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June 30, 2006


After the conference we were lucky enough to have half a day to ourselves before we had to drive to the airport and catch the flight home again. Some of us decided to take a harbour cruise that morning - a brilliant idea! As you can see the day was simply perfect for such an adventure.

Helsinki - Daughter of the Baltic Sea

Helsinki was founded in 1550 but it took a very long time to turn into a prospering town. One reason being that the first settlements were simply in the wrong place. The shallow, swampy waters could not be turned into a harbour for big ships. So in 1640 the barely 100 year old fishing village was removed to the area where the white cathedral is nowadays. But not until the Swedes built mighty a sea fortress on the island of Suomenlinna in the 18th century did the fishing village develop into a city.

Part of the Suomenlinna Sea fortress

Actually the sea fortress is not built on one island but on five. Suomenlinna still serves as a training camp for the Navy but also welcomes visitors and tourists. Owing to its being a sort of protected site quite an interesting flora and fauna have developed on these islands and some people would like to turn in into a nature reserve altogether.

Another part of the fortress

The last photo shows the entrance into Helsinki habour guarded by the sea fortress. The entrance could be closed by pulling heavy chains about it in former times.

The entrance into the harbour

One can easily imagine how effectively Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg as it was called by the Swedes) guarded the harbour and city of Helsinki. History, however, took a surprising turn when the Swedish commandant surrendered the fortress to the Russians without firing a single shot for the Swedes had lost the war against Russia anyway. That's why Finland, the Swedish province, became the autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Tsar in the winter of 1808/1809.

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June 29, 2006

Conference call

The Monk is away to Cincinnati for a conference at which he is giving the paper in the extended post below. The conference is to be attended by fire investigators from all over the world and drawn from all sorts of disciplines. These conferences are a great way to exchange ideas and thinking on a range of issues, some seemingly unimportant, and others giving that "eureka" moment as something not previously considered, or perhaps only vaguely understood becomes clear.

You can visit the conference website through the National Association of Fire Investgators site. Look for the link labelled ISFI 2006.


International Symposium on Fire Investigation
University of Cincinnati
June 2006


Until recently the UK Fire and Rescue Services had no powers to conduct an investigation into the origin, cause or progression of a fire. Such investigations were done, but they were dependent upon a “good will” working arrangement with the occupier of the affected premises and the service. Not unnaturally this could create a problem if the investigator was denied entry or challenged on his or her findings and report, particularly as, until recently, a misleading Circular reiterated the false impression that the fire officer could not be considered an “expert”. As the final conclusion on any report is inevitably an opinion – albeit one supported by the facts and information discovered during an examination of the scene of the incident – this “advice” from the relevant Department of State (currently the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) could be, and has been, used by defence attorneys to get cases dismissed from court. In British legal precedence only an acknowledged “expert” may give “opinion” in evidence, and, if the “expert” is a fire officer, and the case hinges upon his or her “opinion” their exclusion as an “expert” can, and does, have serious consequences.

The situation vis á vis the status of “expert” witness is a complex one, but, in any court in the UK, it is for the judge to determine who is and who is not an “expert” witness. Such decisions are always based upon several criteria, usually a consideration of experience, qualification and credibility in any individual. It is further complicated by the degree to which a witness can be regarded as being “expert”. An expert in the UK legal system is someone who is considered to have a wider than usual knowledge in a particular subject. Thus, an amateur can be declared by the judge to have an expert knowledge of a particular subject and be regarded as more credible than, say, a professional in the same field. This has happened in a case where an amateur student in the field of handwriting was declared in a court to have a greater grasp of the subject than another expert who had less specific experience and knowledge. This “confusion” of advice from a government department has certainly not helped the professional fire officers who must daily complete a report form on incidents which require them to complete a section which states “Supposed cause of fire” – clearly an opinion and certainly one which may lead to further investigation and possibly legal proceedings.

For those who are recognised as national or international “experts”, there is the privilege of being allowed to sit in court during the hearing of testimony from all other witnesses, for the “expert” witness recognised only in that court, this privilege is not available and the witness must wait outside the court until after having given his evidence-in-chief and been cross examined. He or she may then sit in the court to hear the remaining witnesses and experts give their evidence. That said, the status of the Fire Service Investigator remains something of a dichotomy, as the majority do not normally fall into the category of “Court Expert” in the fullest sense of that definition. There are, however, processes in place whereby a Fire and Rescue Service Investigator may, by a process of peer review, registration and qualifications become such an expert.

A special body has been established in the UK as the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practioners, and a suitably experienced and qualified fire service investigator who meets the criteria may make an application to this body for registration. To do this requires the submission of a body or work for peer review, a full curriculum vitae and a review of both qualification and experience. It is, rightly, a rigorous process and registration is not lightly given. Once registered a candidate is subject to regular peer review and may be struck from the register if they can be shown to have failed to follow proper scientific and forensic procedures or to have become “incompetent” as an “expert”. While, as I have already explained, it is for the court to determine whether or not to “recognise” an “expert”, those who are on the Register are more likely to be granted the full status than someone who is not.

The legal position of the fire and rescue service investigators in the UK changed with the receipt of the Royal Assent of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. A new power was created which gives an “Authorised” officer the power to investigate the cause of a fire or why it progressed in a particular way. This set out in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, Section 45 (1)(b) and subsequent clauses qualify this and provide certain additional powers, in particular those provided in Section 46 which make provision for the taking of evidence and for taking “other persons” into the investigation scene.

The provision of legal powers to carry out investigations places an “implied” legal duty upon the service to use these powers and it further implies that they must conduct any investigation in a thoroughly professional and scientific manner. To this end, a series of analyses of the actual roles and expertise required to do this have been conducted and the resulting “Role Map” was then used to determine the knowledge and skills development requirements for those wishing to become competent in the field of fire investigation. These criteria were then used to develop what is the now adopted National Occupational Standard. This has helped enormously in focussing on what fire investigators need to be able to do, to understand and to report in order to be deemed “competent” to do this important task. There are, inevitably parallels with the NFPA 1033 and certainly the systematic approaches set out in NFPA 921 have a powerful influence on the conduct of investigations.

As a part of this, the service has had to learn to work in partnership with the Police Forces and to work to the same rules and standards of evidence. Necessarily this involves working to the parameters of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and related legislation which sets out the requirements for criminal evidence. In practice these have much the same effect as the celebrated Daubert Rules in the US since they require that all evidence is managed in a way that ensured fairness and legitimate access for the defendant.

But the position is complicated by the fact that they are specifically barred from entering, as of right, any premises occupied as a dwelling unless they have fulfilled one of the following criteria:

  • 24 hours notice has been given in writing that they intend to carry out the investigation,
  • A warrant to enter the premises for the purposes of conducting an investigation has been issued by a Magistrate, or
  • The occupier has waived his or her right to receiving notice and consented to the Fire and Rescue Service Officer entering and conducting the investigation immediately.
  • Section 45(3) of the Act states:

  • (3) An authorise officer may not under subsection (1) –
    1. enter premises by force, or
    2. demand admission as of right to premises occupied as a private dwelling unless 24 hours notice in writing has been has first been given to the occupier of the dwelling
  • This is further compounded by the restriction in subsection (4) –

  • (4) An authorised officer may not under subsection (1)(b) enter as of right premises in which there has been a fire if –
    1. the premises are unoccupied, and
    2. The premises were occupied as a private dwelling immediately before the fire,
      Unless 24 hours notice has been given to the person who was the occupier of the dwelling immediately before the fire.
  • In the United Kingdom the Police are solely responsible to the investigation of any criminal activity. Thus their powers are focussed upon preventing crime, investigating crime and assembling the information for the prosecution of the perpetrators of crime. There are certain limits upon these powers, for example, police officers may enter a building in which a crime is believed to be in progress in order to apprehend the criminal(s), they may enter a building in which a crime has been committed to investigate that crime (provided the victim invites them to do so) or they may enter a building in execution of a warrant issued by a court. These are termed “general” powers and do not permit the police officer to override a specific restriction on any other bodies powers. Thus, where the Fire and Rescue Service officer is required by the statute to give notice of his or her intention to investigate, this cannot be overridden by the police officer using their power of entry to “invite” the fire and rescue service to accompany them.

    The legal “bars” placed on the power of entry to investigate fires mean that the fire and rescue service and the police services have to put in place policies and procedures for those occasions where a joint approach is required. Ad hoc arrangements will simply lay both sides open to attack by the defendant’s legal team in any court and the prosecutions case may be jeopardised by this. Thus, it is vitally important that the procedures have legal credibility and are robust enough to withstand scrutiny in the cold light of the court room.

    The Fire and Rescue Service investigator must, in exercising his powers to investigate also keep in mind two very important aspects in regard to the investigative process. First, if it is a crime scene, or is potentially a crime scene, the police have the overriding authority and their lead must be followed. The FRS cannot and must not, undertake activities which could lead to a criminal investigation being obstructed or in anyway compromised. Secondly, the process of investigation where there is a possibility that some form of enforcement action, for instance in the case of an offence being committed under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, and for which the FRS are the enforcing authority, must be conducted in accordance with the rules determined by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the Criminal Justice Act and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act. All of these contain restrictions or procedural requirements intended to ensure that the rights of the individual are not in any way compromised or that a miscarriage of justice occurs.

    The Fire Investigator is therefore required to be familiar with the procedures set out in Code B of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1988 which sets out the requirements for the collection, collation and control of evidence. They must also adhere to the procedures for interviewing witnesses, recording of interviews either on paper (which requires a verbatim record) or by means of electronic devices. Everything done during the investigation should be recorded in a “Contemporaneous Note” and these must be kept in a particular style and format. A simple “aide memoir” provides a useful guide on this and is based on a simple “Acrostic” –

    There shall be NO:
            Lines missed,
            Blank spaces,
            Overwriting, and
            Written in INK, with
            Spare pages struck through!

    The notes must be dated and signed and the note book itself must have consecutively numbered pages. Where a unique note book is used for each case, the books must have a unique identifying number on the cover and a register kept of who they were issued too and for what purpose or case. Failure to follow these simple rules will usually result in the court refusing to allow an investigator to use his note book as an aide memoir in the witness stand – usually with embarrassing results! This is neatly summed up in Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which creates a presumption in favour of a witness in criminal proceedings refreshing memory from a document whilst giving evidence provided that:

  • He/she states that the document represents his or her recollection at the time he or she made it; and
  • The witness’s recollection was likely to be significantly better at the time the document was made (or verified).
  • The fact that the witness may read the statement he/she may have made at the time of the investigation or given to another investigating authority prior to giving evidence does not affect this presumption. This is a well established principle in the UK and one which the courts guard rigorously, taking a very strict view on the acceptability of note books as a result.

    Interviews conducted by the investigator must also follow the strict guidelines set out in PACE Code C, creating another training aspect for the would be investigator. Code C provides a definition of “Interviews” which makes a distinction between a conversation with someone who may impart certain information, and an interview conducted under caution and along formal guidelines, it is: -

    “An interview is the questioning of a person regarding his involvement or suspected involvement in a criminal offence or offences which, by virtue of paragraph 10.1 of Code C, is required to be carried out under caution”.

    It means in essence that any interview conducted under these rules and in a formal way has to be done using a technique referred to a “Cognitive Interviewing”. This ensures that the interviewer cannot be accused of “leading” a witness or “putting words in the witness’ mouth”. Such interviews should always be conducted with one person recording the interview and the other asking the questions. The technique is one which requires careful thought and a little planning. It also requires very good listening skills and an ability to recall things said which require further expansion and lead to secondary questions.

    The “Caution” referred to in PACE is one which has to be administered whenever a person is under suspicion of having committed an offence, but, for the most part, in any fire investigation, it will not be used or administered by the fire officer. The crime of arson (Willful Fire Raising in Scotland!) is an offence which falls within the ambit of the Police and they will therefore always be the authority who will administer the caution and conduct the interview.

    The next item which is of considerable importance in developing good investigative practice for fire personnel is the importance of recognising control of entry to premises and the control of gathering and collating items in evidence. “Contamination” of evidence through lax control or carelessness, whether through ignorance or bad management, is viewed by courts to be inexcusable, and the investigator needs to know and understand the rules governing this aspect of the investigative process very well.

    PACE Code B deals specifically with the Seizure of Articles and Substances and reference to both the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 Section 46 and to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 give the Fire and Rescue Service certain powers to seize and examine items – an activity which clearly falls under the aegis of Code B! Thus, the fire investigator needs to be aware of the process for collecting samples, for recording them properly and ensuring that they are secured and packaged in a manner which preserves the integrity of the item. This poses a further serious question, one of control and of managing the storage of any such items, as these must be retained in a secure facility under continuous control and be available for examination by an officer of any court, or the defence and other interested parties.

    In a rather interesting way, the Fire and Rescue Service officer who exercises any enforcement powers is also incorporated into another Act aimed at regulating the powers and the use of powers for the police when it comes to surveillance. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, referred to as RIPA, allows the fire and rescue services to access certain restricted information sources, but to do so, they must appoint a person or persons as “SPoC” – not the famous Vulcan – but a Single Point of Contact person through whom all requests must be channelled. The Act also makes clear that certain activities, such as “staking out” premises, by, for example, booking into a hotel in order to check certain management compliances with regulations, constitutes a “controlled” activity for which permission must be obtained prior to commencement of the surveillance.


    The National Occupational Standards have been drawn up in an effort to identify all the knowledge and skills necessary for competence in the field of fire investigation. These standards were the work of a committee of fire investigation practioners and an expert in the development of National Occupational Standards, and were designed to be broad enough to embrace all levels of investigation and all the various disciplines involved. This is a comprehensive approach, but it is also intended to describe the knowledge, skills and functions required for ALL fire investigators, police, fire and other agencies and independent operators. It spans the three “levels” identified in preliminary work on developing these so that the UK’s investigators fall into one of three groups.

    With such a broad brush approach, the interpretation of the NOS is key to determining the appropriate training required at each level. It will also be recognised that the vast majority of Fire and Rescue Service personnel operate at Level 1, with a number at Level 2 and a very small number able to qualify for recognition at Level 3. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this paper, the courts determine the status of individual witnesses as “expert” or not and this determination is based on the individuals qualifications, depth of knowledge and experience and credibility. Recent unfortunate miscarriages of justice in cases where conviction was based almost entirely on “Expert Opinion” have made courts extremely wary in this regard and the fire investigator is no exception to this. Thus, anyone who seeks to be recognised as an “expert” in the field of fire investigation is required to undergo a rigorous registration process which requires the submission of evidence of qualification, assessment of skill in applying knowledge and technique and a peer review of cases investigated. This will permit their being eventually recognised by being placed on a register of Forensic Practioners managed by the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practioners (CRFP) and to regular review of their competence in the field. The Council manages the registration of a wide range of forensic groups, each embracing a specific forensic discipline, so a person thus registered is not unnaturally registered to a particular field and does not become “expert” in any other discipline unless specifically so registered.

    For personnel in the Fire and Rescue Services, the National Occupational Standard can be broken down into individual “modules” for the purposes of personnel development, allowing a mixture of training, learning and qualification approaches to be adopted. These Modules provide four Knowledge/Skills groups which cover: -

  • Planning for Fire or Explosion Investigation,
  • Investigate the origin and cause of a fire
  • Analyse the findings and respond to the findings of an investigation, and
  • Report the findings at formal proceedings.
  • img01.jpg
    A graphic representation of the elements required for a structured fire investigation and the areas in which competence is required to be achieved.

    These somewhat vague categories encompass a wide range of activity falling broadly into a knowledgebase acquisition covering: -

  • Fire science, including the physics and chemistry of fire, fire spread and behaviour and related matters,
  • Fuels, inhibitors and ignition sources,
  • Structures, structural materials and their behaviour in fire,
  • Data collection techniques,
  • Investigation procedures including scene management, access control and record keeping,
  • Analysis methods and tools including the use of computer modelling,
  • Burn pattern analysis,
  • Evidence collection and controls,
  • Fire pathology, DNA evidence and procedures for avoiding contamination of this,
  • Interviewing techniques and procedures, and
  • Legal authority, restrictions and controls.
  • Naturally, there may also be a need to understand, if not to actually carry out, the processes by which laboratory analysis may be conducted. There will certainly be a need to understand what, if anything, can be achieved by forensic chemists and what they will not be able to provide. At all levels there will be a need to understand and to be able to carry out simple experiments and research to find additional information about the behaviour of materials or fuels which may throw further light on something found in the course of a scene examination.

    That said, the difficulty for those designing training for all personnel who may be required to conduct a fire investigation in one form or another and at any given level, is how much information is essential and what can safely be assumed to be “prior learning” knowledge.

    Thus, at the Level 1, the training development may include some electronic learning, some classroom based learning, mentoring and peer guidance and accreditation of knowledge gained on other programmes. At Level 2, this needs to be expanded and focussed on a broader platform providing again, a mixed learning approach which takes account of transferable knowledge, experience and practical and classroom acquired knowledge and skills to bring personnel up to the threshold levels of competence.

    Those aspiring to become Level 3 Investigators need to undertake a Degree level programme to underscore their knowledge base (although this can be achieved by other means) and this must then be balanced against experience on the ground, peer review of submitted work and performance under cross examination in court. Successful candidates may then be registered through a body called the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) and may then be considered by the Courts as “recognised” experts.

    As originally envisaged by the Training Sub-group of the Arson Control Forum, the “levels” where broadly defined as being: -

  • Level 1 – any person in the FRS who was required to complete a Fire Damage Report and record a “Supposed Cause of Fire”.
  • Level 2 – a specialist investigator from the FRS and possibly from an Insurance company or other “non-Forensic” discipline with a wide range of experience and some qualification who may or may not have been a recognised “expert”, and
  • Level 3 – a Forensic Investigator who specialises in investigating fires and explosions and who is an acknowledged Court “Expert” who has either a Post Graduate Degree or Doctorate and specialist knowledge in a particular aspect of such investigations.
  • Subsequent development by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) special interest Task Group on Arson Reduction and Fire Investigation has placed a broader interpretation upon these and currently envisages the levels as:

  • Level 1 – Fire and Rescue Service personnel whose role includes Incident Command and requires them to complete a report referred to as an “FDR 1” or an “FDR 3” both of which require completion of a section headed “Supposed Cause of Fire”,
  • Level 2 – FRS and Police Crime Scene Managers/Investigators who are required to investigate fires which involve a fatality, a criminal act, a fire of special or unusual interest or where the Level 1 investigator has been unable to identify a cause, and
  • Level 3 – which involves FRS Investigators, Forensic Scientists, Police and other Specialist Investigation Agencies. These will include persons who are recognised “Expert Witnesses” in their field under the UK legal system.
  • This has somewhat muddied the waters as far as the original intent was concerned, but does provide a useful platform from which personnel can plan their career development requirements. It is also helpful in terms of identifying the “start-up” level for individuals coming into the field from outside the Fire and Rescue Services since it makes clear that Level 1 is a basic level for form filling purposes only. The key area is obviously, for the majority of those wishing to gain a specialist role, in Level 2.

    With the advent of the registration process, many senior FRS investigators are now looking to become Level 3 investigators and have undertaken Masters Degree studies in order to develop their knowledge base appropriately. This, taken with prior training and their experience in the field enables them to apply for registration, and, subject to the court’s recognising this, to be acknowledged as Expert Witness. Naturally, the number of FRS personnel who reach these exalted heights will necessarily be restricted since many will not have the opportunity to build a sufficiently broad portfolio for registration.


    The training programmes available to would be UK fire investigators are available from a number of providers. These range from one and two day “awareness” programmes to one, two and even three week courses which provide a mixture of theoretical knowledge development and practical skills in examining a fire scene. Several providers now deliver programmes broken down into Introductory”, “Foundation” and “Practical” usually of about a weeks duration at least for the last two programmes. Some offer “Advanced” courses as a follow on from their initial progression and several offer “Maintenance” courses for those who need to renew or refresh their skills after a period of relative inactivity in the field. All such programmes are based on the requirements set out in the National Occupational Standards and this means, in effect, that they also cover the requirements for NFPA 1033 in so far as that standard is applicable to the UK situation.

    Raising the awareness of the importance of noting the state of the fire and the vehicle or structure at the point of arrival – and then ensuring that, while effectively extinguishing the fire, the scene is preserved as far as possible, is an important element in developing Level 1 candidates. (Photograph © P G Cox 2006)

    For the majority of Fire and Rescue Service personnel, their personal development in this discipline will begin with a Fire Investigation and Forensic Awareness programme provided usually “in Service” either by the particular Service’s own FI Team or by an outside provider. This is usually aimed at Crew and Watch Managers and is aimed at developing their ability to identify the point of origin in a relatively uncomplicated scene, and thereby the cause, or in recognising a scene where a higher level of investigation will be required and to preserve as much as possible of the potential evidence it contains. They will receive advice on how to prevent the loss of evidence, on DNA contamination and how to secure and preserve the scene as far as possible.

    As with a vehicle, the Level 1 candidate needs to recognise the importance of being able to recall and interpret the state of the fire at the moment of arrival and to preserve as much as possible of any external evidence which may assist in prosecuting a criminal at a later stage. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    Such a programme typically covers:

  • Legal authority, restraints and restrictions,
  • Identifying a point of origin and likely cause,
  • Electrical causes of fire,
  • Data collection and information gathering,
  • Scene management and preservation,
  • Scene examination, pattern analysis and evidence interpretation,
  • Forensic awareness and preservation of evidence,
  • Restrictions and triggers for higher level investigation, and
  • Hand over procedures and information exchange.
  • Such a programme is usually run over two days as a minimum and would include some practical and “table top” exercises in simple evidence analysis and examination. It should be said that Health and Safety issues form a large part of the National Occupational Standards in Fire Investigation, but as this is an integral part of most fire and rescue service officers “mainstream” development, it is generally covered in the form of “reminder” and “refresher” elements within the appropriate sessions in any programme of this duration. Not unnaturally there needs to be an element of skill and knowledge assessment attached to the programme and this can take several forms, although a mixture of practical assessment in the workplace coupled with a form of knowledge testing is often required to show the individual has developed the necessary ability and is ready to begin the next stage of development.

    Ideally, candidates would be able to examine a real scene in training, but table top exercises using good photographs which adequately illustrate the learning points can be as effective. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    img05-glass.jpg  img06-sockets.jpg
    Equally valuable is allowing candidates to examine real artefacts and requiring them to answer questions or a series of questions concerning the item or the state of it. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    For the Level 2 practitioner, the development programmes build upon their foundation knowledge of fire behaviour and fire fighting, with, for the fire and rescue service candidate a development of understanding of the investigative process, building on the techniques of examining, recording and reporting. To the pre-existing store of knowledge will be added a number of scientific subjects and further development of the overall understanding of fire behaviour, fuels, ignition sources, structural materials and furnishings. Key to the whole is the need to ensure that their methodology is able to withstand critical scrutiny by peers or a court. Police Crime Scene Managers/Investigators and others from outside the fire service may need to undertake some additional development programmes in order to acquire the underpinning knowledge of fire and fire behaviour required in order to interpret fire debris. All will need to become experts in the techniques of excavation, examination and analysis of information in order to reach the required level of expertise required for recognition as a competent investigator. Key to the Level 2 candidates’ development is the encouragement of a wider purview of the role of a fire investigation. It is essential that candidates recognise the need to examine all aspects of the event and not confine themselves to identifying simply a point of origin and cause. Fires are extremely complex events and many things combine to make a fire in one scenario behave in an entirely different manner to that in another scene which is essentially the same in terms of fire load, distribution of fuel packages and dimensions of compartments.

    This graphic depiction of the information flow from sound Fire Investigation demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic approach. Each of the items shown can be further expanded to provide further sub headings and information trees.

    The programmes devised to address the development needs of a Level 2 investigator must also take account of the levels of knowledge that may have been acquired by the candidate in the course of other training, career development programmes focussed upon fire fighting or command and control. There is a need to address the knowledge gaps which may occur in candidates who do not have a fire and rescue service background, and it is often necessary to assist FRS candidates to refocus and recognise the manner in which knowledge they hold which relates perhaps to fire extinguishment is essential in the interpretation of some of the data they have now to analyse in interpreting the fire damage they are examining. Typical examples are the indicators left by search and rescue teams, or where hose streams may have changed the patterns left by soot or flame movement. These programmes generally divide into two parts; theoretical and practical development and will cover broadly the following:

  • Legislation, authority, powers, duties, controls and restrictions,
  • Smoke flame and heat movement and behaviour,
  • Fire science including chemistry, physics and fire promoters and inhibitors,
  • Electrical fault finding and contributors to initiation,
  • Ignition sources and initiators,
  • Toxicology of debris and health and safety assessment,
  • Scene management, entry control and log books,
  • Inter-agency working and sharing of information,
  • Evidence gathering and controls,
  • Pathology, DNA and techniques for identifying fatalities,
  • Fingerprint and DNA evidence recovery and preservation,
  • Information gathering through documents, interviews and other sources,
  • Forensic scene examination including scientific methodology and the analysis process,
  • Debris analysis,
  • Pattern analysis and interpretation,
  • Correlation of data,
  • Recording activities, evidence and data through plans, photographs, notes and video etc., and
  • Development of a hypothesis, testing and reviewing the same, and finally being able to write a report and defend their findings under cross examination in court.
  • Naturally the candidates will need to be given the opportunity to get their hands dirty in a physical scene examination or two as well. Again the mixture is very much a case of using lectures, demonstrations, table top exercises and as many practical scenes as possible (and economically sustainable!) into the mix. In this way the candidates get the benefit of lectures and practical sessions with acknowledged experts in all the disciplines involved in fire investigation.

    Emphasis is also laid upon the need to avoid contamination of samples or scenes, particularly where a crew may have responded from another incident and may well have carried debris or traces of accelerants with them. The use of ever more sensitive instruments, and the sensitivity of a trained dog’s nose means that greater care than ever before is needed to ensure that the possibility of accidental contamination is reduced to a minimum.

    At this level as well, candidates need to develop the ability to use as wide a range of research tools and sources as possible. While they may not be classed as “experts” in the fullest sense of the word, they do have an obligation to behave in as professional and expert a manner as their training, personal development and role allow. When in court, the judge may well decide to accept their expertise as being of a sufficiently high standard to recognise them as experts in that court and it is essential that they are able to support their arguments and opinions with a sound background of written reference or practical demonstration of experience. The training needs to include this element to ensure that every candidate, no matter what their background, has had the opportunity to develop these skills.

    Realism in the setting of scenes is not a luxury, it is an essential tool if a realistic fire scene is to be achieved.

    The practical work on any programme needs to be as realistic as possible, so the scenes built for training need to reflect reality as closely as possible. This, in its turn, presents the trainer with something of a challenge as they must attempt to “engineer” the fire scene in a manner that produces the evidence and the learning outcomes they want. There are several ways of doing this, one being to ensure that the fire is relatively carefully controlled by controlling the fuel packages present, the smoke and heat plume or simply by restricting the size of the fire or length of burn. Some trainers argue that it is not necessary to allow the compartment to go to full room involvement, others that to do so provides the students with a worthwhile challenge from which they stand to learn a great deal more. Either way, one aspect which does need to be addressed is the technique to be followed for an excavation – which sooner or later will be something an investigator will have to do!

    The same scene as in the foregoing photograph – but post fire as the students see it.

    Excavation skills are best acquired by actually carrying out this often laborious and sometimes thankless task. The tools required for it include “stepping plates”, trowels, sieves, protective clothing including dust masks and goggles and it is best approached in the same manner as an archaeologist approaching an ancient burial site. In some fire scenes there may also be a need to wear full enclosure coveralls to avoid DNA contamination, particularly where it may be a suspected murder scene.

    Stepping plates are used to avoid destroying small items which may be vital evidence when first entering a room or compartment to be excavated.

    By avoiding treading on the primary surface, an investigator can preserve any evidence that may be present if there is a need to reach a particular area before commencing a more detailed examination.

    Part of the training for scene preservation is to develop an awareness of the need to employ a “Common Approach Path”, a route agreed between all agencies present to be used for all access and egress from a scene to avoid disturbing or destroying other evidence which may lie in areas adjacent to the scene or in areas which it is not intended to examine immediately. The use of the CAP must then be rigorously observed and enforced by the scene manager, who should also keep a strict log of everyone accessing or exiting the scene. This is particularly important in any scene where there has been a fatality or an explosion.

    As ever, the recording of the data found, acquired or analysed must be done in a methodical and comprehensive manner. Note taking and keeping has to be done methodically and carefully, photographs logged and a record kept of precisely what each frame depicts. Plans need to be drawn to show where items were before recovery and to mark out the patterns left by the fire.

    Archaeologists work to a grid reference and this is a useful technique in fire investigation as well.


    Exploded views often help to show a contextual relationship between items of significance and the marks of burn or plume patterns on walls of furniture.

    Naturally the development of the investigator has to make provision for the fact that he or she may well be faced with an explosion scene. There can be many causes of explosion, the most common in the UK, despite appearances in the media, is still the inappropriate use of gas, tampering with gas supplies or gas appliances or simply the accidental and undetected discharge of gas. Dispersed phase fuel air explosions will generally involve a wide range of specialists drawn from organisation such as the Health and Safety Executive, the Gas Supplier and the Forensic Science Services or similar private organisations such as the J H Burgoyne partnership. Usually the fire officer fire investigator is on the periphery of this, but may well hold vital knowledge which can contribute significantly to the investigation provided he or she has been adequately trained in this field. As already mentioned, joint working, shared information and agreed controls on entry, exit and the use of equipment and a common approach path become absolutely essential.

    The shattering force of a relatively small device in a small car. This was the result of a commercially available “Shock Rocket” strapped to cement block and 2.5 litres of petrol mixed polyurethane foam. The quantity of explosive was about 70 grams of Flash Powder. (Photograph © P G Cox 2006)

    For the fire officer understanding the mechanism of deflagrating or detonating explosions and the damage patterns likely to arise from each is a matter of some importance. Some air vapour mixtures, such as petrol or Propane, can produce blast forces close to those one would normally expect to see with the use of high explosive. Recognising the difference is not always easy, but it can be done if the investigator has been given the opportunity to develop the skill.

    A backdraft seen head on – another form of fuel/air deflagration. Recognising the differences between this and other explosions is a skill developed through knowledge and experience. (Photograph © Dr-ing S Löffler 2005)

    Increasingly the misuse of fireworks, pyrotechnics and other commercially available “low” explosives and incendiaries has created a need for training in this area of expertise, although it being highly specialised, it is generally handled by specialist teams. The terrorist threat in Europe and elsewhere has also increased the chances of an investigator finding himself or herself faced with peroxide based explosives and residues thus making it necessary that they are fully conversant with the risks these pose.

    Maintenance of competence and currency is a problem for many fire officer investigators as the mobility of roles moves them from a role which includes fire and explosion investigation to one which does not. To this end short “refresher” courses have been developed which allow candidates to catch up on changes to legislation, renew skills or re-confirm their ability to investigate a fire. These programmes are structured to put in more practice and keep the theory to a level of “confirmation” or “refresher”.

    One aspect which needs to be mentioned here, and which crosses the gap between a Level 2 and a Level 3 investigation, is the need to use engineering tools such as computer modelling in order to provide confirmation or support for a hypothesis. For many investigators this has become an essential tool, particularly when faced with analysing a fire event in a building of innovative design or which has apparently behaved in an unusual manner. Essential too, is an understanding of the interactions between various components of any “fire engineered” fire safety solution in a large structure, and it may be necessary for the investigator to analyse the effectiveness or otherwise of the systems – and their effect on the fire growth, spread and development.

    Finally we have to deal with the Third Level of investigator, usually a forensic scientist of some years experience and very highly, if narrowly qualified in a particular field. The vast majority of those working at this level are in the private sector, having started out as graduate entrants and worked their way through a range of experience and further study usually culminating in a PhD, a course the vast majority of FRS investigators will never achieve. Their foundation knowledge is usually, but not exclusively developed in University and the focus of their development beyond graduation is in gaining the practical experience and credibility that goes with being recognised as a specialist “expert” in the field of forensic practice and investigation.

    The recent introduction of a Register of Forensic Practitioners for Fire Investigation has seen a number of fire and rescue service personnel seeking to gain recognition at this level. This has generally been welcomed, but it does place a very heavy requirement on the fire and rescue service investigator who must now seek higher qualification alongside his or her experience in order to develop their knowledge base academically to achieve the level of knowledge a court expects of a person working at this level. Several universities have introduced Master of Science programmes in Forensic Science which include a fire and explosion investigation element and these have attracted a number of fire and rescue service officers who wish to expand their knowledge and skills into this field. Again this is a positive step since it can only benefit their employers in the longer term to have people capable of operating at this level.

    Finally, it is important to appreciate that at all levels the training uses the concept of “Structured” investigation procedure to develop the professional abilities of all those who investigate fire or explosion scenes. Any person who embarks upon an investigation and does not follow the defined structural approach to fire investigation – as has been clearly shown by recent challenges to “expert” testimony in the US – is fundamentally failing to follow the simplest principles of sound investigation technique. It matters not whether it is likely to be subject to judicial proceedings or not, clearly the investigation is of value only if it is pursued and conducted with thoroughly professional vigour and a scientific process. Those who embark on an investigation with a preconceived notion of the outcome will find only the evidence that supports their particular conclusion.

    The mind is like a parachute – it works best when it is open. Professional trainers in the UK do their utmost to ensure that those they are developing share that concept.

    A Representation of the Structured Approach to Fire Investigation


    National Occupational Standards - Fire Investigation - Determine Origin, Cause and Development of Fire and/or Explosion; Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; 2005

    NFPA 1033; National Fire Protection Association.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:16 AM | TrackBack

    June 28, 2006

    From Hotel to City Hall

    Next to the Market Square, right at the heart of Helsinki's Neoclassical town centre, looms the bluish-grey facade of the town's City Hall. Construction of the houses around here began after the devastating fire in 1808. In 1812 Helsinki became the capital of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire but an Autonomous Grand Duchy nonetheless. This new status required of course more stately looking buildings in the city.

    The Helsinki City Hall

    The City Hall was originally built as a hotel, the Seurahuone Hotel, which was opened in 1833. The banquetting rooms on the first floor must have been quite a sight. The main hall was huge and could accomodate up to 1600 people. The hotel also had separate gambling rooms and - would you believe it - actually 27 rooms for guests. The members of the conference were lucky enough to be invited inside for a reception by the Mayor. The Main Hall could easily accomodate several hundreds of us, a splendid buffet and a good selection of drinks including astonishing amounts of red and white wine.

    The Main Hall - restored to its former splendour in the 1960's

    Those must have been the days, indeed, with the Seurahuone Hotel being the centre of society life in the 19th century Helsinki, housing balls and concerts for Russian and Finnish officers. As a result of the Tsar's ban on foreign travel Helsinki also welcomed many visitors of the Russian gentry who no doubt added even more colour to the social scene. The Seurahunone did its utmost to keep its popularity providing such newfangled things as gas lamps and running water as early as the 1860's and even electricity in the 1880's. During WW I the hotel served as a naval hospital and was turned into a home for the Helsinki City Council in the 1920's. The building was completely renovated in the late 1960's to suit the modern architectural spirit, restoring only the main hall, the facade and the entrance colonades to its former glory

    On the day we visited the City Hall some specially designed pieces of everyday use were on display in the foyer. I must admit that I have a weakness for scandinavian design especially where it concerns household goods. The design usually proves to be extremely simple but effective and it is often something completely different to what we are used to around here. I often think it is because of the long, dark winters scandinavians have to spend indoors which makes them spend a lot of thought on how to turn their homes and houses into extremely comfortable places.

    Design water taps (and a bicycle) on display in the foyer

    Posted by Mausi at 06:44 PM | TrackBack

    June 27, 2006

    Public smoking

    There's a debate going on in Germany at the moment if smoking should be banned in all public places by law. This would also include bars and restaurants. So far, the government has relied on restaurant owners to voluntarily provide guests with non-smoking areas. But in view of 140,000 deaths a year from tobacco related illnesses - more than from traffic accidents, alcohol and drug abuse, and AIDS combined - the politicians are trying to take some more draconian measures after a first attempt failed eight years ago.

    Of course, with tobacco there's a lot of money involved. So things are not as easy as they might seem. The tobacco industry tries to tell people that passive smoking is no more hazardous to your health than using a mobile. All I can say is that having someone smoking beside me in a room gives me a capital headache, burning eyes and a sore throat. I haven't been inside pubs for years, only in summer when you can sit outside, because of that The restaurant and hotel owners are apparently afraid that people will stay away from bars and pubs if smoking is banned inside. I would suggest that once you get the smokers taking their drinks and cigarettes outside you have a real chance of attracting the non-smokers inside! I really enjoyed the Scottish pubs during my Easter holiday this year with all the smokers having a quiet get-together outside and the non-smokers sitting inside in warm and clear air enjoying a pint and a meal. Locals had told us that before smoking was banned in pubs you couldn't see the hand before your eyes inside there and judging by the layers of smoke residues covering walls, ceiling and smoke detector we could readily believe them.

    As the government gets quite a bit of revenues out of the heavily taxed tobacco an open confrontation with the tobacco industry is the last thing the politicians want. So they've had this ingenious thought of delegating the responsibility for banning smoking in restaurant and pubs to the federal states, which will undoubtedly result in 16 different solutions. You better watch out which state you are in if you are a smoker! The Federal Government will probably ban smoking in its ministry buildings and sell that as a big success!

    Some federeal states have tentatively started to try banning smoking in schools. This should be a matter of course in my eyes! When I went to school there was a big discussion if smoking, which was forbidden inside the building, should be allowed in the school yard for teachers and pupils over 16. In the end there was a certain corner in the yard where the smokers could meet. What really annoyed me that there were some teachers who openly ignored the smoking ban inside the school building - so much for setting an example!

    In the state where I live pupils are no longer allowed to smoke in the school yard, so they just leave the yard during breaks and smoke somewhere else. I don't feel that's a solution to the problem - as long as we cannot convince kids that smoking is neither 'cool' nor a sign of personal freedom, smokers will always find a place somewhere.

    Robert Proctor, a Professor at Stanford University, has stated that one reason the German anti-smoking movement is so weak is the influence of the Nazi's hostility to smoking. During the Nazi regime smoking was barred in many workplaces, government offices, hospitals and rest homes. According to Professor Proctor the tobacco industry took advantage of that by successfully portraying the members of the anti-smoking movement as intolerant and fascist. And for the nicotine addicts smoking was a sign of personal freedom and a new way of living.

    In my opinion that is probably taking things a bit far. One shouldn't forget that the body gets addicted to nicotine. I know that my father started smoking at the age of 16 or 17 because it killed the feeling of hunger during the war. His consumation of cigarettes gradually increased over the years and after several unsuccessful attempts of giving it up for good he eventually succeeded by sheer will power. By then he was a true chain smoker.

    What annoys me most about this whole thing is duplicity. Everyone is welcome to ruin his or her own health by smoking. But in public places where non-smokers cannot escape being subjected to passive smoking politicians should not hesitate to put a ban on smoking just because they are afraid of losing voters or money from taxing tobacco. On the other hand they don't think anything of paying large amounts for the health care of people who suffer from tobacco related illnesses. And as examples from other European countries (Ireland, Italy etc.) have shown the public uproar was far less than had been expected.

    Come on, politicians, be brave for once and go ahead!

    Posted by Mausi at 04:34 PM | TrackBack

    June 26, 2006

    The City of Helsinki

    The city was founded by the Swedish King Gustavus Vasa in 1550. He actually orderred the inhabitants of three villages to leave their homes and resettle in Helsinki at the coast of the Baltic Sea. I am sure nowadays no drastic measures would be necessary to make people live in this beautiful town.

    As I've said before the famous architect Alvar Aalto wanted to introduce a mediterranean atmosphere into the town when he planned Finlandia Hall. About a hundred years before Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann had already been successful in doing that when he designed Hakasalmi Villa which is situated next to Finlandia Hall.

    Hakasalmi Villa

    The building was completed in 1845 and has served as Helsinki City Museum ever since 1911. There is a little cafe in front of Hakasalmi Villa where we used to take a cafe latte during lunch break. Sitting there in the light shade or bright sunshine felt more like being in Tuscany than southern Finland.

    But Helsinki has also been under strong Russian influence having been part of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. There are still quite a few monumental buildings around in Helsinki that somehow are quite noticeable among the rest of the houses. An example is the Finnish Parliament building right opposite Villa Hakasalmi. And there are a few others as well like the central train station.

    Building of the Finnish Parliament

    Finns are inventive people and I like the way they make use the bits of bedrock that are found everywhere in town. This bit for example has been turned into a splendid playground for children.

    Ever met such cuddly stone trolls?

    Helsinki is a fascinating city even if you only walk through it. If I had to live in a big city Helsinki would certainly be on top of my list.

    Posted by Mausi at 06:56 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    June 25, 2006

    Church without Bells

    During the Helsinki conference I passed Tempelliaukio Square each morning on my way from the hotel to Finlandia Hall. Part of this square is the famous "Rock Church" planned and built in the 1960's. The idea of building in church in this spot dates back as far as the very beginning of the 20th century. It took, however, about 30 years for a building plan to evolve that everyone could agree on. Excavation work began in 1939 but was stopped by the Winter War. After the war, it was decided to make a fresh start: another architectural competition was launched which was won ty the brothers Timo und Tuomo Suomalainen and led to the present design. It is considerably smaller than the first ideas that went for a cathedral but spectacular none the less.

    The church was quarried directly into bedrock which crops up in various places all over Helsinki. The idea behind this was to preserve this rock formation and consequently the church had been built into the rock as far as possible. The outer stone wall surrounding the curch is nade if quarried stones held together by steel bindings. It shields the church quite effectively from street noise and from people walking on the rock above.

    Entrance to Temppeliaukio Church

    The entrance to the church is at street level which creates the impression of entering a cave and transports you right back in time to meetings of the first Roman Christians in the catacombs. After passing through a short corridor, however, you are standing in a pool of light inside the church itself.

    Inside the rock

    The church seems much bigger from the inside than it looks from outside and provides seats for no less than 750 people. The roof consists of a copper dome attacked to the rock by reinforced concrete beams of various sizes. 180 skylights are embedded between the beams allowing the light to literally flood the room.

    The walls inside are bedrock and quarried stone, the colour of the predominant red granite giving the whole room a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. The surface has been left rough for acoustic and aesthetic considerations. I would have loved to hear the organ being played in there but wasn't that lucky. Quite a unique feature is water being allowed to run through cracks in the rock face of the walls and led away through covered drains in the floor. And the altar wall is formed by an ice-age rock crevice. It seems to me that nature has found a way of easily coexisting with man in this church or perhaps vice versa?

    Man put his hand to the flinty rock,
    and overturns mountains by the roots.
    He cuts out channels in the rocks,
    and his eye sees every precious thing.
    He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
    and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
    But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
    God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
    For he looks to the ends of the earth,
    and sees everything under the heavens.
    And he said to man,
    "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
    and to depart from evil is understanding."
    Job 28:9-12,23-24,28

    Posted by Mausi at 06:58 AM | TrackBack

    June 24, 2006

    You can't be serious Mr Blair!

    Our Illustrious Leader really has run out of ideas - or perhaps it's because, since Alistair Campbell was forced to leave his Media Advisory Team - he's having to write his own statements and there's no one around to tell him what to say and what not to say anymore. It is also a measure of the man's desperation to be able to claim that he has "improved" the British way of life through his modernisation and "Cool Britannia" approach that he has now leapt into the scandal over the justice system and made a series of sweeping pronouncements on the subject. Oh, and just in case you didn't hear him yourself, its all the last Conservative Government's fault.

    According to our dearly beloved Tone, the legislation he and his playmates have thrust into the statute books is not at the heart of the problem. Honest guv, the tinkering and tampering they have introduced is not - it's all the fault of those nasty Conservatives who wrote legislation that was far too clear cut - and the Judges who "misinterpret" the Human Rights Act, the Criminal Evidence Act and the whole avalanche of other legislation Blair and his idiots have created to ensure that their criminal friends don't get too harshly treated by our courts. Now he tells us that he wants to "rebuild confidence in the police and rebuild peoples faith in the Justice System". Frankly it makes me want to laugh since it is this little creep and his pot smoking hippy cronies who have done more than anyone else to undermine the police, to tie them up in red tape and to destroy the ability of the courts to actually deal with crime.

    One thing we should not expect is for this shower to actually do anything useful on this problem, if their past record is anything to go by (and we should have a good idea of THAT by now!), whatever they do will make it far worse than it was to start with.

    It is amazing the gall of the man, when the leading lawyers and Judges are all saying the same thing, that since Labour came to power their tinkering and tampering have created a dog's breakfast of the justice system, the immigration system and made the task of the police almost impossible, that he can still turn round and say, with a straight face, that the problem is not with what he and his clowns have done, but with the legacy of the last Conservative government. If he were to stay in power for fifty years (God please forbid!) he would probably still be trotting out this excuse.

    He really does think that the electorate is comprised entirely of idiots who will swallow any lie he cares to utter and who will believe his spin even in the face of evidence to prove his utter incompetence in government. The Civil Service is totally unfit for purpose, but this shower of politicians are even more so. It is time to throw the entire system out and start afresh.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)

    June 23, 2006

    Statistics for beginners

    Although I like mathematics quite well I've never been really fond of statistics. It wasn't until last week when a colleague introduced me to the "Goat Problem" that I realised how much fun it can be.

    The story is about a quiz show where in the last round the candidate is given a choice of three doors. Behind two of them is a goat, behind the last one a luxury car. When the candidate has chosen a door the quiz master says: "I'll to show you something" and opens one of the other two behind which he knows is a goat. "In view of this would you like to stay with your first choice of doors or change to the other one?"

    The question is what is the right strategy to maximise your chances: change or not? Change, of course! Because your chance of choosing a goat door at first and therefore getting the car by changing doors after the quiz master has opened the door with the other goat behind it is twice as high as choosing the car door at the first attempt and consequently loosing when changing doors after the quiz master has opened another door.

    The real fun is when you put this problem to other people and they vehemently deny that your chances increase by changing doors even stating that after one of the doors has been opened by the quiz master you have only a 50 percent chance of getting the car, which is nonsense, of course. You can easily prove your point by offering people a choice of coins or beermats.

    In 1991 one of the readers of the US magazine "Parade" asked Marylin vos Savant who answered readers' questions under "Ask Marylin" about the goat problem. Marylin said that of course he should change doors after the quiz master had opened the one with the goat behind it. That advice caused a flood of letters to the editor. 92 % of the roughly 10,000 writers - among them an astonishing number of mathematicians - contradicted Marylin in often quite rude terms. They called it a "national crisis in mathematical education". One of them even called Marylin the only goat in the whole story. 15 years later I find it hard to believe that people could react like that when a little quiet contemplation would have shown that Marylin was quite right.

    Another amusing little exercise is to calculate the probability that in a group of k people two are born on the same day. For a group of 10 people the probability is 11.7%, for 50 it is 97% and for a group of 100 people the probability is 99.99996% Interestingly you need to meet a much larger group to find someone who is born on the same day you are. If you are part of a group of 500 there's only a 74.6% chance of finding someone who is born on the same day and you need to meet 4999 to raise the probability to 99.9999%! Mind you, that's only theory. At school there were three of us in a class of 24 who were born on the same day ...

    For your amusement the calculations are given below..

    Two persons born on the same day

    For simplicity we disregard February 29. And the problem is easier to solve if we try to find the probability that no two persons are born on the same day. If the first person is born on any of the 365 days of a year, there are only 364 days left for the second persons, only 363 days for the third person et cetera. The probability for these events to occur at the same time are calculated my multiplying the probabilities:

    (364/365) x (363/365) x (362/365) x ... x ((364-k+2)/365)

    If we now want to know the probability of two people being indeed born on the same day we just have to subtract the result from 1.

    Another person born on the same day as you:

    The formula for this is much simpler because the day of birth is fixed in this case:

    1 - (364/365)k

    Posted by Mausi at 06:21 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    June 22, 2006

    The ethics of gene research

    Gene research is once more in the news, and as usual, opinion is polarised. Partly I suspect that this is because the tabloid press likes nothing better than to play up public fear on these sorts of issue, and partly it is down to a very vociferous lobby that appears to want to stifle all research which may result in the human race addressing some of the major genetic disorders affecting us all. There is a very serious question on the ethical level in tampering with our genetic material, but it relates, in my view anyway, more to the use of genetic manipulation to create "super humans" or to ensure that a child is a certain sex, and not to the elimination of disabling conditions or cancers!

    I am amazed at the "spokespeople" from disabled groups who want to block any attempt at screening genetic defects which are passed from parent to child - some of them, like cystic fibrosis, lethal to the child affected - while the carrier may suffer nothing at all. Why, I ask myself, condemn a fellow human to a life of difficulty, pain or endless medical care because your vision of the world dictates that some people must be that way, when a fairly simple screening process can identify the gene and the carrier - and prevent the gene being passed on, or modifying it so that the defect is not passed on. I have difficulty, and I am told by those who espouse the "let the disabled be disabled because they are just as valid as the rest of us" lobby that it is because I am prejudiced against disability, in accepting that it is ethical to condemn someone to being born without ears, or without eyes - or limbs or a a functioning digestive tract, bowel, liver or anything else you care to choose, simply because "they are valuable people through their disability". I find that both patronising and downright distasteful.

    Then there is the question of screening for genetic defects which cause cancers. Some people feel that we should not be doing this either on the grounds that it might cause undue worry or prohibit people from taking out life insurance or even pensions. There are arguments raised about the risk that employers might refuse to employ someone who MIGHT be suceptible to cancer at some stage of their lives. But, by the same token, if cancer is, as we now seem to have evidence to support the hypothesis, genetic in origin, then we should be looking seriously at identifying the genes and trying to find ways to repair damage or "switch off" the cancer causers. To proclaim that this "demeans" the suffering of those who have suffered or died of cancer is a nonsense.

    The debate on the ethics of genetic research is being clouded by the illogical stance of those who seem to want to argue that to find cures for, and to prevent, future deformity or disablility somehow "demeans the contribution" of the currently disabled. It is, of course this illogical argument that the tabloids love to promote since it evokes visions of Dr Frankenstein (Remember the Frankenstein Foods debate?) beavering away to create a hideous monster with the aid of Igor the hunchback henchman. Nothing like scaring the public into thinking they are all about to be herded into some sort of mass production cloning unit to be turned into obedient zombies for some scientists mad dream to really sell a few more scurrilous rags.

    There are, as I have said, some serious issues to debate about the ethical questions raised by some research, but can we please get away from the illogicality of arguments about whether or not someone with a disability is "demeaned" by offering to prevent their children suffering the same fate? That is to abrogate intelligence and is frankly of service to no one. I suppose it should not surprise me either that the people making these sort of declarations on behalf of sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis, genetic deafness or any of the many other genetically transmitted disabilities - are never themselves disabled. Could it be that curing the problems they claim to represent would deprive them of their little corner in the spotlight? Could that be the reason for their opposition to this research?

    Its time to sort out the ethical questions and to get them right. It is also time to make sure the politicians don't get involved in the ethical debate - ethics and politicians have never sat at the same table.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:34 AM | TrackBack

    June 21, 2006


    As you might have read I went to a conference last week in Helsinki. The venue was Finlandia Hall designed by the famous Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). You have probably come across one of his well known design elements, the wave, which makes for example his vases recognisable everywhere. But he is also famous for his monumental buildings. Finlandia hall is undoubtedly one of them.

    Part of the Eastern front of Finlandia Hall

    Alvar Aalto intended Finlandia Hall as part of a whole ensemble of buildings comprising - among others - an opera house, an arts museum, the city library and a number of other public buildings. This ensemble was supposed to form a new central square opposed to the existing monumental square in the old city centre. The new aquare should symbolise the independence of Finland won in 1917. This was to be further emphasised by a Freedom Avenue (Vapaudenkatu) leading from the new square into the old city centre. This ambitious plan was never fully carried out, though, especially the Freedom Avenue bit but Finlandia Hall at least was built from 1967 to 1972.

    The building is a striking in many ways. Lots of white marble from Carrara in Northern Italy have been used in its exterior and interior construction. The marble on the outside of the building contrasts nicely with black granite giving the whole building a friendly but elegant appearance. The reason for using white marble was Aalto's wish to introduce Mediterranean Culture into Finland. Looking at the Helsinki of today I would say he has been very successful indeed.

    Finlandia Hall is a combined congress and concert hall with many separate rooms for conference purposes and musical performances. It can easily accomodate up to 3,000 visitors.

    Tables laid for lunch for the 845 delegates

    The architecture of the building is interesting to say the least, though not always very practical or user friendly. As there were several parallel sessions during the conference finding another lectures room would sometimes lead to quite adventurous walks through corridors and staircases. The overall impression, however, was one of a spacious, light-flooded building.

    Typical for Alvar Aalto was meticulous attention to detail and high-quality construction. In Finlandia Hall every lightning fixture, every piece of furnituze, all mouldings, panels and flooring materials were especially designed for the purpose. The result is stunning in its simplicity and reflects Aalto's conviction that architecture should not attract attention itself but only serve as a background for human beings.

    Posted by Mausi at 08:35 PM | TrackBack

    June 20, 2006

    An avalanche of broken intentions ....

    Funny how, once one bit of a politician's Utopian vision starts to unravel, how it all seems to gather momentum - a bit like an Alpine avalanche, once started it stops when it hits the bottom. Our Illustrious Leader must be feeling as if he is caught in one at the moment, with revelation after revelation about the mess his party and their meddling have created in the justice system. It defeats the most inventive imagination to even begin to fabricate disasters for this lot and their Civil Service incompetents. Who in their right minds would allow jail birds out on parole - which implies they are under the close supervision of a Parole Officer - to take vacations abroad? Yet that is precisely what the arrogant little twit Blair shoved into the House of Lords as Baroness Scotland (did anybody ask whether the Scots thought it a good idea for her to assume what is effectively a 'Royal' title?) has approved and signed into law without even informing, never mind consulting, parliament.

    OK, so we all know Blair regards Parliament as an irrelevance - but then so do most of the English population as far as I can tell - but it would be nice if just occassionally he and his cronies at least made the pretense of consulting the Chamber of Hot Air. But then, that would actually dignify it with a purpose and Blair could not stand for that.

    The admission that Labour might lose the next election from one of Gordon Brown's hangers on, must be causing sleepless nights in Number 11, not least because by the time Blair does resign and hand over to dear "old Socialist" Gordon, it will probably be pushing close to the next election - and Gordo could just get kicked straight out of Number 10 having barely had a chance to settle in. It's almost like watching an alternative version of Macbeth - except Gordo is no Duncan! As I said - you can't make this up, no one would believe it in a work of fiction! Even the great Terry Pratchett would find it hard to make this any funnier tragedy - and this is the party that claimed to be sleeze free. Oh dear, oh dear. Politicians by their very nature are sleezy, ergo, they can never be completely free of the stain of their own machinations. Maciavelli; eat your heart out, by comparison to this lot your 'Prince' was a saint!

    So now we have sex offenders in Bail Hostels next to schools, we have murderers released early to live next to their victims famillies and we have a reoffending rate to be ashamed of. And what does our Home Secretary do? Climbs on a soap box and starts to proclaim he's "moving them out". To where? All the experts give the view that they rarely if ever have the opportunity or stupidity to 'groom' a child that close to home or without the acceptance or access granted by befriending a family. Next he proclaims that he is "redressing the balance in justice" and supposedly swinging it back to favour the victim. Well blow me down - but I think we've heard that before somewhere! On top of this we have the Prison Governors telling us that the prisons are overflowing and close to bursting point - and would in fact be bursting of it weren't for the fact that our wonderful Home Office (remember the Secretary of State says it's not fit for purpose?) has implemented a revolving door policy - as someone comes in one side, someone is released early to make room on the other!

    And in the middle of all this are groups like the Howard League who would have us believe that punishment should not be a part of justice, that justice is about rehabilitation - when the evidence is that most criminals re-offend within days of leaving a soft jail sentence.

    The problem that the politicians refuse to face is that they have criminalised far to many things which should not be punished with custodial sentences. Let's face it, some acts of criminal activity - particularly in the White Collar sector - could be addressed more productively than by locking someone up. Similarly some of the things which are treated under "community service orders" should be custodial.

    No one in his or her right mind should expect or even think that this government will sort this out. Forget it, this has taken them almost ten years to compound on top of their earlier meddling through the sixties and seventies - it will not be solved by this administration - and quite probably not by the next either! But chiefly it will not be solved by this government because they are yet again mistaking 'spin' for action and they have a coterie of placemen - their placemen - in positions from which they can and will frustrate every effort to sort out the mess.

    The sooner we can kick Blair and his chums out of office - and preferably out of the country for good - the better. We may then be able to rebuild Britain into a decent society in which we can all live in decency, respect for each others rights and privacy. Blair has encouraged the rise of snoopers, thought police and a peculiarly British puritanism - none of which is good for democracy, justice or our nation.

    As his hero Cromwell once proclaimed to an enemy; "For too long you have disgraced this house; in the Name of God - go!"

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:24 PM | TrackBack

    June 19, 2006

    Days without end

    Mausi is back from the conference she was attending last week in Helsinki, the beautiful capital of Finland. Now that we are approaching Midsummer Night the days never seemed to end in Helsinki. Not easy to get enough sleep during the night if you are not used to sunbeams tickling your nose at 3 in the morning and it never gets really dark ouside anyway. Though why the workmen in the backyard of the hotel had to start construction work at 4.30 a.m. will forever remain a mystery - they probably had to make the most of the daylight.

    The market place close to the harbour

    Helsinki is a fascinating city. Mausi had already spend couple of days there on two occasions during holidays but she had forgotten just how nice and friendly the town is. Although it is a big city it is neither hectic nor unbearably noisy and the Finns are really friendly people. For one thing you very seldom hear a car driver sounding his horn despite the heavy traffic in the town. And we never heard people shouting at or getting angry with each other. What we noticed, though, were quite a number of tortoise sculptures throughout the town and we wondered if these were supposed to reflect the Finnish character: never rushing at things but doing everything deliberately.

    In summer and the absence of ice and snow Helsinki seems to acquire a somewhat Southern European outfit. Even at midnight the streets and places are incredibly busy with people. Every backyard or other suitable bit of space is turned into a cafe or pub or restaurant.

    As you see places are packed with people

    And there is music all over the town. Several stages were erected in the town center and there were performances of all kinds of music throughout afternoons and evenings. And of course, summer is the time of street musicians.

    One of the many street musicians in Helsinki during the summer

    They also had a wide repertoire with regard to music that ranged from pop to classic and instruments. It really felt more like being in Italy than Finland with the advantage of course, that there was always a light breeze blowing from the sea which made temperatures in excess of 20 centigrades bearable for Mausi who prefers a slightly cooler climate.

    Posted by Mausi at 12:53 PM | TrackBack

    June 18, 2006


    Yesterday I went on my annual trip to Glastonbury. No, not for a rock fest or a new strain in New Age mysticism, or to try the latest strain of grass, joss sticks or anything like that. This is the annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury, widely acknowledged as the cradle of English Christianity. Certainly one has to acknowledge the fact that it was a sacred site in pre-Roman times and again in the late Roman period, but this "second awakening" was brought about by the establishment of a Christian community here, probably on the fringes of the British village. No one can really be sure why this place became the centre of Christianity it did, but certainly the activities of it's greates Abbot, Dunstan, will have played a major part in the early medieval period.

    Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought the youthful Christ here in the "mystery" years missing from the Gospels, and it is legend again that says he returned here bearing the Holy Grail (NOT the Dan Brown one!) after the Crucifixion. A Jerusalem thorn tree still grows in Glastonbury in the grounds of the parish church, the present one a cloned sapling of the original which died in the 1970's and which was then dated scientifically to a date sometime in the first century. In short, it is a place in which fact and legend blur very easily, never more so when faith and belief enter into the picture.

    It is here too that a grave was discovered by the monks preparing ground for the extension of the Abbey Church, which was identified by its grave goods and the bodies as that of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. They were reburied in the Quire of the new Abbey and the site of the new grave was reopened in the 1780's and declared to be "very probably that of Arthur and his Queeen." Although I suspect by then the evidence for such a claim was long gone. The Tor which stands just outside the town has long been known as Avalon, so again fact, legend and faith blur at the edges and for some merge.

    Today though the town was Christian, with a procession of witness down the High Street and in at the main gate of the ruined Abbey. Dunstan would hopefully have approved as the chidren's pilgrimage group led the way, followed by the assembled parish and other clergy, nine Bishops and servers from all over the country. The Mass celebrated under the shade of the ruined piers of the Chancel arch and the remains of the Abbey Church walls, was, as ever, very moving. The weather was kind, warm, sunny and a gentle breeze for a congregation which included people of all Christian Denominations, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican all worshipping together in harmony. It is in that unity at worship that the presence of Christ is truly to be felt.

    That is why, I set aside this day each year for Glastonbury. May Dunstan and all the Saints pray for us as we journey to join them.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:17 PM | TrackBack

    June 17, 2006

    Educational failures .......

    Mr Blair may have another "bad week for Labour" to confess too soon. It would seem though that this time he will not be alone in having to carry the can for at least part of the latest bit of really bad news for the country. It would seem that both the LibDems and the Tories have to accept a part of the blame for this one - the Comprehensive failure of the Comprehensive eductaion system.

    A report just published shows categorically that children who have gone through the Comprehensive system in the last forty years since Labour introduced it and vowed to shut all public schools and Grammars, that the chances of anyone from a "poorer" (ie:Middle income or lower) background actually getting a look in for a higher paid or above average job is now lower than it was before Labour interfered. A survey of the top jobs in the UK shows that on average 70% of those in them are from Public School or Grammar school backgrounds and the kids from the Comprehensive haven't a snowballs hope of improving their lot - the certainly won't get the boardroom posts unless they or some rich relative actually buys the company! Comprehensive failure is the mark of the Comprehensive system, primarily because it does not address the needs of the bright children and it tries to be all things to all abilities - which is impossible!

    Looking back at who the promoters of this grandiose scheme were, it should be no surprise to discover that they were almost all from Grammar Schools or Public Schools and the better universities where their heads were no doubt stuffed with the sort of Socialist claptrap which pervaded the 1930's and 40's and infested everything in education since. In other words these privileged and pamapered idiots have driven their ideoloical sabotage through and guaranteed that their progeny - since they control the wealth and the access to it - are now entrenched and everyone else is destined to remain a peasant or serf to their ideological Utopia from here on in. Unfortunately it is a Utopia that ensures that workers and their children will always be workers and those who can afford the Private route will always be the ones in charge. Comprehensive social engineering in a nutshell.

    Labour introduced it, the Liberals espoused it, and the Tories have done nothing to redress the problems. Therefore, in my book, they are all in it up to their necks! OK for some - as long as you are in the right group.

    Mixed ability classes, lack of competition, supression of sporting activities, dumbing down of standards and academic content - it is the mark of Comprehensive education. It is not comprehensive and it is most emphatically NOT equal to that offered in private schools or the Grammars. This latest report is damining in the extreme, but what will happen to improve it? Nothing, not one thing. Why, because the political elite of this country have it all nicely stitched up - as long as your children and mine are denied a decent education they cannot threaten the dynastic ambitions of the Whitehall and Westminster mafia.

    Our education system is a Comprehensive sham, but don't expect to see any improvement - at least not before the next ice-age anyway.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 16, 2006

    Social engineering .....

    Since the mid-nineteenth Century there has been a movement based upon the liberal intelligentsia (mainly the middle class professional types with inherited wealth, education and time on their hands!) dedicated to "engineering" society into a "free and fair meritocracy". According to the thinking behind this, if one removes from peoples thinking the idea that competition, hard work and respect for authority are good, and replaces them with concepts that everyone is "entitled" to the same rewards regardless of effort or merit, if one "redistributes" the trappings of wealth (not theirs of course, just everyone elses!) and undermiones respect for authority, this will, somehow, create a levelling in society so that the wealth of the nation is equally shared between all comers. Of course, in this wonderful Utopian society, someone will have to be at the top - to make sure the rest of us all "share equally" - and naturally, "they" and their friends and famillies will need to be the people at the top redesitributing the fruits of our labours. It frequently amazes me at just how far they have managed to push this concept - and even more amazing is how stupid and gullible so many of us are that we fall for it!

    All power then to the gentleman academic who has blown the whistle on the Education system and how it has been feminised to the extent that boys are now physically disadvantaged by it. Competition has been suppressed - exams are "competitive" so they are replaced by course and project work which have a bias towards the preferred female learning process. Games have been suppressed - usually on health and safety or on Techer's Rights grounds - and the boys now have no outlet for their energy - other than in disruptive behaviours outside of school. Many of todays parents are guilty of collaborating in this, by accepting the dictats of the social engineers and applying them at home. What the gentleman concerned has flagged up is that the education system is now so hideously biased in favour of advancing the preferred learning methods for girls, that it does not address the needs of boys. This is one very good reason why boys are failing to achieve in education - a second is that they are bored silly by the culture of protection that forbids them to engage in any activity perceived by the nannies as a 'risk' or as 'too macho'.

    Naturally he has been immediately attacked by the liberal establishment - after all they are threatened here, since if the sham that they have perpertated on us for the last hundred and fifty odd years is exposed for what it is - they stand to be exposed as frauds and charlattans. All their cosy little power base could vanish as people eject them from their comfortable positions of dictating what we think, where we live and how much we can earn. It won't happen overnight, but once a house of cards such as this starts to collapse, it accelerates fairly rapidly. That is why we now have the defenders of the "status quo" they have built for themselves are throwing up the usual smokescreen of "women are dstill disadvantaged" and "boys are improving their performance now that the system is beginning to change them" are all being trotted out.

    What a pity that this is all given the lie by the biggest success in book sales - a book for boys entitled "The dangerous book for boys". A sort of updated "Boy's Own" it is stuffed with activity ideas, facts, ideas for adventurous things to do and general "boyish" things. I expect it will be withdrawn soon because it promotes "maleness". Its become an unexpected best seller - all the local news agents and bookstores around my area have sold out and the printers are trying desperately to get reprints out of suppliers. That surely, must tell us something?

    The sad fact is that our civil service, our Parliament and our entire education system is in thrall to this concept of a socially engineered society in which "violent" males are feminised out of their maleness, in which women are promoted as being the "peaceful and fair" sex, the natural rulers. Well, perhaps its time to disabuse ourselves of this nonsense. Life is not fair, it does not operate on an equal playing field and it cannot be "engineered" in that direction by meddling with peoples lives. It really is time to ditch this garbage and get back to allowing people to be people, to allow them to develop equally and fairly without the constant tinkering and tampering of the few whose contact with the realities of life seems to be viewed through rose tinted spectacles and from behind several layers of glass!

    Time to kick all social engineering into touch and apply straight forward commonsense rules for dignity, fairness and support for the less able! All of us are not equal in ability or in physical prowess and we need to stop pratting about with the nonsensical idea that we are - or can be 'educated' into being equal! All this is doing is guaranteeing mediocrity in every sphere - and preserving incompetents in positions of power.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 15, 2006

    Punishment or rehabilitation?

    The current brouhaha over the apparently "light" sentence for a paedophile who abducted and then sexually abused a girl of three highlights the mess that our justice system has become. The man is actually sentenced to "life" imprisonment, meaning at least twenty-five years in terms of the maximum "tariff" he could serve without consideration for parole. But, because this government cannot resist tinkering with everything, they have several times rewritten the "guidelines" for Judges passing sentence, and these now require the judge to make allowance for a person who pleads guilty and to set a lower "tariff". So the Judge in this case set the maximum tariff the guidelines recommend - five years.

    Not unnaturally there are a lot of people who think this is too short a time. After all, his previous tariff had expired the day before he went out and deliberately abducted this victim - something he had spent the period of his "probation" planning! In the ever present spirit that drives our Illustrious Leader and his cronies in dishonour, there has been an immediate outcry by the Home Secretary and several other motormouths from the Labour benches, demanding a review of the sentence or the sacking of the judge - but they wrote the guidelines he has applied. That, of course, is not mentioned. That would never do, to have the Minister himself responsible for the complete failure of the prison system, for the debacle in Immigration and the debacle in just about everything else that is failing in theis country, to admit that it is his own guildelines - one's he imposed just a few short months ago - that are the problem!

    At the very heart of this debate lies the serious question of what do we actually expect of the Justice system. Justice? Or something else?

    Talk to the liberal left chattering classes of Islington and you would think that the justice system is all about "redemming the disadvantaged criminal classes" and "reforming or rehabilitating" them. Talk to the victims and they think it is about redressing the wrong done to them or their loved ones. The trouble is that constant political interference and meddling by civil liberties and human rights activists has resulted in a justice system that certainly does not punish - and it doesn't rehabilitate either! In short, the victims are left cheated of justice and the criminals regard a spell in jail as a badge of honour, a sort of ritual earning of one's spurs. To often serial criminals are allowed to plead "extenuating circumstances" and the judge is required by the Home Office "Guidelines" to make allowances. For most career criminals these guidelines are almost a bible - they know exactly how to plead to maximum benefit and reap the reward of a shorter sentence.

    This latest case will remain a political football, nothing will change as a result of all the uprorar - it is just another bit of smoke and mirrors "Look, look, we're doing something about this!" Gesture politics is what it is all about, nothing more. The root cause of this problem is the simple fact that for far too long the likes of the Howard League have been allowed to slew the debate in favour of the criminals, in a misplaced sympathy of "these victims of poverty".It is time to look again at the entire argument and to address the very real concerns of ordinary people to the crime and violence marring our society. The criminal element is a very small minoriity in any given community, so let's stop playing with them - hit them with some meaningful punishment, it does tend to deter the small timer attracted by the thrill.

    Time to tell the politicians to stop meddling and to let justice be seen to be done.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:38 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    June 14, 2006

    Dan Brown's facts?

    Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, always a difficult day to be a preacher. Basically you find yourself facing two choices - preach on the Trinity and get it even more confused, or avoid the subject and preach on some obscure saint! We at the Abbey were fortunate enough to hear two superb sermons on the subject, one at least actually managed to include Dan Brown and his so-called "facts" on which his book is based. Much has been said about how his "facts" prove that Christianity is a fabrication based on a "lie" about the divinity of Jesus - according to Brown imposed by Constantine by a narrow vote in the Council of Nicea. Much is also made of the absence of the "Trinitarian Concept" in the Bible, yet that too is misleading.

    The fact is that Constantine was opposed to the idea of the Divinity of Christ. In fact his henchmen actually engaged in attempts to suppress the idea by murdering or imprisoning those who preached it. Hardly the actions of a group enforcing their overlord's wishes to the contrary! And the "narrowly won" decision in the Council of Nicea was 316 for the doctrine of Christ's divinity and 2 against. I suppose that is a "narrow" victory - very nearly "narrowly" unanimous! As you examine Brown's "facts" more closely you do find that he has been selective or inventive in the manner of his presentation of them. Yes there were those who argued that Christ didn't die on the cross - they were part of a group which later came to develop Arians' doctrines which essentially underpin the Muslim understanding of God and His relationship with Christ and mankind. Arianism as it was called denied Christ's Godhead and denied the saving grace of the cross, instead arguing for a personal redemption by good works, prayer and spiritual purification through rituals and secret knowledge. Several such cults arose, mostly Gnostic in their interpretation of scripture and theology, and all considered seriously in error by the mainstream of Christianity.

    If you really want to see what was going on - and what Dan Brown and the rest of his anti-Christian following don't want you to know - read up on Saint Athanasius. The man's life story makes Dan Brown's thriller look like a Sunday School outing.

    And the charge that the Trinity is not biblical? Nonsense, the concept begins to arise in the Old Testament Prophets, is developed by Christ Himself and further examined and explored by Paul and the Apostles. In fact almost all of the scriptural references to the manner of God's interaction with mankind is trinitarian - Creator, Redemptor and Guide. This is the theme that runs right through the Old and New Testaments. Of course it isn't called Trinity or Trinitarian, those are purely and simply theological terms to explain how God can act "Outside of Time", "In time" and "through time". And my thanks to the Lord Abbot for explaining it to me!

    Dan Brown may be a good read, but his facts are fiction - and the real facts make far better reading. As the Lord Abbot said - Don't be misled by the fiction; look to the facts and be led by them, after all, the facts are far more interesting than any fiction can ever be!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 13, 2006

    An absence of Grace

    Following on from my ramblings on the subject of "Grace" on Sunday, I have been contemplating the situation vis a vis the killing of the terrorist leader al' Zarqawi in Iraq. Sadly the whole question of terrorism rests upon the presence or absence of "grace". Someone like Zarqawi is unlikely to have had anything even approaching the normal understanding of God's Grace, yet he, like every other religious zealot, will argue that it is their "love" of their God, or of the Faith they hold, which drives them to commit the most horrifying acts of violence "in defence of God's honour" or in "defence of 'The Faith'," whatever Faith they happen to espouse. The tragedy is that no one acting in the Grace of God could ever commit these acts of violence.

    Far too often we confuse acts of worship or acts of religious zealotry with faith - and fall into the trap of thinking that this somehow puts us in "God's Grace".

    St Paul's famous letter which spells out in the words "there remain these three, faith, hope and charity. But the greatest of these is charity," is often misunderstood today as the word "charity" has taken on a different meaning and become something more closely associated today with "good works" and "earning brownie points in heaven." The original meaning of the word in Seventeenth Century English is much more the Greek Philos - love without expectation of reward. That is true Grace. That is the love that forgives an enemy again and again, that is the love that meets the bomber with open arms and empty hands and says, "my brother/sister sit down with me and let us discover how we can save your life even if I must give mine in exchange!"

    I find that I cannot rejoice in the death of a terrorist. I can feel relief that a threat is removed, that a vicious man is dead and no longer a threat to the fragile peace so many hope to build, but I find I must, in grace, mourn for his death and the fact that he died apparently in a state of ungrace - a state of hatred and burdened by his own refusal to accept that God loves Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Christian, Arab and even the unbeliever - and the true message of the Gospel is that we must too!

    As John Donne wrote so long ago - "Therefore send not to ask for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." If we all try to find it in ourselves to look for the good in others we may eventually be surprised at the good we find in ourselves. Pray, my brothers and sisters for the undeserved grace that is God's free and loving gift to us all. Only when we can all embrace that gift will we see an end to the likes of al' Zarqawi and his fellow travellers along the road of hatred and violence - a road that leads nowhere but downward to the destruction of all that is good in the world.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 12, 2006

    Wooden walls

    I know that Mausi has already written on this subject, but I have for some while been cogitating on the life aboard these ships as well. Our recent visit to Portsmouth reminded me once again, of just how recently we, in Britain, have moved from considering that living in cramped accommodation was a part of shipboard life, to a more generous allocation of space for the crew. Mind you, that does depend on how you define "generous". For the men who manned ships like HMS Victory, todays four and six berth "gulches" for Junior and Senior ratings serving aboard a Type 23 Frigate or a Type 42 Destroyer, the space would seem palatial. The idea of having a central "canteen" style Mess instead of eating in the same space in which you slept would seem anathema - as would the idea that you showered at least once a day. But a luxury would be the fact that you could go to the heads without risking getting a thorough wetting for your pains.

    HMS Victory from harbour cropped.JPG
    HMS Victory seen from her Starboard Quarter - a ship is divided into six 'parts' for the purposes of viewing anything from her - which gives a good idea of just how small she is.

    At 225 feet from beakhead to transom, the Victory is actually shorter than a modern Frigate or a destroyer, yet she carried three times the compliment of a Type 42 Destroyer and roughly four times that of a Type 23. And almost all of the crew lived on the lower gundeck. The lucky ones, those whose rank or their "Rate" as ship's specialists gave them the privilege of a private space, had usually to earn that the hard way. Even the officers started out in the cramped, dark and no doubt pungently evil smelling Gunroom right aft on the Orlop Deck, one down from the Lower Battery deck where the crew lived. Each Midshipman had, if he was lucky, a tiny cubbyhole as a cabin, barely big enough for a small 'cot' and his sea chest. They shared this space with the Purser, the Boatswain and often the Sailmaker. In a battle their chests and their dining table became the ship's surgeon's operating table and the whole area a hospital.

    One reason it would have been an evil smelling place is that there was no access to any toilet for its inhabitants, so either a communal commode was used (emptied by their "Messman") or they did what many of the crew did when no one was looking - and used the scuppers or a gunport! Letters home from those newly joined frequently made mention of the foul aroma of the cesspit from the bilges. Mind you, as Mausi pointed out, the aroma of over 800 unwashed human bodies living in close quarters on the enclosed lower gundeck must been quite something as well.

    There must be a lesson in this somewhere for todays generation. Consider this: no health and safety (they could never have achieved anything under todays rules), no personal privacy, no smart lawyer or trade union to take the Captain to court on Human Rights - and yet the men who manned these "Wooden Walls" built the greatest Empire the world has yet seen. Quite an achievement.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:38 AM | TrackBack

    June 11, 2006

    If Operating Systems were Airlines

    Here's one that I know Ozguru will appreciate:

    DOS AIR All the passengers go out onto the runway, grab hold of the plane, push it until it gets in the air, hop on, jump off when it hits the ground again. Then they grab the plane again, push it back into the air, hop on, etcetera.

    WINDOWS '95 AIRLINES The terminal is very neat and clean, the attendants are all very attractive and the pilots very capable. The fleet is immense. After your plane arrives 6 months late, you begin to wonder why it has not arrived yet. Your jet takes off without a hitch, pushing above the clouds, and at 20,000 feet it crashes without warning.

    MAC AIRWAYS The cashiers, flight attendants, and pilots all look the same, feel the same and act the same. When asked questions about the flight they reply that you don't want to know, don't need to know, and would you please return to your seat and watch the movie.

    OS/2 SKYWAYS The terminal is almost empty, with only a few prospective passengers milling about. Airline personnel walk around, apologising profusely to customers in hushed voices, pointing from time to time to the sleek, powerful jets outside the terminal on the field. They tell each passenger how good the real flight will be on these new jets and how much safer it will be than Windows Airlines, but that they will have to wait a little longer for the technicians to finish the flight systems.

    FLY WINDOWS NT All the passengers carry their seats out onto the tarmac, placing the chairs in the outline of a plane. They all sit down, flap their arms and make jet swooshing sounds as if they are flying.

    WINGS of AS/400 The airline has bought ancient DC-3s, arguably the best and safest planes that ever flew and painted "747" on their tails to make them look as if they are fast. The flight attendants, of course, attend to your every need, though the drinks cost $15 a pop. Stupid questions cost $230 per hour, unless you have SupportLine, which requires a first class ticket and membership in the frequent flyer club.

    VMS AIRLINES The passengers all gather in the hanger, watching hundreds of technicians check the flight systems on this immense, luxury aircraft. This plane has at least 10 engines and seats over 1,000 passengers. All the passengers scramble aboard, as do the necessary complement of 200 technicians. The pilot takes his place up in the glass cockpit. He guns the engines, only to realise that the plane is too big to get through the hangar doors!

    UNIX EXPRESS Each passenger brings a piece of the airplane and a box of tools to the airport. They gather on the tarmac, arguing constantly about what kind of plane they want to build and how to put it together. Eventually, they build several different aircraft, but give them all the same name. Some passengers actually reach their destinations. All passengers believe they got there.

    from: http://www.annoyances.org/exec/show/category09

    Posted by The Postulant at 05:19 PM | TrackBack

    Grace and ungrace

    As you will have gathered, I am finding juggling work, ministry and the reading I am required to do in order to prepare myself for the discernment and testing I must undergo for possible selection for ordination, a little fraught. Looming pension and the need to establish some sort of small business for myself is also a bit of a minefield and and very demanding of my time. Sleep and relaxation have become luxuries shelved for the moment on the "Pending" tray. So perhaps it is apposite that I am currently making my way through a book by Phillip Yancey entitled "What's so amazing about Grace?"

    Well, for one thing, its free. Grace, not the book. Grace is a somewhat abused term in today's world, it is also probably a very misunderstood concept. You see, put in simplistic terms, grace is that spiritual state where nothing gets to you. It is the state of mind that allows the lamb to offer itself to the lion as a meal, and for the lion to respond by giving the lamb a good cleaning and sending it home to mother! You cannot have "grace" and "ungrace" at the same time, you simply cannot refuse to forgive someone who has caused you some hurt, and still claim to be "filled with grace". It simply doesn't work that way. Several times in Yancey's descriptions (he draws on experiences with people he has known and ministered too over his career) I have had a sense of deja vu and not just for 'other people' but for my own attitudes, responses and baggage.

    Now I dare say that this could be because I am in a very subjective and introspective mood at the moment, but it has certainly made me look at a number of aspects in my own life which, dare I say it, are somewhat less than satisfactory. In short I am carrying around one hell of a lot of "Ungrace". Perhaps this is why I found myself identified with some of Yancey's examples. Perhaps too, as was pointed out to me in a recent interview, I do have a tendency to be my own harshest critic, setting myself very high standards - and consistently failing to achieve them! Even so, I have to recognise that I am frequently very unforgiving in my attitude towards those I do not like or who I have learned I cannot trust. It is something I will obviously have to learn to deal with and possibly change.

    Another thing this book has reinforced for me, is the fact that we are, in the end, a product of our genes, our nurture as children and the life experience which we accumulate as we go along. It takes a very special, or very privileged, person to manage to get to my age without accumulating quite a few mental and physical scars, and it is those scars which make us respond in certain ways. In a way, it is those lumps, bumps and scars which make us respond to the world in the way we do. Why do I not trust certain people? Why am I reluctant to let go of certain hurts acquired in my teens? Perhaps more importantly, can I change?

    According to a work I have also recently had to wade through on Eneagrams (WHAT?), essentially a personality profile, I may be able to act outside of my inherent personality type for short periods, but to do so long term is simply to cause myself damage. Ergo, they are saying that I cannot change! Yet, if Yancey is right about the experience of "grace" - there are certain things I must change, even though they are deeply embedded parts of my character.

    Perhaps I am more in need of Grace than I thought.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:51 AM | TrackBack

    June 10, 2006

    Blair's legacy

    Our dearly beloved and most Illustrious Leader has good reason to be worried about his much vaunted "legacy" as the possibly worst and most dishonest PM this country has had in several centuries! he will leave his successor, quite possibly from a different political party, the ruin of a nation, the destruction of the Union, created out of economic necessity in 1707 and expanded by political concensus in 180,1and a growth industry in nannying and bureaucracy that exceeds even the worst excesses of the Soviet Union. The national debt is growing, industry is shrinking and so are the real job opportunities, small businesses are being driven out or crippled and taxes have risen inexorably under this socialist regime. The illusions and spin are finally, like the mirages they are, vanishing. People have realised that the lies at the very heart of Whitehall extend all the way through the entire political system and through the Civil Service which has become the UK's single largest employer. One in five people is now directly or indirectly employed by the civil service, but try to get a hospital appointment, try to get sense from a Whitehall department, try to actually get anything done by that horde of paper shufflers and con-artists.

    Blair's legacy will be an interesting one for the history books. It will be marked as the period in which a once great nation was finally torn apart by the legacy of a political propaganda campaign which has been run by Labour for at least the last sixty years North of the Border and probably longer in Wales - one which constantly painted the English as milking the hard working Scots and Welsh and "stealing" the fruits of their labours to enrich themselves while giving nothing in return. Anyone taking a simple look at where the most tax is raised and where the spending has been focussed for the last forty years would have immediately seen through this lie, but again, Labour has been careful not to allow the majority populations in either country to think this. It was amazing to speak to the many Scots on my trip up through the Western Isles who were adamant that they neither approved of nor wanted the expensive "Parliament" in Edinburgh - the building of which has cost the nation over £400 million so far and the bills keep pouring in - many expressing the view that it was merely a talking shop and gravy train for Tony's Cronies.

    The division has also raised the Mid Lothian Question, but now as a serious issue, especially in view of Gordon Brown's ambition to be premier. He is a Scottish MP with a seat in Scotland, not England. His votes in the Westminster Parliament are meaningless in Scotland since he and his Illustrious Leader set up the Holyrood Parliament. The Westminster Parliament no longer decides on policy for Scotland other than Defence (anyone noticed how much of our Defence establishment has moved North again?) and Foreign Policy. Ergo, why should he and around 70 other MP's who represent Scottish constituencies have any say in England? That too will be one of Tony's "legacies". So too wil be a war in Iraq which, if he had bothered to read his history of the 20th Century - and not the PC version that he prefers all about "social revolution" - he would have discovered that the British Empire had been involved in a Vietnam style conflict there throughout the 1930's - a war we never actually finished. That should have warned him off for starters, but not, our Tony wants quick fixes and fast track to glory - someone else gets to sort out the mess.

    We now have entire Departmen's in Whitehall which are so dysfunctional that the Home Secretary's description of his own as being "not fit for purpose" is the greatest understatement. It doesn't even begin to describe the chaos inside Whitehall where the various "sections" inside any given Department don't communicate with each other, never consider the full impact of their action on any other department - and in some cases are actually prevented from sharing information internally because of the interpretation of various pieces of unnecessary and ill thought out legislation Blair and his cronies have rammed through the statute books. As a result Whitehall is failing in every sphere, they routinely overspend on any project because they do not use competitive tendering and the "preferred supplier" system set up by the Treasury is the biggest gravy train for corruption since the 18th Century! The collapse of Education, Health Services, the ambition to create Regional Assemblies to break up the English, failing morale in Fire Services and Police Services, the joke that is Criminal Justice, the farce that is the Human Rights Act and now a terrorist threat from the very community this idiot and his hanger's on have boosted, fostered and promoted in favour of our own national identity are now all being exposed as failures of his ill-considered and incompetent "special advisers". These are Blair's Legacy.

    This little man and his treasonous government should go and go now. Before what they have done to us becomes terminal and before the next government finds themselves unable to reverse the damage. sadly, it may already be far too late to save us. What Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon and the rest were not able to achieve by force of arms, this little turd has achieved in two and a half parliaments.

    Now that is an achievement, but what a legacy!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 09, 2006

    Bad back .....

    The Monk has been absent from these pages for the simple reason he put his back out badly last Friday, then drove to London and back - by the time he returned home his legs had stabbing cramps to the knees! Sunday and Monday we will draw a veil over! Tuesday he rang the Doctor, and now, thanks to modern Physiotherapy and hefty doses of painkillers, he is able, once more to sit at the computer long enough to type a short post.

    Hi-Ho! - and go back to work, although, according to the Doctor, driving is probably going to set the whole thing off again!

    Actually Doc, its more likely the hefty digging I will have to do to find my desk or even get into my office! Whatever, The Monk is back and Mausi is off to present a paper in Helsinki next week. I wish I was going with her, I am told that Helsinki is one of the more beautiful Baltic cities, particularly at this time of the year!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:02 AM | TrackBack

    June 08, 2006

    The difference

    I've read a very funny story today about the different ways of doing things in Japan and Germany which I'd like to share with you. The story is about cooking a potato in an oven.

    How would Toyota approach this problem? Easy. Take a new oven, heat it up to 200 degrees, wrap up the potato in aluminium foil, put it into the oven and do something productive during the next 45 minutes. Then check if the potato is done, take it out of the oven and serve it. Piece of cake. I like this pragmatic approach.

    You don't think there's an alternative way to do it? There is. Let's see how BMW would do it. First, a team is put together which defines the problem en detail. Then the team searches for a certified potato supplier for six months but cannot find anyone. Therefore a turnip farmer is forced to supply potatoes. Because he doesn't grow potatoes himself he buys them from an uncertified potato farmer and adds 25% to the price for his persoanl profit (you can't blame him, can you?). Then the turnip farmer is asked to heat up the oven to 200 degrees. The BMW people demand that the farmer shows exactly how he has turned the knob on the oven and provide them with a brochure from the oven manufacturer to show that the oven is correctly calibrated. The brochure and certificate are duly examined and the turnip farmer is requested to check the oven temperature with a calibrated thermocouple.

    After that he is allowed to wrap up the potato in aluminium foil and put it into the oven but has to open the oven door again to show that he has placed the potato in the correct spot. BMW now asks for a study showing that 45 minutes is the appropriate cooking time for a potato this size. I suppose by now you can easily imagine the design of this study: after 10 minutes the potato is checked every minute and when BMW gets impatient the one minute intervals are changed to five minute intervals ...

    After 35 minutes it is decided for some reason that the potato is almost done and after having gratulated the turnip farmer on his success the good news are proudly presented to the management: despite an uncooperative supplier an outstanding result has been achieved. After 40 minutes the potato is finally taken out of the oven to minimise costs without reducing the quality of the cooked potato compared to the originally intended cooking time of 45 minutes.

    The potato is served but people wonder how the heck the Japanese could produce such a cheap potato which obviously tastes much better than the German one. This is the hour of management which comes up with the following proposals for improvement:

    One could use potato shaped turnips to reduce costs.
    The missing potato taste should be advertised as a new sign of quality in an image campaign.
    Cooking time should be reduced by 20% by reducing the oven temperature by 20%.
    It is to be examined if despite moving the oven to the Czech Republic it will still be possible to serve potatoes in Germany.

    On second thought I must admit that this is all much too real to really have a good laugh about it. Looking at the state German economy is in at the moment we could probably be a lot more successful if at least sometimes we just DID things.

    Posted by Mausi at 08:25 PM | TrackBack

    June 07, 2006


    One of the main topics in Germany at the moment is of course the upcoming soccer world championship. I mean, what do you expect in a land of 80 million soccer experts? Although, being one of those unfortunate ones who will be on standby during those four weeks and not allowed to take a holiday and flee the country I start getting a bit sick of all the bustle.

    We've had construction work being done on quite a few of our main motorways for months. I don't think the ones in my area will be finished in three days when the championship starts. I can see some traffic congestion ahead with thousands coming to watch the plays. Would you believe it 25,000 tickets were sold just to watch the Brasilians practice yesterday! What will make it even more interesting in my area is that the students have threatened to block the motorways because the Federal State of Hessen wants them to pay 1,000 Euros a year for the privilege of studying at Hessian Universities.

    At least half of the evening news is taken up by a description which team has arrived and where they are staying. If that is all we have to worry about we must be a happy nation indeed. By the way, the British team is staying at Baden-Baden, known to Terry Pratchett fans as Duschen-Duschen ....

    The sale of tickets is another story. Obviously winning the lottery was easier than obtaining a ticket and in the end the people would just take any ticket they were offered. Two of my friends told me very happily they are going to watch all three games of the Ivory Coast. Mind you, it might be quite fun but somehow I don't think they would have taken these tickets had they been offered a choice.

    The whole German nation has suffered with the German soccer team during the last two years. Most of us must certainly feel exhausted for the team had a fair share of ups and downs. But knowing the Germans' luck I am sure we must not despair.

    Among the brokers and bankers there's not the slightes doubt who will be world champion in four weeks: Brasilia. But we simple folk know, of course, that it will be Germany. Why? Easy. We've been champion in '54, '74 and 1990. Now if you multiply 54 by 74 and substract 1990 what do you get? See?

    Posted by Mausi at 10:38 PM | TrackBack

    June 06, 2006

    Life of a cat ...

    Ahhh ...., this feels like heaven. Mind you, it took me some time of purposefully occupying their pillows to persuade my people to give me a pillow all to myself. Humans can be very dumb at times although mine always say - especially in front of other people - that they understand every single one of my miaows, even the unspoken ones. I call that bragging.

    There's nothing like a warm and cuddly place ...

    Nevermind, I love my pillow, something soft to rest my bones on after a long night out in the garden and surrounding fields. And I still have that black dustcover which I can pull around me if I want a bit more privacy. Perfect!

    The garden's catching up slowly too. We've had a very long and cold winter this year and it's been no fun being outside at night. Can plants go into hibernation? There didn't seem to be any around for months and now suddenly they have exploded straight out of the earth.

    Perfect hunting ground for a cat like me ...

    I like this part of the border planting very much. At last it's grown thick enough to give me perfect cover and what's even better - there are several mouse families living there. So whenever I feel like a snack ... Hey, come on, I am a CAT after all and it's hard enough work catching them in that undergrowth. Well worth the effort, though, they are delicious.

    Posted by Mausi at 05:38 PM | TrackBack

    June 05, 2006

    Bears in Europe

    One of the stories that has made it quite frequently to the headlines in German Newspapers during the last few weeks is the one about a bear who has crossed the border from Austria into Germany. Genetic analysis of hair samples has revealed that he is "JJ1" alias "Bruno" a bear that was born in the mountains of northern Italy. Bruno has a younger twin brother (JJ2) and the brothers have obviously learnt a trick or two from their mother.

    Bruno knows food is easy to come by where people live but that one must not come back to one's kill lest people are waiting there for you with traps and guns. Up to now he has obeyed this advice to the dot. He has killed quite some sheep and cattle but never came back to the site of his kill. He vanished into Austria for a few days but has come back again to Bavaria in southern Germany two days ago.

    This time the politicians mean business. Bruno will be tracked down with the help of a pack of Karelian bear hounds under the command of a Finnish specialist. Marksmen will be on standby should something go wrong. The plan is to catch Bruno alive if possible and then put him into an enclosed territory and keep him under observation. If that is not possible he will have to be shot as he is too much of a danger to the public.

    I haven't been aware of it before but there seems to be quite a number of bears around in Europe nowadays. Although the last brown bear was shot in Austria more than 160 years ago today about 20 bears have found a new home there. The first bear crossed the border into Austria from Slovenia or Croatia in the beginning of the 1970's. He was given a wife in 1989 with whom he had cubs. They became the first of a project to bring the bears back to the Austrian mountain regions.

    The bear population in Slovenia and Croatia is estimated to be more than a thousand animals. Poland also has quite a few bears in various mountain regions and National Parks. The bear population in Sweden and other parts of northern Scandinavia amounts to 1600 to 2800 bears. Bears in Slovakia threaten the existence of beekeepers. About a dozen of the 300 to 600 thought to live in Slovakia have destroyed large numbers of beehives looking for dessert, no doub. Two bear populations consisting of 40-50 and 20 animals respectively live in the Italian mountains. In France bears are still found in the Pyrenees but their number is dwindling and people strongly oppose trying to increase it again.

    Apparently the only place where bears can live in peace and freedom are the Kantabrian mountains in Spain. About 90 bears live here in an unaccessible area and their number is increasing.

    This seems to me to be the main problem. Parts of Europe are very densely populated and bears need large territories. They are bound to come in contact with humans sooner or later. Once the bear has lost his fear of humans and starts raiding pens and dustbins he's doomed. And also most people in Europe have lost the ability to live with wild animals and treat them with respect. We only know them from zoos with a big safe barrier between us and the animal. Much as I agree that a bear makes an interesting sight on Alpian mountain side, especially for tourists, I have doubts that all these bear-settling-projects are such a good idea after all, at least not in densely populated areas like Central Europe.

    Posted by Mausi at 07:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 04, 2006

    A quiet day

    Last week I met an American lady who has worked here in Germany for three years and is due to return to the United States in the near future. She told me that one of the things she really had to get used to at the beginning of her stay over here is the fact that all shops are closed on Sundays in Germany. She could not buy groceries, she could not take her clothes to a dry cleaner and there was quite a lot of other things she could not do either. But she also said that after a while she quite liked it because she got more things done on Saturday and then really had the Sunday to herself to enjoy a bit of piece and quiet or meet friends. Eventually Sunday became a special day of the week not just one where you caught up on the household chores you were not able to do while out at work. And she also said she'll miss that day when she goes back home.

    Being used to a quiet Sunday myself all my life I have never thought much about it. Not until I stayed for a holiday with the Gray Monk. It came as a bit of a shock to me that we were able to go shopping for our Sunday lunch after church and that while we were eating the neighbours were out in the gardens noisily mowing their lawns and clipping their hedges. It made me realise just how much I enjoyed a really quiet day of the week. In Germany lawn mowing on Sunday is strictly forbidden. You may pull out a few weeds, though, if you do it quietly.

    On today's post I'd like to share the photo below with you. In my opinion there's nothing like a view of the sea to put you in a tranquil mood. I hope you enjoy the photograph as much as we enjoyed the real thing on our way from Oban to Craignure.

    The sea between the Scottish West Coast and the Isle of Mull

    Have a quiet day!

    Posted by Mausi at 08:34 PM | TrackBack

    June 03, 2006

    Stolen statues

    The recent theft of two statues commemorating the fallen of World War 1 originally, but no doubt extended to cover the second great conflict shows how appalling is the fall from decency in this country under the libertarian regimes of the last fifty years. The news story highlights the fact that a total of 20 - yes 20! - very large bronze statues and works of art have been stolen in the last year. The worst aspect of this is that they are undoubtedly being melted down and sold on as "scrap" by the thieves since the manner of their seizing them is almost certainly causing damage that would make them valueless to any art "lover" trying to collect them!

    I find it appalling that anyone could stoop this low, I find it even more a symptom of the "nuffink to do wiv me guv'" attitudes that pervade our society (unless it involves fitting up some teacher or parent who dares to discipline an out of control child) that no one has come forward to give information on the thefts. It is not exactly easy to shift several tons of bronze, even more difficult to pass it on to an honest scrap merchant, yet no one seems to ever see anything. Even though the thefts invariably require cutting equipment, a crane to lift the item and all take place at night - a time when most council emplyees are hardly likely to be carrying out repairs to a statue! Certainly not the ones I have known anyway!

    Nothing is apparently sacred, so we can expect our War Memorials to be destroyed one by one as these thieves strip the bronze statues one by one with impunity. Twenty memorials and works of art cannot simply vanish - not when they weigh in at several tons to start with! Someone is receiving these destroyed items and someone must see them at work - so why have the police not managed to catch them yet?

    Or perhaps I am missing the important point - in the eyes of our anti-militarism Labour Junta these statues "glorify" war, ergo they must be got rid of! So, since they cannot do it openly, the answer is to get someone to steal them and destroy them. Nah - can't be that simple, not even Blair is that intelligent!

    All joking aside, the police need to trace this gang and their buyers - and put them behind bars for a very long time!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 02, 2006

    Nice work if you can get it ....

    So now his own kind are out to get him. I refer, of course, to that buffoon we tax payers keep in two jags, Royal Flight and Train freebies, four houses and a fat salary to take charge in the absence of that other charlatan we call a Prime Minister. Step forward that great example of Socialist gravy train riding, John Prescott. It seems that even his "working class" origins, the pies and pints in t' working man's club and the back slapping, language mangling pronouncements are no longer enough to keep t' lads onside!

    The spectacle of this party of ideologues whose sole ambition is to hold onto power and to entrench themselves in the trappings (and rewards) of power tearing into the old Doofus is somewhat less than edifying. Blair has tried to be the "President of the UK" modelling himself on that other great democrat Oliver Cromwell and completely ignoring the fact that we are; a) a democratic State with a Sovereign at its head - not the Prime Minister, and b) that the Cabinet ruling elite works in the US primarily because it is balanced by TWO houses of elected reps and not one stuffed with poodles and the other jumping to the Whips. Prescott enjoyed a range of perks at our expense, not least being Dorneywood House, a nice little country estate managed and run by a fairly large staff and largely funded by trusts set up for the purpose. In essence it is supposed to be a place where he and other Ministers of State can entertain visiting Ambassadors, Ministers and their minions and hold meetings. That is not the purpose to which Mr Prescott has put it, rather for him it has been a place for a "quickie" lunch. Mind you, anyone who has had to deal with him will quickly tell you that a meeting chaired by him is something to be avoided.

    It would seem that this was a complete waste of a valuable resource, so, at the very least, Mr Blair should have deprived him of its use and assign it to some Minister who will make better use of it. Likewise the expensive and very des-res flat in Admiralty Arch. This buffoon was not capable of enjoying it, so his decision to let it go to someone who does appreciate its position and the value of the honour bestowed in having the use of it should be applauded!

    We all sneer at poor old JP, but in reality none of Blair's ministers are much better. Certainly some can string together sentences that make sense, but few, if any, can actually argue a case for the policies they have imposed. Most take refuge in bluster, in accusations that the questioner must be mentally deficient, racist or some other -ist that the policy is supposed to prevent or cure and very few have the ability to make a success of their original careers. Mind you, as most of them are career politicians, I suppose one must assign credit for the fact that they have blackmailed, bludgeoned and bullied their way into power so successfully. And that they have managed to pull off what Abe Lincoln said could not be done - they have fooled the majority of people, for the greatest ever length of time, into believing that they do in fact care for their constituents and not for the lining of their pockets and the trappings of power.

    And therein lies the rub. Politics has always been about the exercise of power, and anyone with half a brain can figure out the fact that this mob are simply the continuous line of descent from the previous generation of career politicians. It has become dynastic, and no matter how hard we try to change it, they remain in or close to power and the proletariat so beloved of Lenin, Stalin and the rest have no choice but to suffer with it. Coupled with a "professional" Civil Service (a clear oxymoron!) and you have those who are elected and who exercise power through ideology and their control of what passes for a democratic process - and the people who wield the real power and who are never subjected to election or penalty for failure - the Civil Service. I am no longer sure which is the worse offender in the assault on civil liberty, the politicians who seek to circumscribe everything they don't like either on "moral" or "safety" grounds - or the Civil Servants who actually draft the rules, regulations and red tape and then apply it rigorously and frequently, it seems, maliciously.

    Both groups have things stitched up nicely - the politicians cannot lose since even if chucked out of power they have a wonderful range of featherbedded benefits which continue for life, and the civil servants also cannot lose as their perks after forty years of "Yes Minister-ing" are as generous as the politicians and they don't have to take the can when they screw up either.

    As I said in the title - Nice work if you can get it - but don't hold your breath trying, if you aren't one of the network of "good old boys" you haven't a snowballs hope of survival in a furnace. Probably less.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:37 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 01, 2006

    Just how safe are we?

    A tragedy always hits hardest when it is someone you know. When it is the result of a criminal act, it is sometimes marginally worse. In the weekend immediately past, a young man of 19, journeying home from university, attempted to intevene when a man began abusing a woman on a fast train passing through Cumbria. The man whose violent behaviour towards the woman had been causing some distress to the other passengers, promptly drew a knife and murdered the youngster on the spot and in the clear view of several dozen passengers. When he attempted to flee, the train staff sealed off the doors to the carriage and locked him - and potentially more victims into the carriage! Now that may be correct procedure according to the train company - lets face it, its probably sensible self preservation for the train staff - but, as soon as the train stopped, the violent criminal smashed his way out through a window and escaped.

    Now the dead young man had merely tried to calm down a situation which was clearly causing a disturbance, and equally clearly escalating. He was acting reasonably and with good intent, but already we have heard the police saying that he should not have intervened "for his own safety". For some of us, that is not an option, we do not believe that we should stand idly by while an assault is carried out and we most certainly do not believe that violent and abusive behaviour towards someone else, anyone else, should be ignored - but clearly the majority of those sharing the carriage do think so and in my book they are as guilty of the murder as the man with the knife.

    It does not help that the young man in question was the only child of a colleague of mine, a bright young man who shared his father's values and sense of duty, who was doing well in his university course and was the pride and joy of his parents. It does not help that our legal supremo has recently again published a directive to the courts saying that assaults and other "casual" crimes should be punished by "community sentences". I am sure that the b*****d responsible for this little murder will be let off with the usual smacked wrist instead of the long and hard custodial sentence he so richly deserves, because his smart civil libertarian brief will plead diminished responsibility due to stress, drugs, perceived threat and all the rest of the excuses this shower of anti-justice campaigners usually trot out in defence of the indefensible. There will be arguments about "intention", "inappropriate behaviours", "manslaughter" and the victim will be accused of having "threatened" the knife wielder. In court of course, you can say what you like about the deceased victim, turning them into the assailant and even making out that they were mentally unbalanced. Since they are not there to defend themselves - and most of those on the train who witnessed the murder will conveniently not remember the event in any detail (they will have been far to busy avoiding getting involved!) and so there will be no one to speak up for young Tom Grant, and his parents will have to endure the sight of their son's murderer being treated as the victim.

    Spare a prayer for Tom and his parents as they deal with his death. He is as much a victim of the murderous lout who stabbed him as he is of the legal system that continually refuses to punish and the politicians who have fostered the culture of disrespect, condoning violence in children which turns into uncontrolled behaviour in adults. It starts with the child and it is not the child that learned that inappropriate behaviour is always punished that is todays offender, it is the one allowed to get away with everything because social workers and child "protection experts" (X is an unknown factor and a Spurt is a drip under pressure!) have for too long argued that punishment is "inappropriate". In my view they should now be hauled into court everytime there is an incident of this nature (there have been three other fatal stabbings this week so far!) and made to explain again how the criminals they have bred through this thinking would have been worse behaved if they had been punished earlier.

    Tom is the victim, but as I have said, he is one of four others. Already we have the Minister for Fairyland rabbiting about further restrictions on the sale of knives or the carrying of knives and soon it will be illegal to use a knife and fork to eat, but the knives are not the root cause of the problem - that lies in the breakdown of discipline among certain sections of the community and the rememdy is not one our politicians are prepared to admit! If the 60's generation have a legacy it is this, a society that does not know who it is, where it is going or even what is right or wrong. A society that protects the guilty, villianizes the victim and promotes hooligans and yobs as heros. Welcome to 21st Century Britain - Blair's Britain.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:44 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack