Along the Busway

I have written here about the Cambridge guided busway and yesterday I finally got to travel on it. From the St Ives Park and Ride we boarded a bus and travelled quickly and comfortably towards Cambridge, the buses travelling in a concrete trough along the old railway line.  This “innovative transport solution” can’t quite shake off the past as traces of the railway past remain, such as station buildings at Oakington and Histon, the latter boarded up, whilst there are several level crossings to negotiate. Just past the Science Park however the bus has to leave its trough for the busy streets of central Cambridge and take quite a time to reach the stop by Christ’s Pieces where we got off to begin our sightseeing.

The busway is certainly popular and the journey back was rather less comfortable as the double decker was so full. But would a regular rail service have been any less popular? Less frequent certainly but with the advantage of not having to leave the tracks for the streets and being available for freight, diverted trains etc as well. The busway has been criticized from another quarter too, that of those who argue that the railway could have been converted into a road and that a busway is an unsatisfactory fudge,

The buses continue on to the Park and Ride at Trumpington near the M11. As I wrote before reaching Trumpington has meant using part of the trackbed of the former railway to Bedford which is the missing link in the rapidly developing East West rail project.

An interesting and not unpleasant experience then but worth the money spent (not counting the additional money still to be spent rejoining Cambridge and Bedford by a roundabout route)? On that one the jury’s not out.

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Irrationalism and Politics

Mention sex work and politicians abandon reason. The latest example of this is Canada. Now I once thought of the land of the maple leaf as a “nice” country, a sort of USA lite with the Queen but without the guns, and less crass television and this is, I imagine, a not unusual view. Certainly the Canadians I met backpacking around Europe many years ago always had a maple leaf prominent on their rucksacks so that they would not be taken for Americans.

But Canada has some very restrictive laws on prostitution, at least until a dominatrix called Terri-Jean Bedford took them on and secured a Supreme Court judgement that the laws were unconstitutional in that they compromised sex workers’ health and safety.

The government was given 12 months to go away and come up with something better. It was no real surprise that they came up with a Nordic model inspired proposal to criminalise sex workers’ clients. The problems with this have been much discussed elsewhere so I won’t rehearse the arguments again here but just comment that opponents of criminalisation are not, as some allege, part of a pimping lobby but include the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, and closer to home, The Lancet and former Conservative minister Lord Fowler.

The issue is, of course, that the proposed new laws are open to the same objections as the ones struck down by the Supreme Court. Forcing sex workers into the shadows effectively cuts them off from protection by the police and denies them access to health services. In other words they compromise their health and safety at work.

If it seems strange that they would do this we need only look nearer to home where politicians like Mary Honeyball and Gavin Shuker show themselves the intellectual prisoners of the anti-sex work ideology that is a curious blend of radical feminism and religious fundamentalism and has little basis in the actual lived experience of sex workers, who they are oddly reluctant to talk to.

Expect sex work to be keeping the Canadian courts busy for a while to come.

A Tragic Anniversary

It was on this day in 1987 that Poland’s worst ever air disaster occurred. Shortly after take off from Warsaw for New York one of the engines of the Ilyushin IL62 caught fire which led to a further fire in the hold. The pilot attempted to return to Warsaw to make an emergency landing but lost control and the plane crashed into the Kabaty Forest on the outskirts of Warsaw with the loss of all 183 passengers and crew. Some of the pictures taken at the scene were shown again on :Polish television today and they are deeply upsetting.

I had the chance to visit the site of the crash a few years ago. A cousin of my wife lives in a new housing development half an hour’s walk from the Forest which has always been a popular place for Warsaw people to go walking and cycling at weekends. In a clearing there is a large cross and a stone with the names of all the victims. Twenty years on the height of the trees still marked the path the plane took as it dropped shaving the tops off as it came down. It was a quiet and peaceful place, and the violence of the landing, the terror of the doomed passengers seemed oddly distant. I wrote this:

KABATY FOREST  

When they humped their cases onto the belt,

weighed up the duty free,

they did not know how a fuselage could burn

and cables melt like the wings of Icarus.

 

They could not imagine plunging to Earth

through seas of sunlight, the fierce speed of the forest

rising up to meet them,

 

the gentle fall of rain on leaves,

which, once spread out to catch them,

now lift them up in shafts of stolen light.

Kabaty Forest is on the outskirts of Warsaw. Flight LOT5055fell to Earth there on 9th May 1987with the loss of all 183 passengers and crew.

A Nasty Smell from Auld Reekie

It is 1986. The AIDS crisis is in full swing and sexual health issues acquire a public profile they have rarely enjoyed. In that year Edinburgh City Council did something very enlightened and far sighted. It decided it pursue a policy of pragmatic tolerance of brothels (or saunas as they are called there) by licensing them as places of public entertainment. With Lothian and Borders police supporting the policy, sex workers were able to work in relative safety and access sexual health services. As a harm reduction strategy it was an undeniable success.

AIDS is  no longer a major issue, it seems, but the safety of sex workers ceratinly is and, just a few days ago another sex worker, Maria Dunque-Tujano, was murdered in London by a man who had previously attacked others. Sadly, as of this week, Edinburgh is no longer a safe haven or a place with an enlightened policy.

The story actually begins last April when Lothian and Borders Police was abolished as a national force was established in Scotland. Police Scotland immediately embarked on a radically different policy and, within days, suan raids had begun, allegedly looking for evidence of drug taking, crime and trafficking, as if the police had not been interested in these things before. Women were detained, held for several hours despite telling the police that, being normal women they had normal things to do like picking up their children from school. Money and possessions, particularly mobile phones, were taken and in many cases not returned. This was all in line with the way the political wind is blowing, where radical feminists and religious fundamentalists are driving policy changes that are based on ideology rather than facts. It was, in the circumstances, not a surprise that, this week, Edinburgh City Council voted to scrap the policy of licensing saunas.

This is bad news for anyone concerned about violence and sexual health. Under the licensing regime sexual health outreach workers visited establishments and ensured, for example, that there were plentiful supplies of condoms. Police Scotland now say that condoms in saunas will be considered evidence of unlawful activity. This a triumph for those who hold that all prostitution is violence against women, but for those who are concerned with actual violence against actual human beings it is a disaster, one that does not bode well for the development of pragmatic evidence based policy in an area that affects many thousands of often vulnerable women.

A Note on Dawlish

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This is what the West of England main line at Dawlish looked like this week. Plymouth and Cornwall are now cut off from the national rail network and may be for a while to come. Before 1968 this would not have happened as there was another route from Exeter to Plymouth passing to the North of Dartmoor, through Okehampton and Tavistock.  Indeed until 1958 there was another line between Exeter and Newton Abbott along the Teign Valley. I wrote about them here.

The point is that, even fifty or so years ago, there were concerns about rising sea levels at Dawlish and voices were heard warning about the dangers of closing and lifting alternative routes. They were ignored. But what is to be done now? Well, for a change long term thinking is needed. Reopening the Tavistock route may not be possible even though a significant portion of the trackbed remains intact and there has also been talk of reopening the Teign Valley line. There is also the possibility of raising the level of the line at Dawlish. None of these options is cheap. Network Rail comes onto the public sector balance sheet on September 1st which will certainly must mean reluctance from the government to increase its debt which already stands at £32 billion. Expect more make do and mend. And more disruption on the network.

Sunday Lunch with a Rumanian

This post actually begins with the last. The daughter of my friend Jonka studied Japanese at the Jagiellonian University (she now lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband) but did post graduate study in Heidelberg. It was there that she met the lady who was to become the first and, so far last, person from Rumania to have lunch at our house.

Monika, who was working as a doctor at a local hospital, was probably not a typical Rumanian.   She came from near Oradea in western Rumania , not far from the Hungarian border, a town known to many of its inhabitants as Nagyvarad (Hungarian) or Grosswardein (German). Monika was in fact a Banat German, a member of the lesser known of the two German speaking communities in Rumania, descendants of Germans who were settled in the area in the period following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 when the Banat, by now largely devastated and depopulated after years of warfare, was ceded to Austria by the Ottoman Empire. Bohemians too settled in the Banat and Czech was also spoken here for several generations. Add in the Magyars and the area was pretty multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. Indeed the same could be said of Rumania as whole and Peter Trudgill in his very readable book Sociolinguistics refers to a study from 1956 which found speakers of over 20 languages in Rumania.

The other Rumanian I got to know was our German language assistant in my Sixth Form year at school. His name was Kurt and he was a Transylvanian German from Sibiu or as he called it Hermannstadt (the town too has a Hungarian name, Nagyszeben) . He had been allowed to leave for West Germany after completing his military service in exchange for the appropriate sum in Deutschmarks from the Federal Government. Under the maniacal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu selling the country’s ethnic Germans to West Germany was as they say a nice little earner, something which Kurt described as ‘Menschenhandel’. To encourage them to leave Ceausescu made life hard for them, for example by flattening their ancient villages and relocating them to Communist mini-towns,  a policy known as systemisation.  Those Germans that remained after the unlamented demise of the Conducador left soon afterwards. As a result a German community that flourished for over 600 years has largely disappeared. There are, however, still two million Magyars and significant tensions remain.

Of course everyone suffered under Ceausescu and his infamous Securitate secret police. He subjected the people to a regime of austerity that would make even George Osborne blanche and succeeded in paying off the country’s foreign debt, which, paradoxically, may have made the transition to free market capitalism easier than it was, say, for debt ridden Poland. But his megalomania scarred the country. I remember Kurt, after a visit to his parents, bringing us a copy of the Rumanian party daily, which was nothing more than six pages of pictures of the leader and of his thoughts, such as they were. Bucharest, the capital, was once an elegant city known as the Paris of the East. It was devastated by an earthquake in 1977 but the destruction continued throughout the 1980s as numerous fine buildings were flattened to male space for Ceausescu’s ludicrous presidential palace.

Even by the standards of the Eastern Bloc Rumania was a run by a lunatic and his legacy was dire.  The country’s achievement since has been correspondingly impressive. This might say something about Rumanians. It might also suggest that great numbers will not want to come here. But if they do, I will say ‘welcome’ or possibly ‘willkommen’.

Why I’m Not Getting the Buzz

I didn’t really want to blog about sex work again but as the advocates of the so-called Swedish Model continue to propagate their inaccuracies and half truths and while the bien-pensant liberal press continues to publish their articles while refusing to publish letters pointing out the flaws in the reasoning I feel I have to say something particularly as some of these people seem unwilling to publish my comments on their blog posts.

Mary Honeyball is Labour MEP for London and a vocal advocate for the Swedish Model. She wrote a piece in favour of it on her blog here.  You will notice a number of comments below, two of which are mine. There is a further comment that Honeyball has so far been unwilling to publish.

By any normal standards of intellectual rigour this is a poor piece, full of inaccuracies and claims that are simply not supported by the sources she cites. I will mention a couple here. The claim that the Swedish Model has halved street prostitution and made men less likely to pay for sex is not supported even by the Swedish Government’s own figures. This is discussed brilliantly here by the Irish feminist Wendy Lyon. I referred to this in my censored comment.

Then there is the claim that 89% of “prostituted women” would leave their job if they could. As Honeyball was told after a similar piece appeared in The Independent on 25th November this is based on flawed reserach by the now discredited Melissa Farley, But, even if it is true it is, surely, a trivial truth. I would not be surprised to hear that 89% of workers in many, if not most, jobs would leave if they could.

The most alarming claim is the one that 49% of British men have been abroad to buy sex. Intuitively this seems improbable, after all that would amount to some 15 million people! Honeyball helpfully provides a link to the research, from which we glean that 49% of 103 London based men who regularly used the services of sex workers had bought sex abroad. This is, as most school students could tell you, not a sample that is representative of the whole population and is, in any case, too small to ;permit meaningful extrapolation. Does Honeyball not realise this or does she not care? Should we question her intellectual grasp or her integrity? I don’t know but am beginning to suspect the former, particularly after her appearance on Woman’s Hour in November when she discussed the issues with the academic expert on sex work Belinda Brooks-Gordon. When Brooks-Gordon suggested that criminalisation of clients would make sex workers less safe by making them unwilling to report attacks to the police, she artlessly replied that she thought that ladies would be only too happy to tell the police all that had been done to them when the police came to “rescue” them.

This is deeply worrying as Honeyball has influence in the European parliament. and there may be a concerted move to bring in the Swedish Model across Europe. As Honeyball has clearly demonstrated, this would be a triumph over ideology over facts, one pregnant with consequences for many vulnerable women. .