.  I haven’t had any such moments all year and it is has been one of those times when I’ve had far too many potential topics going through my head with quite a backlog jostling for attention at any one time.  Many of these are forgotten in place of a more urgent or enticing topic that comes up on the day of writing the blog itself.  The classic writers situation of ditching an existing project for something new and exciting!

On the book front I spent much of the first three months starting on the process of writing a vigilante story.   I wanted a change from writing history books before I possibly start a new one next year and I wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind to complete my Star Trek book.  It’s going well and I have almost completed the 4th chapter out of around 18 or so.  However it has proved hard to get into it as much as I wanted due to real-life commitments and so feeling my enthusiasm temporarily waning as can be normal when you are four chapters into writing a book, I decided I that I wanted to write a project that I could start and finish within a week or two.  I’ve written one or two short books in the last year or two and often they prove to be very popular and when it comes down to sales as at times it always will, often they much more profitable pound per page than any novel.

In order to write a book so quickly, even a short title, then it obviously has to be on something I already know all about and something that catches not just my enthusiasm but also of potential readers.   When I was studying at university, perhaps it was just that my professors were twisted or that it was a good way to lighten the mood of the lectures but it seemed like every lecture or tutor period we would learn of new horrible tortures inflicted by some of the biggest and often the most infamous names in history but that is Middle-Eastern and Central Asian history for you.

So I decided to write a brief book on 100 of the worlds weirdest and most horrid but to tell it in as light a way as possible rather like the Horrible Histories show on TV.  To my surprise there are no similar books to this so either I’m just more twisted than I knew or there is a gap in the market.  I spoke with a few friends and generally the consensus arose that though such a book isn’t for everyone, it should be of interest to a large niche of people which is all I can ask for.   I hope to have this book finished towards the end of April of mid-May.

I wrote a little a few months ago of how I wrote a short script that has been accepted by a TV production company to be filmed.  Originally it was hoped to film this short horror story in February but as happens, the time-table slipped.  However it has been chosen to appear in the first season of 6 episodes and the first episode was filmed just a week ago so hopefully I will have some big news on that too.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge on a sunny April day. We even needed the air-con on in the car!

When I’m not writing of course I am spending time organising and running guided tours in London, England and now parts of France and Belgium too with my company, Ye Olde England Tours.  My bookings run from October to October and 6 months ago at the end of my first year, I turned over a very modest profit.   2015 however is proving to be an even better year and my income from tours is currently forecast to triple and with six months of this year still to come.  It’s even reached the stage where I am looking if not for a full time assistant then at least a trusted associated from the industry who can I pass on work to for periods when I am booked up.

It does take a lot of work to run your own business but it is infinitely more rewarding than working for someone else, especially as in my case where they have largely been inept organisations who treat their staff and customers terribly.  No longer do I have to meet impossible deadlines imposed due to a lack of planning or even a total lack of knowledge of the business or care of employees.  In 18 months now, no-one has ever told me what to do or dump me in an impossible situation and I no longer work for people less capable than myself.  I know I am good at what I do as I am wholly responsible for my customers experience from their first point of contact until after their holiday is complete.

So after I have provided 65 tours and only one did I have to deal with nightmare customers, generally everyone is happy, they love their day out and only in this job am I told that I have given someone the best day of their life or made a dream come true.  I make friends from all around the world, meet interesting people, get wonder 5 star reviews on Trip Advisor and some generous tips when like most others who work in an office I suspect, I used to go for one year to a next without getting told I’d done a good job at least by my employers, the customers were always happy of course!

In the last week I have been to such varied places as Stonehenge, Windsor Castle, Bath, Hatfield House and Central London and next week I shall be off to amongst other places, Hampton Court, Hever Castle and one of my very favourite places in the entire world, Walsingham in Norfolk which is an ancient point of pilgrimage.

The picturesque main street of Walsingham

The picturesque main street of Walsingham

The downsides of running my own particular business are very few but include having to do quite a lot of driving in Central London and responding to inquiries outside of usual office hours.  Doing my own taxes too is a new experience but it only took me about 90 minutes, I didn’t find it at all complicated and the taxman said I had worked it out to just 20 pence of the final figure!  I don’t earn as much as I used to but I’m  at about half my previous salary whilst only working about a 1/5th as many days as before and my bookings are seemingly only on an upward trend.

Yesterday after 2 years of trying, I have been accepted on the worlds biggest holiday website.  Previously despite all my 5 star reviews, history degrees, travel books and having my business set up with an official government scheme, they had refused to list me.  This is because in many countries tour guides need to have a licence which to me all sounds a bit Communist which I might expect from some European (not British) company but not an American one.  Thankfully they have been acquired by TripAdvisor who are going to create a system for booking directly online through my review pages.  It seems common sense to me and will obviously be good for business especially as I am now Trip Advisor Recommended :-)

screen-shot-2015-02-05-at-14-33-45

I’d like to earn a bit more but will be more than happy to keep my additional free time. Never being one who lives to work, I much prefer a little bit of working and a lot of living.

So that’s my news, what’s happening with you?

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Who to vote for when all the political parties suck?

In the U.K. we have our General Election on 7th May 2015 and whilst I don’t generally blog on politics I thought I’d make an exception given how this election seems to be even more important than usual.  I could have titled this post ‘Who to vote for when many of the political parties have good ideas but none seem to have the total solution‘ but ‘suck‘ is catchier and is shorter for twitter.

For the benefit of overseas readers this election promises to be different and more complex than usual due to the fact that no party has a major lead over any of the others.  Should the right wing Conservative Party win, then we are promised a referendum on leaving the European Union which would have implications for everyone in the country and for many outside it.  There are also the added complications of nationalist parties that stand to benefit from the current apathy with politicians. The government is currently made up of a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, a coalition itself is almost unheard of in British politics due to the system in place here.

The Conservatives were elected on a programme of austerity cuts as the country was seemingly facing severe economic problems and there was a sense of a need for change following 13 years of Labour rule. The Conservatives have been as good as their word and gone about reducing spending and getting the country on a track for the future though not by as much as they initially promised.  However as so often is the case with them, many of their policies were implemented too strictly or enthusiastically for those at the bottom of society causing much poverty and social unrest despite the fact that most people agree in principle with the need to live within our economic means.

The junior political party in the government is the Liberal Democrats who have entered government for the first meaningful way since the 1970’s if not really since the early 1900’s.  Their leader Nick Clegg gained huge public support during the previous election campaign for his policies which included steadfastly promising not to increase tuition fees for students at University. Within a matter of months after the last election the Lib Dems had reneged on possibly the single most publicised policy of any party for a generation and with that lost almost all their political support and possibly deservedly so.  He did so in part to get through some of their liberal policies including free school meals, tax benefits for the poor and a vote on the slightly unfair voting system, one which he lost due to the inherent unfairness of the system itself! So we’ve had a government where each party has moderated the excesses of the other with neither entirely satisfying their core supporters.

Normally as this stage of the political cycle the main Opposition party would possibly be favourites to win the General Election due to the tough economic climate we’ve endured however this time it is different as the Labour Leader Ed Miliband though no doubt a perfectly nice guy comes across as singularly inept and incompetent.  I remember the day he became leader by beating his much more formidable brother and thinking “Oh God, what have they done?!?” as it seemed clear to me even then that he would turn out to be exactly the sort of person that he has done.  Whilst many of his policies are popular when you get to hear of them, he spends most of his time condemning the policies of the government rather than proclaiming his own.  He also has basic problems with his image, speaking and eating in public.

Another party to throw into the mix is UKIP or the United Kingdom Independence Party that could be thought of as being similar as the Tea Party is in the USA.  Their core vote is disaffected right-wing conservatives and the white-van man.  Their primary objective is to have Britain leave the European Union.  This is based on the concept that what the country signed up to over 40 years ago is nothing like the institution we are now in or lumbered with as their supporters would say.  An economic agreement which has mutated into a political quasi-state that interferes in business which it needn’t do. This is the general and quite widely acknowledged problem with the EU but what is particularly provocative is that of immigration.  As there is freedom of movement and workers it has the tendency that those from the poorest countries are attracted to the richest or most socially caring and as a double edged sword, the UK seems to be pretty much top of the pile in Europe.

The argument goes that the country is already over populated, the culture of the nation is changing and those at the bottom of society are finding themselves undercut by Polish builders and apparently suffering from a crimewave by East European gypsies. The problem is made worse by the previous Labour government actively encouraging people to emigrate here possibly in an attempt to change the demographics forever and the current Conservative led government promising to reduce the figures but not being able to due to European law… and lets not get into the fact that most immigrants are from outside Europe anyway but that’s another issue.  Many surveys indicate that the majority of the population do think the country is too full already, even amongst those who have immigrated here.

The European Union ostensibly doesn’t want the U.K. to leave as it is a huge net contributor, the second biggest economy, largest military and generally much more free-market and less socialist than the other nations but in order for the rules to change it would require a new treaty and it seems few in Europe want to do that.  Let’s not mention that most immigration is from Africa and Asia, not Europe.

Finally there is the resurgence of the SNP or Scottish Nationalist Party whose party convincingly lost the Scottish Referendum but has succeeded in getting people involved in politics.  Many in Scotland as in England are disillusioned with the main parties in London and as with the referendum itself, it is easier to be loud when wanting change but the silent majority who are more or less happy with things are less vocal. SNP Poster Just as Nick Clegg was ruined by his u-turn on tuition fees, the SNP primarily based their ideas for economic well-being on the price of North Sea Oil being at an unrealistic high-level.  In fact if they had won the referendum, Scotland would be facing bankruptcy before it got started with oil incomes only one fifth of the promised level stated by the SNP.  On that issue alone the party deserves contempt and if it were an English National Party that alone would stop me ever voting for them.

The SNP also refuse to rule out holding another Referendum despite it being very decisive and rating only 19 out of 23 on the important issues according to a current survey conducted in Scotland.

However, be that as it may, due to the unpopularity of the Conservatives, the loss of support of the Lib Dems and the low opinion of the Labour Leader Ed Miliband it does mean that the SNP may be involved in a coalition with Labour who recently scuppered plans for English regional devolution to match that promised to Scotland on the grounds it would affect their own popularity.    Whilst the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is a very good speaker and popular across much of Scotland and the U.K., many of her policies don’t make good economic sense and as for her idea to scrap nuclear submarines, well we only have to look at Ukraine to see how it all turned out for them.

There is a perception that the Labour Leader Ed Miliband is so desperate for power that he would go into power with the SNP despite that party being pledged to break the country apart whilst the Conservatives are tarred with being too friendly with big business and their rich friends.  The Lib-Dems are struggling to make an impact after their U-turn nearly 5 years ago.   There is also a problem generally that the majority of senior politicians are from a social and economic elite.  The Prime Minister, Chancellor and many ministers all went to private schools and many are from the aristocracy, the lack of working class ministers is probably the biggest since the 1930’s whereas even Ed Miliband whose party is supposed to support the poor lives in a £2.5 million home and has never had a proper job outside of politics.  His experience of the world is no doubt very different from those he wants to vote for him.

Meanwhile UKIP are seen as voicing the concerns of many and their leader Nigel Farage takes a very deliberate working class stance but he too is extremely rich and his party is thought by many to be xenophobic. With all that going on, no wonder voters don’t know what to make of things or what specific policies are.  It isn’t helped by the fact that no party leader likes speaking to the public (except for UKIP).  Only a few years ago, their would be daily press conferences and public walkabouts but these days there are no daily press conferences, political leaders avoid the public and the media alike.   Former Labour Leader Gordon Brown may have got in trouble 5 years ago for calling a citizen a “bigot” but at least he was meeting people and we knew what he was thinking!

None of the major parties (except UKIP) have committed to a Defence Budget of 2% because they don’t see it as a vote winner.  Surely the first responsibility of a government is to protect its people and after both main parties have already savaged the military budget it is time to protect it especially at a time of increasing terrorism around the world and problems with Russia.  It’s not beyond the imagination that a war might be on the cards with someone.   None of the major parties have any imminent ideas of how to deal with pollution, something that causes premature deaths of thousands in the London area.  Five years ago all political parties were clamouring with ways to offer much better state support for elderly so that wives/husbands/children didn’t have to sell family homes to fund nursing care, this has entirely disappeared from the agenda.   Lots of things that do change all the time, really don’t have to.  There is no need to change policies and laws relating to the NHS or education every time there is a new government!  There can be 3,000-4,000 new laws introduced every year, totally crazy!

1. The Conservatives really have to understand that they have a perception problem.  Most people agree with the cutbacks but some ministers seem to be very enthusiastic about it and it obviously is affecting those least able to cope with the cuts the most. They also don’t seem very keen on tackling tax abuses and their rich friends.  As the commonly held sentiment goes, it was the millionaires who caused the financial crash, not the unemployed , disabled or old people living on benefit. Less dilly-dallying on Europe would be a good thing too.  Its okay to want to stay in Europe or not stay in Europe, people just want to know one way or the other. Labour2015Poster 3. 2. Though I have voted for them many times in the past, I don’t think I can ever vote for Labour whilst Ed Miliband is in charge.  I just don’t think he is any good and a long time before he stopped the world from tackling Syria I was wanting the opposite. He doesn’t seem to be able to agree a party line with his more capable though perhaps less likeable second-inline and though he berates the current government for its tough stand on budgets, agrees that something has to be done but doesn’t say how.  That’s really bad for an opposition party after 5 years.  Labour should also come out and declare whether they will work with the SNP or not after the election.   The historian David Starkey has labelled Ed Miliband as a man of low talent but high ambition which is the very worst combination.  In the last few days Labour have started releasing some policy details but like many others, I still find the party suffering under poor leadership.S36 23425 CON Learning 48sht.indd 3. Liberal Democrats, I’m not sure much can be done with them after their U-turn.  It is a shame as they have put in place some really good policies and their local councillors are renowned for their hard work.  In fact Nick Clegg came over quite well in the recent debates as he always does but even today when you absolutely promise you will do something and then do the opposite, well its no wonder lots of people won’t vote for them this time around.  Maybe by getting stuck in and meeting people, its noticeable that the only party leader who relishes meeting people is that of UKIP who incidentally seem to have gone above them in the polls.  Many of their policies sound good if you can get to hear about them and it’s very possible they will once again be king-makers to the Conservatives or Labour if the bigger parties stay away from the more toxic UKIP and SNP parties.  They also deserve credit for creating a government for the good of the country rather than putting their party first back in 2010.  As they put it, they will add heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-03-at-14.19.35 4. UKIP unfortunately for them though most people have a total apathy towards Europe and in an ideal world would like it changed, to most people it just isn’t that important compared to all the other problems and supporting UKIP is still the quickest way to be thought of as being racist.   I’m the first to say the EU needs changing, it interferes a lot and seems to cost us more than what we make from it thought it does make us a lot in lots of different ways.  Even European nations know it needs reforming and the economic problems are well known with the Euro and some countries are known for trying to dominate proceedings.  I do think there is something fundamentally different between the governments and cultures between the UK and one or two other states in the EU even if it is due to being an island or a difference in religion.img_9193 As an example of how the EU makes life hard for me, in the U.K. there is a small business type called a Sole Trader and being one makes life easier for individuals like myself who run their own business in terms or taxes and other matters.  It took me just 2 minutes to create my business, no red tape, no government applications whereas in other nations it can take weeks or months of procedures.  In January this year the EU implemented new policies making Sole Traders pay VAT (a complex type of Sales Tax) which in effect means I either have to hire a tax accountant, put up my prices or absorb extra costs.  In the UK I don’t need to do it, no one required or asked me to do it and according to EU law I don’t have to either, however the bloated bureaucracy there means I am burdened with it even though I can’t officially pass it on to customers and so they have created a financial problem from out of nowhere and only made it harder for me to make a profit.  Things like that indicate why there needs to be reform but that’s not the same as voting for UKIP but they are still likely win about 10-15% of the vote though the political system means they will likely only win a handful of the 650 seats.  The UK is also different in terms of tolerance, fair-play and standing up to the underdog and though UKIP is not very extreme at all compared to other European nationalist parties, there very existence goes against some very British values.

5. Green Party – In their own words from their website… Imagine a political system that puts the public first. Imagine an economy that gives everyone their fair share. Imagine a society capable of supporting everyone’s needs. Imagine a planet protected from the threat of climate change now and for the generations to come. That’s the world we want to create and we believe we have the means to do it.

By ensuring that everyone has access to a secure job that pays at least the Living Wage we will build an economy that works for the common good, not just the privileged few. By restoring public services to public hands we will ensure they are run in the interests of the people that use them.  By investing in renewable energy and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we will build a stable and sustainable society that protects our planet from climate change.  By building more social rented homes and bringing abandoned buildings back into use we will ensure that everyone has a secure and affordable place to live.  Vote for Green Party of England & Wales and you can help us build a society that works for the Common Good.

Whilst I used to like much of what the Green Party stood for I would never vote for them  as their closely related Green Party of Scotland supported breaking up the country in last years referendum.  Additionally I find some of their policies quite crazy and am thoroughly unimpressed by their leader Natalie Bennett who is much less capable than her forebear and only Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Poll of Polls

Poll of Polls indicating the changing support for the UK political parties during the last term of Parliament.  Key = Labour Red, Conservative Blue, LibDems Yellow, UKIP Purple, Greens Green!

I’m not going to be around on May 7th and have already decided who to vote for by using a postal vote but I think there are some big questions that we deserve answers to from all of the various political parties.  The country is more divided than ever with the big hard fought gains of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair for the Conservatives and Labour respectively being largely reduced to their hard-core areas.

It’s also been said that when there is a lot of apathy in the public it isn’t just a sign of not liking their political figures but of being broadly satisfied with things as they are.  It’s easy to be popular if a country is poor or there has been a war or revolution but if things are generally muddling through then it’s hard for people to get excited whether it is the public or politicians themselves. I always think political parties should state their own policies and let the people decide rather than bashing each other.  This is something that the great recent leaders of the past such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did.

Currently the Conservatives do this a little but not enough, Labour don’t seem to do it at all, the LibDems may do so but it never makes the news and UKIP does so a lot but what they say isn’t always popular. I won’t say who I am voting for but having been made redundant twice in the last 5 years but then gone on to create my own business it is fair to say I have reason to vote for each of the parties and indeed none of them but I think it is very important to vote even if few parties or individuals have a grand vision for the future.

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Time to stop the Police Shoot to Kill policy?

The recent shooting of Walter Scott in the back has made the news not just in South Carolina but around the world and is the latest case of police in the United States seemingly having a low regard for people of a certain colour and for having itchy trigger fingers in general.  I’ve been meaning to write something similar many times before but have always waited as sadly it is seemingly inevitable that one doesn’t have to wait long before similar events happen time and again.

outh-carolina-north-charleston-police-officer-michael-t-slager-killer-cop-murdered-unarmed-50-year-old-walter-scott

At least this time it appears at least possible that the officer who committed murder may have to deal with a punishment of sorts.

Around 40% of my readers are in the United States and I know people are of all races and political persuasions and backgrounds so what I’m writing is just my personal opinion having seen nearly 40 years of largely unwarranted police brutality on the news from the USA.

Personally I am against the British Police being armed as are most people in this country though conversely I do think they deserve more respect from politicians and the public.  In many ways the change from police giving a loudmouth drunk a slap round the head with a truncheon to the situation where yobs can be abusive with impunity as police are afraid to touch anyone due to fear of prosecution is a sign of much of what is wrong with the country at present but it doesn’t mean I think the Police have a right to kill anyone.

I think the Police have a near impossible job in a society where they aren’t respected by the minority of the public who happen to generally be the ones who transgress the law.  In the riots of 2011 following the death of Mark Duggan it was noticeable that for several nights the rioting in London and other major cities got progressively worse as the police took a low-key approach.  Whilst many advocated sending the SAS out for a night and laying waste to the criminal youths it was notable that in the city of Manchester where some police took an old-fashioned approach confronting violence with violence, the rioting there quickly petered out in the city as it did elsewhere across the nation once the police were told to toughen up.

As with the United States there are occasional cases where police who fail to live up to the high standards expected of them are seemingly protected from their own criminal acts such as the death of Ian Tomlinson who was innocently walking down the street with his hands in his pockets when he was hit by a police officer wielding a truncheon before the same officer  savagely pushed him to the ground.  The Policeman involved, Simon Harwood, was eventually dismissed from the force and though the incident seemed to clearly be the cause of the death of Ian Tomlinson just a few minutes later, the charge of Manslaughter against the officer was dismissed something that most people feel would not have been the case if the perpetrator hadn’t been in the Police.

It’s precisely these instances are so rare that they stand out and we know that we can all depend and need the police. When it comes to the use of fire-arms it is likely that there are few better trained or responsible in the world.  In the four years to 2012 the British police fired just 18 times with 9 fatalities.  Aside from Ireland and New Zealand our Police are the only ones who aren’t routinely armed.

We do have authorised fire-arms officers and in 2011/12 they were involved in over 12,000 operations but there were only 2 fatalities.  Each time a gun is discharged there is a huge investigation put on all sides and the event becomes almost a national scandal and in 2012/13 the police did not fire a single bullet in the U.K.

“The officers are subject to immense scrutiny and pressure is placed on them and their colleagues on how they explain it,” said Mark Williams, chairman of the PFOA. “The bottom line is, everything they did has to be justified by law.”

And to highlight how rare it is for a British police officer to actually open fire, Mr Williams told Channel 4 News: “I carried a firearm for five years in London, and I never had to fire it. Actually firing a weapon is very rare. The vast majority of them have never fired a weapon.

“No firearms officer wants to shoot someone. It’s a last resort.” He argues that British police officers have the best firearms training in Europe, precisely because the force is unarmed as a matter of course.

Police induced fatalities

Police induced fatalities, incredibly the American total is only those that have been recorded as there is no mandatory requirement to record or investigate such deaths

Of course much is dependent on the culture of the country.  in 2012 0.00013 per cent of the US population were shot dead by the police, compared to just 0.0000035 per cent in the UK but then the USA has much higher public gun ownership and the homicide rates are roughly four times greater too.  Still,a person in Britain is about 100 times less likely to be shot by their own police than a person in the United States.  South Africa is even worse as for every police caused fatality per 100,000 people in the UK is just 1 and in the USA 4.7, in South Africa it is over 30.

In my opinion regardless of the prevailing laws and policies, it can never be right for the police to shoot anyone if there is a way to avoid doing so.  Shooting someone who is running away in the back is just plain wrong, unloading several rounds just makes him cold-blooded and if a police officer in any country gets so unsettled by have someone running away from them that they have to do that then maybe they should look for another job.  That goes for all the other recent incidents of mostly black individuals being shot or even choked to death by the police.

The police should be there to make sure if a law has been broken that they get the individual to court so that the person who is innocent until proven guilty has had their opportunity to speak their case.  If individuals are getting shot because there is a perception that certain classes or colours are less worthy than others then it is the responsibility of the government and society to make sure that the police change their perceptions but also that the citizens learn how to behave and if there are social factors that keep coming up then these should be tackled at source.

Killed By Police circumstances

The circumstances of American citizens being killed by police.

Police in the United States are actually trained to shoot to kill by aiming at the chest area as this is deemed the most likely way to stop an imminent threat. An officer can only shoot at a suspect who poses a life-threatening risk to the officer or members of the public.  Ironically it is argued by some that introducing a shoot to injury police in the USA would not only open up forces to increased mitigation but also increase the levels of police shootings as they would feel even more free to take the risk of shooting people.  Lawmakers have in the past tried to legislate to end the shoot-to-kill policy but have always been defeated.

Perhaps the real problem is that the law states that force has to be objectively reasonable but it would seem what is objectively reasonable to some police officers is certainly not many in the wider society feel.

While it must be true that it is harder to hit an individual in non-fatal areas, the policy of shooting to kill even under the most minor situations seems wrong to me.  In London after soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by Islamic Extremists, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to shoot them dead but even as they charged police, they were shot but not with intent to kill them and indeed they recovered to go on trial and serve their punishment.  This stands in contrast to 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis who was shot dead for behaving erratically with a knife near police.  Surely this means one of the following, that with sufficient training Police can shoot with a minimum force tactic or that   American Police already have this training but value life less and see themselves more in the role of an enforcer than public servant.

A recent survey into police in Cleveland, Ohio has revealed that police have legitimately shot criminals but also those following police instructions to surrender and even innocent victims fleeing from a dangerous crime area.  Surely in this hi-tech era there must be ways for progress to be made.  If the Police and by extension the State doesn’t value life then how can everyone else be expected to?  Surely a minimum force requirement is something that should be aimed for and if police elsewhere manage not to generally avoid shooting people for no good reason then maybe training needs to be improved too.

jerame-reid-2015_resized_1

It’s not just shootings, even just overnight I woke to finish this post to see that 8 police in California kicked a man for 2 minutes for allegedly stealing a horse. This coming 25 years after Rodney King was repeatedly beaten which even then was an instance of police brutality which shocked the rest of the Western world. Obviously not much has been learned.

Perhaps the quasi militarisation of some police forces simply attracts the wrong sort of person and it is interesting how in some countries police officers have a certain pretentiousness about them.  Every time I visit Paris it is hard not to notice the police strutting round as if they are the most important people on the planet.

I remember on one occasion myself driving to work at 6.20am one dark morning and car drew level with me.  It was obvious they were in the wrong lane for where they wanted to go and they had their music on loud so I didn’t even bother looking at them, presuming them to be the usual lowlife who do such things.  When the traffic lights changed I beat them off the mark and much to their fury the car in the wrong lane sounded its horn and then tailgated me for 100 yards before I realised that the idiot in question had been a police officer.  Fortunately for me at no point did I exceed the speed limit and for about 2 miles round winding urban streets I was followed by the car who was obviously eager for me to go too far, not indicate when turning or for any other minor motoring infringement before he turned back as I headed out of his jurisdiction.   Luckily he is just one of two negative contacts I have had with police compared to hundreds of positive ones not including the several serving and retired police whom I am friends with.

There are bad apples in every profession and in every country but the role of the police is such that we expect and deserve only the best from them.  Similarly they should be given greater respect for the impossible job that they do but it should be remembered that the role of the police is to protect us and to allow the courts and jury to decide upon an individual’s guilty status.  By murdering people or unduly beating them up means they are lowering the status of society generally the very rights and civilisation that they are their to uphold.  Even if some did commit a petty crime their punishment is unlikely to merit death and if it does it should be a judge who decides.  Walter Scott may or may not have committed crimes but unlike the police officer who apprehended him, he was not a murderer.  Surely it is better to have a handful of rogue individuals than starting off with training and a policy of shoot to kill?

We should love the police not fear them.

We should love the police not fear them. Alex Thomson of from Newcastle steals a kiss from PC Heather Clark as she helps police the Edinburgh New Year celebrations. (Photo originally from Daily Mail / Gordon Jack)

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It’s always the last place you look

This is a small bonus post as I have two more serious posts coming up and I wanted to lighten the mood… before it had already got soured! Some of you may remember that in February I wrote a post on Leonard Nimoy and I mentioned how I had met him several times and was the very proud owner of an autograph and photo.

I delayed writing that post for quite a few days and reading it, it might have become apparent that I really should have posted a relevant photo or two.  Really I should have, indeed I would have if only I could find the photos.  You see I treasured them so greatly that I had hidden them away and when I wrote my blog I wasn’t able to find them.  In fact I wasn’t able to find them for 6 weeks and then like so many other things, they appeared when I wasn’t even looking for them along with many other autographs which are not stored with my main collection.

So it is a little late but I thought I should display them here.  I have a few Spock autographs and indeed a signed biography but this is the only photo I saw him sign in person.

Spock autograph

Live Long and Prosper from the movie Star Trek.

Then below is my other pride and joy from a very cold and wet Collectormania at Milton Keynes.  That smile is the culmination of 38 years geeking out at or should that be Grokking Spock.

Stephen and Mr. Nimoy

Me and Grandpa Nimoy!

I still remember what a thrill it was and how there was absolutely no pressure to get the once in a life-time photo right but somehow Mr. Nimoy handled it well, kept it together and we got a good photo out of it!

Actually if you think just how wealthy Leonard Nimoy was and given his age, how many people would fly half way round the world to stand outside in a very wet and cold football stadium.  No matter if he made some money from the autographs it could only be a pittance compared to everything else, he could only have come back to the UK one last time to say ‘hi and bye’ to his fans.  He was very kind and gracious and had a rather bony back.

I got the flu two days later, no doubt due to the conditions and was even the first person in the local hospital as a suspected Bird Flu sufferer during those few weeks when the whole world was going to die in an Avian Flu pandemic.  I didn’t have Bird Flu and even if I did, it would still have been worthwhile.  It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes and too many modern-day stars hide behind security or treat their fans with contempt.  50 years later and long after Leonard Nimoy owed anyone anything, he was still giving his time to charity and the people who loved him.

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The Red Squirrel Fightback begins!

It is one of our most loved creatures and like the Robin redbreast is one of our most treasured creatures.  Symbolised in snowy British winters it is iconic and yet like most of us, I’ve never seen a Red Squirrel.

150 years ago they were rampant across much of the nation but then in 1876 in Henbury Park in Chester North American Grey Squirrels were released as an exotic attraction and within 30 years they had spread for hundreds of miles in each direction.

Since 1950 the Red Squirrel population in Great Britain has declined by 95% and they have become confined to isolated areas on off-shore islands and isolated highland forests.  There are several reasons for the decline of Red Squirrels whose numbers may well have been falling before the introduction of the Greys due to the loss of their natural broad leaf woodlands.  The North American Grey Squirrel is larger and heavier than the Reds and though they don’t attack Red Squirrels they are able to out compete Reds for food and their higher fat levels make them more adaptable to cold winters.

Red Squirrel Feeding

Red Squirrel feeding on a nut. Photo by Peter Trimming http://www.flickr.com/photos/55426027@N03/6792905176

Most significantly of all the Greys carry Squirrel Pox which they are immune to but which Red Squirrels have no defence for and when the Greys come into contact with the Reds then the Reds tend to die out very quickly which leaves the local habitat more open to Grey occupation.

Many if not most people now see Grey Squirrels as an unwanted alien species who since the 1920’s have been condemned as a pest or vermin that damage our trees and their ability to destroy the nests and eggs of many of our birds but for most of the last 100 years it has seemed like the squirrel population was only going one way, from Red to Grey which leaves us in the situation today where there are 66 Grey Squirrels for every 1 Red Squirrel.

Map of Red Squirrels in the U.K.

The loss of the British Red Squirrel courtesy of Red Squirrel Survival Trust

Recently though there have appeared reasons for optimism for lovers of the endangered Reds.  Mirroring the re-introduction of lost species of wildlife such as eagles, beavers and boars a coordinated decision has been made to not just protect the Reds but to actively reduce the numbers of Greys.  Whereas before individuals would cull Grey Squirrels, the temporarily vacant habitat would soon be re-populated by the Greys.  Now though an altogether grander movement is underway.

In many areas Grey Squirrels are now been trapped or shot on sight.  Understandably, especially at first, many people were against or even shocked at such a policy against an animal that had been here beyond living memory and which for them seemed entirely natural.  However this hasn’t stopped the culling continuing and those who take part are becoming increasing ardent about doing so.  Often the Greys are not killed just for environmental reasons but their meat has become a delicacy in some of the finest restaurants from London to Edinburgh and rural butchers and pubs are almost as likely to be selling squirrel alongside other game such as Venison, Rabbit or Partridge.

But is all of this having an effect?  The answer is yes.  The seemingly irreversible onward march of the Greys has been halted and Reds are being sighted for the first time for decades in parts of Yorkshire and North Wales where Reds have broken out of their last Welsh stronghold on Anglesey (following a controversial 20 year cull to eradicate Greys from the large island) and crossed the Menai Bridge to establish colonies on the mainland.  Red Squirrels are even being spotted in towns such as one recently in Windermere where none had been seen for 16 years.

Obviously if individual farmers and hunters can bag 50 or 60 squirrels over a few months it will make a difference locally but the real breakthrough may be down to nature itself.  It is being quite widely reported that Red Squirrels themselves are developing natural immunity to Squirrel Pox, something which has taken them 140 years and countless generations.  The first reports of this happening started occurring 5-10 years ago but it is becoming more widespread.

Recent surveys in 300 woods indicate that the Reds population have increased by 7% and the Greys have fallen and environmentalists have had the opportunity to witness the increasing Reds resistance to Squirrel Pox.

Rachel Miller, Red Squirrel field officer at the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire and North Merseyside, said: “It could be a few years down the line until we know for sure if red squirrels have any long-term immunity or not, as there is much more research that needs to be done. But this squirrel survived the pox, which is great news. 

“We named him Clark, after Superman’s ‘Clark Kent’, because he’s a super squirrel. We don’t know why he survived, but something made him resistant to the pox. 

“We radio-tracked him after his release so we could check on his progress back in the wild and he did well.”

Efforts are now underway to establish new colonies of Red Squirrels in southern parts of England including in Norfolk and the Thetford Forest area and in Cornwall where areas that are surrounded by sea on 3 sides are being cleared of Greys in preparation for the re-introduction of the native Reds.

Red Squirrel Re-introduction in Cornwall

Proposed sites for the re-introduction of Red Squirrels in Cornwall Courtesy of Wildlife Woodlands

It may take a century or more but it appears that the groundwork has been laid for the Reds to flourish more widely across the country.  Whether ridding the entire country of Greys is possible or even desirable is another matter as Reds are more specialised feeders  that require continuous woodland rather than the smaller areas prevalent in much of the country.

It’s not often that we’re able to undo a giant if unforeseeable mistake and as other countries are now in the process of tackling their own invasive species problems then I think we should do the same too.  Often visitors on my tours around London remark on how adorable our Grey squirrels are compared to their species at home, well the Red Squirrels are undeniably much cuter still and maybe that will be the factor that helps them secure their future.

Red Squirrels in Northumberland

A Red Squirrel in Slaggy ford, Northumberland one of the final strongholds of English red squirrels largely protected by their forests being isolated by remote and inhospitable moors http://www.northernredsquirrels.org.uk/pictures/slaggyford.jpg

As an island, albeit a large one, many of our species are quite unique and either deliberate or accidental introduction of invasive species can have catastrophic results.  As an island, many of our species are either smaller than continental varieties or have never been exposed to various diseases which they carry.  Whilst many foreign plants and animals have limited or benign effects due to the climate and environment, a few like the Grey Squirrel have become a dangerous pest

1. Killer Shrimp which kills both native shrimps and large numbers of invertebrates.  These have currently been restricted to three sites and as an eradication programme is worked on, the danger is they may spread on the underside of boats.

2. Water Primrose, a plant that has been sold in garden centres can grow and spread itself over vast areas making a healthy waterway a stagnant, lifeless area in a short period of time as has occurred in many places in France and Belgium.

3. Floating Pennywort, another plant that covers the surface of water and destroying the habitat of native species.  Only introduced in the 1980’s it is already costing about £1 million a year to combat.

4. American Signal Crayfish are much larger and more aggressive than the native species which are now seriously endangered. Like the Grey squirrels, the Crayfish also carry a bacteria which is deadly to native species and an accidental introduction from eggs carried on the sole of wellington boots can transform a diverse habitat into a mono-species hell hole.

5. Topmouth Gudgeon from Japan breed profusely so that there can be 65 fish per square metre (about 3 foot squared)

6. Giant Hogweed was introduced as an ornamental garden plant in 1893 but since escaped.  It’s leaves can cause irritation if touched but worse than that is the rampant growth they’ve made along river banks which kills of native species allowing the banks to erode away and become very susceptible to flooding.

7. Japanese Knotweed is notoriously difficult to eradicate and its ability to shoot up through concrete and cement means it is a danger to humans as well as wildlife.  It has become such a problem that government agencies are now using biological agents to halt its spread and reduce the material damage it causes of £150 million a year.

8. Himalayan Balsam is a pest that we’ve probably all seen on roadsides and wasteland, it grows 3 metres tall and produces purple-pink flowers from June onwards.  However it takes over the habitat of native grasses and flowers reducing bio diversity as it does so and effecting the integrity of riverbanks.  It is primarily being tackled by teams of volunteers who remove each plant by hand.

9. Parrots Feather is a South American plant introduced for Aquariums.  It grows densely and removes lights and oxygen from the water below which effectively sterilises the waters at 150 sites across the country.  It is so dense that young children are tempted to walk on it.

10. North American Mink were brought to the UK for fur farms but escaped in the 1950’s.  They eat fish, birds, poultry and small mammals such as the protected water vole. They are trapped and destroyed when populations are identified.

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