Moazzam Begg in Aberystwyth

Former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg will speak at this weekend’s Social Forum Cymru in Aberystwyth, it has been announced.
Social Forum Cymru tales place in Aberystwyth from 28 April to 1 May.
Details of Moazzam Begg’s participation:
-Sunday 30th April, 1545 to 1715 in the Old College, Seddon room
Individual talk by Moazzam, including Q&A, book sales and signing, introduced by Linda Rogers of Peace and Progress
-Sunday 30th April, 1730 to 1930 in the Cinema, Arts Centre
Screening of Jo Wilding’s film followed by a panel discussion with Milan Rai, Tim Richards, Ray Davies and Moazzam
-Monday 1st May, 11 am to 12pm book signing in Ottakers

Mrs McGrath

Released this week:
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)

From Mrs McGrath: “All foreign wars, I do proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.”

Creationist visit to Wales

I wrote a piece for this week’s Big Issue on the controversial geologist John Mackay who is visiting Wales. He is the head of a creationist movement and believes there is evidence for the biblican flood in the Earth’s crust.
They are controversial views, ridiculous or fantasy to many of us, I’m sure, but are they really “dangerous” and “intellectual child abuse” as I saw one newspaper describe them this week?
Does everyone we disagree with have to be labelled a dangerous extremist now?

Pierrepoint and the last man to be hanged in Cardiff

Pierrepoint, a film about the most prolific British hangman of the last century, opened this month.
It contains by all accounts a remarkable portrayal by Timothy Spall of the man who executed an average of 18 people a year between 1932 and 1956.
Albert Pierrepoint saw himself as part of the state machinery. His role, he believed flatly, was to dispatch the convicted man or woman as “humanely” as possible.
In this way – reckoning he was “chosen by a higher power for the task” – he ended the lives of an estimated 433 men and 17 women.
By isolating his ‘contribution’ to the justice system from the investigation, prosecution and judgement, he was able to shut his mind to any campaigns for clemency and even to the matter of whether the condemned for whom he was calculating the length of the drop was guilty or innocent.
He said: “A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter…The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death.”
He ended the lives of Rhyl-born Ruth Ellis (whom it is claimed should only have faced manslaughter charges and should not have hanged) and Timothy Evans, of Merthyr Vale, who was executed after a travesty of justice during which the real killer, John Christie, actually gave evidence against him.
Evans was hanged in 1950 but received a posthumous pardon 16 years later. The then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: “This case has no precedent and will, I hope, have no successor.”
A sweeping statement if ever there was one. There is, of course, no way of knowing how many of the previous victims of the scaffold were innocent.
But there was one case already in the system which would dash Jenkins’ hopes that Evans would have “no successor”.
And this too involved Albert Pierrepoint, the dispassionate dispatcher.
For some reason – in fact, for no good reason I can discover – the executioner of Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan appears to have gone publicly unrecorded, even by exhaustive websites such as
But I discovered it was Pierrepoint after making a Freedom of Information Act request to the Home Office.
And the Cardiff prison files it sent me make sobering reading, consisting as they do of contemporaneous notes by people, who no doubt like Pierrepoint, saw themselves as only cogs in the state machinery.
A letter from the governor asks whether it will be necessary to recall the chaplain from his annual leave to attend Mr Mattan’s execution, particularly as the prisoner is a “Mohammedan”. If so, asks the governor, will the chaplain have his travel expenses from Paignton reimbursed?
The police contact the prison on behalf of a pawnbroker who does not want Mr Mattan hanged in a suit which they have loaned him.
And a document stamped on the day of Mr Mattan’s death details the governor’s “honour” of recording the “judicial hanging”.
One printed question reads: “Has he (Pierrepoint) performed his duty satisfactorily?” The governor’s response is handwritten: “Yes.”
Pierrepoint admitted after he had retired: “I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”
An honest assessment of hanging then from someone who knew what he was talking about.
Mr Mattan was executed on September 3, 1952, the last person hanged in Cardiff jail. In 1998 his conviction was overturned. He was entirely innocent, victim of an appallingly racist trial.
1952, parents and grandparents will point out, is not all that long ago. It’s the year of I Love Lucy and Singin’ In The Rain, of Freddie Trueman, Nat Lofthouse, the Lynmouth floods, the year – forgive me for telling you this – David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams were born.
Today, Mr Mattan would be in his early eighties.
The documents from his cell are a warning from our recent history.
And a reminder that we should be grateful that Pierrepoint and the other gallows bureaucrats are consigned to the past.

First published in the Big Issue

Something to brighten up the Bank Holiday

This rather heartwarming photograph was sent to me by Ceredigion County Council on an email about its Dolphin Watch scheme which ensures boat users take care around marine wildlife.
I thought it was something to brighten up this rather grey Bank Holiday morning.

Death and Taxes

Marie Walsh’s job is all about avoiding conflict but she is heading for a showdown with the Government.
The mediation teacher from Blackwood has refused to pay ten per cent of her income tax.
She began her protest in January 2003 and has so far withheld £134.45 on the self-employed part of her earnings.
In February the Inland Revenue threatened her with court and she risks jail if she continues to face down the tax man.
The Revenue also has the right to seize personal property if she does not cough up, but the money is not there. She has already passed it on to a number of peace organisations, including CND.
This is no common tax dodge then. The 49-year-old started with-holding the cash at the time of the war on Afghanistan and has continued throughout the invasion of Iraq.
Marie, whose work involves resolving disputes (without the use of bunker busters, Black Hawks or suicide bombings), says: “I have a conscientious objection to war. I want the right to pay that proportion of my tax into a fund to prevent conflict without military means.”
Her actions highlight a dilemma for many, particularly as we are all conscribed to our Government’s wars through its access to our hard-earned cash. (About ten per cent of our taxes contribute something like £37bn a year to war).
In fact, only a few weeks after Marie started her protest an early day motion was laid before MPs.
It recognised the “increased distress felt” by many on being “forced to contribute through their taxes to military activity”.
The motion asked the Government to find a way in which people who objected to war could ensure the “military part of their taxes” could be spent on “peace-building initiatives”. It was signed by 20 MPs, including a number from Plaid Cymru.
Tax resistance came of age in the United States during the Vietnam War when the US government acted like some medieval king preparing to take his armies abroad and reintroduced a special war tax.
It was added to phone bills, but eventually half a million Americans were refusing to pay it.
The Hang Up On War campaign continues, with thousands ignoring the surcharge which became permanent under George Bush senior (and now raises about $6bn a year).
Each protester like Marie Walsh risks a knock from the bailiffs. But what other options do they have in our supposed democracy to stop being co-opted into the killing?
Aren’t their individual acts of disobedience now the only way to back up the Not In My Name rhetoric with Not With My Money defiance?
To govern is to choose on behalf of the people and to accept responsibility for your actions. Not one British politician has done that, even though Iraq is now an occupation of a largely unwilling population by largely unwilling armed forces.
Instead politicians distort the truth and shift the blame in ways which would get most of us the sack.
They thrive safe in the knowledge that all we – the voters – get is a single X on a piece of paper every five years.
Did you honestly believe – even before the furore over cash for coronets – that scrawled X offered you the same handle on power as a CEO of a multinational, a city banker or a newspaper owner?
No major Westminster party really opposed the Iraq invasion (don’t be caught out by the Lib Dems’ vomit-inducing, opportunistic, con trick on that one, questioning the action but then supporting it once the killing started) so what real choices are there?
Why shouldn’t one take some power back for one’s self? The Government wants the pound in our pockets so withholding it might be one of the few weapons of mass disruption we have left.
It’s all very well to understand the rottenness of the world we live in. The point, a philosopher once said, is to try to change it.
Marie at least can say she saw what was wrong and she did her small bit to make a difference.

First published in The Big Issue

The Death of Christian Blewitt (update)

The couple who were jailed for killing a three-year-old boy by giving him a “salt overdose” have won their appeals against conviction.
Lawyers for Ian and Angela Gay had asked the Court of Appeal in London to accept evidence that toddler Christian Blewitt – who they had planned to adopt – could have died of natural causes as a result of a type of salt diabetes.
Three judges today quashed their convictions and ordered a retrial.
I wrote about the possibilities that the Gays were innocent in the Western Mail last year and later added the article to my blog.
Ian Gay, 39, and his 40-year-old wife, from Halesowen, West Midlands, were each jailed for five years in January last year for manslaughter following a seven-week trial at Worcester Crown Court.
Christian died in hospital four days after being found unconscious in his room on December 8, 2002, at the their house.
* Not that it is important in the context of this tragic case but it is not true that Angela Gay is originally from Merthyr. This appears to have been a mistake made at some point in the early reporting of this case and repeated a number of times in the belief that it was correct. I believed it to be true as well, but was corrected in a polite letter from Mrs Gay from her jail cell.

Respect for one’s betters

Interesting to see it confirmed that Maggie Jones, the woman who lost the safest Labour seat in Wales, is to take a place in the House of Lords.
She is one of 23 new working life peers and will become a baroness.
Defeated in Blaenau Gwent when Peter Law went Independent, Jones says she is being rewarded for her service to the trade union Unison.
“I am really pleased to have this opportunity to speak up for working class people in the Lords,” she told BBC Good Morning Wales.
And I’m sure the dear old working class are so glad to have you there, your ladyship.

Meanwhile, a survey reveals the Welsh to be the “most God-fearing in the UK”.
The Easter survey shows that despite a decline in numbers going to chapel and church, people in Wales are most likely to worship and to take the Bible as a reliable guide on how to live their lives.
What with the fire and brimstone of the pulpit on one side and self-important trade unionists in ermine on the other, it is sometimes difficult to know in which direction one should doff one’s hat first.

With the new series of Doctor Who starting this Saturday it is timely to report from the show’s recent preview at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.
Labour AM Leighton Andrews reports on his blog that Welsh Tory leader Nick Bourne was heard to comment during proceedings: “It’s the highlight of my life: I’ve just been recognised by a Dalek.”
Now I know these creatures are just cold-blooded automatons intent on bringing misery to the universe… but it’s still nice to see a Tory having a good time. Boom-boom.

The Welsh in Spain

For those interested in Welsh links to the Spanish Civil War, there is an article on Alun Menai Williams in April’s Military History magazine which is now in all good bookshops (as they say).
I’m presently working with Alun on a book about the Battle of the Ebro. It’s a follow up to his engrossing memoir From The Rhondda To The Ebro.
Alun, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, is one of only two surviving Welsh International Brigaders. Until recently it was thought he was the only Welsh-born survivor.
However, during the last few months I’ve had the honour of meeting and interviewing Bob Peters, another Welshman who fought against Franco.
His story, A Bullet Saved My Life, is due to be published by Warren & Pell in July around the time of the 70th anniversary of the start of the civil war.

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