Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Belatedly, thank you Dad - a Christmas thought

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the smallest of things can trigger memories?

You might be happily going about your daily life when click something happens that whips you back to your twenties, your teens or your childhood.

I’ve noticed that as I get older it happens more often than it used to. Perhaps I’ve got more memories to be triggered or perhaps I’m just becoming a lot more aware of my own mortality. I don’t know why, but it happens so much more frequently.

There are times of the year when memories are triggered more vividly and more emotively than others. Christmas is one such time.

It seems to me, sometimes, that each day in the run up to Christmas I am going through my own version of Dickens’ most famous protagonist as he visits his past.

Of course, I don’t, or at least I haven’t yet, had unearthly visitations. For me it’s the tiniest things.

I went to church this morning. I’ve been making more of an effort lately. Perhaps it’s that buying shares in the afterlife thing that many of us do as we get older. I don’t know but I’m enjoying it.

As our Priest came to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer I got back to my feet and as I did I noticed something. The kneelers in church have been reupholstered. I don’t know when they were smartened up but they certainly have been, new foam and bright red leather effect vinyl.

I looked at the imprint my knees had made as I knelt and that was it, I was taken back.

I used to love going to church with my dad at Christmas. My parents were what is euphemistically known as ‘older’ these days. They had already had their family, two sons born fifteen years or so before me, and I was the afterthought, the accident, the unexpected gift, the blessing or whatever you want to call me.

My dad had stopped going to church after he was married, I guess a combination of lack of time and other priorities had driven him away, but he started to go back when I was born.

He didn’t go to church every week but started to make an effort choosing the beautiful Mount St Bernard's Abbey for his act of worship rather than the nearby Parish Church.

Dad would ask if I was coming along, never forcing me, but I never said no and we would go into the spartan house of worship. As mass started he would respond to the celebrants acclamations from heart, reading and writing were something that had largely passed him by at school, and I would use my first mass book.

Mass books are all well and good as long as the priest follows the script for the service, it seemed to me at least he never did. So I stood and silently mouthed an approximation of the words.

I don’t suppose I really got what was going on at mass apart from there was a lot of sitting, standing and kneeling. My favourite was always the transition between being on your knees to the start of The Lord’s Prayer. Our knees left imprints you see?

As everyone would recite the lines to that universally known prayer I would gaze at the kneelers.

Would the marks that we had left last until the sign of peace? Or would they fade before that? Whose cast would disappear first? Would they erode from the centre of our kneecaps, or from the outside in?

You can probably tell how much I was thinking of the service going on before me but that didn’t matter I was there with my Dad. How lucky can a boy be?

Back then I didn’t know why I was enjoying church, why I was enjoying spending time with my Dad. Looking back I cherish every moment of it.

I wish I knew then how much I should have been savouring every moment, I should have been enthralled like I was when I went to see Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, but I wasn’t because my dad was always there.

My Dad was a long, long way from perfect.

I remember Christmas when I was twelve.

All of the kids at school had come back in September assimilated like Star Trek villains, they all had matching Head brand school bags and wore Nike trainers. I didn’t and oh I so wanted to belong.

Mum and dad decided to take me into Leicester for the then groundbreaking late night Christmas shopping, in those days shops opened until five whether that was useful for you or not. I can still feel the chill of the air on my cheeks and the glow coming off our skin as we neared the Christmas Tree at the Clock Tower.

It was a night that will stay with me forever.

Mum and Dad said I could choose my Christmas presents and I knew where I was going, straight to the sports shop. I found exactly what I was looking for very, very quickly; a black Head bag with a gold logo and detachable end pocket and a pair of Nike Exile Excel trainers (the ones with the burgundy suede and the gold swoosh). I was ecstatic.

But mum and dad had said ‘presents’ plural, right?

Last year they had spent two hundred quid on a new computer, the year before that the same on a new TV, and this bag and shoes were no more than fifty? I had loads more to spend, didn’t I?

But they said no. I had been shortchanged. This bag and shoes were barely essentials for hanging with the right crowd, these surely couldn’t be my only presents? But it began to dawn on me they may well be.

I was insufferable for the two weeks running up to Christmas Day. My full frontal assault would show them that I needed, no deserved, more gifts.

What sort of monumental twat was I?

I had no comprehension what the effects of my Dad being put ‘on short time’ was.

Whilst he was working just one or maybe two shifts a week I didn’t even begin to consider that he might be worrying about how to pay the mortgage and still give a Christmas to his family.

I didn’t think that this amazing man who never stopped putting us first might be questioning himself on whether he was a failure or not because he couldn’t provide, through no fault of his own, the celebration we all wanted.

As a stroppy twelve year old could I ever imagine the dark places his mind may have gone to because he wanted to be the best father he could be and sometimes his pockets couldn't reach those stellar heights?

I wish I had those gold swooshed trainers now, or even if I didn’t a Dad that was still with me, so I could thank him for never letting on, for letting me be a twelve year old.

Christmas is about tradition, not just the Victorian ones handed down to all of us but the odd ones passed through families from generation to generation.

We had a tradition that could never be broken. We ate pork pie for Christmas morning breakfast.

Pork pie was, for the Spence’s, every bit as solemn a part of the festive season as visiting the crib after midnight mass.

The ritual would start very early on Christmas Eve when my Dad would drive to Loughborough to queue outside Walkers butchers for a pie: ‘Pork Farms for the rest of the year, but Walkers at Christmas, lad’. The right size had to be chosen with Dad usually plumping for a two pound beauty, just the right mix of meat, pastry and jelly, and as soon as we were out of the shop we could go home.

Christmas Day itself would dawn with me being allowed to open presents on my parents bed before we would go downstairs for breakfast of pie, bread and butter and pickle.

And then one Christmas morning there was the argument. After opening my presents, mum and dad had just got a television for their room, dad went down to get breakfast ready but my mum and me didn’t get dressed but sat watching a film instead.

When we went down 90 minutes later my dad had already had his breakfast. Why hadn’t he waited? Why didn’t he shout us? Why was he so pig-headed?

There was a frostiness that Christmas Day that seemed to last to New Year.

I get it now completely though.

Dad wanted Christmas to be just right. Not for himself but for all of us. How much time did we spend together throughout the year? How many opportunities would we have to do so in the future? How many more family Christmas’ would there be?

He wasn’t being awkward he was wanting to forge memories that stay with us and him forever.

You did Dad. You gave me memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

You taught me lessons as much as anyone with a degree in classics ever would or could.

Every day I appreciate you more and more and although it’s too late now I wish I could say just once more to you ‘Thanks’.

The smallest things trigger visits to our subconscious.

A couple of days ago my phone pinged to tell me that I had new memories on Facebook.

When I looked I saw a scanned in Polaroid of a primary aged me standing next to a crouching dad.
Dad was wearing my costume for the nativity play, a Christmas Tree made of cardboard and green crepe paper.

I was taken back to that hallway, to that tree with fairy lights that took hours to unravel, to the sounds of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas album and the smells of mincemeat oozing out of imprecisely cut pastry cases.

And I was thankful.

Yes, I would give anything to go back and see my dad once more, anything apart from one thing that is.

I could never give up the memories that I have.

Have a wonderful Christmas, spend it with your families and cherish every moment. Even if it doesn’t feel like it now one day your children and grandchildren will understand all of the love you put into it.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The rise of Trump

A few weeks ago I was over in the United States for a short winter holiday in the sun.

As is quite usual for me I didn’t catch anywhere the number of rays I was planning on for one very simple reason. I am addicted to Fox News.

My addiction first started seven or eight years ago now when Glenn Beck was at his ridiculous height. Here was a man who spouted shocking right-wing claptrap but as long as he shed a tear during every show millions of viewers would idolise him.

He was talking to ‘real’ America, right?

Of course eventually Beck became too extreme even for Fox News and he was eventually given the boot (or resigned to start up his own network – depending on your version of the truth) but Fox’s support of far right cranks has continued unabated. It’s gripping.

In 2015 the cable network’s idolisation has moved. Rather than Beck (although worryingly he does appear to be making something of a comeback), Palin or Huckabee Fox is now raising the behemoth that is Donald Trump to be its figurehead for saving a broken nation.

The problem is Trump is seemingly bypassing the traditional staging post of crank and marching clearly into the domain of dangerous.

After his well-publicised comments on Mexicans and rape, just to name one controversy, Mr Trump has seemingly now jumped the shark (if the Fonz was around today he would have had the same hair ‘style’).

Mr Trump has called for a ‘total and complete’ halt on Muslims entering the US.

It doesn’t take any intellect whatsoever to readily deconstruct Mr Trump’s nonsensical cry so I won’t even try, save to say that it is really, really stupid.

The worrying thing however is that there is a more than reasonable prospect that Mr Trump will become the Republican nominee for the 2016 Presidential election. How did it get to this?

The simple truth is that he has seemingly found a winning formula in that he is appealing to an increasingly extreme selectorate of Republican registered supporters.

If you happen to go to America and talk to ordinary people, I’ve done it several times, you will find there is more and more people who are fed up of Washington politics and the mainstream media, they want their views heard and they want someone who mirrors them to be giving voice to them publicly.

Mr Trump’s comments chime perfectly with an increasingly vocal minority of political activists and whilst they are the ones who will be choosing who the GOP puts forward for President next year he is not going to stop, and the truth is rather than scrutinising him they idolise his rhetoric.

It doesn’t matter even that ‘the Donald’ is on occasion happy to be associated with views way, way past the fringe of acceptability – looks at his reluctance to condemn some of the comments around the birther movement – his acolytes continue to adore him, their adulation increasing exponentially with every massive misstep.

As the primary race gets into full swing it is noticeable that Mr Trump continues to be way out in the lead in most polls and many would argue him to be the presumptive nominee.

Of course one might contend that the GOP has only themselves to blame. The raft of other potential nominees seeking election are comparatively so bland.

To many Republicans the likes of Christie, Cruz and Rubio are just so moderate, so compromising. Why have someone who might appeal to the whole spectrum when you can have someone who speaks with purity?

They don’t want that sort of person representing them in the White House, they want someone with principle.
There is however one huge stumbling block for Mr Trump. The American people.

Surely in the unlikely event that he does receive the GOP nomination from an increasingly radical membership base those ordinary, sensible people will have the sense to vote for someone else? The overwhelming number of non-partisan will voters will take the small ‘c’ conservative approach of sticking with what they know, won’t they?

And when they do we can start a whole new cycle of cranks arguing that Mr Trump was all along in touch with ordinary voters, it was those in the media who misrepresented him…

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tragedy of Paris leaves us facing tough challenges in days to come - my Catholic Universe column

There are sometimes events that happen in our world when  we all remember where we were when we heard of them.

For past generations those events, I am told, were few and far between; VE day, the assassination of President Kennedy, man landing on the moon.

For my generation they appear to be altogether more frequent: the death of Princess Diana, the bringing down of the World Trade Centre, the London 7/7 bombings and now another one.

I shall never forget where I was when I heard of last weeks horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. I am sure every reader of this newspaper in the years to come will be able to do the same.

For me, I was sat in a hotel room overlooking the runway of an inordinately busy airport in Las Vegas, Nevada five thousand miles away from home, my wife and my children. I have never felt so far away.

I’ve written in these pages before about the American media being insular of not telling stories, no matter their gravity, outside the boundaries of their nation. For once I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The national news networks Fox and CNN dedicated their coverage solely to the emerging story. Local network affiliates lead their news programmes with the latest updates.

In a city so dedicated to enjoying oneself tourists were noticeably a little more sombre.

Just like many notable structures around the world the lights of Las Vegas’ equivalent to our own London Eye were changed to those of the French Tricolor.

Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the lights on The Strip’s own scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower at the suitably named Paris Las Vegas hotel were turned off. A small number of people mostly European and lead by our French brothers and sisters gathered to pray and comfort one another.

That a place normally of such excess became a makeshift shrine mirrors the stories of 14 years ago when tourists congregated across the other side of the road outside the appropriately named New York New York hotel with its own smaller version of the Statue of Liberty.

Watching the news and hearing witness statements from those caught up in the Paris atrocities makes it very easy to talk of a fractured world.

It is absolutely clear to us in the west that whilst the vast majority of our Muslim brethren  have no sympathy for the actions of murderers and terrorists there is a small number of extremists who misguidedly espouse that great religion. Those awful people have now misappropriated a region and have renamed themselves, and it, Islamic State.

The reason I was in Las Vegas was to escort my mother and step-father on what will in all likelihood will be their final trip to the United States, a country which they both love.

Whilst both of them, at 79, are in decent health for their age my mum cannot walk any great distance and uses a wheelchair for anything further than a hundred or so metres. I am sure that whilst both of them would love to return in the future once they tick over to 80 years old the cost of travel insurance will become prohibitive.

The reason I tell you this is simple, if not in small part hoping that you don’t think less of me for visiting such an hedonistic place. Accompanying two older people to Las Vegas highlights to me at least the genuine decency of ordinary people.

Time and time again this week I have pushed my mother, in her wheelchair, along The Strip. Time and time again when going through a door or trying to navigate a step strangers have paused their own holiday momentarily to ask if they can help with anything.

These people, more often than not young men and women, are taking a couple of days off from their jobs and could quite understandably be focussed on enjoying themselves to the full but instead at the sight of someone struggling with a wheelchair they pause and they help.

To me those momentary interventions are more than a sign of good manners, although my experience is that most Americans tend to have manners  in bucketloads, they are small glimpses into the genuine generosity of the human spirit.

On the whole our communities are full of good people, our society is a decent one. Of course, not everything in Britain, France or the United States is perfect but it is firmly my belief that we massively benefit from a socially progressive, Christianity derived values culture.

It was a surprise to absolutely no one that in the hours and days that followed those Paris atrocities countless people took the minuscule but in these days important step of changing their profile pictures and saying  ‘we stand together’, ‘we will not be bowed by terrorism’, ‘our way of life, the freedoms, the tolerances enjoyed by us and our neighbours will go on’.

For all of our faults our western way of our life with our values, our democracy, our tolerance is desirable not just to me, a middle aged white man, but to countless millions of others irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

It is a way of life that we pride and it is a way of life that we must, sadly, at times be willing to fight in order to protect.

Following the world changing events on September 11 2001 US President George W Bush in a speech to a joint session of Congress declared that America, and by definition its allies, was locked in a ‘war on terror’.

14 years later and French President Francois Hollande has used very similar words to describe the events in his country.

There is absolutely no doubt that our  western democracies are not ‘at war with Islam’ but with extremists willing to use the name of that religion for their purposes.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear. Defence by military force can be used where the damage inflected by the aggressor is lasting, grave and certain. Force can be utilised where other means of putting an end to the aggression have been shown to be impractical or ineffective, where there are serious prospects of success and where our use of arms does not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated.

In taking on extremists willing to use terrorist tactics against us, who claim statehood for their enclave despite millions of decent followers of Islam trying to escape their control, it is time to think very seriously once more whether the use of force in the air and on the ground is necessary.

Such a step should never be easy to palate but it is right to consider taking it, keeping in mind the teaching of the church, for our allies, for our way of life but most importantly because overwhelmingly we are decent people.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Expecting more for our town

In what is fast becoming a conclusion that is as self-evident as the religion of the Pope or the woodland habits of bears last week the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced their five-yearly review focussing on whether Britain has become a fairer place in the intervening period since their last look at our nation.

Whilst their report shows that there have been ‘winners’ in that period there have also been significant losers.

Perhaps the main headline of their report is that whilst Chinese and Indian pupils perform better than other ethnicities at school Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have seen the biggest improvements in educational outcomes.

The worst performing students across the board? White pupils, especially boys, from poorer backgrounds.

The truth is of course there is absolutely no surprise in the EHCR’s report, professionals have been highlighting the trend for some time.

In December last year OFSTED produced their annual report for 2013/14 for the East Midlands. The executive summary of that document was direct when it said ‘White British children from poor families achieve much less well than others’.

If that message isn’t quite crystal clear enough OFSTED went on ‘Levels of deprivation and unemployment are high in the former coalfield areas (OFSTED’s emphasis), which include… parts of Leicestershire.’

Parts of Leicestershire? I wonder where could they possibly be talking about?

I am hugely proud to live in Coalville and privileged to represent Whitwick and Thringstone at County Hall but let’s be frank. What sort of reputation do we have outside of our immediate area?

How many times have us Coalvillians heard jokes about having six fingers? How often do we hear comments about ‘Coalvile’? For heaven’s sake our town even gets labelled that way on road signs.

Even in the corridors and meeting rooms at County Hall the unintentional, I’m sure, ridicule continues. As long as I serve on the Council I will never forget the comment of a colleague, on record, who represents an area not ten miles away that ‘he didn’t know where Coalville was’. Would anyone make the same comment of Melton Mowbray or Market Harborough? I doubt it.

But we in Coalville are also partly to blame.

I was born and raised in Thringstone and during my entire childhood I was told regularly that ‘education doesn’t matter’. I know I wasn’t alone in that regard.

In our areas of deprivation, and Coalville still has some of the most deprived areas in the region, just how many children are being given that self-same message today?

We must do so much more. Leicestershire’s ‘former coalfield areas’ do have some outstanding schools but our expectations of them have to be at least as high as those in the affluent parts of the county. Without being so the gap will never close.

The aspirations of all parents must be for their children to do every bit as well as those in Market Bosworth or Ashby, and a belief that they can.

Let’s be brutally honest. No one is going to raise Coalville out of being in that losing demographic unless we do so ourselves.

Our town is great but we can be so much better. We all owe it to our children; councillors, professionals and parents to work harder on closing the attainment gap.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Oh, the irony as I find myself rooting for unelected Lords - my Catholic Universe column

Regular readers of this column may well have by now gathered that I have a something of a problem with double standards. I hate them and, although we are all guilty of them from time to time, whenever I see them I try to redress the balance.

Close viewers of Westminster politics will rightly assert that the past week has been a classic for hypocrisy and for me, at least, I think it’s time to set the record straight.

With many MP’s wanting to get home to their constituencies Fridays are usually something of a light day in parliament. They are a day for non-contentious government business and often a day for other matters such as private members bills.

Last Friday was one such day. Labour backbench MP Julie Cooper had won a place in the lottery of private members bills and her Hospital Parking Charges Bill had been scheduled for debate in the chamber.

Ms Cooper’s bill was an excellent one. Carers are undoubtedly some of the most undervalued members of our society, they often carry out untold hours of work looking after the sick and infirm often for hardly any financial compensation.

Had her bill been successful Ms Cooper’s proposed legislation would have saw carers visiting the hospital afforded the ‘luxury’ of not having to pay for car parking. Hardly an extravagant gesture when carers will usually be visiting to provide assistance to their charges but nevertheless a worthwhile one when considering the contribution they make.

The only problem is Ms Cooper’s excellent bill didn’t stand a chance of becoming legislation for one very straightforward reason. A small number of Conservative parliamentarians lead by Tory MP for Shipley Philip Davies had decided to talk the bill out.

To be brutally honest I have no idea what Mr Davies has against providing free hospital parking for carers, it seems to me like a perfectly laudable idea, but last Friday he took to his feet and spoke for 90 minutes to ensure that there was not enough time for a vote to be taken which would have allowed the bill to progress.

The process of talking out a bill is known as a filibuster and has been around since Roman times.

Supporters of the bill, many from the left of the political spectrum, went wild pouring scorn on Mr Davies for his use of this parliamentary tool. How could one man be so callous as to use this awful antiquated device to stop an excellent bill?

And that is where the double standards kick in.

I think Mr Davies is wrong in opposing such a worthwhile bill, something that I very much hope will eventually get picked up by government in order to ensure its success can be guaranteed, but he was entirely at liberty to use the concept of the filibuster.

But my question has to be how many of those castigating Mr Davies would have been applauding American Democrat State Senator Wendy Davis, in June 2013, when she conducted an 11 hour filibuster which made global news to prevent the passing of a bill limiting abortion rights?

How many would have lauded Liberal Democrat MP’s who, in 2007, talked out a private members bill seeking to exempt Members of Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act?

My point is this. Filibusters have been around hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sometimes they help our viewpoint and sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t it should not mean that they become a reprehensible concept.

We shouldn’t castigate Mr Davies for his use of the filibuster although it is perfectly correct to disagree with him on his viewpoint that Ms Cooper’s bill was worth voting upon.

As someone wisely once said we should play the ball, not the man.

Astonishingly however Mr Davies’ use of questionable parliamentary process wasn’t even the most notable occasion that that topic had raised its head this week.

That honour has to go to the House of Lords and Working Tax Credits and I would put a great deal of money on the likelihood that those criticising Mr Davies for his use of obscure parliamentary procedure were joining in the chorus of approval when the unelected peers effectively scuppered the will of the elected House of Commons.

The behaviour of the House of Lords has been a difficult circle to square this week.

We have a Conservative government with a working majority of MP’s who have introduced what even Tory colleagues tell me is an appalling piece of legislation which will only harm the working poor which has nevertheless passed properly through the House of Commons.

For well over a hundred years there has been a general acceptance that the upper house should not hinder the passage of financial bills but seemingly last week it would appear that is exactly what their Lordships did.

Of course no one is quite sure whether they did or not. Surely every departmental bill sent for scrutiny has elements of finance so when is a bill to do with money and when is it not? And, of course, when is a bill a bill and when is it a statutory instrument which has not gone through the same rigorous procedures in the Commons?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have been appalled with the Lords but the simple fact is, it would seem, they did absolutely nothing wrong other than use obscure procedures on this occasion to arrive at exactly the right result providing some much needed relief to some of our nation’s poorest families in the process.

I must say that I’m beginning to have quite an affection for the House of Lords.

Yes, I know they are undemocratic and I understand that overturning the will of the elected chamber is somewhat dubious but there is something slightly marvellous in having the backup of a group of experts, for that is what most of them are, who never have think about being elected so can genuinely look to what is right and wrong rather than popular or unpopular.

It’s comforting to know that the Lords isn’t full of Conservatives having largely been appointed under a Labour or coalition government. Similarly it will be reassuring to know that by such time as Labour take office once more Tory appointees will in all likelihood have gained the upper hand providing an effective block to the worst extremes of the far left.

Just like the leaders of our own faith isn’t it gratifying to know that there are a group of men and women whose only focus isn’t remaining popular enough to re-enter office next time around?

Politics is genuinely a marvellous thing. Decent men and women from all walks of life have entered Westminster largely using processes that have remain unchanged over the years. The reasons they have remained the same is because, on the whole, they provide stable and progressive government.

Even though we may disagree with them sometimes we need to reflect on how decent our politicians actually are. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Equality and opportunity is bedrock of good education - my Catholic Universe column

This week two stories have caught my eye which have caused me to search my soul and perhaps reconsider my views on our education system. Let me elaborate.

I first became a member of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair. As thousands of traditional socialists were leaving Labour, a great many in response to the Iraq War whilst others were departing because of New Labour’s ‘neoliberal’ approach, I was marching in the opposite direction because I could see how a great many ordinary, middle and working class people were flourishing under the party.

I liked what Tony Blair had to say. I was more than happy, and still am, for people to get on and make money so long as they pay their fair share of taxation to enable those at the bottom to be protected.

Frankly I’ve never particularly given two hoots about the gap between rich and poor. What’s been more important to me is that those people who live in poverty can be helped and encouraged to work their way out of it through a fair benefit system and real equality of opportunity.

When I first signed up to the Labour Party I very much liked the fact that on the whole what we were bothered about was not processes but outcomes. Mr Blair and his colleagues were never too concerned about the rights and wrongs of public versus private sector, their real objective was about services being the best possible for everyone for the money available.

Although, certainly in Labour Party circles, Mr Blair is the socialist equivalent of Lord Voldemort I still think many of his solutions, his ‘third way’ if you will, was the right approach.

One of the areas that fifteen years ago the still fresh Labour Government placed a great deal of emphasis on was the inception of academy schools.

In these days of rebirth for Labour I know we are now all supposed to be against academies, they smack too much of the private sector, but how can we be?

I was struck to read this week that there are now more than 400 Catholic schools up and running in England as academies. It made me quite proud to know that it was a Labour Government who started the path of conversion, which in fairness the Conservative Government has continued and broadened, which enables faith schools to effectively steer their own course.

Catholics have always known that we benefit from some of the finest state schools that there are, surely it makes sense to allow them to improve semi-independently, using their own expertise, rather than force upon them a raft of centralising diktats?

Funnily enough the press release issued by the Catholic Education Service last week quotes my home diocese of Nottingham where now more than 60% of our faith schools are academies.

In a quote the Nottingham Diocesan Director of Education Peter Giorgio said ‘Academies provide schools with the autonomy to cater for the educational needs of their pupils. What’s more academy status gives Catholic schools greater freedom to develop their commitment to the formation of the whole child.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Of course, not all academy schools just like not all maintained schools are successful but it is worth noting the difference between converter academies – those good and outstanding schools who have chosen to go down the route of conversion – versus sponsored academies – struggling schools who have for want of a better word have been pushed through the process under the guidance and management of a theoretically high performing sponsor. Fortunately faith schools largely fall into the former category.

It takes time for outcomes to be effectively measured in a child’s life and therefore a few years into the widespread adoption of the academies program independent comparison of them against maintained schools is still a little threadbare.

In January of last year the Department for Education carried out an analysis of schools that had converted to academy status voluntarily and their OFSTED inspection outcomes. The key findings were encouraging.

Primary converter academies that were previously rated as ‘outstanding’ were more likely to retain that status at their next inspection than local authority maintained schools. ‘Good’ schools were more likely to progress to a better rating and less likely to slip back than their LEA counterparts.

The same was true, although at more marginal rates, for converter secondary academies.

It should never be the job of government to tell good parents how to raise their children but rather to enable them to do so in the best way they see fit. The Labour Party should be proud that they set the ball rolling for parents with faith to have their children educated under a system that is increasingly working and will in the longer term produce far improved outcomes.

Not all is rosy in education however.

As opposed to academies, which can be of great benefit to communities and all of the children who live in them, grammar schools are anathemas, simply put they should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is no other way to describe a system which consigns children at the age of eleven to a category of being first, or second, rate. But that is exactly what grammar schools through the 11 plus do.

Proponents of grammar schools may argue for their fairness and that selection is based on academic ability but the facts are stark.

This week the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, approved plans for the first new grammar school in Britain in 50 years.

The Weald of Kent school based in Tonbridge have effectively side stepped the ban on new selective schools by seeking to open a 450 place ‘annex’ in the town of Sevenoaks more than seven miles away.

If leaks are to be believed neither Mrs Morgan, nor indeed Mr Cameron, were overly enamoured by the idea of establishing such a school but the legal advice provided to them was clear that turning down such an application may well lead to loss under judicial review.

Whatever the truth similar applications will follow from existing state funded grammar schools up and down the country.

Government’s role should always be to promote the concept of equality of opportunity and yet grammar schools perhaps do more to prevent the notion than any other single thing.

Reporting in The Times shows that Kent has more grammar schools than any other local authority but by the County Council’s own admission only 3 per cent of children attending them were entitled to free school meals, the comparative rate in the county’s comprehensive schools is 15 per cent.

Children in Kent who fail their 11 plus exam are sadly being consigned to the dustbin of education, unintentionally I am sure, from an age when they should be enjoying playing football or climbing trees.

Nationally 34 per cent of children in receipt of free schools meals achieve 5 ‘good’ GCSE’s including English and Maths. In Kent statistics show just over 1 in 4 children from poorer homes end their secondary schooling with benchmark expectations.

It’s a universal truism that parents want the very best for their children. I know I do.

I want to see my offspring have the chance to go to a good, Catholic school that can keep striving to improve under whatever system of governance is best for it but the last thing I and, I think, countless other parents want is to see children, mine or anyone else’s, rooted out at 11 to stagnate in what are all but in name a system of secondary moderns which were not fit for purpose 40 years ago.

Let us sincerely hope if the Secretary for Education truly does not support the establishment of new grammar schools  that whatever loopholes have allowed the creation of one in Kent can be ironed out swiftly.

Let's celebrate volunteers, the heartbeat of our community - my Catholic Universe column

Being sports fans my children and I were pretty excited to discover last Christmas morning that Santa Claus has delivered to us season tickets to watch this year’s three NFL American Football matches to be played at Wembley Stadium.

A couple of weeks ago me and my sons joined 80,000 other fans to watch the high flying New York Jets beat the Miami Dolphins and this week, quite possibly as you are reading this column, we are heading back down to London for another sell out tantalising matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills (note: if any of you are big Gridiron fanatics I do realise that a game between the Jags and the Bills is anything but tantalising).

Two weeks ago was my first trip to the new Wembley Stadium and it is amazing but my word, it’s expensive. Our ‘cheap’ tickets had a face value of £55, parking £30, hotdogs £8 each and the obligatory replica shirts for my two offspring another £75 per child. The NFL was without a doubt one of the most costly family trips we’ve ever been on. This week I shall be packing sandwiches.

Still, we like sport and we like to see it whenever and wherever we can live. Fortunately not all sport costs the same exorbitant prices as NFL or an international football match. Take a look much closer to home and you will often find engrossing and highly entertaining games which aren’t going to break the bank.

From late April to early September my whole family could regularly be found at Grace Road, home of Leicestershire County Cricket Club, loving every moment of the explosive Twenty20 matches or enjoying the long summer days during a County Championship game. A whole summer of sport, around 30 days, for just £200. Marvellous.

Last weekend as a family we were looking for something to do and after checking on the internet we realised that the Basketball season had started once again and the undefeated Leicester Riders, a big name in British Basketball, were playing at home to the Manchester Giants.

I checked if seats were available and indeed they were and ordered a family ticket for the five of us sat just two rows behind the Manchester player’s bench.

Being so close to the action in a professional sporting tie is a great thrill for the children but as an adult can be a little off putting. The problem is that after running around for 48 minutes the ever alternating giants of players can be, how shall I put this nicely, a little pungent. But in a stroke of good fortune, or maybe they just weren’t working hard enough, the Manchester squad remained fragrant throughout. We had a wonderful time.

How much I ask would similar seats have cost us at Old Trafford or the Emirates? I dread to think but in Basketball being so close to the action cost the much less princely sum of £37. For all five of us.

I can rail on for hours and hours about how affordable high quality, professional sport can be if you know where to look. If I had chosen to at the same time as the Basketball was being played in Loughborough I could have taken the short trip up the road to watch Nottingham Panthers ice hockey squad take on their arch rival Sheffield Steelers for a similar price, but the match was sold out.

A lot of people are already in on the secret that away from football and possibly rugby union a great deal of sport can be enjoyed at very affordable prices.

But strangely today this column isn’t about sport but rather about one of the things that makes it so accessible. The volunteers.

All too often British professional sporting clubs are run on a shoestring. Many lose money and without the input of finance from governing bodies who have access to the wider television and sponsorship funding they would simply fold.

But go along to any professional basketball, cricket or ice hockey match and you will see people giving of their time and effort to make their club viable in the long term.

It struck me that all the razzmatazz I saw at Wembley was there on display as I watched the basketball. There was the ticket office, the merchandise, the hotdogs, the raffle tickets and even the cheerleaders and drummers but instead of them being delivered by someone in a high vis uniform those invaluable jobs in a sporting event were being carried out by mums, dads, children and grannies and grandads simply proud to be wearing a Leicester Riders polo shirt.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our society.
In my electoral division there is a group called Friends of Thringstone, just one of many organisations I could use to highlight my point. The Friends aim is to promote the environment of the village and to preserve and promote its history for the benefit of residents and visitors and, my word, this group of volunteers do it with style.

In 2011 these extraordinary men and women were awarded the Queens Award for voluntary service. Earlier this year they were the recipients of the Keep Britain Tidy Diamond Jubilee award for ‘The Big Tidy Up’. But more importantly their real achievement is the pride they take in their community and in making their village a better place to live.

The awards would mean nothing if they were not accompanied by action and last weekend whilst many of us were lying in our beds the Friends of Thringstone were out in the village planting 2,000 spring flowering bulbs so that after a long winter their community would start the new year with a vibrant show of colour.

Next spring most people won’t even realise why their village looks so pleasant, they will simply take it for granted that it does, but without dedicated volunteers giving their time with humility so much that we all take for granted just would not happen.

How many of our parishes are kept afloat by a small group of people polishing brasses, arranging flowers and organising fund raising events?

How many in the congregation even consider that they are all jobs which need to be done but never give a second thought to doing them themselves?

The truth is without volunteers much of what we treasure in our communities would never happen. We wouldn’t have the sports clubs, scouts or army cadets that help develop our young people, we wouldn’t have the luncheon clubs for our older people and much of what is done in our parishes would be simply left undone.

So, here is a call.

There is a good chance if you are reading this that you already volunteer in your community (I like to think of Catholic Universe readers as people who ‘Do’), but in the very small possibility that you don’t right now please think about how you can help.

We can all say that we’re simply too busy but the truth is there isn’t one of us out there who doesn’t already benefit in some way from the work that volunteers do.

Even if it is just an hour here or there please ask yourself ‘How can I do my bit?’

I will guarantee that you will make our world a slightly better place to live.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tragedy of a fallen police officer - and communities that produced his alleged killer - my Catholic Universe column

Just over a month ago I wrote this column about the duty we all have to honour those men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line for our society on a daily basis. I wrote not just of the members of our armed forces who have fought in foreign theatres of war but of the thousands of extraordinary people who work putting out fires, saving lives in our hospitals and upholding law and order.

I wrote ‘Thankfully, in our mostly law abiding country the deaths of serving police officers…are rare occurrences…’ I couldn’t have possibly have foreseen that the next such tragedy of an officer being killed whilst on duty was only a few weeks away.

This week our nation was shocked and saddened by the death of Merseyside Police Officer David Phillips who died from internal injuries after he was mown down by a stolen vehicle whilst trying to apprehend the driver who was fleeing the scene of a suspected burglary.

PC Phillips was, by all accounts, an exemplary officer who mentored new recruits, helped to raise funds for charities in his down time and was a devoted husband and father to his wife Jen and two young daughters Sophie and Abigail.

Perhaps the most appropriate words to describe PC Phillips were included in the message left by his daughter, Sophie, at the scene of his death. He note simply said ‘Daddy, my hero, my super daddy, my world.’

In the grand scheme of things it means very little but I would like to thank him and his family for his service and sacrifice to our nation. PC David Phillips and his colleagues serving to protect us every day are heroes. He will not be forgotten.

As is always the case in tragedies such as these the full resources of the police service were rightly put to use to apprehend those responsible for the death of PC Phillips.

In a very short space of time arrests were made and an 18 year old man from the Wallasey area has subsequently been charged with his murder and it struck me as it does time and time again when we hear of this type of incident that it’s not just the lives of one family that were altered forever a few days ago.

Before I go any further I must be clear. This column is in absolutely no way an apology or seeking to justify the events surrounding the death of PC Phillips.

If anyone is found guilty of being culpable for the murder of a police officer during the course of his duty the full weight of the law should be brought upon him and the sentence imposed upon him should be severe. To my mind and I am sure to that of a great many more mitigation for such an abominable crime should be extremely limited.

It was, however, the age of the accused that caused me to think further.

At 18 we are all deemed in the eyes of the law to be adults. We must all take responsibility for our actions, we must all pay taxes and if we commit crimes we must face up to the consequences. That state of affairs is only right and proper.

But for anyone who has children of that age, or who works with them, we know that a great many 18 year olds are a long, long way from the maturity needed for adult life.

Whilst the law may be clear that adulthood starts on ones eighteenth birthday reality shows that childhood in all too many cases continues for many for months and, in some cases, even years.

Last week The Sunday Times published a long expose looking at the culture of ‘laddism’ in British universities, and what the establishments are trying to do to tackle it, which particularly manifests itself during Freshers weeks. The article documents tales of groping, excessive drinking, hedonism and passing out which, it claims are prevalent at this time of year.

In one section the author, Katie Glass, beautifully writes ‘On the streets, absurdly young-looking teenagers trundle suitcases and heave duvets out of parent’s cars, giving them self-consciously discreet kisses goodbye, as they head towards the halls.’

In that sentence we have before us all that we need to know. These 18 year olds, for that is what most Freshers are, may well be taking their first steps into adult life but a great many do not have the skills or maturity to deal with the challenges that lie immediately ahead of them.

It does not matter if at 18 you are turning up to attend one of our nation’s most prestigious places of higher education for the first time, or whether you are starting adult life in one of our most deprived areas so many of our young people are not ready, but ready they must be.

But of course the support mechanisms in place to help young people into adulthood vary dramatically throughout Britain and differ between one family and the next.

In the run up to the 1997 General Election a great deal was made about, then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair’s mantra ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.

In what became a seminal soundbite of the age Mr Blair sought to enunciate a vision that where offending happened it should be vigorously tackled but at the same time greater action was needed to educate and enable young people and families to move away from lifestyles which lead to criminality.

In some ways Mr Blair’s vision was a success. Anti-social behaviour and low level criminality remains at historically low rates. In other ways being tough on the causes of crime has failed.

In 2000 the then Labour government produced its periodic statistics on deprivation in Britain. At that time the 5 most deprived local authorities in the country were Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Knowsley, Manchester and Great Yarmouth.

Earlier this year the statistics were produced again. The top 5 of most deprived areas this time around were Manchester, Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, Knowsley, and Middlesbrough.

Four of the five most deprived areas of our country are the same, although in a slightly different order, as they were 15 years ago.

We know that criminality is all too often linked to deprivation, and we know that deprivation affects health, education, and countless other demands on public services.

When we look at 18 year olds we know that with a few exceptions their future life expectations have been formed in the events that have already happened to them and the surroundings they have been raised in.

As a nation we must be doing so much more to give those adult children the opportunities they need to make positive contributions to our society.

Friday, 9 October 2015

No more excuses: the USA must end its crazy addiction to guns - my Catholic Universe column

Abraham Lincoln once said ‘We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.’

Until a week ago if you ever Googled for Roseburg, Oregon on a computer the most likely result you would have jumped to in your search would have taken you to an anonymous page about a nowhere little town.

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry about that place could lead you to believe that Roseburg is far far more important than in reality it is. Roseburg’s entry starts out with the words ‘Roseburg is a city in the US state of Oregon.’

Of course though it isn’t. Roseburg isn’t a city, it is barely a town of significance. In the 2010 census Roseburg was smaller than Buxton or Workington or Market Harborough.

I’m sure that Roseburg is a perfectly nice place but until last week my guess is that we could all have gone happily through our lives without ever hearing of it.

And then just over a week ago Roseburg made its way into the public consciousness for entirely the wrong reasons.

A madman had run amok with a gun at the local Umpqua Community College and had killed 9 people and injured 9 others.

Of course we are shocked and saddened by such a tragedy, we are shocked and saddened because Roseburg has become the norm.

This year alone 9 people were killed in Charleston, South Carolina in an attack on a local church, another six were murdered in Isla Vista, California by gunman Elliot Rodger before he turned the weapon on himself, yet another two were shot dead in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Since 2010 there have been mass killings in Huntsville, Alabama; Manchester, Connecticut; Tucson, Arizona; Seal Beach, California; Oakland, California; Aurora Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Brookfield, Wisconsin; Santa Monica, California; Washington DC; Fort Hood, Texas and perhaps most tragically the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The saddest thing though is that apart from the sheer horror of Sandy Hook, or before that Columbine, we will soon forget the name of Roseburg like we have of Seal Beach or Oak Creek.

So commonplace have these mass murders become that if in a few short weeks we ever hear the name Roseburg again we will follow up with the question ‘Didn’t something happen there, once?’

From five thousand miles away I watched the news unfolding about another tragedy and I shed a tear. I can’t begin to comprehend how families feel after such an event and I can’t begin to understand how a country as wonderful as the United States of America can allow such tragedies to happen time and time again.

It is simply astonishing to me that any developed western democracy would allow, as a constitutional right, anyone to have access to firearms and yet just such a right is conferred upon citizens in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is fiercely defended by advocates including many gun owners and rights groups such as the powerful and well-funded National Rifle Association.

Although in the years that have followed courts have sought to make judgement clarifying the wording of the amendment, and laws have been made to limit its reign, that sentence introduced to the constitution in 1791 still holds force.  

‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’

Last Thursday evening yet again President Obama went into the briefing room of the White House to speak to the nation that he leads. It may well have been the rawest, most helpless speech of his presidency, it may well go down as his greatest.

In his words the President said ‘There is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work…is not borne out by the evidence.

‘We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours – Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.’

Advocates for the constitutional right to bear arm will be heard to say that ‘it’s not guns that kill people, people kill people’, they will speak of the wisdom of the founding fathers but there is no doubt that a measure passed more than two hundred years ago in the wake of a war for independence is not fit for purpose today.

In Britain we have never had a gun culture in the same way as our cousins over the Atlantic but those of us who are old enough can still clearly remember that day in 1996 when we first heard of the tragedy unfolding at Dunblane Primary School.

The response from government was swift and some might argue draconian but the simple fact is that we have, thank God, now nearly twenty years on never experienced another day like that.

You may have questioned by now that desperately sad though the events in America may be, what does it have to do with us?

The answer is simple.

The reason that effective gun laws have never been enacted in the United States is because proponents of gun freedom hold on steadfastly to rights conferred more than two hundred years ago.

But the world changes. What may have been appropriate during the days of Thomas Jefferson almost certainly isn’t now.

In a world that we now live in, barely recognisable to the founding fathers, it is incumbent on the people of the United States to call for change and for us to support them.

As Catholics we know that whilst our faith is steadfast the ways in which it is lived must change, the same goes for venerable constitutions.

Even across the pond we know that the American Constitution can change and can be wrong. We need look no further that the introduction and swift repeal of prohibition to highlight that simple fact. Let us be under no misapprehension that that second amendment can be repealed what prevents it happening are those men, as Lincoln said in a different context, ‘who pervert’ it.

When we see injustice, when we see lives tragically snuffed out, when we see a world leader helpless to act it does not matter that we are not American. It matters that we are human and we must cry out for these horrific, all too often, events to be stopped.

Humble pope teaches us all a lesson to remember - my 2 October Catholic Universe column

I’ll never forget Sunday 30 May 1982.

The whole parish had disencamped from our Leicestershire home for the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Coventry Airport. The fever of that trip was especially heightened for us primary school children as our gentle and fatherly headmaster Peter Skoyles was at that time one of the very few permanent deacons in the country and he would be assisting the Holy Father with mass that day. The flags and rosettes had been purchased and the Ladybird book chronicling the life of Karol Wojtyla virtually memorised. The excitement in our parish was palpable.

And I missed the whole lot after being diagnosed with German measles two days earlier.
The visit of His Holiness back in 1982 was unprecedented and sadly, it seems to me at least, by the time Pope Benedict made his own state visit to Britain 28 years later much of that earlier excitement and fervour had been lost.

Watching the television over the past week though and seeing crowds clamouring for a sight of Pope Francis on his trip to Cuba and the United States has filled me with hope.

To see thousands upon thousands lining the streets of New York has been inspirational.
To watch His Holiness arriving at the White House in a humble Fiat 500 marks out, when countless others would have turned up in luxury limousines, his humility. It can’t have been bad for the Italian motor industry either.

Every time we hear Pope Francis speak it’s a reminder to us of the biblical messages of charity, subsidiarity and good stewardship for our earth and its peoples. Every time I hear his message it fills me with hope for the future of the Catholic Church and our planet.

In a world where the President of the United States is often seen as its undisputed leader, and where prime ministers and other heads of state seek to visit him, it is a mark of the regard that the Holy Father is held in that President Obama and his family went to greet Pope Francis at the airport as he touched down at Andrews Air Force Base on his flight from Cuba.

Of course whilst most are delighted at the visit of His Holiness not all Americans are entirely enamoured by the message he preaches. Amongst the wall to wall press coverage of each engagement some commentators, particularly on the Republican right are questioning whether the Pope is left wing, or even a Communist?

In what has become one of the soundbites of his visit one journalist asked him if he was ‘a little to the left’. His Holiness’ answer was beautiful in its simplicity and yet strikes to the heart of political differences ‘My doctrine is that of the social doctrine of the Church.’

Catholic politicians will often seek to argue that their views are compatible with biblical teaching. Indeed at least six of the current crop of potential Republican candidates for the Presidency will spend a great deal of time doing just that but the beauty of Pope Francis is the clarity of his message, the lack of room for interpretation.

Perhaps the highlight of Pope Francis’ diplomatic engagements during his visit has been his address to a joint meeting of Congress, the first time a pontiff has been invited to deliver such a speech.

His Holiness’ address was undoubtedly a much needed reminder to politicians of all persuasions, not just in the United States but across the globe, of their true purpose.

Speaking directly to members of Congress Pope Francis said ‘You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy commons needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.’

I would venture to say that virtually every politician enters public life seeking to fulfil that vocation that His Holiness clearly enunciates. The problem is that in the face of political opponents espousing strident views we all too often forget.

Just such an occasion happened to me this week.

It is no secret that despite being a Labour Party councillor I am not a great fan of our new leader, I believe he is wrong for the party and wrong for our country.

There are many Labour members who vehemently disagree with me, probably right now the majority. Many will contact me on social networking sites to tell me their forthright views and question, despite the fact that I have voted Labour my whole life, whether I am in the wrong party or perhaps invite me in usually derogatory terms to join the Conservatives.

It was precisely during one such interaction that I completely forgot the message of Pope Francis and called members of the far left of my party ‘loons’.

I had in simple terms forgotten my vocation and instead got drawn in to name calling. I hope fortunately for me and without causing too much offence I quickly remembered why any of us enter politics and apologised for any harm I may have caused.

Of course Mr Corbyn isn’t a lunatic. I may disagree with him on a great many issues but he is genuine and seeks to improve our nation in a considered way shared by many others.

A second event occurred this week which caused me to consider the Pope Francis’ words.

At a meeting of Leicestershire County Council my Labour colleagues had tabled a genuine motion regarding how we in the county could provide assistance to Syrian refugees, the need to be at the forefront of providing support and showing community leadership to local residents that such action was not only necessary but desirable.

I honestly believe virtually every member of the Council held broadly similar views that those in desperate need should be provided support. No one was a million miles away from the sentiment of our motion and yet somehow the issue became one of party politics and sniping across the chamber.

In drifting to party allegiances and age old enmities we forgot our vocation.

I don’t particularly highlight my Council as being better or worse than others or indeed better or worse than national governments. We simply forgot our purpose.

Sometimes all of us need to be reminded by someone on the outside what our vocation, our life, is all about.

That is exactly what Pope Francis has set about doing in his words and his example.

I’m very humbled by such a teacher, someone who I firmly believe can lead not just politicians but all of us to a better life, we must do our best to follow him. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dolcino - a little Italian flair comes to Loughborough

Nick the Greek
When I was growing up in the late 1980's and early '90's every July for three weeks my life would become dominated by the multi-coloured explosion of lycra, mirrored sunglasses and dramatic scenery that is the Tour de France.

For half an hour every evening I became totally engrossed with a young Gary Imlach, a presenter who for many young boys bought the exotic race to life for the very first time.

In those pre-Team Sky days, when anyone suggesting a future British dominance of the sport would be classed as a lunatic, the overwhelming dominant force of the race was a giant of a man, a Spaniard named Miguel Indurain.

It was said that 'Big Mig's' resting heart rate was a low as 29 beats per minute and during time trials his metronomic dominance was legendary, but he was never a hero.

Whilst Indurain inevitably always won the race no one really wanted to be him. No, there was a group of swashbuckling gladiator types who given the chance every young man would seek to emulate.

Claudio Chiappucci, with the awe inspiring nickname 'El Diablo', world road race champion Gianni Bugno, the 'Lion King' (and ever so slightly egocentric) Mario Cipollini and the little pirate Marco Pantani were all legends of the sport and they all had one thing in common. They were Italian.

Being an Italian cyclist was, to us mere mortals, the ultimate in swashbuckling, temperamental and yet genius sporting heroes. In our minds eye, whether they ever did or did not, we always saw those gladiators of the road riding just one make of bicycle, the sleek and beautiful Bianchi.

It's no surprise then that as I was growing up in the every so mundane East Midlands over in Italy a whole generation of young boys were equally as in love with those iconic Celeste turquoise cycles, the ultimate in speed and handling.

Design classic
To the initiated the legendary Bianchi green colour scheme is the first thing that strikes you as you enter Loughborough's newest eating spot, Dolcino, at 4 Cattle Market.
One of those young lads has now become a forty-something entrepreneur but the romanticism of his youthful love of cycling has at least played a part in the design of his new gelateria and diner. Not to mention the two vintage cycles and other iconic Italian design classics adorning the restaurant, the turquoise Vespa scooter centrepiece is a wonderful case in point.

Dolcino isn't a themed restaurant but rather has sought inspiration from the same ethos that developed those wonderful cycling machines.

Just like the legendary bikes, dishes are made using the best ingredients and with more than their fair share of flair.

Crepe's and waffles are imaginative, try the delicious 'Nick the Greek made with falafel, humus, cherry tomatoes, guacamole, red onions and black olives, whilst never being too filling that you can't make room for dessert.

Coffee is imported and authentic and quite probably the best in town. Alongside all of the usual latte's and cappuccino's you will find the short affogato, vanilla gelato topped with an espresso shot, or premium milk shakes.


It is, of course, the gelato and sorbets that makes Dolcino special. A constant rotation of flavours including the all time favorites such as vanilla and chocolate are regularly supplemented by tastes a little out of the ordinary, maybe try pear, cherry bakewell or if you are feeling particularly adventurous avocado with chopped nuts?

Of course Dolcino, just like the cycles that provided at least a part of the inspiration, isn't the cheapest place in the world but just like those legendary bikes you get the quality you pay for.

If you are looking for somewhere a little out of the ordinary a morning coffee, a light lunch or an afternoon treat you could do a great deal worse than pay a visit to Dolcino.

For further information visit

Annual conference to shape Labour's vision for Britain - my Catholic Universe column

As you settle down this morning to your post mass cup of coffee and browse through Britain’s favourite Catholic newspaper spare a thought for the thousands of people descending on Brighton for the Labour Party’s annual shindig by the sea, the Party Conference.

For the uninitiated political party conferences are either an inspiring opportunity to gather the troops for another season of conflict and campaigning or a soulless experience in all that is wrong in our political system.

Take a wander through the village of exhibitors inside the secure zone at any party conference and you cannot fail to see the real and wannabe special advisors in their best business suits forming entourages around the latest upcoming junior minister. You will see them, always, talking earnestly into their mobile phones with a ridiculous amount of self-importance about what I can only guess, but in all likelihood about where they are planning to meet up for drinks.

You will see, depending on the conference of your persuasion, hundreds of middle aged and elderly activists sporting the obligatory tweed jackets and brooches or union endorsed sweatshirts adorned with badges for every cause under the sun. All too often their main topic of discussion isn’t what their party wants to achieve but rather why the opposition is the devil incarnate, effectively and massively out of touch with the views of ordinary people.

You will be bowled over by the sheer number of stands all there with the sole purpose of influencing their business or issue on the wills of the real decision makers. In reality most of their time will be spent fending off delegates on the hunt for whatever freebies they can get their hands on.

If you look hard enough you may even spot one or two ‘ordinary’ people although in my experience upon closer inspection they tend to be venue staff.

No, when it comes to party political conferences I definitely fall into the desolate, soulless category.

But this year Labour’s conference may well be worth watching.

By any measure the two weeks following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader has been a roller coaster ride, albeit one with more downs than ups. As I sit writing this column a few days before conference I am expecting that Mr Corbyn will still be leader but really who can tell?

We’ve seen refusals to take part in major interviews, a furore over the national anthem, apologies for terrorist sympathies, and a shadow cabinet with some extraordinary appointments and seemingly with senior shadow ministers willing to openly speak out against the views of their leader. And that was just week one!

As the party has reeled from one media storm to another there has been some glimmers of hope. In the form of upcoming MP Luciana Berger Mr Corbyn has at last appointed a shadow minister for mental health, an issue increasingly becoming one of major importance throughout the country.

It is hugely pleasing to see Mr Corbyn taking a fresh approach to the issue of Prime Ministers Questions, the weekly half hour of playground behaviour most of us associate with parliament, by asking questions submitted by members of the public and fostering an atmosphere of real questions and real answers. Let’s hope such a dignified tack becomes the norm.

It is probably fair to say that as far as party conferences go this one is going to be a humdinger. Whilst the conference stage itself may well be carefully managed away from the hall we can safely expect to see reams of salacious gossip and backstabbing from those with scores to settle. It almost makes me wish I was going. Almost.

Thankfully as the party tries to recover after such a damaging leadership contest there are at least some things all activists can still agree on.

At the very top of that very short list is legislation passing through parliament right now to limit the powers of trade unions and their members.

In 1969 then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, proposed a government white paper titled ‘In Place of Strife’. The white paper proposed a number of measures to reform the role of trade unions in the workplace, not least of which was the proposal to force unions to call a ballot before holding a strike.

In the face of a great deal of pressure from the trade unions then Prime Minister Harold Wilson forced the proposals to be dropped. It has been argued, with some justification, that had the Labour government pressed ahead with them potentially the legendary ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the rise of Mrs Thatcher would never have happened. Who can possibly tell?

The point is however that nearly 50 years later it is clearly astonishing to virtually everyone that it was possible for strikes to happen without ballots.

Undoubtedly all organisations need to refresh and reform, usually without the need for primary legislation, but there is a strong argument to be made that this government’s Trade Union Bill isn’t about a pressing public need but rather an ideological battle.

I have written in these pages before of the good trade unions, over the years, have done. They have been at the centre of workers’ rights such as paid holiday and sick pay that we now all take for granted. Trade unions do an outstanding job of representing their members when subject to erroneous or malicious allegations. I’m very proud to be a member of a trade union.

The number of days lost to industrial action is at an historic low albeit there have been isolated incidences, not least a National Union of Teacher strike reliant on a ballot over a year old, where action has rancoured with the public.

In the face of this the government are proposing hugely damaging legislation for the future of employee representation in this country.

If legislation, which faced its second reading in the Commons last week, is adopted many strike ballots will require minimum turnout and support far exceeding the levels needed to return a member of parliament to Westminster.

Unions will be required to double the notice period given to employers to take strike action as well as severely limiting the right to picket a workplace.

Employers are to be given the legal right to hire agency workers throughout employment disputes, an issue which is unlikely to help management worker relationships down the line.  

Perhaps most damaging to the future of trade unions is the seemingly innocuous suggestion of outlawing ‘check off’, the process by which employers agree to take union subscriptions directly from earnings. Of course what unions rightly fear is that in many cases when members with busy lives are faced with having to go to the trouble of setting up alternative payment methods many will simply not do so.

I have spoken to many people about the current Trade Union bill, some who are union members and some with no love for them at all. When faced with the full facts I can honestly say that I have not come across one person who thinks the great swathe of proposed reforms are absolutely necessary.

And so as I and many other Labour members express our deep reservations about the future of our party under the leadership of Mr Corbyn it is pleasing to know that there are issues on which we can all stand united, not least protecting the future of our trade union movement and the rights of workers.

With those words I will for this week draw to a close. On another note if you are going to conference see if you can pick me up a few freebies won’t you?