Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy

Bereft. There's no other word for it.

When the BBC News app shot through with the breaking news on my mobile just after 6am yesterday morning, I found myself lying in bed for an hour just stunned beyond belief.

I didn't really believe it. It couldn't be true. I turned on my laptop after 7am and of course, sadly, it was and is.

Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats when I joined as a green but enthusiastic new student in Aberystwyth in September 2000. I was struck by his youth, his enthusiasm, his internationalism...and his accent. He didn't sound like a politician. He sounded like a normal person. Of course, that's because that's exactly what he was.

His leadership and indeed his political career could probably be encapsulated with his courageous decision to vote against the war in Iraq when the prevailing consensus was overwhelmingly in favour.

I recall doing my first ever media appearance for the party in the 2003 Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Swansea which happened to fall on the weekend after we went to war in Iraq. I recall the morning of war (was it a Thursday?) and I was walking around the University concourse in a daze in shock at what my country was about to take a part in. I was clear in my mind in that first ever interview, live on Radio Wales that my leader was absolutely correct in his stance. History of course, will treat him kindly for his principled stand.

Meeting Charlie
It was with great excitement that friends and I from the Aberystwyth University student society got to meet with Charles in the Welsh conference of spring 2004 in Mold where he presented us with our 'Best LDYS Student Branch in the UK' award. He spoke to everyone and had that famous common touch that made us all feel relaxed in his company. Exactly what I would want in a leader.

He then amazed me just months later after I was first elected to Ceredigion County Council in June 2004. Aged 21, I was one of Wales' youngest Councillors and awaiting me in my pigeon hole before my first meeting in the Council Chamber was a House of Commons envelope. Who was this from? Lembit Opik I rememeber presuming as he was Welsh Liberal Democrat leader at the time. No, it was from Charles Kennedy. A beautifully handwritten note reminded me that being the youngest elected was no bar to future success with particular reference to David Steel, Matthew Taylor and Sarah Teather. Typical of Charles, he didn't mention himself in that exulted list!

His resignation in early 2006 after leading the party to its greatest House of Commons representation since the days of David Lloyd George was a blow but rumours within the party of his fight with alcohol had been abound for some time. Even as a young member, my student colleagues and I weren't immune to the rumours but that was all they were. I vividly recall the 2004 spring federal conference in Southport when, looking gaunt, Charles sweated profusely throughout his main conference concluding speech. I remember leaving the auditorium and the clamour from the media was for comment on his health. I recall particularly, Sky News looking to track down a young activist to give comment and having now been a member for a few years sensed a trap for newer members so I leapt in and offered myself to say a few words. I honestly accepted the formal statement that Charles was not well. There may have been rumours, but I couldn't believe them. Of course in hindsight, his core team were shielding him the best they could. But the media wouldn't relent. Clearly not getting the response from myself that they were looking for, they cleverly changed tack and asked who I believed may be the next leader after Charles in the future. They were clearly digging for the names of rival leadership candidates and I recall momentarily considering the question before responding, out of nowhere, that the future leadership of the party after Charles Kennedy hadn't even crossed my mind as it was years down the road. It was snappily good response and Sky News gave in on their interrogation. Apparently, my comments were part of a package of responses that were relayed on a news loop throughout the rest of that day on Sky News.

The Future
The birth of Donald was greeted with joy from the party faithful but sadly, the marriage was dissolved and as the years went on, concerns continued to be raised as he had now opened up publicly to his demons. His recent and sadly, final performance of BBC's Question Time showed that he was still not well and with the death of his father in April, I was personally very concerned about how he may respond to a defeat in May in a Nationalist SNP landslide. I therefore made the rare decision of directly supporting a candidate outside of Wales in the election campaign. I donated £50 to play my part in the hopeful re-election of a man who I admired so deeply. In return, I received another handwritten letter of gratitude for my contribution. It was written in the same hand-written scrawl as the letter that I received over a decade earlier. Again, that personal touch went such a long way.

The tsunami that swept the party's parliamentary representation away in the early hours of the 8th May left only 8 in its wake. Sadly, Charles was not one of them. Yet in his speech, his typical humour shone through. He seemed to have taken it so much better than Danny Alexander had taken his defeat in the neighbouring constituency.

He spoke about his intention to contribute in the forthcoming referendum debate on Britain's involvement in the European Union. As a fellow staunch internationalist, I was looking forward to his passionate contributions over the coming 12 months. Sadly, it will not be.

Even more sadly, he leaves young Donald and his family to mourn the loss of a much loved father and family man.

With a third increase in membership of over 16,000 to over 61,000 since polling day and an imminent leadership contest vote just weeks away, the party that he so proudly led will move on.

But it will do so without one of liberalism's most passionate advocates. As a good and close friend of mine succinctly put it:
"I didn't think it was possible for liberals to wake up to worse news than the results on 8th May. I was wrong".
Rest in Peace Charles. Your work here is done and you have left a lasting legacy of love, humour, action and commitment to the progressive cause. Sleep well brother.

Friday, 16 January 2015

"Somehow...he's got to the fluke the yellow..." - Rocket Ronnie's Masterful Moment

I've mentioned previously of my desire to visit the that sporting Mecca the Alexandra Palace or the 'Ally Pally' as it is lovingly known to its many fans.

But when I visited last Tuesday, it wasn't for the darts (but that day will come) but for the snooker.

Having been a snooker fan since I can remember (the 1991 World Championship final between John Parrott and Jimmy White is my earliest recollection), it has been a sporting dream of mine to watch it live. But never did I realise I would witness a little bit of snooker history before my very eyes at my very first attempt.

But before the history, the context...

'Ally Pally'
The Crucible in Sheffield is the Holy Grail but before Xmas, I finally made the effort to buy tickets for arguably the most prestigious snooker tournament after the World Championship - the Masters.

So it was with no little amount of excitement that I made the hike up the hill from the train station towards the Palace in eagerness for a day of snooker action.

If any player could challenge the records set by 7 time World Champion Stephen Hendry, then it's Ronnie O'Sullivan and when I bought my tickets last month, I did so knowing that this tormented genius and reigning Masters champion would be playing his first round match on the day in question.

An Eagled Eye snap of Ronnie O' Sullivan preparing
for his introduction to the arena.
From my vantage point in the very back row of the audience, I had a great view of the action and the 1,800 seat arena which was packed out for the afternoon session. But because I was in the back row, it meant I could also lean over from a great height and see the mercurial 'Rocket' prepare to being introduced to the arena by the MC Rob Walker. A unique sight.

I lapped up the sights and sounds and in particular, the soft voices of 6 time World Champion Steve Davies and John Virgo commentate through the ear-piece that was purchased out in the foyer. Dead, reverent calm and quiet whilst the two gladiators went into action with only the sounds of Davis and Virgo cutting through the tension.

Ronnie O'Sullivan Vs Ricky Walden
From the outset, the match was tense with a scrappy opening session being won by Ronnie 3-1 against Ricky Walden. After the mid-session interval, Ronnie was on target for a century. I went into the day presuming that he had 770 career tons to his name, a full 5 behind the all-time mark left by Hendry. Even Ronnie couldn't possibly score 5 centuries in a first to 6 encounter I thought so had no consideration of watching a piece of snooker history that day. For once, my sporting stats were out-of-date and as he moved towards the century mark, the commentary made it clear that this would be his 774th. Suddenly, I realised that I may be in the box seat to watch snooker history in person. But the commentators curse struck as John Virgo noted how incredible it would be for Ronnie to equal, if not beat the mark on Stephen Hendry's birthday. For with his next shot, Ronnie missed and the break ended on 91. But any disappointment at this near miss was relieved when Ronnie scored a 100 break in the very next frame, putting him 5-1 ahead and within 1 century of equalling the record.

But this put me in a quandary. I wanted to see a Rocket win but to equal the record, he had to score a century in his final winning frame so every time a frame broke down, I wanted to see Ricky clinch it to give Ronnie another chance for that century. Ricky started well by scoring a 100 break of his own to reduce the arrears to 5-2. He then won two more including one after Ronnie broke down on a break of 66 which left Ricky needing two snookers. It looked as if the game was all over but Ricky kept on fighting, laid a snooker which Ronnie missed and then left a free ball. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ricky was right back in it and I was quietly pleased. Not only did it mean even better value for money for me and my £10 ticket but it also meant that Ronnie wasn't going to fall over the line, one short of the record.

But at 5-4 it was now getting very close! Ricky had a chance after a Ronnie foul to pot a tricky red into the middle pocket. But he missed and let the Rocket in. Ronnie made light work of what was on the table and moved towards a frame and match winning position. It was now simply a matter of whether he could cap a workmanlike win with that record-equalling century. It looked odds-against as the yellow and brown were both tight up on the baulk cushion.

Century Number 775
Ronnie cleared the reds and on a break of 82, had the final black from which to manoeuvre himself into those troublesome yellow and brown balls. He failed.

Whispering into our ears came the voice of John Virgo who said what we all knew...
"Somehow...he's got to the fluke the yellow..."
As the Youtube clip here can testify, there was a ripple of laughter around the auditorium as we all forlornly acknowledged to ourselves that this historic finale was probably beyond even the Rocket's abilities.

Then...he swung his cue, hit the yellow and as it rebounded off 3 cushions, we could see it careering towards the centre pocket. It didn't even rattle in the jaws - it went straight in!

Pandemonium!! Suddenly, this quiet and respectable snooker audience were now more akin to the one that had been witnessing the darts two weeks earlier! We were all going barmy and I was leading the encore! What was more remarkable was that having fluked the yellow, he was easily on the green and the brown had rebounded out towards a similarly comfortable position. The century making, history levelling blue...was merely on its spot! He went on to clear the pink and black for a 116 clearance!

This must've been akin to watching a 147 maximum break or a 9-darter. Absolute sporting hysteria!! Wonderful scenes!

Get Carter
We now had a 2 hour plus break before the evening session and to be honest, we needed it to calm down after that incredible excitement! Some food and some drinks later and we returned to our seats to watch Ali Carter Vs Barry Hawkins.

A wonderful vantage point to see the action.
Emotion was high as the crowd gave Carter a standing ovation on arriving in the arena after he was given the all-clear from lung cancer before Xmas having previously survived testicular cancer. I questioned whether his lack of match-fitness might make him ring-rusty against the very well regarded Hawkins. But no, it was Carter who came out of the blocks playing as if he hadn't had a months long lay-off and eventually cruised to a 6-1 win against a disappointing Hawk. His penultimate frame 130 clearance was a highlight.

At 10pm, the lights were being turned out and we made our way back to Alexandra Train Station and it gave me time to look back over a remarkable debut in the world of live snooker.

In snooker, the fabled 'Triple Crown' consists of the Masters as well as the World and UK Championships. Perhaps as a fan, I need to attempt to complete my own Triple Crown by visiting the latter two in the future.

But if I do, I doubt I'll be able to top that day in 'Ally Pally' when, with a slice of luck but with a great amount of skill, we watched Ronnie O'Sullivan equal Stephen Hendry's record of 775 century breaks...and on Hendry's birthday! live snooker goes, I'll never top that!

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A New Years Resolution: Preserving Dad's Photographic Inheritance - 50 Years On

It was some time ago that I blogged here about my long-overdue intention to preserve my Dad's photographic collection from the 1960s and 1970s.

Potato Harvesting in south
Pembrokeshire in 1962
Almost 1,000 slides depicting family and social life in south Pembrokeshire had remained in boxes for the best part of 20 years. These were photos which he had developed himself in his own dark room back at our Hungerford Farm and we are now 50 years on.

The job of transferring them to modern media was only finally completed by myself, after initial help from Scolton Manor, last year in time for the 10th anniversary of Dad's death in June 2003. I have however not given them the wider attention that is available to me with modern media and I plan to put this right.

I therefore cast my New Year's Resolution to showcase more of those photos through my blog to remind us of this bygone era. Photos that will show that in some ways, so much has changed in 50 years and some in contrast that show the contrary.

Potato Harvesting
Work and play!
I begin with a throwback a full half-century to the early 1960s and to the communal rural activity of potato harvesting.

Here we see neighbours helping neighbours with what was a routine but necessary and time-consuming activity.The necessity could at least be turned on its head and made into a social occasion as neighbouring families would help each other out each year with their crop.

Men, women and children would do what was required and here we see such examples in south Pembrokeshire. The first and third photos are taken at Martin's Hill Farm near Martletwy.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Legacy of Anna Thomas of Pantygarn, Eglwyswrw (1840-1907)

On September 10th 1864, two neighbouring Eglwyswrw families in north Pembrokeshire, the Lewis and Thomas families of Carnhuan and Pantygarn respectively, joined together in holy matrimony.

150 years later to the day, the same family live at the two farms in question, Carnhuan and Pantygarn and are now 3rd cousins. In 21st century rural community life, this is rare feat of endurance.

The Year? 1849
Stephen Lewis was my gg-grandfather and he moved to my maternal family farm at Carnhuan aged 27 with his father Thomas Lewis and grandparents Stephen and Eleanor Lewis in 1849. Anna Thomas meanwhile moved with her parents David (Dafydd) and Elizabeth (Leisa) Thomas as the youngest of 8 children, to neighbouring Pantygarn in that very same year of 1849 as a mere 9 year old. Anna was 18 years younger than her future husband, Stephen.

The Year? 1864
15 years later, these two families would join together when Stephen married his much younger neighbour at Cardigan Registry Office on 10th September 1864. On the marriage certificate however, it gave Stephen's age as 32 and not 42, as was in fact the case. They went on to have 6 children - David, Margaret, Elizabeth, Stephen, Griffith and Harry.

A copy of Stephen and Anna's Marriage Certificate
from 10th September 1864. Stephen was 10 years older
than stated.
Stephen Thomas Lewis, born 1870, was my great-grandfather and he would go on to farm Carnhuan after the death of his uncle Griffith (his father Stephen Lewis' older brother) in 1895. The farm then continued in the family through his son John Rees Lewis (1909-1991) and to this present day with his son, my Uncle Howard Lewis.

The family of the youngest of the 6 children meanwhile, Harry, would go on to farm the maternal farm at Pantygarn through his son-in-law Daniel Morgan. Daniel's grandson Harry Lewis Morgan (see what they did there?!) now runs the farm with his young family.

Anna Thomas (1840-1907) & Stephen Lewis 1821-1924)
What then happened to the original pairing that gave us today in 2014 the owners of these two neighbouring farmsteads?

Stephen went on to live to the grand old age of 102. Born in late December 1821, he died in April 1924. His obituary referred to him as the 'Grand Old Man of Pembrokeshire'.

His much younger wife Anna however had predeceased him by over 16 years in December 1907 after 43 years of marriage. But despite her relative youth compared to that of her husband, there was no doubting the boss in this relationship.

Bethabara Baptist Chapel
Because Anna was the daughter of a staunch Baptist family. Her parents had started up the local Sunday School from their Ty Rhos home in the foothill of the Preseli Hills in the early 1820s before her father Dafydd, a mason helped to build the local Baptist Chapel, Bethabara at Pontyglasier near Crosswell in 1826.

The children were all brought up with the faith with two of Anna's brothers going into the Ministry - Stephen Thomas and Benjamin Thomas were well regarded Baptist Ministers and the latter a well known Welsh Bard who worked under the Bardic name 'Myfyr Emlyn'.

Stephen's family were Anglican - he was baptised in June 1822 at Eglwyswen Church - within half a mile of the soon to be founded Bethabara Baptist Chapel. By 1864, now living in Eglwyswrw, the local village church was just down the road from the farmsteads of Carnhuah and Pantygarn. Bethabara Chapel meanwhile was a further distance away but to which were the 6 children sent?

Yes, Anna wore the trousers here and David, Margaret, Elizabeth, Stephen, Griffith and Harry were sent to chapel...and not to church.

The main two protagonists moving forward, Stephen Thomas Lewis and Harry Lewis, were deacons at Bethabara, long after their parents were both buried there in the shadows of the main building and within a short distance of Anna's devout parents Dafydd and Leisa Thomas who died in 1874 and 1864 respectively. The former passed away on Christmas Day and the latter just 6 weeks before the marriage of her youngest child.

The Legacy of Anna Thomas
I knew that sometime, somewhere, I would be baptised. My simple but quiet faith has over the years been tested but deep down, it was more a matter of when, not if.

I attended Martletwy Sunday School in the south of the county and with my paternal grandparents interred there, I always believed that the same would be said for me. But when my father passed away and on his instructions was interred at my maternal chapel home at Bethabara in the north of the county, it made me re-consider everything.

After many years of thoughtful consideration, my family history odyssey of late, with the exceptional influence of Anna Thomas in the forefront of my mind, finally helped me make up my mind.

So it was in early July this year that I was baptised in the external baptismal pool in the cemetery grounds at Bethabara, within a small distance of the final resting places of my father, my maternal grandfather John Rees Lewis and his wife Sarah Anne Morgans, his parents Stephen Thomas Lewis and Martha John Rees and his parents of course, Stephen Lewis and Anna Thomas. Not forgetting her own parents Dafydd and Leisa Thomas.

I felt as if I'd come home and as I moved from the chapel towards the vestry for some light refreshments, I planted a kiss on the headstone of old Stephen and his dominant wife Anna.

Had their families not have moved to Carnhuan and Pantygarn respectively in that year of 1849, it is highly unlikely that they would have married 15 years later on this day, 150 years ago. In which case of course, I would not be here now, telling you their rather unique story.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Rolf Harris - GUILTY of Child Abuse

Devastated isn't the word.

I adored Rolf Harris. Didn't we all?

I loved the man. Loved his art. Loved his humanity with animals. Loved, absolutely loved, his eccentric musical career.

As the court case progressed, I became increasingly uneasy at what was coming to light.

His letter written to the parents of one of his accusers many years ago told us of a dark side to Rolf Harris that none of us knew about. He had kept it so well hidden.

Also, his claim to have never been to Cambridge, only for archive TV footage to be found that showed him in a 'It's a Knockout' style programme from Cambridge that was hosted by Michael Aspell.

The jury had been out, considering its verdict, for over a week. The longer they were deliberating, the more I became sure that some guilty verdicts may be returned.

But for a clean sweep of 12 verdicts of indecent assault to be given against him still came as a shock. He remains on bail before he returns to court on Friday to be sentenced. Surely, it will be a custodial sentence. He deserves nothing less and his victims deserve nothing less.

I am just left feeling lost that a happy part of my childhood has been wiped out as a lie. Just as it was with Jimmy Saville.

For generations of us, this collective memory has failed us and episodes of past vintage television programmes now will be destroyed or hidden into the dark recesses of the media archives.

As I said, I particularly loved his music and despite gentle ridicule from friends over many years, proudly claimed ownership of his 'Best of'...' album. 'Jake the Peg', 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down', 'Sun Arise' and his iconic 1969/1970 Number One, 'Two Little Boys' were just a few of the favourites. I adored them.

Now, I have destroyed that CD as a result of this afternoon's verdicts. Just as he has destroyed a part of my childhood. Just as his own reputation has been left in tatters.

My thoughts and condolences are with his victims at this difficult time.