Monday, 30 May 2011

'Was my son's death in Afghanistan a price worth paying?,' by Stuart Alexander, of 'The Independent'

We have received news that two Royal Marines have been killed in Afghanistan. This brings the total of British deaths in or as a result of that 'mission' to 368.

The Independent today carries a piece by Stuart Alexander, the father of Marine Samuel Giles William Alexander, M.C., and I can do no better on my blog than to reproduce the piece, along with photographs of Marine Alexander (above) and again, with his colleague, Lieutenant Oliver Richard Augustin (below).

Stuart Alexander writes:

"Was my son's death in Afghanistan a price worth paying?

The call, when it comes, is so stunning that everything goes numb and you shake. But the call, at 6.15pm going into a bank holiday weekend, is not a shock. It is the devastating realisation of all the worries and fears that gnaw at everyone, day and night, who has family, friends and colleagues in a theatre of war.

The other gnawing internal conflict for those same people, who support their loved ones 100 per cent in the job they are being asked to do, is that they may not be quite so enthusiastic about the policy which sends them there.

My son Sam, at 28, married to Claire with a son Leo, is dead. He was hoping to be given brief leave to be at Leo's first birthday, on 21 July, to see him take his first steps. An improvised explosive device has put paid to that, as it has for his lieutenant, Ollie Augustin. The last time Sam was written up in this newspaper he had taken a bullet through his helmet but escaped injury after leading a defensive firefight that allowed his shot and injured troop leader to be dragged to safety.

Among the comments added by readers online were some very mean-spirited, even sneering criticisms. The Queen awarded him a Military Cross at Windsor Castle. He came home, the baby was born, and then the pre-theatre training for his second tour kicked in.

At the same time, and especially recently, there have been two sustained public relations campaigns. One says that we (Nato/Britain) are succeeding militarily. The other says that we cannot win this thing militarily and that talking with the enemy must be stepped up. Plans for withdrawal are being worked on continuously.

Is that a kind of facing both ways at once, the accusation so recently lodged against Pakistan by a finger-wagging David Cameron? How motivating is it if a stream of analysts say this is an unwinnable war, pointing out that Afghanistan has witnessed more than 100 years of failed interventions?

 What is sure is that the deaths of these two Royal Marines from 42 Commando Group brought the total cost in lives for this campaign up to 368; one of those made me, for a while, the subject of that bland reference which is Ministry of Defence speak: "The family has been informed". Informed. What does the public really know? Are we winning the fight for democracy in Afghanistan, or is that country just a loose federation of fiefdoms, often still run by warlords?

Who or what are the Taliban? From what I have been told, this was not a ragbag peasant army. The most likely opponent, often very highly trained, could be Iranian, Chechen or Pakistani, not Afghans. So what does that do for the argument that, by waging war in Afghanistan, we are protecting Britain from a 9/11 or a Mumbai terrorist attack? Where does 7/7 fit into that? How much is the enemy already within?

Nothing should be taken away from Sam or the other 367, or the thousands more with life-changing injuries. But one thing for sure is that these guys and women are fighting primarily for each other in the most professional way. And there is much more emphasis on the ground, though not always in war reports, on forging links with the local community.

But Nato, when the Afghan public opinion chips are down, is not wanted. What we see as liberation is too often seen by them as occupation – and, if they listen to their own history, it is only a matter of time before Afghan life is restored. The average farmer struggles to survive and is certainly not a beneficiary of the reported $1bn of aid funding that has quietly disappeared.

Sam's life has not been wasted, because he was so damned good at what he did. The testimony from that most valuable of analysts, his own peer group, was alpha plus for him, humbling for me. My respect for him far outweighed any pride.

But, God knows, I loved you Sam and always will. And, if a faraway nondescript patch of rock and dust has claimed your flesh and blood, it can never claim your spirit, never destroy the bonds we had.

It is time the politicians were as professional as the men, including you, and the women they send to their deaths."

I have added an on-line comment to The Independent's website, as follows:
"Thank you for writing one of the most moving pieces that I have ever read in a paper. You and your family have the sincerest sympathy of my wife and myself. In June, 2008, I wrote to my MP (Mr James Paice) when the total of British deaths had reached 100. I said then that it was time to draw a line under a disaster. We now know that, since June, 2008, 268 more British lives have been lost. Innumerable others have been injured and the cash cost has also been enormous. In my opinion and despite the bravery exhibited by our superb British service people, it is definitely time to draw a line under this disaster. Let us bring them all home now, not in 2014."

Stuart Alexander's piece is to be found at -

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

In drought-stricken East Anglia we have a Fen 'oasis'

Here (above) is a picture taken this morning. In drought-stricken East Anglia, it portrays Fen taters in a Fen oasis, where the crisis is less obvious.

I fear that few understand the seriousness of the drought situation in the rest of Eastern England. It is a crisis.

However, here in the Fens, whilst some crops desperately need a good soak, the best and most valuable food-producing farm land in England is still flourishing and, in particular, the roots and vegetables appear very promising.

Our country has a population of some sixty one millions - those are the ones who have allowed themselves to be counted - and the population of the world is well on its way to nine billions.

We cannot feed ourselves.

The world's population cannot feed itself.

Who but a lunatic would advocate that our best and most valuable food-producing farm land should go to waste in a welter of water and weeds?

Well, that is what the National Trust has been trying to achieve for the last eleven years through its so-called 'Wicken Vision.' In that time, I and many others have done battle with successive officers of the Trust.

First, it was Mr C. who was in charge. He has gorn.

Then it was Mr W. He has departed.

Then it was Mr M. He has 'retired.'

And then it was Mr B. I understand that he has 'moved on.'

None of the above are missed. They did more harm than good. The image of the National Trust has suffered by, through and from their efforts.

But we, the people of the Fens, are still here. And we are still fighting.

Finally, to show my readers and viewers a more 'scenic' view of the Fens, here (below) is a second picture taken this morning. Its charm, though I say that myself with insufficient modesty, still includes yet another valuable and flourishing crop - beetroot or red beet - and it is a credit to its growers. I hope that their efforts are appreciated both in the marketplace and in the kitchens of England.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Peter Brookes and the Queen and 'atonement' - enjoy!

Peter Brookes of The Times is at his most brilliant again today.

His subject is the Queen's state visit to the Republic of Ireland and the 'atonement' that the visit implies.

Friday, 13 May 2011

'As Swaffham Prior goes, so goes the nation,' I said

Some people laugh at Parish Councils. I don't. I have always believed that such really local authorities are the best and the most effective and efficient of all, and I write from less pleasing experience of both the District Council and the County Council.

I have been trying to get a good picture of Swaffham Prior Parish Council (of which I am a member) for some time, for my own records and for my blog and in order to submit it for publication to the Swaffham Crier, our village magazine, and, last evening, at the May monthly meeting and with the help of one of the Swaffham Crier reporters, Mr Mark Lewinski, we had success.

The picture above shows the full membership and the clerk and, from left to right, there are Mr Steve Kent-Phillips, Mrs Sandra Gynn, Mr Eric Day, myself, Mr John Covill (chairman), Mrs Karen King (clerk), Mr Andrew Camps, Mr Paul Latchford, Mr Peter Hart (vice-chairman), and Mr David Almond.

The meeting was one of the best ever and it was made all the more lively and interesting because we were discussing what we thought were to be the consequences of the Localism Bill, currently making its way through Parliament. As we had seen it, the Bill was intended to bring into being a new approach to planning - 'bottom up' as opposed to 'top down' - and the abolition of government-imposed targets for house-building and such as gypsy sites. We had successfully seen off a threat of one of the latter with the help of our District Councillor, Mr Allen Alderson, and we have been and are in a mood to be constructive with regard to the former. Indeed, we had received a submission from three prominent and helpful local people who wished to provide up to eight affordable homes, probably for rent, and up to sixteen 'market value' houses, all on the site that we, as a Council, had previously put at the top of our preferred list for possible development. There is no doubting the need for affordable housing in Swaffham Prior and the quid pro quo of 'market value' houses is generally accepted. We have the preferred site, we have the facilities (a good school, etc.), we have the opportunity and we have the key people 'on-side.' (Sadly, we no longer have a post office and shop and that lack was mentioned: maybe some more housing might merit the reinstatement of a post office and shop).

A lady planning officer, Abigail Taylor, from East Cambridgeshire District Council, was present in order to help us and to guide us forward. We all wished to go forward but, regrettably, there appear to be many more processes for our proposals to go through and, helpful though Ms. Taylor was, several of us saw fear that we were, again, to be bogged down in bureaucracy and tied up with red tape.

I thought - and said - that 'the forces of negativism' could represent an impediment to progress. I also said - and nobody disagreed - that the whole concept of 'localism' was at stake, that the 'bottom up' approach to planning was being tested and that Swaffham Prior, one of the first villages to take part in the process, would be seen as a test case for the success or otherwise of the Localism Bill. In short, the excellent intentions of the Bill seem now to be at risk. It might be an exaggeration to say that the Bill's success or otherwise depends on what happens in our village, but I want to witness locally some success for the Bill's national approach.

'As Swaffham Prior goes, so goes the nation,' I said. We shall see.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

National Trust introduces 'Facebook' farming for £30!

OK, you don't believe me. Take a look at this in The Independent -

See: it must be true. It was in the newspapers!

Ten thousand 'farmers' at £30 apiece is a nice little earner for the National Trust.

It might generate interest in the reality of farming: it might not.

What worries me is the reality of the National Trust's 'farming' in another part of Cambridgeshire where this airy-fairy organisation is busily buying up the finest and most productive Fen farm land in order to turn it into an unkempt and waterlogged welter of brambles, elder bushes, ragwort, stinging nettles and thistles.

Millions of pounds have been spent on draining this land: it is now going to waste and our population is growing beyond sixty-one millions, all of whom must be fed.

We must be mad to permit it and to provide its financing.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Councillor Allen Alderson wins again in 'Swaffhams'

The District Council elections went well in our area. My friend, Councillor Allen Alderson, of Reach, won 'The Swaffhams' ward (the parishes of Swaffham Prior, Swaffham Bulbeck and Reach) again and I have just passed my congratulations to him through his wife, Rachael, who said that Allen was 'a bit tired and sitting in his chair' (at 8 a.m.) after an all-night count at Soham.

They hadn't got finished until about 6.30 a.m. on account of the AV referendum ballots having to be dealt with.

Allen's 'official' portrait is above left, but I much prefer the more informal picture of him taken with me at Bottisham Village College during last year's General Election campaign.

We had just shared a joke - I think. Here is the picture.

Monday, 2 May 2011

He's dead at last. Well done, America. Now, let's get our armies out of Afghanistan as soon as possible

Our allied armies have been in Afghanistan for years, but many of us believed that Osama bin Laden had done a bunk.

And so it is now proved.

U.S. special forces have done what our armies weren't able to.

They got the monster in Pakistan and he's dead at last.

Well done, America.

Now, let's get our armies out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

We have lost too many brave men and women ‘over there’ - and too much money as well.