Sunday, May 27, 2007

Don't worry, liquid relief is on the way!

I am inordinately fond of all things Kiwi, so much so that, if my marriage had survived, we would have been emigrating to New Zealand this year. I have family in Auckland, have traveled widely on both islands, drink Monteith's beer by choice and take a day at the spa each year in Rototua. I zorb, bungy jump and find sheep fascinating in a 'gosh, they're so stupid' kind of way.

But of all of the parts of the country, I have a fondness for Otago above all. From the action and buzz of Queenstown to the solidity and Celtic charm of Dunedin via the friendly small towns and villages of the central valleys, I always feel welcome and at home. I even have reciprocal rights at the Dunedin Club, where farmers from the country and businessmen from the city gather to meet and drink.

So I was delighted to discover that the local brewery, Speight's, are planning to bring a pub to London. Yes, I mean bring, not build. A fully-functioning pub is being built in Dunedin, which will then be loaded onto a boat and brought to London via Samoa, Panama, the Bahamas and New York, before being placed in a site yet to be announced (or maybe even found!).

Whilst you look at the site, have a look at some of their adverts on the main Speight's website, they're some of the funniest beer ads that you'll ever see in my humble opinion...

Oh, and one other thing, I've discovered the biggest advantage of switching to Brent Liberal Democrats, the shop next to the constituency office sells Monteith's in six-packs!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Post number 300: the revolution starts here!

You know something, I'm bored of bureaucracy in isolation. Doing good deeds and making the backroom stuff tick over is all very well but I dimly recall getting involved in politics to make a difference.

I don't campaign terribly well, indeed I've always felt uncomfortable about promoting anything as 'the next great thing'. Instead, I have concentrated on process in the hope that if I do it well, it releases resources for campaigning. Recently, however, I have concluded that being well-meaning is not enough. Instead, you have to find solutions and implement them.

And so, I'm going to start using this blog as a means to float ideas and see what people think. This way, I can feel that I actually represent the constituencies that I serve and broaden the debate about how the Party is run internally.

I promise not to publish anything confidential or politically sensitive (I'll use Liberal Democrat Voice for that), but if it comes down to a decision about timing, or rules, or basic common sense, I'll float it here and see what comes back.

And for those of you on the inside looking out, don't be mad, join in!

P.S. Technorati Profile (I'm exploring the wonderful world of the Web - you can ignore this...).

Friday, May 25, 2007

European Parliament Selection: your chance to have a say in the Selection Rules

The advertisement seeking applications for candidacy for the European Parliament will be issued on 8 June. As part of the preparations, English Candidates Committee will meet on 2 June in London to finalise the Selection Rules prior to submission to English Council for ratification at its meeting on 30 June, also in London.

Rather than leave it to the last minute, and bearing in mind that I was elected to English Candidates Committee to represent you (yes you, you at the back, pay attention!), I thought that I might seek your thoughts, in particular pertaining to those sections of the Rules relating to the campaign phase.

For obvious reasons, I won’t post the proposals on this blog (they’re a bit long, and a bit dull to those non-candidates amongst you) but will post them later this evening on Lib Dem Voice in the members only section. You’ve got until next Friday to let me have your thoughts and I promise to respond as best I can.

You may wonder why I’m doing this, and the answer is purely self-interest. As the Returning Officer for South East England, the better drafted the Rules are, the easier my job will be. And besides, I’m taking a wider interest this year… (cue manic laughter…)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The GLA selection: a bit of a shambles, really…

Anyone who has been observing London Liberal Democrat activity recently will have been aware that the process by which we have been choosing our Mayoral and Assembly candidates has been on the end of some criticism. This, I admit, is a bit like saying that it rains occasionally, or that civil servants drink tea.

And so I must regretfully accept my share of the blame, as a member of the Regional Candidates Committee who should know better. So, what did we get wrong?

  • The timing of the selection – selections should aim to avoid clashing with elections, even if they aren’t where the selection is taking place. In this instance, we were obliged to have a Returning Officer from outside London Region, and then were surprised to find that she might actually have an election of her own to fight.
  • The Selection Rules failed to take into account advances in internal campaigning techniques, especially those related to e-mail, websites and blogs.

We allowed ourselves to be railroaded into a timetable through a failure to think through the implications and, eventually, we ended up with a schedule determined by the availability of Membership Services. They aren’t at fault, they’re only doing what is possible in the light of their other obligations.

The problem is that the various elements of the Regional Party tend to operate as independent silos, focussing on their own areas of responsibility (a situation highlighted by Nick Clegg on Tuesday evening in relation to the Parliamentary Party, curiously enough), and are not always able to take into account the conflicting priorities of the broader team.

Brian Orrell, last year’s Regional Candidates Chair, drove forward the review of the Selection Rules with much energy. I’m not convinced that he had the active support of all of the other members, and freely admit that my attention was diverted by the ongoing bloodbath that was my divorce. I’ll try not to make that mistake in future…

We need to do better, and I believe that we can and will, but only by taking a longer-term view, planning better and, most importantly, consulting more widely. I’m working on a set of documents which will act as a framework for doing this and, if all goes well, we might all benefit from the lessons learnt…

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nick Clegg: auditioning for the leadership or simply being auditioned?

There are those who would have you believe that young Mr Clegg is the leader-elect, and some are quite blatant about their desire to see him replace Ming Campbell, sooner rather than later.

And so, I attended a meeting of a new group this evening to see Nick in action. Now, readers of this blog will be aware that I've seen a fair bit of him recently, and might wonder whether or not I'm a member of the fan club. In all honesty, the answer is that I really don't know and besides, not only is there not a vacancy but the field of contenders is hardly obvious.

Nick spoke for approximately thirty minutes in his usual erudite manner and expanded further on his recent theme of a new narrative for Liberal Democrats before fielding questions for nearly an hour. Given that the audience comprised almost entirely of twenty and thirty somethings, most of whom presumably have ambitions to go further in politics, the questions were linked to ideas and strategy, leaving the elephant in the room unaddressed.

On the other hand, I'm not young or ambitious, and, perhaps out of a sense of mischief, I asked Nick whether or not he felt that he was being auditioned for the leadership and how he felt about that. His answer was exactly as one might expect, noting the dangers of another leadership contest and stating categorically that he certainly wasn't auditioning for the role. In short, the very answer you would want to hear, regardless of your stance on his potential.

I may be being naive, and in fact I almost certainly am, but I really can't tell whether or not he is actively preparing the ground for a future leadership bid. If he is, he is adhering to the discreet route of profile raising amid declarations of loyalty. And frankly, what's wrong with ambition anyway?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dudden Hill - go there, deliver something!

In my new guise as Secretary of Borough of Brent Liberal Democrats (currently acting as locum on a non-voting basis), I spent the afternoon in Dudden Hill, delivering letters to voters in various parts of the ward.

Despite the persistent drizzle, I covered quite a bit of ground for an old man (at least, I feel vaguely elderly) and managed to get four walks done before my feet started to send signals that they needed a break.

This is a key by-election given the constituency it falls within (Brent Central) and whilst control of the council doesn't ride on it, a successful defence will send out a powerful message and thus, to my colleagues across London, I would ask that if you can lend a hand, please do what you can.

It's a lovely ward to deliver, fairly small, houses close together, no drives to walk up and down and, for those of you who need some campaigning experience prior to a development day, it would be a good place to get some.

So, get yourself to Dudden Hill, you know that you want to!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's not just about meetings...

The advantage of being a single faceless bureaucrat is that you can accept invitations without having to consider what your loved one has to say first. I've also discovered that, as you become better known, you tend to receive a greater volume of invitations.

One emerging set of entries in my diary are the monthly 'Liberal Drinks' events organised by the ever entertaining James Graham in a Whitehall pub. I'm not a regular by any means but these events offer an opportunity to debate issues and intrigue in a convivial setting. Occasionally, someone unexpected turns up to enliven the discussion or say something thought-provoking but regardless, I always benefit from the opportunity. Wednesday night saw another of these events and I made my way to Westminster accordingly.

I was delighted to see Adrian Sanders there. I've known Adrian for about twenty years although to describe him as any more than a distant acquaintance would be a huge exaggeration, but I took the opportunity to commiserate with him over the fate of his beloved Gulls, relegated to the Conference a few weeks ago. If there is anyone who thinks that he only cares because he is the MP for Torbay, I can assure them that he has been a stalwart for many years. In fact, I can remember a conversation at a time when he was working in Hebden Bridge for the Association of Liberal Councillors when I remarked about how difficult it must be being so far from Plainmoor. His response was that with the number of northern teams in Division Four, he saw almost as many games there as he would have done in Torquay!

On Thursday, I met with an old friend for dinner in a Soho restaurant that my father favours. Both of us are deeply involved in politics, her in an elected capacity, me as a bureaucrat, her on a full-time basis, me in what is laughingly described as my spare time. I've always had tremendous respect for her and it was somewhat unlike me to have the 'audacity' to invite her at all.

On the other hand, one wonders what life is like in the more rarified heights of politics, and it dawns on me that it might be quite lonely. Everyone assumes that politicians are incredibly busy people, but even they must need a social life, an outlet for all of the other things in their lives that interest them, or that they care about.

It was a really enjoyable evening, and a chance to catch up after far too long, and perhaps we'll have the chance to do it again some time.

Saturday was spent marking application forms for today's assessment day and I was quite proud of myself for getting the job done by mid-afternoon - I've been known to be found finishing them off at three in the morning - and even prouder after I'd managed to draw up the draft Regional Plan, an induction pack of new members of the Regional Executive and reproduced my proposals for a communications strategy for the Region.

My reward, a guilt-free evening celebrating the birthdays of Peter Facey and his lovely wife, Amande. Peter is an old colleague of mine from our days in the Young Liberal Democrats and we both had the exceptional good fortune to be International Officer in the early nineties. Nowadays, Peter is director of the New Politics Network, a thinktank which does sterling work in campaigning for a better democracy.

I was a little confused to arrive at the restaurant on time, and find myself alone apart from a former teaching colleague of Amande's, especially as being on time is not one of my strong points. However, eventually, we all found the Lebanese restaurant and enjoyed a very good meal indeed, washed down with some decent wine and leavened with some lively conversation. With councillors from Brent, Kingston and Lambeth gathered around the table, there was a significant political element to the discussion, and it was interesting to hear perspectives from councillors in power and in opposition.

Unfortunately, one of the side conversations was about 2010. Having successfully body swerved all invitations to run for a serious seat in Southwark, I may well have been sweet-talked into a possible campaign in Brent. Hmmm... looks like I've got some serious thinking to do... and even more delivering...

Don't apologise, just get on with it!

Alright, I admit it, I took on too much and didn't really deliver. And so I have turned over a new leaf and started afresh. So, where am I? I have three Westminster selections and a European selection to organise, two Local Parties and a Regional Party to administer and a house move to plan. Time to get serious, I think.

Having spent the day assessing four new wannabe parliamentary candidates, I got home this evening and hit the telephones. Wantage first to resume their Parliamentary selection, put into abeyance for the local elections (Vale of White Horse was a bright spot for us, I'm glad to say). Next, Wycombe, who I've rather neglected. I'm off to meet their Executive Committee in June... Finally, Margaret Ticehurst, the enchanting Candidates Chair for South East Region, to discuss some European selection stuff.

I feel slightly less guilty now, and the only conclusion that I can draw is that it is easier to do something than worry about the fact that you haven't done it...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Have I found my new crib?

I found a potential new home on Sunday evening in one of the many e-mails that I've been sent by estate agents in the last month, and so I rang the estate agent on Monday morning to make an appointment to view.

Tuesday evening, and there I am, with my mother, to view the property, in the expectation that the estate agent will be there to show me around an empty home. No estate agent, but the owners are home, making dinner, and they very kindly showed us around. My mother loved it, which is a thoroughly good thing, but more importantly, so did I.

So I made an offer, which has been accepted, and, if all goes well, I will be the proud owner of a house in Kingsbury. Watch this space...

Busy, busy, busy...

No sooner did I get back to London than I was deep in the heady social whirl that is the life of a Regional Secretary.

Having spent the day in the office, Friday evening was spent in a rather odd bar/performance art venue under the arches at London Bridge station, celebrating the last day of Steven Gauge's thirties. Considering I had flown in from Melbourne in the morning, I was still remarkably sentient, at least until about 10.30, when the batteries finally ran out. In mid-conversation, my brain seized up and I lost the ability to communicate - it was clearly time to go home.

Having spent Saturday shopping and catching up on three weeks of post, I took the opportunity to attend Sunday's lunchtime event in Haringey. It was somewhat fortunate that I did, as I discovered a slightly confused guest speaker at Archway station, and was thus able to escort Nick Clegg safely to Lynne Featherstone's rather gorgeous home so that he could talk about 'narrative'.

I admit that I had turned up more to watch potential GLA candidates rather than listen to Nick, but he was fascinating to listen to. If he isn't positioning himself for a future run at the leadership (and I am willing to accept his assertion that he is not), then he is certainly jump-starting a debate on how best we should convey our core philosophical message. Plenty of those present, including Duncan Borrowman, have already discussed this, and I don't have a lot to add, so I won't...

Monday evening saw me at consecutive Regional sub-committee meetings, Conference followed by Campaigns. We now have a pretty good idea as to what we're going to do for the Regional Conference in November. More interesting was the Campaigns meeting that followed. I'm not a member of the committee - campaigns? Me? - unlikely, n'est-ce pas? And yet I emerge with a whole bunch of things to do.

So, in the next fortnight, I need to come up with a skeleton Regional Plan, develop some sort of induction pack for new members, and reintroduce a regional communications strategy. Easy, really...

9 May - not so wildlife in the Victorian countryside

I like zoos - a lot. So, having already visited the Melbourne Zoo on a previous trip, I set off on the two hour trip to Healesville, deep in the Yarra Valley, to visit the Healesville Sanctuary, apparently the best place to see native species in Victoria.

It was a pleasant train ride to Lilydale, at the end of one of Melbourne’s commuter lines, where I connected with a bus. The bus set off through gentle rolling countryside filled with vineyards and cattle, until we reached the quite picturesque town of Healesville. It is hard to believe that a Melbourne day ticket covers quite this far but indeed it does, and I soon reached the Sanctuary.

And indeed, the wildlife is every bit as good as indicated. The platypus exhibit is an excellent one, and the two female platypi (is that the correct plural?) swam around and could be clearly seen whilst one of their keepers gave us a talk about how they live and what can be done to encourage them to colonise new areas in the wild.

The koalas were remarkably active, to the point where one decided that he was bored with us (we clearly weren’t active enough for his taste), climbed down his tree and jogged off across the ground. As for the emus, well I didn’t notice the first one until I was within easy touching distance - pecking distance for her, although she very kindly left me alone…

I also got some good shots of their echidnas, the only known member of the monotreme family, apart from the platypus. Monotremes are egg-laying mammals, which does goes to show that the generalisations they give you don’t tend to hold up to close examination.

All too soon, it was time to head back to Melbourne and a reception for Priority Club members at my hotel. The Holiday Inn on Flinders throws these once a week, and they lavish free drinks and hors d’oeuvres on us - very nice indeed. And then to my room to pack… unfortunately…

8 May - living, breathing history

I do enjoy opportunities to find out more about the places I visit, so I set off for Melbourne’s City Museum, located in the Old Treasury Building at the Paris end of Collins Street. Melbourne has a fascinating history, and was at one point in the 1880’s, the wealthiest city on Earth, due to the discoveries of gold in the surrounding area.

However, the best part was the video on the history of the city’s cable trams, operated in the same way that San Francisco’s cable cars are. It was fascinating to see these vehicles in action, and to listen to stories of those who drove, maintained or simply rode them.

Next, the most famous site in the city, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Amazingly, this now seats nearly 100,000 in remarkable comfort, and I joined a tour to get a better look. Our guide was a long term member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, Ray Weinberg. As the tour started, one of his colleagues noted in response to a question about whether Ray had played cricket for Australia, that whilst he hadn’t, he had represented Australia at the Olympics.

For the record, Raymond Weinberg competed in the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki Olympics, reaching the final of the 110 yards hurdles in 1952. For a man who must be, at the very least, in his late seventies, he proved to be a very sprightly guide, leading us at a brisk pace around this vast facility, including a stroll through the Long Room. The MCC is an Australian mirror of the English counterpart, the Marylebone Cricket Club, with a fifteen year wait for membership, and all of the facets you might expect. The key difference is that the facilities in Melbourne are quite superb, with a brand new area for members, an exceptional restaurant from which you can watch the game. Frankly, if I lived within striking distance of the city, my membership application would be in the post already.

The tour finished in the MCC Museum, an excellent display of cricketing history in Australia and beyond. If you really want to get a feel for Australian sport and its place in society, this is the place to go…

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Free trade, not always the panacea it is painted

I know that our International Development spokeperson reads this blog feed, so if you have a moment, Lynne…

The European Union is currently negotiating a trade agreement with twelve Pacific Island nations, one of which is Vanuatu, and whilst there, I became aware of local concerns in terms of the proposals. Reading the arguments, I began to realise that nations like Vanuatu enter into these negotiations at a huge disadvantage.

Vanuatu has no real industry, and is, for the most part, a subsistence economy, with 70% unemployment. With a population of less than 250,000, spread over more than eighty islands, and with most of the citizens dependant on what they can grow or catch to sustain themselves, I find myself wondering who will benefit from such a deal.

Indeed, it was originally expected that such an agreement could only follow on from a successful conclusion to the Doha Round of trade negotiations. In fact, the intention was that the deal would follow three years afterwards, and yet the Doha Round is still ongoing, which makes you wonder whether or not the European Union negotiators are acting in good faith.

At the moment, Vanuatu’s economy is dominated by Australian companies, with banks like ANZ, clothing firms such as Billabong and various food brands dominating the marketplace. Whilst the tourism industry still has a significant element of indigenous providers, this is likely to change as international hotel chains move in. Tourism requires initial investment, which is hard to come by in a subsistence economy.

So perhaps the solution is to start the move towards meaningful free and fair trade by allowing such small nations free access to our markets, without reciprocity. For the most part, they produce nothing that we can produce here, and as long as we ensure that other developed nations don’t cheat by using such nations as an alternative manufacturing base, like the Mexican production facilities for American companies, it would allow these comparative micro nations to support their inhabitants and reduce their dependence on overseas aid.

I have always believed that we should help poorer nations to help themselves and wonder why the link between trade and aid has been so undersold. A cynic would suggest that aid linked to the provision of services by British companies allows us to feel good about ourselves, whilst closing off our markets to these countries allows us to protect our indigenous industries and secure votes from those workers thus saved from potential unemployment.

We need to enhance our store of goodwill post-Iraq, and perhaps a trade concession to the small, mostly poor ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) nations would achieve that and help them build secure economies for the future. Then, and only then, should we seek to open up their currently fragile industrial bases to competition.

7 May - following the yellow brick road towards home

Another day, another early morning flight, as it was time to head back to Australia. It was a very pleasant flight, and I got to watch the movie, “A Good Year”, starring Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. It will surprise a number of my friends to hear that I enjoy romantic comedies but underneath this bureaucratic exterior there is a hopeless romantic.

My hotel room wasn’t perfect, with very weak cold water for the sink and a toilet that wouldn’t stop flushing - a real problem in a city with a grade 3A water shortage alert. So I reported both problems and went out for the afternoon.

My first stop was Moonee Ponds, a quiet suburb north of the city, most famous for being the apocryphal home of Australia’s housewife megastar, Dame Edna Everage, who made her first appearance in 1956. Moonee Ponds is a fairly typical Melbourne suburb, with streets full of single-storey homes, charming little cafes and restaurants and a remarkable number of bakeries. Next stop, Brunswick Street via Royal Park and a stroll through a suburban shopping mall before heading back to the hotel.

Nothing had happened regarding the room problems but I wasn’t that worried. Within half an hour, a maintenance man had turned up to fix things, or not, as the case might be, and it was decided that I would need to be moved to a new room. My new room turned out to be a corner suite, with a separate sitting room and a bottle of wine, intended for a Mr Chandler. So I rang front desk again and it was agreed that I should keep and enjoy it.

Time for dinner, and I headed to Prahran for Polish food at a restaurant called Borsch, Vodka and Tears. The restaurant has a huge choice of vodkas, and I picked a wild cranberry infused one to accompany my chicken meatball soup, which was excellent. Next, I tried their pierogi, which were slightly oilier than I would normally choose, but pretty good nonetheless.

Then back to the hotel for some sleep in my palatial home…

6 May - Happy Birthday, Georgia!

Up early to head to the airport for my flight to Auckland, I had a nice economy class seat to look forward to, despite the fact that I had used sufficient miles for a business class reward. However, on boarding the flight, I took the opportunity to point this out to the cabin manager who, noting that they had four unfilled seats, offered to give me one of them.

Thus, the journey was a much more pleasant one than I might have expected, and I reached New Zealand in good shape. A rapid journey through immigrations and customs and an equally quick ride into town allowed me sufficient time to buy some new luggage before I headed out to Birkenhead to join Warren, Tanya, Tamara and Georgia for the latter’s first birthday party.

Georgia is a very cute child, and I got to play with her a little before grabbing dinner and heading back to my hotel.

5 May: part 3: Air Vanuatu regrets to advise…

Check in, or at least I would if there was anyone there. So, time for a beer in the airport shop, tourist information office, local grocery store and bar. I got talking to the other guy in the bar, who had been fitting a solar panel at Dillons Bay. Rather than be stranded there for seven hours without food or drink, he’d hitched a ride on to Tanna with the pilot’s blessing.

It appears that Air Vanuatu have sold seats for a flight that doesn’t actually exist, and have stranded a number of passengers. Checking as to which flight this is, it isn’t NF243, so I relax.

The plane lands, activity takes place, it loads and I head for the plane, only to find that whilst it is my plane, it has to go to Aneityum first. It will be back in half an hour, I’m assured, so we’ll only be about half an hour late. The plane leaves, and life returns to its normal sleepy state.

An hour and twenty minutes later, the plane lands and we are off. Well, most of us are. A gentlemen and his fish, bound for Port Vila, aren’t flying as he is on standby (news to him). My new friend, the solar panel fitter, is also going nowhere, as there now isn’t a seat for him. Fortunately, the Air Vanuatu duty station manager, Tom, will put him up overnight, so he’s not too unhappy.

There isn’t a spare seat on the plane, so yours truly ends up as co-pilot for the run to Dillons Bay, trying very hard not to touch anything. We make it safely all the same, and touch down on the grass. Dropping off another four passengers and collecting one, Edward (still on duty, I note) announces that we may have a few problems heading back to Port Vila due to weather activity - apparently, the airport is shrouded in low cloud and torrential rain - so I gratefully retreat back down the plane to row 1.

Darkness falls as we cross the ocean to Port Vila, the clouds mass and the rain starts. I can’t see anything out of the window that resembles land, let alone an airport, as we circle the airport, waiting for the weather to break and the Boeing 737 in front of us to land (they clearly managed to get it airborne eventually). But finally, Edward spots a perfect, feather light landing and we are safely home.

And so, I write this entry in my hotel room, watching a spectacular electrical storm which started within hours of my reaching safety…

5 May - part 2: the most dangerous post office in the world

And so my driver, guide, a friend and I set off across roads that, if upgraded, might reach farm track standard, through lush green rainforest, up steep, treacherous hills, past tiny hamlets inhabited by smiling children wearing Chelsea shirts (they get everywhere) and avoiding the odd stray pig (they’re very important with both financial and societal value). Eventually, after fifty minutes or so, the road became black with volcanic sand - I suspect that this was actually the road itself - and we reached the ash plain, which resembles nothing more or less than a desert in dark grey, with Mount Yasur looming as ominously as anything only 361 metres tall can, and I must say that I’ve stood in the foothills of Mount Aconcagua on the Argentina/Chile border and was equally impressed with this.

We drove up the slopes to the point where the road ended and I set off on foot with my guide for the last, arduous, 200 yards or so. Climbing uphill on sand is quite tricky, but we made it up to the final ridge to be greeted by the sight of molten lava being hurled out of the crater onto the path in front of us (well in front, I should emphasise). Having recovered our collective nerve (and I note that our driver and his friend were staying well clear…), I strolled nonchalantly up the ridge, taking photographs and staying well away from the edge (note to self: must change the beneficiary on my life insurance policy from Rachelle…) and enjoyed a stunning view.

Mount Yasur is supposedly the world’s most accessible volcano but is probably equally famous for its post office. From here, when the post office is open, you can send slightly singed postcards anywhere in the world. Where else could you walk past a sign that tells you that you enter the post office at your own risk?

But it was time to head back to Tanna for my scheduled 3.20 p.m. flight. So, back down the mountain and through the forests of Tanna, this time picking up passengers on the way. The sun shone, the sky was blue, all was going swimmingly at last. And then I got back to the airport…

Saturday, May 05, 2007

5 May - part 1: not everything goes to plan…

Up early to catch my flight, which involves reaching Bauerfield International Airport at 6.45 a.m. for my 7.30 flight to Tanna. I make it easily enough, check in and wait for something to happen… and wait… and wait… before there is a scurry of activity, and the airport fire engine heads out towards the runway. Air Vanuatu’s pride and joy, its only Boeing 737, has had a fire warning light activate, and they’re heading back to Port Vila. Naturally, the runway is now closed and we’re going nowhere.

Fortunately, the flight lands safely and, some hour or so late, Air Vanuatu flight NF242 to Dillons Bay is called. I admit to some confusion at this point, as I’m on flight NF242, and according to my Air Vanuatu supplied itinerary, it’s meant to be a non-stop flight to Tanna. Apparently not… but I head out of the terminal building to be confronted by a metallic mosquito with ’Vanuatu’ painted on the tail in red. I admit that I am aware that the plane is an eight-seater, but I hadn’t realised that it would be quite this small.

Edward, our pilot, gives us the safety talk, I.e. asking us to use our seatbelts, and we are off into a grey, damp sky. This clears quickly, leaving an outrageously blue sky to fly in en route to the island of Erromango. Soon enough, what I can only describe as an emerald green mountain emerges from a stunningly azure sea which must mean that we’ve reached Dillons Bay. Looking for the airport, I note an area without trees which looks as though someone has taken a strimmer to it. This, I am advised, is the airport. There is nothing as fancy as a runway, although someone has kindly removed the cows (who have left plenty of evidence of their previous occupation).

Dillons Bay doesn’t get too many flights and, given that the island has two airports to serve a population of 1,500, comes as no great surprise. However, there is an Air Vanuatu agent and a baggage handler, and we all get out for a wander whilst loading and unloading takes place. We drop off four passengers from Vila and pick up one for Tanna before setting off again.

The plane scurries through the air at about 3,000 feet for the twenty-three minute flight, and I decide to forgive Air Vanuatu for the total lack of inflight service, magazine or, for that matter, entertainment of any sort other than the view out of the window. On the other hand, it is a sensational view…

And so, to Tanna. There should be someone waiting for me. There isn’t. Hmm… Vanuatu time kicks in again. Various kind strangers explain that they’re sure that someone will turn up eventually. An hour later, and two hours after my scheduled arrival time in Tanna, a young man wanders up and explains that they thought that I wasn’t coming in on the early flight… I smile sweetly… it’s going to be that sort of day…

4 May - if I’m going to get wet anyway…

I needed to get away again, and so decided to take a trip to see the Mele cascades. The idea is that you get a nature walk, a pleasant stroll and a chance to play in the cascades. So, I packed some swimwear and caught the bus out of town. I had astutely decided to wear my Fijian sandals and change into my swim shorts and a t-shirt before we set off on the walk. As it decided to pour down with (albeit) warm rain almost immediately, I felt vindicated as we made our way up the hillside, through torrents of water.

Robert, our guide, showed us tricks with plants, and explained the uses to which various leaves and trees are put. He then took us to the lookout point, from which we could look out over the south-west of Efate (the island on which Port Vila stands), just as the rain stopped. Vanuatu is a very pretty place in a completely disorganised way. Things just grow, to the point where most villagers carry machetes with them so that they can be sure of getting home.

Onwards and upwards to the cascades, and were they worth the walk! Wading through cascading water to the main waterfall, where we were encouraged to splash about, stand under the falling water, and find the small cave behind one part of the falls. The water was a bit cold, although bearable enough. There are even pictures of me getting wet, a very rare event, as my family will testify…

On the way back down, Robert sang a few songs from his church, all very reminiscent of family occasions in India, with the same sort of feeling, a perfect end to a rather good day. But tomorrow will see the excitement

3 May - at last to Tanna? I need a lie-down…

Pentecost having finally bitten the dust due to a waterlogged airport, I have finally managed to find a way to get to Tanna. I’ve managed to get the last seat on the early morning Air Vanuatu flight, non-stop to Tanna International, where I will be picked up and taken to see the volcano… on Saturday. I can only hope that all goes to schedule…

So, another lazy day by the pool but, by way of variety, I took the opportunity to further de-stress with ninety minutes of massage, courtesy of Sabrina (not the teenage witch, although she does possess magic in her hands!). Relaxation is now so ingrained that I actually fell asleep for a few moments…

And then to dinner, and the hotel were laying on a Melanesian Feast. Who could resist, especially as it gave me a chance to try something new, rousette, or flying fox. This is, I’m led to understand, cute and furry, but then, so are llama and reindeer, and I didn’t hesitate to eat them. For the record, cooked in red wine, flying fox tastes a bit like kidney to my mind, and would probably make a great pie with steak. There was also poulet fish, so called because it apparently tastes like chicken. I’m not convinced…

We also had dancing from a group from the Banks Islands, in northern Vanuatu. I’ve never been terribly keen on this sort of voyeuristic ‘tourist experience’, as it gives a feel of being put on for the cameras, so to speak. In reality, these dances are done with only friends and family present, and the joy with which such occasions are celebrated makes them truly special.

It was therefore a pleasure to find two of the dancers playing table football in a corner of the hotel on my way back to my room. It would have made a great picture to see these two young men in tribal outfits playing but I decided that it would be just too intrusive.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

30 April - 1 May - lost in thought by the pool…

It is so easy to forget how stressful being on holiday is. The torture of having to drink cold beer (Tusker Premium, the local brew) to prevent overheating, the agony of having to sit by the pool for hours on end, the tropical sun beating down as I sit (lie) here under a large umbrella, meditating on what I would do if I were Regional Chair. Do I go for a swim, do I order another beer, do I change the CD to Kylie? Questions, questions…

From this, you might have guessed that I’ve left New Zealand, and you’d be right. Welcome to Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, an unusual country in that it gained its independence from two countries on the same day, Britain and France.

Vanuatu was formerly the New Hebrides, about as unhelpful and indication as you might find, as it is a green, sun-kissed, Y-shaped group of islands south-east of the Solomon Islands and north-east of Queensland, Australia. We’re eleven hours ahead of GMT here, so whilst it is 3 p.m. here, you’re asleep, well, most of you are, at home in London.

But why here, I hear you ask. Three reasons, the first of which is that I could get here using my frequent flyer miles. Air New Zealand fly here once a week and trying to persuade United Airlines that this was viable was an experience, let me tell you.

“Where would you like to travel today, Mr Valladares?”

“Port Vila, Vanuatu.”
“Port Vila, Vanuatu.”
“United Airlines doesn’t fly there, sir.”
“I know that, but Air New Zealand does, and I want to do it using miles.”
“Oh, well where is Port, where was it you said, sir?”
“Vila, Vanuatu, the airport code is VLI…”

Let’s just say that I managed to get here in the end…

Second and third, there are two very unusual things to see here. Pentecost Island, which is famous for its land diving. Men build a rickety looking tower out of wood, tie vines around their ankles, and jump off of the tower. And no, I’m not planning to do this myself… Next, Tanna Island has one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes. I want to climb the volcano and have a look. Apparently, only one tourist has died… I wonder where my insurance policy is?

25-29 April - aren’t family wonderful?

Alright, I admit that Auckland is my least favourite place in New Zealand to be a tourist, although Gore in the rain in a close second. But, with two cousins in the city, both of which I’m rather fond of, I like to put in an annual appearance if I can. So, the sixth annual trip to New Zealand was a rather short one but a pleasure all the same. Wednesday was spent travelling, with the centerpiece being a flight in bourgeois class on one of Air New Zealand’s bright, shiny new 777’s. They don’t have first class so business class comes with beds, footstools and a seat at 35° to the direction of flight. With a larger than usual screen to watch, and games to play, the journey fair flew by (yuk, yuk, yuk…).

Thursday was spent with Kim, whose job hunt continues. It was decided that we would go for an afternoon in Devonport (yes, the New Zealand Navy retains a small outpost there), having lunch, strolling up Mount Victoria and drinking coffee. I took the opportunity to renew my habit of having my hair cut in different places, mostly far from home (last six hair cuts in Fiji, Mauritius, London, Goa, Harrogate and Auckland) and felt much better for it. Dinner was taken with Warren, with a few beers and a large steak to wrap things up perfectly.

The next day, Kim decided, should be spent educationally, so we headed for the Auckland War Memorial Museum, a building so solid that it seems to almost pin the city to the landscape. Their exhibit on New Zealand at war is a remarkable one and, if you want to know exactly the type of people New Zealanders are, this might be more helpful than any book. Kiwis don’t do drama, they do duty instead. They are, as a group, some of the most amazingly decent, friendly people you could hope to meet and, at one time, Rachelle and I were seriously planning to emigrate out here. I get the sense that being a bureaucrat here is somewhat different to being one at home…

Saturday was “lounge around at home with family day”. Armed with Monteith’s finest (their Radler beer is outstanding), a bottle of Riesling and some snacks, I arrived at Warren’s house in Birkenhead - see, it really is just like being in England - to be welcomed by Tanya, Warren’s wife, plus their children, Tamara and Georgia. At this stage of the trip, a day spent lounging around catching up on family gossip and talking about the future was a real pleasure.

Sunday morning came as a rude awakening, having to get up at 4 a.m. to catch the next flight. My luggage picked that moment to play up, and I’ll clearly need to do something about this before I leave Auckland again, more’s the pity. At least I made my flight, and was able to recover some of my equilibrium before my arrival in country number 45. But that’s another story…

If I was London’s Regional Chair, I’d…

…well, what exactly would I do?

Before we start, let’s make a few things clear, first, that this isn’t an attack on the current incumbent, nor is it a manifesto for a potential run for 2008.

The role of the Chair is one of leadership and support. If the Officers and Administrator know their jobs, they should be encouraged to get on with it, rather than have the Chair second guess them at every opportunity, so I would focus on developing a regional strategy, nurturing the Executive as a whole and reaching out to our Local Parties.

We’ve clearly not been as good in terms of our medium and long term planning as we might have been in recent times. This Regional Executive accepts that we’ve not necessarily thought things through in terms of co-ordinating our various responsibilities, and I think that if we had had the opportunity to do so, we would have done better.

As we elect new Officers each year, and lose some from the Executive altogether - not always willingly - there is a risk that valuable information and knowledge is lost, especially where the previous post holder has been there for some years. The logical solution is to develop a rolling long-term plan, one that can be reviewed at the beginning of each new year. Such a plan would be a guide for new Executive members and, especially, new Officers, and could be made available to Local Party Chairs and Secretaries, thus allowing Local Parties to organise themselves around the Regional activities that affect them, predominantly regionwide candidate selections. I think that the Chair can, and should, lead on this.

It can be a lonely life, being a Regional Officer, especially if what you do is little understood. As Regional Chair, I would take the time to socialise with my Officers (including their partners and children, if appropriate), and the rest of the Executive, for that matter, to see how they’re getting on and whether they need my support. It would also give me an excuse to throw the odd dinner party - I actually like to cook - or a barbecue, if I wanted to see a group of my colleagues.

Finally, I would attempt to develop a meaningful relationship with the various local parties. Taking the ‘regional party is just a local party with a different type of member’ analogy to its logical outcome, a regular newsletter to local party officers would make us accountable and encourage greater interest and relevancy in the eyes of key local activists. We should also use e-mail to encourage attendance at events and training sessions (we’re already very good at using this means to promote by-elections and other campaign activity - take a bow, Pete Dollimore and his team…).

So, what do you think? Am I being wholly unrealistic?...

24 April - dawdling in the Dandenongs

I needed some fresh air, and a day in the country seemed to be just the thing. So, after a hearty breakfast, I made my way to Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer Street, for those of you that know the city) to buy a ticket to Belgrave, a terminus station east of Melbourne.

Locating my train, I made myself comfortable for the ride through some curiously familiar suburbs, even though the order was somewhat unusual, the train stopping at Richmond, Camberwell, Mitcham and Bayswater en route to the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges. The Melbourne suburbs are indeed as you might expect if you’re a regular viewer of Neighbours, quiet streets of predominantly single storey dwellings, all wood and surrounded by trees. It looks vaguely idyllic, in the same way that 1950’s suburban America always did in the movies, but I suspect that anyone under the age of 30 is desperate to get away.

“But why the Dandenongs?”, you might ask. Belgrave is probably most famous for being the terminus for Australia’s oldest steam railway, the Puffing Billy, which travels about fifteen miles to Gembrook, a small town about 1,000 feet up in the Dandenongs, in an area of rustic beauty, and my destination for the day.

It is clearly intended for tourists, and the carriages are laid out so that passengers face sideways, i.e. at the view. On the other hand, I was keen on an authentic train experience, and located a real carriage with separate compartments and seats facing each other. This is clearly a minority taste, as I had the carriage to myself, but it allowed me to open the windows and travel like a genuine passenger.

The two hours journey to Gembrook was a delightful one, with some lovely scenery, and the old-fashioned pleasure of a proper train ride. Onwards and upwards we climbed and fell, past Selby and Menzies Creek, Emerald and Lakeside, before the train pulled into Gembrook.

Gembrook presented a problem, in that whilst it is charming, there is little to do. So, discovering a sign for native bush land, I decided that a nature ramble was called for, and took a stroll in the woods. Whilst signs of wildlife were few, it was nice to ‘commune with nature’ and enjoy the green of trees and ferns, offset by a clear blue sky. However, all of that fresh air was making me thirsty, and a beer was called for…

Back on the train, a somewhat faster journey to Belgrave was followed by a zigzag through the eastern suburbs before grabbing dinner at the Rooftop Bar of the Central Hotel in Richmond and on to an early evening in my comfortable hotel room. Tomorrow sees me heading for another country, so I’ll need to be fairly sharp in the morning…