Sunday, October 05, 2008

Live from the obesity crisis ground zero: Your fearless correspondent embedded in Rotherham disguises himself as a banana to meet our Minister of Food

By British humourist, Giles Coren. I laughed as soon as I saw who was writing this piece. I enjoy him as much as I enjoyed his late father (Alan Coren) in the now sadly vanished "Punch" magazine. I am so glad that the Coren humour seems to be hereditary. You may have to "get" British humour to be amused as I am, however. He's utterly crazy! It is, of course satire

Compared with all the other columns you will have read this week, this one may come as a bit of a surprise. Indeed, it may well be unique as a media entity, tout court, in not having been constructed from the floor of the Conservative Party conference, the US election campaign trail, or the New York Stock Exchange.

Astounding though it may seem, I have not been out sneaking around the lavatories of the International Conference Centre in Birmingham to get a real sense of how many Tory delegates wash their hands after widdling (in order to bring my own special brand of wit and insight to the conference coverage), nor have I been interviewing bagel vendors on Wall Street so as to create colourful prose about how declining pretzel sales presage fiscal Armageddon.

I am not writing this on a laptop from my seat on Barack Obama's plane, only seven rows behind the man himself, from where I am able almost to see the actual ears of the man who may become the first black US president - thus giving my prose added urgency and weight - nor am I reporting live from the McCain Oven Chips HQ in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, whence I can bring you a hilarious sideways look at the US election through the eyes of the frozen potato people who coincidentally share the name of one of the candidates (a candidate who, funnily enough, looks just like a potato, except with smaller eyes).

Unique among columnists this week, I am not “on the ground” anywhere at all (isn't it marvellous how the self-aggrandising locational tics of the war correspondent have sneaked into the general reporter's argot?), I am just sitting here, poking through the newspapers in search of something that can be written about from a suburban desk in the weary gap between breakfast and lunch - anything but the US election, the financial crisis and the Tory conference.

Hang on, is that the phone? Rats. That was the new Saturday editor of The Times. She says that Jamie Oliver was mean about fat people in Rotherham in a television programme on Tuesday. He's set up some sort of Ministry of Food and she wants me to get down there pronto and sketch the scene on the, er, ground.

Rotherham, October 3, 16.43 BST

Here at obesity crisis ground zero the air is thick with the smell of saturated fat burning on dirty griddles. I'm in Rotherham, which I think is in Scotland somewhere. Anyway the people are enormous and talk funny and it's cold.

I'm here to get a real sense of Food Minister Jamie Oliver's campaign to do something excellent relating to food, make people thinner or less spotty or something, and the best way, as we know, is to embed oneself on the ground and just get a real flavour of...Bang!

None of us knows what that explosion was, but I have taken cover under a table with all the other journalists while we wait for the all-clear from the security forces. My heart is going like the clappers, largely because I have done nothing but stand around drinking bad filter coffee for the past four hours. Many of us are now copulating furiously in a bizarre response to the feeling that this may be our last hour on Earth.

17.36 BST

The all-clear has been sounded. Apparently the explosion was down to a deprived fat kid blowing up a Monster Munch bag for larks. This is a sad, forgotten corner of the world and such cynical pranks are what pass for fun around here. But you should have seen the kid: three tons if he was a stone. One of those grotesque little porkers with a great big, pink head so squishy that his eyes looked like someone had poked them into Play-Doh with a screwdriver. His hair was shaved in a number one crop because these people are so poor that they cannot afford scissors, and he wore a baggy grey tracksuit that made him look like a snowman on the melt.

Jamie Oliver said of the diet here in Rotherham: “I've been to Soweto and I've seen Aids orphans eating better than that.” And I can see his point. This kid was way more disgusting to look at than those African babies with the balloony stomachs and the flies in their eyes.

18.07 BST

Like Jamie Oliver, I've seen the ravages wreaked on their people by monsters such as Richard Mugabe and Goran Ivanisevic, but even I was unprepared for what I saw when benefit-scrounging single mum Natasha opened the bottom drawer of her fridge: chocolate bars and sweets!

It was horrific. Where does she keep the frisee? Ha ha. No, she's working class. She doesn't eat lettuce. According to one “insider” (actually it was the cab driver who took me from the airport, we proper sketchwriters always put in a bit about what the cab driver said; he's usually the only person we talk to apart from the hooker in the hotel bar), she feeds her children kebabs and chips every day instead of making fresh polenta and stuff. Which even Richard Mugabe doesn't do.

19.03 BST

This is hard. One of Jamie's producers comes in with a special “no-bread sandwich”, and a half a dozen locals - so fat you could render them down and grease the wheels of commerce for a century - gather round to poke and touch like people in the Amazon when they see a white person, such as Kate Adie or someone. “It's from Pret A Manger in London,” says the girl. “It's carb-free and helps me stay thin enough to hold on to my job in television.”

The local people - so fat you wonder if they'll ever drop below $100 a barrel again - look baffled. “Job?”, they mouth. “What's a job?” It's so sad. Now that they've closed the pits, these people haven't even got ponies to eat.

19.57 BST

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Rotherham” - if you'll forgive my paraphrasing of Thomas Coleridge. We colour writers always quote a poem at this stage to lend our vision a bit of heart. No, but seriously, this is the town where those mums pushed pies and chips under the school fence when Jamie was trying to make their children eat healthy food in his last show. Bombing is too good for them. They're so fat that they're actually wearing out the ground so fast that by 2035, according to Jamie's researchers, Rotherham will be 1,000ft below sea-level.

20.09 BST

Finally, the great man himself, James Fitzgerald Millhouse Oliver, arrives, ten hours late, in a motorcade, flanked by armoured elephants, no, wait, those are local security guards. The other journalists gather round, but your correspondent is more original than that. I disguise myself as a banana (the first time I have gone native since I reported from Shepherds Bush in a full burka on what it was like to be constantly mistaken for John Simpson) and press through the throng.

Mistaking me for a harmless piece of fruit, Jamie comes over to say hello (it is the first piece of fruit he has seen in Rotherham). And guess what? He's actually quite fat. Ha ha! Talk about irony.

This is Giles Coren, for The Times, on the ground in Rotherham.

And it is indeed from The Times -- a top-quality newspaper that also manages to be a treasure-trove of British humour. British writers seem to be able to put an amusing spin on almost anything

British teacher junket cancelled

It could not stand the light of publicity

Teachers who planned to hold a training conference at a Costa del Sol resort will instead attend sessions in classrooms at their school in Staffordshire after complaints from parents. The trip to Marbella by staff at Edensor Technology College in Longton, planned for today and tomorrow, was cancelled yesterday morning. The school could be liable for costs of up to $40,000 because of the short notice, according to Stoke-on-Trent council. Mark Meredith, the mayor, said that it was unclear whether money spent in advance could be reclaimed. "There are guesstimates going around - it could be $40,000 or more," he said in a radio interview. ""The school is investigating this. But these are the questions that the governors will be putting to the head teacher."

Richard Mercer, the headmaster, said in a statement: "Following the publicity concerning the proposed visit to Marbella for training purposes by staff, it has been decided to cancel the trip. The training programme will now take place at the school. It was felt that due to the pressure from media interest in the trip it would be unfair to the staff, the pupils and parents." About 80 members of the teaching staff were to have stayed at the hotel until Sunday, the Stoke Sentinel had disclosed on Wednesday.

The trip angered parents, whose children would have been off school while the teachers were away at the beachside resort. Andy Sales, 34, said: "Why isn't this money being spent on our kids? Parents are having to take time off work or are paying for extra childcare while the staff are enjoying the sun at the school's expense."

Mr Mercer said that it was "more cost-effective" to go abroad as it is the end of Marbella's peak season. "If parents think this is a `jolly', they should join us and find out how hard the staff work." [Give us a break!] In a further statement, released through the council yesterday, Mr Mercer said that the school budget allowed for an annual staff conference. Governors considered nine quotes for Britain and abroad and the Marbella hotel was "the best value for money".

Mr Meredith said: "My personal view is that it was a barmy decision to hold the session in Spain. I'm pleased that they have come to their senses."



The [British] Government will fail to reach its goal of producing 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, a group of academics has predicted.

According to figures contained in Cambridge Econometrics' UK Energy and the Environment report, renewables will account for only approximately 5 per cent of UK electricity sales to final users by 2010, just half of the 10 per cent target.

The report argues that, even if electricity demand were to grow at around 1 to 1.5 per cent per annum between 2010 and 2020 and fossil fuel prices were to remain relatively high, the share of renewables in UK electricity sales is only expected to increase to around 10.25 per cent by 2015.

This is still short of the 15 per cent target set by the Government under its renewable obligation scheme.

Cambridge Econometrics' researchers put the forecast failure down to the expectation that fossil fuel generation will remain an important contributor towards meeting the UK's electricity needs over the next 12 years.

Professor Paul Ekins of King's College London, a senior consultant to Cambridge Econometrics and co-editor of the report, said: "These forecasts provide a timely reality check about the progress that the UK is likely to make over the next twelve years towards achieving its goal of at least a 26 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and at least a 60 per cent reduction by 2050.

"The headline message from these forecasts is that, despite all the rhetoric about the urgency of tackling climate change, the Government has seemingly still not understood the stringency of policies required to move the UK towards a low-carbon economy.

"The forecasts also indicate that, despite high energy prices, the Government's policies to promote a low-carbon future are not yet sufficient to meet the carbon challenge restated most recently in the May 2007 Energy White Paper and the Climate Change Bill."


Nine-year-old Muslim girl in Britain rescued from forced marriage

The disclosure comes as official figures show that nearly 60 children aged 15 or under have been rescued by the Government's Forced Marriage Unit in the past four years. The cases are feared to be the tip of the iceberg. They will fuel concerns, first raised earlier this year, that large numbers of children are disappearing from British schools to be forced into wedlock overseas.

A charity which runs a national helpline on forced marriage and "honour"-based crimes, Karma Nirvana, revealed that in one incident a nine-year-old girl from a Pakistani family in the east Midlands was taken into council care after her parents told her she was to wed. Jasvinder Sanghera, director of Karma Nirvana, said that on average four children a month aged under 16 have contacted its helpline since it launched in April. "The youngest child we have dealt with was nine years old," she said. "The girl told her teacher she was going to be forced to marry someone and initially she was not believed. "Ultimately, with the help of the Forced Marriage Unit, she was dealt with through child protection procedures. She was assessed and, thankfully, taken into foster care."

Ms Sanghera called on ministers to make sure primary school children are taught about forced marriage and given advice on how to avoid becoming a victim.

The Forced Marriage Unit has helped rescue 58 underage children since it was set up in January 2005, including 11 under-16s so far this year. The youngest victim this year was 13, one was 14 and nine were 15. The unit deals with 5,000 inquiries and 300 cases of forced marriage a year. A third of inquiries come from under 18s. The youngest victim repatriated by the unit, which is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, was an 11-year-old girl who was flown back to Britain from Dhaka, Bangladesh, last year after her parents had agreed to marry her to a local man.

Ms Sanghera, who herself fled home after being threatened with forced marriage at the age of 15, said: "I currently have cases involving four children aged 11 to 14 who were forced to marry or were at risk, and have now been made wards of court. "You don't just get forced into a marriage at 16 or 17; this is happening to very young children. We certainly have had cases of minors being sexually abused. "If you are forced into marriage as a minor you will be multiple-raped, because as a child you are legally unable to give consent. "But we have no idea how many children under 16 are at risk, and this is compounded by a reluctance of schools to engage with the issue. Many schools shy away due to supposed cultural sensitivities." She went on: "There will be children sitting in our classrooms this week who have already had identified for them a husband or a wife. "These marriages can be prevented by identifying the signs in school or teachers believing pupils when they raise it."

The problem is particularly prevalent in Pakistani communities, where betrothing offspring to their first cousins is common practice, said Ms Sanghera. "It happens across all races but there is a disproportionate number of cases within the Pakistani community, and we need to recognise that," she said. "At Karma Nirvana we have noticed a significant trend of young people aged 14, 15 and 16 coming forward for our services. "We need reassurance from schools, especially headteachers, that existing Department for Children, Schools and Families posters giving advice about forced marriage are displayed in primary and secondary schools. "We also believe there should be proper headcounts of pupils after the summer holidays, so that steps can be taken if any children have disappeared from the register. I think what the schools discover will alarm them." She estimated there could be a dozen cases a year in some medium-sized comprehensive schools with significant numbers of Asian children.

A nine-month study by Karma Nirvana in 2006 followed the fortunes of 15 girls aged 10 to 18 in Derby, where the charity is based. By the end of the study, four had been taken abroad including a 17-year-old who had subsequently returned to the UK after being wed to a 35-year-old man.

Earlier this year a report by the Commons' all-party Home Affairs Select Committee said 2,089 pupils were unaccounted for in just 14 local council areas of England and Wales. A proportion of these are believed to have been children removed from education and forced into marriages overseas.


Cash strapped British Navy cuts destroyer fleet : "The Fleet now has just five air defence warships left to protect vessels missile or aircraft attack at a time when other nations such as China, India and Iran are investing heavily in anti-ship warfare. Three Type 42 destroyers – Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton – have been "parked up" in Portsmouth at "reduced readiness" up to two years before they were due to be decommissioned. Britain's force of destroyers and frigates has now been reduced from 35 to 22 in the last decade despite government promises it would not slip below 25. It will be another two years before the first of six of the highly sophisticated Type 45 destroyers can be deployed on operations leaving a "gaping hole" in defences. Senior Navy commanders have told The Daily Telegraph that the nation is taking "serious risks" in protecting carrier groups or amphibious flotillas and have accused the Government of neglecting the Fleet that protects the 90 per cent of Britain's imported trade"

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