Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shangaied in China - did Judith Chalmers and I witness the end of Communism?

We met Judith Chalmers at dinner
Four internal flights, one over-night train journey, a four day cruise on the Yangtze River and hundreds of miles by coach saw us travelling across a good chunk of China in a month long tour. We travelled from Beijing in the north, to Dali near the Tibetan border in the south west, and Shanghai in the east. We experienced the sights, smells and sounds, and met and talked to a number of Chinese along the way - oh, and then there was UK travel icon, Judith Chalmers...

It was only a few years ago that Katie Melua sang 'there are nine million bicycles in Beijing', but most of them are gone now, replaced by motorcycles and ten million cars, contributing to the debilitating veil of pollution that hangs over the city. The thing that impressed me the most wasn't The Great Wall, or the Terracotta Warriors (impressive though they are) but the economical, social and political speed of change that threatens to render any comments and observations as out-of-date as soon as they are recorded.

Street outside our hotel in Beijing
We arrived in Beijing and were taken on a sight-seeing tour of Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was the only time I felt we were deliberately fed Government propaganda. Our local guide sought to white-wash the Tienanmen Square Massacre where hundreds if not thousands of protesting students were killed by the army in 1989. He suggested the number of deaths was much smaller, and that no one actually saw who carried out the attacks. Was it white-wash or in denial through national shame? Another guide told us that since the massacre, the police and the army are no longer armed on the streets of Beijing, to help prevent a similar atrocity, suggesting that the eight different factions that make up the Communist Party aren't always in tune.

Our Beijing guide was also supportive of the unelected regime that rules China. He likened it to a board of directors running a powerful company. "Directors aren't elected," he told me smugly, "they are appointed."
"Yes," I countered, "and the share-holders here can't call for the directors to stand down when they've made a mistake!"
Other Chinese people we spoke to made it very clear: China is no longer a communist country, it's a capitalist dictatorship.
We were photographed here days before the bomb went off

A photograph was taken of our group across from the entrance to the Forbidden City in front of Chairman Mao's portrait. Days later at this same spot, a Muslim family of suicide bombers from the western region of Xinjiang detonated a bomb in their car, killing two tourists and injuring around forty more. More bombs followed in other parts of China. Apparently the Muslims are complaining of suppression - as are the Tibetans. The view from the West is that the main Chinese Han population don't like their ethnic minorities. But our local guide in the ancient town of Dali told us how they and other minorities were not limited by the single child policy, and that girls could marry at thirteen, and boys at fifteen - an ancient tradition, although it would be a criminal offence in the West! She felt they were being treated fairly by the majority Han.


The new China - a demonstration takes place as we passed
Despite the control freakery of the Chinese dictatorship, things have loosened up quite a bit over the last few years. Another of our guides described how, just six years ago, a Communist Party official would sit at the back of the coach, making notes of what he told tourists. "Even three years ago," he explained, If some of the things I've said today had been reported to the authorities, I would have been replaced with a new guide. Now, no one cares. You can say what you like, criticise the government, officials, even the President, Xi Jinping - as long as you don't start a revolution!"

Face Book is blocked in China, as are other parts of the world wide web - including this blog site! This doesn't stop many citizens from finding a way around it. Everyone we met revered the BBC. The authorities have created their own social networking site, and as one guide gleefully told us, it has been used to great effect to nail corrupt officials and get them behind bars.

Young people are keen to emulate the West - not always following the best traditions. Reading some preparatory literature before we left for China, we were told that shorts must be below the knee, and dresses down to the ankles. Imagine our surprise then on going out into the streets of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and other major cities, to see young women wearing very short skirts and tall stiletto heels. It was almost like Liverpool on a Saturday night! That's how quickly social change is happening in China.

Despite a degree of freedom of speech on the streets and online - the media is still in the grip of the State. Chinese Communist Television (CCTV) seemed obsessed with two topics. One was endless war dramas that seemed to depict fighting between the Chinese and the Japanese (still enemy number one) - these inevitably involved someone strapped to a table being tortured - and the other were cloned versions of The X Factor, The Voice and China's Got Talent! No one on these shows - including the judges, was over thirty. Carl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people, but I think the Chinese authorities have hit on a new opiate - The X Factor.


I've never seen so many iPads on the street! There is a huge cultural gap between the under thirty-fives and their parents. The younger generation, many of whom are university educated - almost despise their uneducated parents. They have little in common with them. East has met West, and the youngsters like it, but their parents don't understand it. Generally, the younger generation are polite, while the older ones spit on the streets and push past to get ahead in the queue. There is no word in Mandarin for 'please'.

Our national guide apologised for the behaviour of the older Chinese. "It's not in our culture to consider other people, to give way to others like you do from the West. We are different because we've had lessons in manners, and how to behave towards others."

The young Chinese were on the whole courteous, allowing us out of lifts first, stepping aside etc. However, on a bus I did see one elderly Chinese gentleman offer to give up his seat to an English woman who was standing.

Education doesn't come cheap even in China - students have to pay tuition fees. They can't go on to university either unless they've attained a high grade in English. The young Chinese have also adopted a Western name along with their own. I thought this was for the tourists, but our guide said it was necessary as part of the Chinese people's integration with the West! He told me with pride that his daughter had just chosen her Western name at nursery school. Studying the history of the British democratic system and that of the USA is mandatory too - what are the Chinese authorities up to?


The Terracotta Warriors could have been destroyed by the Red Army

There's no argument in China about the so-called 'Cultural Revolution' - everyone is in agreement that it was one of the worst things inflicted on the country. Schools were closed, opponents murdered and much of the country's cultural heritage was vandalised and destroyed by the Red Army. Yet they don't blame the architect of the communist state, Mao Tse Tung. Mao was led astray, they told us, he was ill advised and suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Apart from the human cost, the terrible legacy is that most of the Buddhist temples and pagodas that we were taken to view have been restored, or rebuilt after Mao's death in 1975. When we visited the Terracotta Warriors our guide told us they were discovered in 1974 towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. A professor who examined the initial find contacted the President directly, telling him that it was highly significant. He sent the regular army to guard the site, knowing that the Red Army would destroy it if it was left unprotected.


Linda and I walked a section of The Great Wall
The worst thing is the pollution. The authorities do recognise the problem, and say they are starting to tackle it. We were besieged in some provinces by it, and were never sure whether it was just autumn mist or the pollution from coal fired power stations. Also the march of urbanisation with the unbridled rise of skyscrapers, rising up overnight like fields of mushrooms. Every where we went huge cranes clad the skyline. On the five hour drive from Shanghai to Suzhou we saw no countryside, just urban sprawl linking the two places. Another thing we didn't like was the huge crowds of people everywhere. With Beijing having the same population as Australia - you can see why there is a problem.

One of the best things is that we hardly saw or heard any dogs, because they virtually don't exist in China. One reason is because they end up on the dinner table, and the other is that before you own a dog you have to apply for a licence - which costs around £30 a year, on wages much lower than in the UK.

We really did enjoy the cruise on the Yangtze River, passing through the picturesque Three Gorges, and the Terracotta Warriors were fascinating. We even managed a three kilometre walk up and down a part of the Great Wall. We loved the old part of Dali (no high rise buildings), with its wonderful streets filled with restaurants and traders. Then there was Suzhou - known as the 'Venice of the East'. We had a lovely evening wandering along the old waterfront and sitting outside a bar with a couple of pals from our group.

Shanghai shines while other cities suffer power cuts
Shanghai was all posing with its very impressive light displays (costing a £100,000 in electricity every night - in a country that routinely suffers power cuts), the old architecture of the Bund (modelled from the buildings on Liverpool's water front), and the maglev train that moves on a cushion of electromagnetism (a British invention that our Government was not interested in developing!). We reached a speed of 431 kilometres an hour, and hardly felt a thing! Similarly we went up in the world's fastest lift - 83 storeys in 12 seconds - and didn't even feel it braking...


The largest LCD screen in the world (probably)
It was when we were in the city of Xian, having dinner, that we noticed Judith Chalmers on the next table. She was with a group from the same tour company, and afterwards we all went to view the fabulous lights, statues and water features in the city, along with the largest aerial LCD screen in the world, making night turn to day, with visions of birds and aeroplanes 'flying' overhead! Judith, apparently was here to write some travel features.

We went with Wendy Wu, and the tour ran like clockwork, all the guides were extremely knowledgeable, and the staff in the hotels were very professional. Not always in the breakfast room however, which seemed to have clapped-out toasters and a line of command which was hard to follow if you wanted more bread or orange juice. We weren't always enamoured with the banquets when eating out either - although we had some very good meals too.

All in all we had a fascinating time, but when you're sometimes getting up at six in the morning to catch a flight - it was more an experience than a holiday!

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Tuesday, 2 April 2013

John Taylor - Guilty of murder...

After a month long trial, undertaker John Taylor, has been found guilty of the murder of his missing wife, Alethea.

Readers may remember my previous blog on the matter; The Search for Alethea Taylor, where I recounted how my wife and I helped look for the missing woman while we were taking a caravanning break in the north Herefordshire village of Orleton, where the couple lived.

In that original blog, of over a year ago, I was careful of what I wrote, knowing that there was the likelihood of a trial. Now that Taylor is starting a seventeen year prison sentence, I am able to add some comments.

Orleton is a small community, and most of those living there knew the couple personally. While we were out that winter's day with the villagers, combing the fields and woods for signs of Mrs Taylor, various comments were made and theories expressed as to what had happened to her. But each of these theories had their contradictions.

It was suggested the pair had rowed, and she had left him and gone to stay with a friend or distant relative. Yet her car was still on the drive, and the CCTV on the local bus didn't record her getting onboard. The favourite theory was that she had wandered off into the surrounding countryside, become disorientated and had either got lost, or had an accident.

This theory came about because according to the locals, Alethea had recently been suffering from episodes of amnesia. She would leave the house, then not recognise her surroundings, and been unable to find her way home. Apparently, on about three occasions, she had been returned to her husband after wandering off. Yet no one knew where these stories had originated, and conversely, we were told that she was an active member of the village amateur dramatic society, and was a prompter for their current play - just prior to her disappearance.

We thought at the time, if someone was planning a murder, how helpful it would be to deflect attention if it was put about that the intended victim was suffering early-onset dementia. By the time the story had travelled around the community, the originator would be forgotten.

Taylor's response to his wife's disappearance was odd too. Someone asked: 'How's John bearing up?' The reply was that he was busy with two funerals, and wasn't joining in the search because he didn't want to let the families down. Bearing in mind that on the face of it, Alethea could have fallen into a ditch and broken her leg, this was strange behaviour indeed!

Yet - the possibility that Taylor had murdered her was the elephant in the room. No one suggested it - at least to us - either during the search or in the village hall where we had refreshments - but it was high up on our list.

The contradictions and Taylor's behaviour all pointed in that direction. It's hard to think the worst of people whom you know, and courteous perhaps not to voice your suspicions in public. Yet I believe many of the villagers were genuinely shocked when police arrested Taylor and charged him with murder.

To date, Mrs Taylor's remains have not been discovered - and Taylor isn't saying how he disposed of them. I hope they are found, so the relatives and friends of Alethea can find some degree of closure.

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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Bill Roache: Instant karma's gonna get you!

Coronation Street veteran Bill Roache who plays Ken Barlow has attracted criticism for voicing his beliefs that the bad things that happen to us in this life, are punishment for how we behaved in previous lives.

The media have tied these comments specifically to victims of child abuse, saying in effect, that Roache believes that this is their punishment for past misdemeanours. Football manager, Glen Hoddle, made similar comments in 1999 which were tied to disabled people. Like Hoddle, Bill Roache has since apologised, and back peddled on his original comments.

But in a free and democratic society, should either have to apologise for expressing their spiritual beliefs?

Hinduism has a belief in rebirth, and the law of 'karma' - that the soul must keep returning to mortal existence, until it has learned all the lessons of life on the earthly plane. When a person becomes truly spiritual - the state of 'Nirvana', that individual will then progress and dwell in paradise.

The Veda says that karma is not punishment or retribution, but a consequence of ones actions - cause and effect in other words, action and reaction on the spiritual level. This 'consequence' can be mitigated by good deeds and acts. The Bible also says: 'As you sow, so you shall reap'.

By extension, the belief in karma, can be applied to any horror or bad luck visited on people. This is where Bill Roache and the likes of Glen Hoddle become unstuck. We naturally feel empathy for individuals who have difficulties physically, or who are victims of the evil acts of others. So to imply, through a spiritual belief, that they brought it on themselves through their own actions in a previous life can seem outrageous - and unfair.

But even so, should people who hold such beliefs have the full force of the media machine brought down on their heads like a retribution of biblical proportions? Why can't we just shrug our shoulders and say:

'It's a point of view. There are other points of view'.

Glen Hoddle was sacked. I hope the same doesn't happen to Bill Roache. In most cases, there is no correlation between what people believe, and how well they perform in their jobs.

Free speech? It's seems it's allowed as long as it doesn't offend anyone.

Read my paranormal thriller; Stench of Evil only from Amazon:

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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

What really happened when Sainsbury's £50m investment was thrown out by Labour and Tory councillors


So Sainsbury have finally confirmed that their plans for a £50m investment in Crosby Village will not be resurrected after they were rejected by Labour and Tory councillors in September 2010.

As a Victoria Ward LibDem member of the Planning Committee, and the party's Spokesperson for Regeneration, I warned at the time that there was no 'Plan B', and that if the plans were thrown out it was likely that the dilapidated shopping centre would be left to further decline. It gives me no pleasure to say to those who opposed it: 'I told you so'.

Now that I am no longer a council member, I want to set the record straight of what really happened the night that Crosby's fate was sealed.

After 18 months of public consultation, including several public meetings and two weekends where portacabins displaying the company's proposals were sighted in the shopping centre, we seemed to have a plan that was acceptable. The company had removed the filling station and replaced it with a building for public use, and agreed to fund pedestrian crossings and other infrastructure improvements. Many of the old tired looking shops would be replaced with modern units that local traders could operate from.

Then at the eleventh hour came someone named Jamie Scott with an online petition against the proposals. This got a lot of publicity in the local press, and the petition gained momentum apparently attracting around 7,500 signatures. Many of these were not local - one was even from New York! From this came an organisation called 'ABetterCrosby' which attracted a rag bag of people, some with genuine reservations about the plans, anti-supermarket activists and those who lived in never-never-land, viewing the past through rose tinted spectacles.

Scott was an architect who worked for a company called BDP based in Manchester. They have drawn up plans around the country for many clients, including Tesco. Ironically, their plans for a Tesco supermarket in London was rejected by the Mayor and described as 'God-awful' and 'characteristic of 1960s housing estates'.

Scott spearheaded the campaign against Sainsbury, and while Labour and Tory councillors dithered over how they were going to vote, we decided to back the plans as in our view they were a life-line for Crosby at a time of growing austerity. While most shop keepers were against the redevelopment because they feared they could not afford the increased rent for new, modern, bright trading units, there were a few like Paul Woods and Catherine Caddick who stuck their necks out. They realised that with the new shopping centre would come increased footfall, and more sales. They also realised this was the last chance saloon for the town, and without the investment the only way was down.

At the first planning committee meeting in August, the Labour/Tory alliance voted to defer a decision as they wanted more consultation!  Strangely, while we and the Tories had a face-to-face meeting with Sainbury's representatives, Labour refused to see them.

The deciding meeting in September was packed with not only genuinely concerned residents, but also rent-a-mob. Labour MP Bill Esterson was also there. The atmosphere was threatening, and when a council member spoke against the proposal, they were cheered, but when I or one of my LibDem colleagues spoke in favour, we were shouted down. The result was that Labour and Tories voted together to throw out the plans, and the LibDems (except for one abstention) voted for it. We lost the vote of course, and with that show of hands, the town lost its crucial life-line.

So why did the other two parties go against it? Was it the size of the new supermarket? Was it the aesthetics of the development? Strangely, three days before the vote, the Tory spokesperson contacted Sainsbury and told them they were going to support the plans. What happened then between Sunday and Wednesday for them to change their minds? Also, just minutes before the meeting began, the Labour spokesperson told his LibDem counterpart that they weren't sure which way to vote, and had decided to vote with whatever the Tories decided to do!

While I and my LibDem colleagues stuck our necks out to support what was best for Crosby, Labour (and probably the Tories too) cynically placed their bets where they thought the most votes lay for the elections next May.

After the public were cleared from the building, the planning officers, who had advised members to accept the plans, asked that we stay behind for a few minutes while the consequences of the committee's decision was discussed. Some Labour members were determined not to stay, and it was only when the chairman asked them to remain that they returned to their seats.

In six years on the council, I have never seen officers so angry. After they had spent 18 months negotiating with Sainsbury to get the best deal for the town - it had all been flushed down the pan. They warned that there had been no sound planning reasons for refusing the application, and if the company appealed, the decision would almost certainly be overturned, potentially costing council tax payers £180,000. It was also possible that Sainsbury would just turn their back on the town, and take their investment elsewhere - which is exactly what has happened.

I think the tone adopted by the officers shocked those who had thrown the investment out, because there wasn't a word from them, and they looked like naughty school children caught in the act by the headteacher. They also knew that every word was true.

I find it cynical then, that after Labour MP, Bill Esterson, who along with his councillor colleagues, had stabbed Crosby in the back, he should then adopt the posture of 'people's champion', and say he was now going to get Sainsbury to submit fresh plans 'within weeks' he claimed.

Sadly, everything I said, and my former colleagues Cllr Andrew Tonkiss and Anthony Hill said, has come to pass. ABetterCrosby should have called themselves AWorseCrosby, because that is what they have created. For them now to talk about getting fresh investors involved in the town is a smokescreen. Why haven't they done so in the two years since Sainsbury were kicked out? We're in a double-dip recession - wise up - that's why it was essential for the survival of Crosby Village to embrace Sainsbury's offer.


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Chris Huhne - Despite our expectations, are politicians human too?

The other day a friend forwarded to me an email that was doing the rounds. It highlighted supposed statistics that listed crimes like drink-driving, shop lifting, bankruptcy and 'spouse abuse', with figures for each one. According to the anonymous compiler of the email, these corresponded to the 635 members of the House of Commons.

No doubt this email, and similar anonymous 'statistics' on FaceBook will reinforce the popular view that our politicians are all corrupt, and only in it for themselves. But we need to ask the questions: Who is the anonymous compiler? Are the figures accurate? If they are, over what period were they collected; was it over the last year, the term of this parliament, in the last ten years, or longer than that? How many of the MPs do they apply to (some may be serial offenders!).

For sake of argument, let's accept they are substantially correct, certainly there always seems to be some story or other in the media about 'crooked' MPs (and in UKIPs case - MEPs). If the figures are true, are they significant, or do they merely seem that way because any misdemeanour, series or slight, attracts the press like moths to a flame?

If you took a random sample of adults from any profession or trade and put them under a similar spotlight, you would probably find that an equal number have also committed fraud, shop lifted, been arrested for illegal drugs - and swapped speeding points with their partners. According to the AA - Chris Huhne is one of a third of a million of motorists in the UK guilty of this crime.

Without letting them off the hook, does the reaction to Huhne, and other MPs who have run foul of the law, highlight the hypocrisy that the public show when it comes to judging elected representatives?

I think it's time we admitted that politicians are human too, and humans can be morally weak and corrupt. So why on earth would we expect them to be any different from the rest of us?

Along with this hypocrisy, is another sin - tarring every politician with the same brush. To say 'they're all crooked, and only in it for what they can get out of it', isn't fair or even true. I should know, I was a politician - albeit a local councillor, but I've met a few MPs and got to know some of them.

Yes, there are bad apples, but most work hard and make decisions they believe will improve things for their constituents and the country at large.

The difference between you and your MP is that apart from your family and friends, no one is interested in your misdemeanours. You won't get your phone hacked, the contents of your wheelie bin examined or a journalist put on your tail to probe every shady corner of your life.

Read my paranormal thriller; Stench of Evil only from Amazon:

UK paperback & eBook

US paperback & eBook:

Can be downloaded to Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Android devices, PC, and Mac