Big Issue Cymru

Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones is to investigate whether The Big Issue – which recently located much of its Wales operation to Scotland – is receiving funding from the Welsh Language Board.
Responding to a letter from Leanne Wood AM outlining her concerns about the company’s decision to make its Wales editor redundant, Mr Jones said he shared her concern about the future of Welsh language content in the magazine.
“I am also concerned with the intention to move Big Issue Cymru jobs to Glasgow,” he said. “It is important to safeguard Welsh language content in the magazine. I will therefore ask the Welsh Language Board to investigate this issue further and will get back to you on this matter.
“I understand that Big Issue Cymru has applied in the past to the Welsh Language Board to fund the Welsh language content in the magazine but there has been no contact recently.”

Big Issue Cymru – to be written in Scotland

The Welsh edition of The Big Issue is moving production to its Scottish office.
Two out of its three editorial staff – including its editor Rachel Howells – are being made redundant. The editor of The Big Issue Scotland is to become the editor of both titles.
The decision is a blow to the homeless people who sell the magazine, to the media in Wales and to readers.
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood has written to Welsh Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones and the Welsh Language Board “to see what pressure they can put on the owners to ensure we don’t lose Big Issue Cymru”.
“The Big Issue Cymru provides news from Wales that you don’t find in many other publications,” she says. “Many people buy it because of its local stories. Big Issue Cymru has played an important role as a campaigning magazine promoting people who don’t have their voices heard. The loss of the Welsh language column is also something which will be felt by a lot of people.
“All of these factors combined could result in fewer people buying the Big Issue in Wales. This is bound to impact on the vendors who are homeless people.”
I have to declare an interest in this. I’ve had a column in Big Issue Cymru for almost four years and will be sad to see Rachel leave.
I haven’t heard from the new regime so don’t know what they plan for the rest of the magazine or how much of it will have any Wales-led content at all.
As Leanne Wood says Big Issue Cymru has often looked at issues which don’t get discussed elsewhere, including ironically the on-going downgrading of our media in Wales.

What made Snow fall?

Psst, do you want to know a secret?
It’s the story of a heroic Welshman, although it doesn’t start off very courageously.
I mean, our heroes are rarely “mean-spirited” and “bony-faced”.
They don’t normally have ill-shaped ears, or make a spectacle of themselves by only putting in their false teeth to eat.
What manner of hero is this, I hear you ask?
Well, his name was Arthur George Owens and he was a very strange hero.
Indeed, it might be asked whether he was a hero at all.
Owens was a shifty character, but that was no drawback in his chosen profession.
He started out as an electrical engineer, representing his firm in Europe during the 1930s.
There, he picked up information which he figured, as Hitler grew more powerful, might be handy to the British government.
After approaching MI6 to work as an agent he quickly concluded two things: they weren’t paying very much and they were so disorganised they were likely to give him away.
Consequently, in 1936, he approached German military intelligence who appealed to both his Welsh nationalism and his wallet.
However, German ineptitude gave him away and the British recruited him to feed dud information to Berlin.
Under the code-name Snow, he became Britain’s first double agent, creating a whole network of imaginary agents to help him fool Berlin. Some were supposedly Welsh saboteurs.
Everything went well with Owens helping unmask a number of German spies in Britain (mostly with the help of his handler, Gwilym Williams, a retired Swansea policeman, but that’s another story).
But drink and Owens’ duplicitous nature proved his downfall. His British spy-masters withdrew him from the field and locked him up for the rest of the war – presumably in case he changed sides again.
There isn’t much written on Owens. He was a rather unsavoury character who inhabited the shadowy world of the black arts, but he had been of real value to his country – helping to persuade Germany that Britain was better prepared to repel invasion than it actually was.
Veteran code-breaker Hervie Haufler is the best source on Snow, having uncovered his story from National Archives files for his book ‘The Spies Who Never Were’.
All the same, much remains unknown about the mysterious Mr Owens.
What was it which led him to be such an effective double-agent and, even more intriguingly, why exactly did his London masters lock him away in Dartmoor Prison?
A little while ago I asked the Home Office about this, but fell foul of two exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, one of which concerns national security.
“The Home Office can neither confirm nor deny whether we hold any relevant information,” it told me.
In a final flourish it added that saying it didn’t have to give reasons for withholding information, did not “necessarily indicate that any information…exists or does not exist.”
Even 60 or 70 years on, we remain in the dark about Snow’s fall from grace.

:: First published in Big Issue Cymru.
If you know anything about Arthur Owens please get in touch:

Recycling history

The International Olympic Committee awarded Germany the 1936 Games before Hitler came to power.
But once German Chancellor, he seized the Olympics as a powerful propaganda tool.
Governments, including those of the United States and the UK, rejected calls for a boycott, even though Jewish athletes had been removed from Germany’s Olympic and Davis Cup teams.
However, international opposition to the Berlin games was great and it is a little known fact that ‘counter-Olympics’ were planned in a number of places.
The biggest of these was to be in Spain. History has forgotten it, not least because the proposed People’s Olympiad never took place.
In the summer of 1936 Spain saw the rise of its own branch of fascism. General Franco moved to seize power and the Spanish Civil War began.
The People’s Olympiad had to be cancelled.
Seven decades on, though, and with another Olympics underway, the spirit of the event is being recalled.
Members of the National Clarion Cycling Club had been expected to take part in the alternative Olympiad in Spain.
After it was cancelled – and with the war in full swing – two decided to undertake an amazing ride from Glasgow to Barcelona to raise money for the Spanish Republic (two other club members were to be killed in the civil war).
That was in 1938. On Wednesday, July 30, 2008, a group of 14 riders left Scotland to begin a 20-day ride on the cyclists’ 70-year-old trail.
They are due to arrive in Barcelona on Tuesday, August 19.
Anna Martí and publisher Alan Warren, who have done so much to keep alive the memory of Welsh veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are on the team.
Maite de Paul Otxotorena, who was born in Spain’s Basque country but now lives near Ammanford, is there in support and has organised the Spanish leg of the route.
Maite says the event ties together not only the 1936 Olympics and those currently being held in Beijing (which have been controversial in their own way too) but also Barcelona’s Games in 1992.
“I was a child in Franco’s military Spain when our memory of our history had been lost,” she says. “Events like the 1992 Olympics and the Expo put an international focus on Spain. People started to research our history.
“But as I have been contacting the mayors and the cycling clubs in the places we will be travelling through no one has heard of the other Olympics planned for 1936.
“Events like this are part of the end of our amnesia.”
I spoke to Anna Martí before the ride as she took a break in her training for the 2,000km journey.
“I have been told to take plenty of clothes for Scotland,” she told me. “But when we get to Spain we come through an area which is like a desert.
“It will be like cycling towards the centre of the Earth.”
:: First published in The Big Issue Cymru, July 28, 2008

Keeping Faith in the USA

On Saturday June 14, Bruce Springsteen plays at the Millennium Stadium.
It will be his first concert in Wales, although he’s been coming to the UK since 1975.
Back then, a huge amount of hype surrounded his third album, Born to Run.
“At last, London is ready for Bruce Springsteen,” boasted the record company’s posters – some of which Springsteen himself climbed up onto billboards to rip down.
In 1984 and 1985 he rode the hype, and indeed contributed to it himself, for the Born in the USA album and tour, a period so overblown that for many it still dominates his image.
Hardcore fans, and he inspires dedication most artists can only dream of, know there is much more to him than that.
In his writing he’s covered every subject from the economic despair of many of America’s industrial heartlands, to the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the atrocities of September 11.
The plight of refugees, and immigrants to the United States from Mexico in particular, have been central to his work.
“For everything the North gives, it exacts a price in return,” warns one Mexican father as his sons head across the Rio Bravo.
Campaigning journalist John Pilger called Springsteen a “fine humanitarian artist”, real praise from someone who has charted so much that has gone wrong in US foreign policy.
In February 1999 a 22-year-old West African immigrant named Kadiatou Diallo died in a hail of police bullets in New York.
Springsteen wrote a song about it, causing the city’s police department to boycott his gigs at Madison Square Garden.
But where are the major artists covering the significant events in Britain’s social and political life?
Why did no artist see the 2005 shooting of unarmed Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by London police officers as a subject for protest?
Billy Bragg has said: “Springsteen makes me keep faith in America”.
Bragg is a dedicated Springsteen fan. So are James Dean Bradfield, of the Manic Street Preachers, and Swansea-born comedian Rob Brydon, who already has his ticket for the Millennium Stadium gig.
And so am I.
I think we all need Bruce – not just America.

(Bruce fans go here.)

Ana Lucia Pinzon is the most senior female trade unionist in Colombia.
And being a trade unionist – of either gender – – in Colombia takes a special kind of courage. An estimated 2,600 have been killed over the last 20 years.
The US and the UK have poured weapons into this deeply divided country, claiming to be fighting a war against drugs.
But Justice for Colombia, a British-based NGO, and others, claim the weapons are instead used in a bloody counter-insurgency war.
And according to Amnesty International, all sides in the conflict, including the army and army-backed paramilitaries, have been “responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
I only know what I read. Ana will describe all this first hand when she gives a special talk at the Memorial Hall, Bodhyfryd, Wrexham, at 2.30pm on Saturday (June 7).

::First published in The Big Issue Cymru, June 2-8, 2008

Questions at university over military academy

Protesters say they’ve found the first chinks in the armour of the arms and defence consortium behind the new St Athan training academy.
Much is being made about the educational courses which will be on offer at the massive base – and the Open University’s involvement in the Metrix Consortium is key to that.
The OU has a commitment to “social justice”. But as one campaigner put it to me: “How will the OU feel if in a few years time Burmese troops are being trained at St Athan?”
It seems people within the OU have been asking similar questions.
Following a demonstration outside the OU offices in Cardiff recently its Wales director Rob Humphreys said its involvement was about “delivering the highest possible quality of support” to Britain’s armed services.
However, when I pressed the OU on claims that staff had been contacting demonstrators with messages of support and that there might even have been discussions about leaving the consortium, the OU was less bullish.
“Any community as large in number and as diverse in opinion as the Open University will include people who hold differing views about some of their organisation’s activities,” came the response from its Milton Keynes HQ.
“More than anywhere else, it is in a university that such diversity of opinion and discussion of issues are – and should be – found. In this case, a very small number of staff have raised concerns about the University’s involvement, and their concerns are noted.
“The involvement of the University in all major projects with external partners is reviewed regularly by senior managers as part of good business practice. The University’s participation in the Metrix Consortium is no different.”
Watch this space then, as the old gossip columnists used to say.

Comedy’s hot property at the moment is Wales-made ‘Gavin and Stacey’ and in a recent programme Gavin and his mum had problems at the Severn Bridge when they couldn’t find cash.
“Don’t they take card?” said mum. “Everyone takes card.”
Welsh Lib Dem leader Mike German spotted an opportunity for a press release.
“Gavin and Stacey may be a comedy, but it highlights a very serious issue, one that hits the people of Wales hard,” he said. “The Welsh Liberal Democrats have repeatedly called for changes to the Severn Bridges Act to allow road users to pay by credit or debit card.”
Far better for Mr G to continue with his other campaign – reported only four months ago – to get the charges scrapped.
As he pointed out then, the tolls on both bridges have already raised £684m – more than double the cost of the 1996 second crossing.
And there’s no sign of a free crossing for some time to come.
In February UK transport minister Rosie Winterton said the tolls would have to raise £995,830,000 before motorists would stop shelling out.
No laughing matter at all.

::Big Issue Cymru, April 21, 2008

The Open University and St Athan

The Open University is apparently facing pressure from its own staff over its part in Metrix Consortium, the developers behind the St Athan military training academy.
I’ve spoken to OU about these concerns and about whether it is considering pulling out of the consortium – the full report is in the Big Issue Cymru (April 21).
Thanks to Luther ap Blissett for flagging this up.

Hold The Front Page has reported journalists’ concerns about provisions in the Counter-Terrorism Bill which could affect media investigation and reporting.
These include new offences of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of the armed forces, new search and seizure powers and new ministerial controls over inquests.
The Newspaper Society has written to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.
:: Photographer or terrorist?

Jesse James’ Welsh roots

Family history is one of the most popular subjects on the internet.
And our fascination with genealogy reveals an interesting truth.
It’s embarrassing to find your father is a shoplifter; but discovering your great-great-grandfather was a cattle rustler is a matter of great pride.
We long to dig up something interesting, even if it makes us a descendant of a criminal.
In this week’s Big Issue I’ve a feature on trigger-happy Jesse James, currently being played by Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
It explores James’ likely Welsh roots with family historian Eric James.
By the way, if you are a male with the surname James and come originally from Pembrokeshire or Caernarvon you can participate in the James Family DNA Study.
“We are actively searching for today’s James relatives in the Wales and the UK,” Eric tells me. “The cost is $199.00US. Individual results are not publicly published. Parties who match other parties are notified and it is their choice to contact each other or not.”
And a positive result does not entitle you to say you look like Brad Pitt.

Asylum Justice

This week’s Big Issue Cymru highlights the case of young mum Veneera Aliyeva who the government is trying to deport to Azerbaijan.
She is currently in Yarl’s Wood removal centre with her two children.
But campaigners in Swansea, where she has lived for more than a year, are trying to get her returned to South Wales.
According to Asylum Justice, 40-year-old Veneera (sometimes Venera) has been persecuted on two counts in Azerbaijan: because she is a Baptist and an Armenian.
During several years of persecution, she went through a series of horrific experiences, including being raped twice.
Asylum Justice, supported by Bethan Jenkins AM, is also trying to help another resident of Swansea.
Zola Gidi has lived in the city for 16 years. She is described as “a wonderful neighbour”, “a loyal friend”, “an extremely hard worker” and “generally a good member of the community”.
All the same, she now faces forcible removal to South Africa.

St Athan, Raytheon and the Cluster Bomb

Raytheon, one of the companies behind the St Athan development, today distances itself from the dreaded cluster bomb.
But, as reported here before, the arms trade – including Raytheon – rarely does what it says on the tin – or the shell casing: there are no “New! Improved! Limb-Remover Landmines!”
The Western Mail today quotes a company spokesman as saying: “Raytheon does not manufacture cluster bombs or any associated delivery vehicles. Any assertion to the contrary is based on dated information that is no longer valid or correct.
“To clarify, Raytheon has never manufactured cluster bombs, but in the past we have been associated with their manufacture because of our contract to produce a missile that can carry different types of munition payloads, determined by the customer…”
Well, there you go. It never made the bombs. But it did make a delivery vehicle.
And what a delivery vehicle.
The item in question was the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, used extensively in Iraq and which in 2006 it sold to Turkey.
According to Raytheon’s own press team in April 2006: “The AGM-154 A (also called JSOW-A) variant dispenses BLU-97 combined-effect bomblets for use against soft andarea targets. It is produced for use on the F/A-18, F-16, F-15E, B-1, B-2 and B-52 aircraft.”

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