Sunday, December 30, 2007

Russia likes British education

They presumably have Oxbridge in mind, not British "Comprehensives"

Vladimir Putin's controversial youth movement is to send a select group of activists to learn at British universities - despite its disdain for Britain and its harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow. The 100,000-strong Nashi group, which is reportedly funded by the Kremlin, is to pay for dozens of its activists to study in Britain - because the excellence of the education will help make Russia a "world leader".

The move comes as Russia is threatening to forcibly close the St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg offices of the British Council, which promotes education overseas, as part of a diplomatic row. Nashi recently resumed its campaign against the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Brenton, after his speech on democracy to Putin opponents. Sir Anthony has called the campaign "psychological harassment bordering on violence", and complained that it had affected his wife and children. His car has been followed and he has been picketed on trips out of Moscow.

Yet despite its views on Britain, Nashi states: "We lag behind in knowledge and experience vital for making Russia a 21st-century world leader. British education is rated highly all over the world. The graduates of British universities are in great demand. This is because of the high quality of education and also control from the government."

Relations between Moscow and London have been soured by Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Britain has refused to extradite Boris Berezovsky, who Russia accuses of financial crimes. An embassy source said: "The British Government supports young Russians who wish to study in the UK. This is a core activity of the British Council's three offices in Russia. We are delighted that Nashi clearly supports the objectives of the British Council."


Why I've no appetite for the Fife Diet

A 'small, grassroots movement' has sprung up in Scotland based on eating only food produced nearby. Local boy James Panton is appalled.

Burntisland is a picturesque town on the banks of the River Forth in east Scotland. It is home to the Fife Diet, the latest eco-trend, in which people are attempting to minimize their `carbon footprint' by living only on food that has been grown or produced in Fife. I grew up in Burntisland and lived for the first few years of my life on an enforced `Fife diet' - and I find the idea of eating nothing but local produce appalling.

The Fife diet, at least the one I vaguely remember from childhood, seemed to consist of an awful lot of mince with neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes), stovies (bacon or corned beef with potatoes and onions) and stews (made of god-knows-what, but there were definitely potatoes involved). My mother was an immigrant from Nottingham in the English midlands, so she knew of culinary possibilities that existed beyond the Firth of Forth and she worked hard to educate my dad's rather conservative tastebuds.

Once a week, she would slip in a spaghetti bolognese, which Dad approved of as sufficiently mince-based, although to this day he cuts up his spaghetti with a knife and fork and is suspicious of parmesan. One of my sisters was a dab hand at quiche lorraine (or egg and bacon flan with exotic aspirations). A couple of times a year we had food from the Chinese takeaway on the High Street. Traditional Scottish egg foo yung, which I remember bearing remarkable similarities to scrambled egg with peas and onions, was a favourite. I know for a fact that we had a fondue set, but it was never used in front of the children.

I suspect that my early childhood diet wasn't that different to many people with my kind of Scottish small-ish town background in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We weren't particularly conservative, but the menu was pretty traditional, based on ingredients that had been used for decades and cooked in the same old ways. More interesting ingredients and ways of cooking were available: Edinburgh was just over 30 minutes away on the train and it was home to fruit and veg shops selling exotica of all shapes and sizes; there were Italian delicatessens with cheeses that came in a wider range than `red cheese' and `yellow cheese', and there were general stores that smelt of Indian spices and even Chinese supermarkets if you knew where to look. The foods from such specialist shops weren't part of my daily diet, though - they were expensive treats and curiosities, not daily staples, and they weren't generally available down in our local Co-op store.

Since I left Burntisland and moved to London at the age of 18, my daily diet has changed beyond all recognition. But what is remarkable is that so too has the daily diet of my parents and my older brothers and sisters who still live in or around Burntisland. Things that were once exotic are now commonplace in the supermarket and even at the Co-op: shipped and flown from around the world in bulk, they are available at a price that makes them affordable as everyday grub.

So there is something depressing about the news that Burntisland is now home to what the Guardian has called a `small grassroots movement' (1) (note the radical twang) that thinks the way to make the world a better place is to eat only foods that have been grown in the region of Fife. Inspired by the Vancouver-based 100 Mile Diet (2), in which participants attempted to survive on food produced within 100 miles of their homes, the Fife Diet draws its ingredients from an even smaller area of land. The diet is premised on the notion that reducing the number of `food miles' (the miles travelled by the food we eat between production and consumption) is one of the most important contributions individuals can make to saving the planet.

Mike Small, the inspiration behind the diet, claims that this is `not a back-to-nature movement rejecting the twenty-first century. It is a flexible, consciousness-raising exercise to show what realistic changes individuals can make'. He is surely right - the Fife Diet is a product of a peculiarly twenty-first century form of moralistic miserliness where the future of the planet is understood to be dependent upon the consumption choices made by individual families. The more they can reject the advances of food production and transportation that the late twentieth century brought to small towns like Burntisland the better.

The Fife Diet is celebrated as a way of bringing local communities together and supporting local producers and their products against `the ecological insanity of transporting food around the world' (3). Implicit in this is a politically correct kind of economic protectionism which seeks to celebrate everything local in opposition to producers from other parts of the world. Although I'm a fan of Burntisland, and I have many friends in Fife, I'm not convinced that its small farmers are any more deserving than the rather more efficient producers in many other parts of the world.

According to the diet's website `It's no good just saying no. We can't just oppose Tesco, rage against food miles and rant against food-packaging. In all aspects of socio-ecology we need to build alternative platforms and movements from within the shell of the old decaying society' (4). Unlike the 19 families who have so far signed up to the Fife Diet, I'm not at all convinced that having a diet so exotic as to include such luxuries as salt and pepper, tea and coffee and even the occasional glass of wine - all of which are ruled out in the Fife Diet in an attempt to curb climate change - is an expression of social decay. On the contrary, these foodstuffs were even part of the rather limited diet of my family when I was a young child.

And I am certainly not convinced that Tesco and other supermarket chains are the source of social decay. In fact, they are the means by which everyone from London to Burntisland can get hold of cheaply produced and distributed food from around the world - and all a damned sight more interesting than the neeps and tatties of my youth. The Fife Diet may be regarded as radical by those with low horizons, but attempting to solve the world's problems by retreating to the local shows that such campaigners are starved of imagination.


Stupid British rules say homes must be safe for robbers

A woman who suffered a break-in robbery in which she lost some valuable antiques worth "thousands" has been told she could face a significant liability if she beefs up her home's security, and a returning robber would be injured. "If I have got to live behind locked doors for the rest of my life, I hope the rest of my life isn't very long," the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Rugby, England, Advertiser. "But why would I want my house safe for these people? It's crazy," she said.

The woman had antiques and personal items worth "thousands" stolen from her home during her absence to attend to the needs of her brother, suffering with cancer. The invaders smashed through a security gate and broke windows in order to get inside, police reports said.

During their investigation, Rugby police provided her with a crime-fighting booklet that discusses home security. But she told the Advertiser when she asked about putting in a new security fence and upgrading its capabilities, she was told the laws on liability meant she risked a police investigation herself if any trespassers hurt themselves climbing it. She had wanted to add barbed wire to the fence in order to reduce the ease with which the robbers apparently gained access to her home.

But the Warwickshire Police "Operation Impact" booklet, which gives victims information on crime-fighting, suggested she could risk a prosecution herself if someone would be hurt. "I respect that if the postman or the gas man calls, they don't expect to hurt himself. But I was speechless - you couldn't make it up. I think these laws show we have gone soft in the head," she told the newspaper.


Austrian company offers to remove UK's 'disruptive' migrants in adapted aircraft

A company specialising in removing failed asylum-seekers is to approach the Government with plans to use specially adapted aircraft to deport hundreds of "disruptive" refugees. Asylum Airways, run by an Austrian aviation consultant with ties to British security firms, will operate aircraft for European countries which do not wish to use established airlines for the forced removal of asylum-seekers. The planes will have specially designed seats so that the "passengers" can be strapped down and restrained by guards. A deal could save the Government millions of pounds compared with the piecemeal contracts it has negotiated with dozens of airlines as well as reduce the number of aborted deportations.

Hundreds of asylum-seeker removals have had to be aborted in the past two years because of what the Home Office describes as "disruptive behaviour". And in the past few months airlines have been criticised for carrying failed asylum-seekers, many of whom allege they have been physically and racially abused by private security guards paid to escort them.

Earlier this year XL airlines announced that it would no longer work with the Home Office in removing failed asylum-seekers. But British Airways and others argue that they have a legal duty to take asylum-seekers on their aircraft.

Heinz Berger, who has set up the Asylum Airlines company and has worked with British companies providing security at British airports, says that he is still involved with the "bureaucracy" of the scheme but has identified Britain as a key market for his service. Mr Berger said that Britain was on a list of countries with whom he was seeking to do business. He said there was "ongoing interest all over Europe" for an airline that will organise flights around Europe, picking up failed asylum-seekers from various countries and then flying them back to their home nations around Africa, the Middle East and Asia. A special feature will be bespoke aircraft with padded rooms and restraining equipment.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the removal of hundreds of asylum-seekers each year has to be cancelled because of "disruptive behaviour". But this can include medical problems as well as complaints from passengers. A spokeswoman for the Home Office said that while the Government was "open to new ideas" she said the present arrangements were working "pretty well".


Divorcees are bad for the environment. Do environmentalists care?

A small item in the British Medical Journal recently caught my eye. It was a brief digest of a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the environmental impact of divorce. Researchers from Michigan found that people in divorced households spent 46 and 56 percent more on electricity and water, respectively, than did people in married households. This outcome is not all that surprising: marriage involves (among many other things, of course) economies of scale.

One of the interesting questions that this little piece of research poses is whether the environmentalist lobby will now throw itself behind the cause of family values. Will it, for example, push for the tightening of divorce laws, and for financial penalties-in the form, say, of higher taxes-to be imposed on those who insist upon divorcing, and therefore upon using 46 percent more electricity and 52 percent more water per person than married couples who stay together? Will environmentalists march down the streets with banners reading SAVE THE PLANET: STAY WITH THE HUSBAND YOU HATE?

For myself, I doubt it. Yet these figures, if true, are certainly suggestive. The fact that there will be no demonstrations against environmentally destructive divorcees, who probably emit as much extra carbon dioxide as the average SUV, suggests that the desire to save the planet is not nearly as powerful as the desire to destroy a way of life.


No comments: