Friday, 31 August 2007

Cameron's continuing collapse

The Yougov poll in this morning's Telegraph is pretty dire for David Cameron and the Tories. Labour has not only got a good 8-point lead on voting intention, Gordon Brown is well ahead of Cameron as best PM, and Labour has reasonable leads on economic competence, education and health again. The Tory dithering on tax has remarkably left it level pegging with Labour (though few people believe promises on tax cuts anyway). The only Tory leads are on law and order, asylum and anti-social behaviour, perhaps unsurprisingly given the terrible Liverpool murder and subsequent coverage. Brown should be wary of allowing the Tories to drive a wedge on these issues, especially anti-social behaviour. However, taken as a whole, the only message from this poll for the Tories is one of continuing collapse for Cameron.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Testing times

News that writing standards for seven year-olds have fallen for the second year running shows how important it is that the new phonics drive is introduced this coming term. But they also tell us something else that may be less palatable to David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman who thinks the results should disappoint ministers. For at seven, the decision was taken to adopt Liberal Democrat (and teaching union) policy and abandon national testing , leaving the marking mostly to teachers. Of course one doesn't want to have a similar test environment for seven year-olds as for eleven year-olds; and the tests at KS1 were always treated differently. But there is now no incentive for schools to maximise achievement at seven: the results are kept secret and for value-added scores, a poorer result at seven can improve supposed value added by 11; and the 'expected level 2' is far too broad to be meaningful. As ministers introduce new progress measures enabling 11 and 14 year-olds to take tests as they are ready, an overhaul of Key Stage 1 tests should follow, so that we can both be confident in the results and know that they are being taken sufficiently seriously by schools as a means of ensuring that pupils achieve what they can.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Victory for democracy

After the landslide victory for the AK Parti last month, foreign minister Abdullah Gul has now been chosen as the country's president, despite his wife's refusal to renounce her headscarf. Bronwen Maddox is right to see the result as a 'victory for democracy' in that it accurately reflects the views of most Turks. The army predictably boycotted the ceremony, but better they stayed in barracks than tried a repetition of their 1997 coup. Gul has pledged to uphold the secular traditions of Ataturk as the new President, but if he is allowed to stay in office, his elevation will represent a new tolerance in Turkey and show more clearly than countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that democracy and Islam are wholly compatible. Gordon Brown should now press Turkey's case in Europe as vigorously as Tony Blair did.

Israel's Labor hope

Luciana Berger has an interesting piece on the Progress website on the significance of Ehud Barak's re-emergence as leader of the Israeli Labor Party. If she is right, he has the chance to lead Labor back into the mainstream and restore its fortunes (and hopes for real peace) after the current disastrous coalition comes to an end,

Bourne Ultimatum

We caught up with Matt Damon in the Bourne Ultimatum last night. It is a great piece of hokum, and far better than the average action thriller. Bourne finds out his true identity and in the process uncovers a sinister plot at the heart of the CIA. You will never look at Waterloo station in the same light again (or Guardian journalists, for that matter!).

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Sure start?

Our friends at Durham University have damned the government's investment in Sure Start on the basis of their baseline tests in a mere 124 (out of 18,000) primary schools. Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, was right to be sceptical on Today this morning. However, the early Sure Start programmes lacked sufficient emphasis on pre-literacy and numeracy skills, and were an excellent example of what can go wrong when 'a thousand flowers' are allowed to bloom unchecked with government money wasted on recreating the wheel. Fortunately, Bev Hughes has corrected most of the deficiencies and embarked on a programme to improve the educational calibre of those running and working in children's centres. She has also worked to ensure that the programme does more to help those families most in need. None of this started while the survey of schools was happening; and even if did, it is meaningless without proper assessment of what children were in Sure Start and how much they benefited from the programme. The proportion of children receiving nursery education was actually fairly stable over the period of their research (though we don't know that from their research). There's plenty of evidence that good nursery education does make a real difference. Sure Start does in some places and can do so universally with the right infrastructure across the country.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Seaside renaissance?

James's Collard's article about the revival of Blackpool in today's Times is one part of the fightback by what is apparently still Britain's most popular resort, suffering badly by the decision not to award it the supercasino that could help to transform its fortunes. It certainly needs a transformation,and has the potential to copy the success of Atlantic City. I have stayed in the town - for conferences - far more often than was good for me. Too much of the accommodation was shoddy and overpriced for what was provided. The conference facilities were lousy, compared to Brighton, Bournemouth, Glasgow or the brilliant Manchester. And you had to leave town for a half-decent meal. So it is good to hear Blackpool is starting to take all this seriously. Other seaside resorts are already far more attractive. We stayed in Weymouth a few weeks ago at the delightful Chandler's hotel and had a first class meal in Perry's restaurant. And last night, we enjoyed an excellent dinner at one of a growing band of good new restaurants in Weston-super-Mare. Most people's expectations have changed since the 1950s when Blackpool had its heyday: the town needs to adapt to survive.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Rabbitte's retirement

News that the Irish Labour Party leader, Pat Rabbitte, is to step down is hardly surprising. Though a good media operator, Rabbitte failed to raise Labour's seats tally in the Republic's general election, a failure that ensured Bertie Ahern's position as Taoiseach-for-life is made more likely. Today's Irish Times reports that either Eamonn Gilmore or Brendan Howlin are the likely successors. Surely now is the time for a rather bigger shift in Irish Labour, rather than a rerun of old Democratic Left-traditional Labour battles? Perhaps one of the party's able women TDs could bring it - Joan Burton or Liz McManus? Rabbitte himself recognised the need for real change some weeks ago. Labour needs to recognise the reality of the challenges it faces in modern Ireland. Rabbitte's retirement gives them the chance to do so.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Alastair's account

I have just finished reading Alastair Campbell's diaries. The 700-page tome is more rewarding than it might look. There are plenty of nuggets and surprises, as well as confirmation of quite a lot more about what was happening in Downing Street. His portrait of Tony Blair is credible and creditable, particularly on Northern Ireland and on the international stage. But on the domestic front, this is not a book for policy buffs: aside from his visceral belief in comprehensive education, there is little sign of the battles for policy reform that defined the Blair years - and what will be seen as successes in health and education - as much as what he achieved in Belfast, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. For me, the accounts of the internal meetings with Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and David Trimble were the greatest source of fascination. For others, it may be the Washington visits. But what Alastair lacks in domestic policy detail, he makes up for in an obsessive dislike for the media, which was understandable but destructive both to him and, for a time, to the Downing Street media operation. As one who did some spinning in Labour's first term, I can also sympathise with his feelings of despair over how the government was covered after its initial honeymoon, so much so that you had to go abroad to get a sense of proportion about the extent of Blair's achievements at home. Nevertheless, this is a must-read book for anyone with an interest in the internal machinations of politics, though it is not the whole story.

I agree with Boris

I know that this may lead to a permanent fissure with those of my old LCC comrades who now run the Compass organisation in the vain hope that it will drag Gordon Brown irrevocably leftwards and back to the halcyon days when Labour lost one general election after another. After all, their research team laboured long and hard to produce a booklet of Boris Johnson's right-wing lunacies(pdf). And what does Boris do? He writes an eminently sensible article about university degrees in the very organ that prides itself on downplaying the achievements of today's young people, and whose readers prop up bars moaning about Mickey Mouse degrees.

"It is notable how often a critic of university expansion is still keen for his or her own children to go there, while a vocational qualification is viewed as an excellent option for someone else's children. It is patronising, in that you really can't tell, just by reading a course title, whether it is any good or not, and whether it will be of any intellectual or financial benefit to the student.....Of course there are mistakes, and of course there are a great many students who drop out, get depressed, or feel they have done the wrong thing with their lives. But the final judge of the value of a degree is the market, and in spite of all the expansion it is still the case that university graduates have a big salary premium over non-graduates. The market is working more efficiently now that students have a direct financial stake in the matter, a financial risk, and an incentive not to waste their time on a course that no employer will value.

We can laugh at degrees in Aromatherapy and Equine Science, but they are just as vocational as degrees in Law or Medicine, except that they are tailored to the enormous expansion of the service economy. It is rubbish to claim that these odd-sounding courses are somehow devaluing the Great British Degree. Everyone knows that a First Class degree in Physics from Cambridge is not the same as a First in Equine Management from the University of Lincoln, and the real scandal is that they both cost the student the same."

So, on this occasion, I have to say, I agree with Boris. Is this the first sign of another big Tory u-turn in favour of university expansion?

Congratulations are in order

Today sees hundreds of thousands of young people getting their GCSE results. They deserve congratulations for their efforts and successes. It may be true as David Frost, of the British Chambers of Commerce, asserted on the Today programme (sound file) that those without five good GCSEs have fewer opportunities than those without, though it is worth remembering that 71% reach that standard by age 19, and the proportion of youngsters reaching this standard has been rising steadily. It would have been nice, if surprising, to have heard Frost urging those who didn't reach the standard to continue in college or on apprenticeships. Simply excoriating their failure hardly helps his members. Moreover, contrary to the Tories' claims this week, core subjects are on the up: 62% of young people get a C in English and 55% do so in Maths, and science entries are up though some languages are down. And that improvement has been strongest in the schools that have set challenging floor targets, reducing the number of schools where fewer than 25% of pupils get five good GCSEs from over 600 in 1997 to 47 last year. By contrast, the proportion where more than 70% of pupils make the grade rose from 83 to over 600. Those teachers and schools that have continued to make such strong improvements also deserve our congratulations.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Lies, damned lies.....

News that some hapless researcher at Conservative Central Office has made a spectacular hash of David Cameron's relaunch revived memories of how careful we had to be conducting similar exercises in Opposition. In 1993, I was David Blunkett's researcher when he was Shadow Health Secretary, and we did plenty of such surveys, but we always tried to ensure we double checked our facts with the Trusts concerned rather than the local 'Save our Hospital' campaign, whose suspicions rarely amounted to the whole story.

One might be more sympathetic to the Tories' plight if they hadn't started becoming fast and loose with education statistics too. Today they claim that the proportion of students who get five good GCSEs in core subjects us 'in long-term decline'. The only way they achieve this ludicrous claim is by including a foreign language in the equation. If you take English, Maths and Science, and any combination of those subjects, the proportion with good grades has risen significantly since 1997 - for example 29% more pupils get five good GCSEs including English and Maths as did so when the Tories left office - as have the total numbers gaining five good GCSEs. One can argue about the merits or otherwise of French or German, but the failure of many who get otherwise good GCSEs to get a C grade in one of those subjects reflects the declining popularity of those languages in a country which speaks an increasingly universal language, not a decline in core subjects generally.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Do we really need modular GCSEs?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is apparently planning to allow up to 50% of GCSE marks for modular examinations which would be taken during the course, rather than at its end. I wonder how wise this is. The combination of coursework and modularity has been central - justified or not - to the whole accusation about exams being dumbed down, especially A-levels. Now QCA is sensibly cutting some GCSE coursework. But few would argue that it is easier to get a good grade if you can repeat a component several times. Who is asking for these modular GCSEs? I can't believe teachers or students want the whole two years before a GCSE turned into a permanent exam (just as QCA are cutting the A-level modules). We should at least retain one examination which is based wholly on a synoptic assessment of what young people know at the end of their studies rather than mixing it with modules that cast aspersions on their achievements.
UPDATE: I have been contacted by a diligent QCA press officer who points out that GCSEs can currently be either unitised or linear (this has been the case since 2001). "We have to renew the exam criteria every 8 years or so, and we are asking what people think of unitisation," he says. He also points out that awarding bodies almost always offer GCSEs as linear (final exam) qualifications, even though they could offer unitised versions if they wanted to. So here's hoping they still will in the future.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Setting standards

Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, has just been on the radio repeating some fairly tired Tory theories about the problems with secondary school teaching. Gove contends that a 1% point fall in Maths at Key Stage 3 this year (after a 3% point rise last year, and a 16% point - equivalent to over 25% more pupils making the grade since his lot were in power) has two main reasons: a fall-off in standards after initial success in 1997-2000; and a failure to set in maths. Actually he is wrong on both counts. While it is true that KS2 results - tests at 11 - improved fastest in Labour's early years, improvements at KS3 - for 14 year-olds - have been fastest since 2001, partly because Labour introduced a KS3 strategy then. And while fewer than half of lessons are set, that is not the case in Mathematics, as John Dunford has pointed out, where more lessons - three-quarters - are set than in any other subject. The truth is that, as with KS2, there are plenty of schools that make the grade, and others with similar pupil profiles that don't. Only when the straggling schools make their targets and achievement as strong as the successes will we see the national improvements we need - and their pupils deserve. And for teaching the KS3 strategy - as opposed to GCSE or A level maths - this has nothing to do with whether or not the teachers are pure maths graduates.

Real role models

Joseph Harker makes some good points about the underachievement of many black youngsters in today's Guardian, following last week's report on the subject. The truth is that black pupils are doing better than they used to, and have narrowed the gap with their white counterparts. And one reason they have done so has been through supplementary schools, where the community has worked to instil a stronger educational ethic in young people. But black boys, in particular, still underachieve and Harker is right that the strong role model missing from too many families, not just black families, is a father, and no TV or business role models can fill the gap.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Open access

This is good news: examiners are going to let candidates see where they went wrong on their papers and show up poor teaching in the process. Funny that. I recall that when David Blunkett first proposed to follow the Irish example of allowing pupils to see their papers after they were marked, it was the exam boards who predicted the end of civilisation as we know it. Now it is the teachers' unions (who also would rather prefer that we didn't publish school-by-school results, and have successfully persuaded the Welsh not to do so) who are moaning about Edexcel's excellent idea. Let's have more such openness, not less.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Who really pays for foot and mouth?

Rod Liddle has a point (in fact, several rather good ones) in this week's Spectator, though I don't imagine he will be the after-dinner speaker at any NFU events for a while:

"It took some of our farmers less than 24 hours after the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) last week to demand an immediate and comprehensive culling 0f Britain’s ramblers, dogs, badgers, Defra vets, tourists, van drivers, biochemists, etc etc. It is not enough that we should subsidise our farmers once over; when misfortune occurs we should then further compensate them — and suffer in silence as they demand that footpaths be closed, wildlife exterminated and so on. They have not yet gathered, or do not care, that the meat industry is of minuscule importance to the economy compared to the tourism and leisure sectors; still less that the land upon which they rear their cattle is heavily supported by the taxpayer......

The last FMD outbreak, back in 2001, ended up costing us (rather than the farmers) some £8 billion, excluding revenues lost through damage to our tourism industry.... Did any farmer end up out of business or even out of pocket after the 2001 debacle — a debacle, it is worth reiterating, that was brought on [by] farmers, er, farmers?"

Respected not rebranded qualifications

There are rumours around Westminster that ministers are revisiting the Tomlinson proposals for a single overarching diploma (pdf file) to 'bring the academic and vocational' closer together. This would be a big mistake. It would not only devalue A-levels, but would force vocational qualifications to become more like academic ones in order to create a dubious 'parity of esteem'. All this springs from a mistaken notion - one which was tried unsuccessfully with vocational GCSEs and A-levels - that the historic disdain for the vocational in this country can be solved by a rebranding exercise. It can't. Esteem must be earned not enforced, and the new specialised Diplomas and improved apprenticeships are the best way to achieve this. Moreover, any attempt to enforce esteem is in danger of reducing quality for no apparent benefit. After all, Tomlinson's proposed diploma bears little relation to the International Baccalaureate, which is increasingly available to those who want to take a less narrow academic route, and has the virtue of independence and international respect. Instead, ministers should concentrate on selling the four strong choices available to teenagers: A-levels, the IB, Diplomas and Apprenticeships. Each is a strong (or potentially strong) qualification in its own right, and the real effort should be expended on improving advice on choices for young people, so they work towards the qualifications best suited to their needs, rather than those of bureaucrats.

Why exam begrudgery is misplaced

Peter Wilby has a good piece in today's Guardian, arguing that comparability between exams from one year to the next is impossible because of their changing nature. To a certain extent this is true. What is studied in physics today is not what was studied thirty years ago, because we know more about physics. Equally, there are subjects that are more popular now, and aspects of study that are too. It is true that, particularly with A-levels, we expect exams to act as a sorting facility, hence Alan Johnson's embrace of the A* at A-level. But it is also true that - with the exception perhaps of the year or two immediately after the changes in A-levels and O-levels - there has been a genuine improvement in standards in state schools, and this has been reflected in the results. Why so? Mainly because improvements are not evenly spread. Over the last ten years, for example, improvements have been fastest in those schools and inner city areas that have done most to tackle low standards. And as Wilby rightly points, IQ rates have been rising across the industrialised world. Even the greatest exam begrudgers wouldn't want to argue that such improvements have not been reflected here. For an excellent analysis of all the issues, it is also worth reading Andrew Adonis's speech from the last exam season but one.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Pirate memories

News that we are approaching the 40th anniversary of the date when pirate radio was made firmly illegal in Britain (though Radio Caroline stayed on air) brought back memories of a later, similar movement in Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties. Irish pirate radio operated out of the back of hotels, rather than from the high seas. As a student in the early eighties, I did some broadcasting on Radio 257, which operated from a grubby room at the old Crofton Airport Hotel and Sunshine Radio, a slicker more professional outfit which had its studios in Portmarnock. The Irish pirates had a similar impact to Radio Caroline, helping create RTE Radio 2 and ultimately a large wave of commercial stations. Many leading Irish broadcasters started their days on the pirates. But, although there were occasional high profile raids, their status was generally rather less precarious. Two Labour MEPs were elected in the four-seater Dublin constituency in the 1979 European elections after blanket advertising on the capital's pirates (a facility not available on RTE), even though Irish Labour had a similar official attitude to the pirates as Tony Benn, postmaster-general in 1967 in England. On one day in 1980 when I was getting ready to read the news on Radio 257, I was slightly startled to see a Garda car pull up outside the studio. The policeman knocked on the door. "I wonder would you mind reading these stolen car numbers out on air, please," he asked. "Good luck to you, now".

Building blocks

Today's report from the Education and Skills Committee on the government's massive school building programme is a rather more sensible and sober affair than the silly account of it on this morning's Today programme, which claimed that MPs thought the £45bn for Building Schools for the Future should be spent on teachers. Of course, it is right to keep the issue of value for money under control. But the BSF programme is now fully integrated with programmes to lift standards, including Academies, and ensuring good teaching facilities and environmental sustainability. On Today, we were treated to a report from Clacton, where the local Tory MP Douglas Carswell whined that a relatively new school 'might have to close', therefore the investment in schools was wasted. Of course, rather than rambling on the radio, Mr Carswell could have a chat with Tory-controlled Essex County Council, whose brainchild this possible closure is, and ensure that the facilities are used for education within the schools' consortium. Perhaps he has not caught up with the development of federations and trusts, of which the Essex schools' model is actually quite good. Equally, we should not forget (even if a young Mr Carswell missed it at Charterhouse) that before PFI allowed a gear-change in investment under Gordon Brown, our state school buildings were a disgrace. Crumbling buildings, rotting labs and dismal sports facilities were commonplace in the 1990s, when the Conservative government let investment to fall to a piffling £700m a year nationwide, not even allowing necessary repairs. Since 1997, over a thousand new schools have been built. There have also been tens of thousands of new computers (which often support lessons) and thousands of labs, sports pitches and teaching rooms. Investment in schools is investment in teaching and learning, and is helping to improve standards and encourage record numbers of graduates to enter teaching.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Oxford's obstinacy?

Today's leaked missive from the Higher Education Funding Council to Oxford University would seem to give ammunition to all those who fear excessive government interference in academia. And with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, his clumsy intervention in the Laura Spence affair seven years ago can be stirred in the pot to heighten the paranoia of the dons as they relax in Tuscany. But the two issues should not so easily be conflated. Brown was wrong to get involved in the Spence affair, since her rejection by Oxford probably reflected a wider problem of demand over supply rather than deliberate discrimination against a comprehensive school student. However, when an institution is publicly funded, the government and its agencies have some legitimate interest in its governance and practices. What is most notable about the Hefce note is not that it was sent - Oxford seems to have expected it - but its temperate and tolerant tone. "It is not our current intention to require the university to adopt a particular governance regime," is what the letter says. So, this is more a sensible shot across the bows in support of what Oxford's vice-chancellor John Hood tried in vain to achieve - governance arrangements that are more outward looking, and more coherent - rather than some diktat from government. But what of Oxford's admissions? Oxford is better at admitting state pupils now than in 1997, though it has faltered of late. The challenge is not just one for Oxford, however. Hefce's targets use indicators that don't relate to the admissions requirements of leading universities. Oxford should be doing more to admit some of 3000 state school students who get 3As or more at A-level but don't go to a top university, as the Sutton Trust has reported (pdf file), and Hefce and the Office for Fair Access should judge their access record accordingly.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Getting the 3Rs right

The latest primary school test results, showing one point improvements in all subjects are not only good news for the government, but evidence that some top down pressure is needed to achieve improvements. Labour has finally met its ambitious targets set in the first term. The literacy and numeracy strategies went through a fallow period when ministers downgraded their status within an all-singing, all-dancing National Primary Strategy in Labour's second term. There was little sense that learning to read, write and add up should be the first challenge of primary teachers, and the momentum of Labour's early years and the shock of national testing was lost. Both Ruth Kelly and Alan Johnson, with Andrew Adonis as the minister in the driving seat, deserve credit for recognising the need to change gear. Today's results are the first evidence that their new sense of mission is working. With phonics now central to the teaching of reading and a renewed emphasis on basic maths, there should be more good news to come.

Holiday books

Having had a head start on the MPs with my summer reading, I confess to reading neither Bower on Brown nor the latest Harry Potter. And while I have no plans to read Dawkins on God (or as God), I am reading Alastair Campbell's diaries.

However in sunny Turkey, I did enjoy uber-Democratic strategist Robert Shrum's slightly self-serving and presumably ironically titled autobiography, No Excuses, which though sadly light on his engagement in British, Irish and Israeli elections, is full of great anecdotes about his time alongside doomed campaigns from George McGovern through Ted Kennedy to Al Gore, involvement said by waspish Washington insiders to attract 'the curse of Shrum'. Yet given Bob Shrum's close relationship with Gordon Brown his book has a wider interest. And to be fair to Shrum, he masterminded numerous back-from-the-dead campaigns for senators, governors and congressmen and women. And his story is laced with delightful anecdotes, some told against himself. He fell out badly both with Jimmy Carter (whom he clearly loathes) not least as Kennedy's adviser and Bill Clinton (who still used his services to write State of the Union speeches), the latter after being overheard by a mate of Hillary's retailing gossip about the then candidate Clinton's women problems, in a DC diner. Political junkies will enjoy this book.

I caught up too with Peter Hennessy's engaging romp through the 1950s, Having it So Good, now in paperback. Hennessy takes us from the austerity of Labour's last year in government to Harold McMillan's 'never had it so good' enthusiasm for public spending. Hennessy's story is laced with engaging detail, not least on the Suez crisis, but perhaps more interestingly on the social and economic dilemmas facing the Conservative governments of the time. His fondness for cabinet papers and ministerial correspondence produces a crop of far livelier debate than might be imagined. We are reminded of how, for example, McMillan started a two month Commonwealth tour a day after his Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and his junior ministers (including Enoch Powell) resigned in protest at a failure to implement some token spending cuts. Hennessy takes us through the 'winds of change' that led to independence for many African states, starting with Ghana fifty years ago. But intriguingly we also learn that Supermac considered joining Labour in the 1930s, but was supposedly dissuaded by Nye Bevan. Hennessy's book is a joy from start to finish: if only all history books were this good.

I also greatly enjoyed reading Andrew O'Hagan's tale of an English Catholic priest losing his way in a small Scottish parish, Be Near Me. O'Hagan writes beautifully, and has a great eye for detail. Ian McEwan's short taut tale of early 60s sexual frustration and fear, set in a Dorset coastal hotel on Edward and Florence's wedding night, On Chesil Beach, is a rewarding read. More extended short story than novel, it confirms McEwan's stature as one of our great novelists. Having found it second-hand recently, I re-entered a seedy and forbidding Dublin of drink, violence, dodgy politicians and despair over unemployment in the late eighties before the Celtic Tiger started to roar, in Dermot Bolger's gripping The Journey Home. Less impressive to my mind was the second novel by Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, whose tale of Islamicist terror and itchy IRA veterans Secret Asset ought to shout authenticity, but when the former spy chief thinks Dublin's main thoroughfare is called Connolly Street, it reads more like a particularly poor episode of Spooks. But for sheer pleasure and wonderful characters, I had to turn finally to Mma Ramotswe's Botswanese detective agency in one of her latest gentle adventures from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith. The plot of Blue Shoes and Happiness - a case of blackmail and a cook, and some mysterious happenings in the bush - is merely a sideshow in the sheer escapist ecstasy of being in the hands of a Master.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Balance and bias

Of course Phil Rees is right to suggest in the Guardian that all sides should have their say on television. Since we seem to enjoy plenty of balanced interviews with those who sympathise with the murder of people in London and New York streets, like his encounter with a defender of Al Qaeda terrorism on Channel 4, perhaps we could hear a bit more from the many Muslims who think differently. Now that would be daringly brave.

Turkey's tobacco addiction

There is nowhere like Turkey for smoking. It must be where the phrase 'smoking like a chimney' was invented. Sitting outside in an otherwise charming harbourside fish restaurant trying to enjoy dinner is impossible when your neighbour is a chain smoker who manages to put away half a dozen cigarettes whilst eating his own fish plate. Nobody asks do you mind, nor do they care if you do. Only public transport and the excellent internal airlines are smoke free. Bans at airports are ignored and unenforced. Non-smoking areas are non-existent in most hotels, bars and restaurants (though Istanbul is getting better on this score). For me, it was like stepping back twenty-five years to a time when cinemas in Dublin were fume-laden, the student bar at UCD was fume-ridden and the notion that Ireland might lead Europe as a beacon in the no-nicotine stakes would have given Frank Carson a run for his money in the Irish joke stakes. There were those who laughingly claimed that our new smoking ban was an infringement of civil liberties. In Turkey, non-smokers have none where tobacco is concerned.

Captivated by Cappadocia

It is an eerie feeling standing in a cave which served as a secret church for the early Christians nearly two millenia ago. But that is the wonder of Cappadocia, the most fascinating part of Turkey, which we visited recently as part of a seventeen-day self-organised trip around the country. Boasting an extraordinary lunar landscape, the region has only relatively recently boosted its tourist infrastructure. Fifty years ago, vandals and robbers desecrated 11th century wall paintings of remarkable perspective and clarity in the cave churches of Goreme that emerged after Christianity had the blessing of Rome (the emperor, that is). Today despite their efforts, a magnificent historical monument remains. A visit to this extraordinary open air museum costs YTL20 including the particularly impressive Karanlik Kilise or Dark Church where the light acted as preserver to what must be the best preserved thousand-year old frescoes in the world. Our day trip, with private car, guide and driver cost $195 with Argeus Travel, an excellent local agency.

Nearby it is an extraordinary sensation clambering across the region's lunar landscape amidst remarkable sculptures of nature in what locals call Imagination Valley or looking down at the peribicalar or fairy chimneys near Urgup. We didn't see all that this fascinating region had to offer but did enjoy staying in the truly wonderful Yunak Evleri cave hotel which offers breakfast and dinner with one of the most breathtaking views imaginable (though you do need to smoke out the morning wasps). Particularly good for food is the nearby Dimrit restaurant, where we had a splendid dinner before taking in the mesmerising Islamic dances of the whirling dervishes.

We had flown on the efficient Sun Express from Izmir to Kayseri, having spent ten days in the seaside town of Foca, or ancient Phokaia, where we were well looked after at the Focantique, a self-styled boutique hotel on the seafront. A day trip to Ephesus arranged by the hotel with private driver enabled us to see the well-preserved classical city and its splendid 25,000-seater Great Theatre together with Mary's House and St John's Basilica at a more leisurely pace than a coach trip, a blessing in what turned out to be 44C heat. Foca is a sleepy sort of place in many ways, but popular with Izmir families and boasts well over a dozen restaurants, many of them serving splendid fish as well as kebabs along the harbour front. The town has plenty of daytrips to visit the Siren rocks and pass an island said to resemble the great Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk when viewed from the correct angle. Although there is a small and very busy town beach, the best place to enjoy the seaside is at the nearby Hanedan resort - involving a YTL1,50 dolmus - minibus - ride and a YTL10 admission charge for non-residents, which includes umbrellas generous enough to give proper shade to two. There are excellent beach cafes, with a tented traditional version offering fresh pancakes and spa treatments available in the hotel. Izmir is served from London by Sun Express and Thomas Cook Airlines. Restaurants we particularly liked were the Zeytin near our hotel; the Fokai, slightly hidden high above the yachts and boats in the main harbour; and for fish, the Mozaic Balik. The town also boasts a small hammam with efficient scrubs and massages.

We flew Turkish Airlines from Kayseri to Istanbul where we enjoyed the awe-inspiring Aya Sofya, a Christian church forcibly turned to a mosque, but secularised as a magnificent monument by Ataturk. We visited several mosques, including the Blue Mosque, which is more impressive out than in (a real contrast with the Aya Sofya). Particularly impressive were the archaeological museums, especially the displays of Babylonian street panels in the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the amazing burial chambers in the main museum. Admission is a bargain at YTL5 covering three museums. A day at the Topkapi palace is a must, and for us it was enlivened by a military music display in the extensive grounds. The harem, for which a second YTL10 fee is charged, is the most interesting part of the palace. We also took the 'touristic' ferry down the Bosphorus affording wonderful views of the shoreside houses and occasional palaces as well as giving a sense of the maritime importance of Istanbul. The ferry at 10.35 or noon offers the best option for a day out with a lunch break before returning.

We stayed in a delightful Ottoman hotel, the Dersaadet, right in the heart of Sultanahmet. Breakfasts are taken on a terrace with views of the Marmara sea and Blue Mosque (the terrace also acts as a bar until midnight) and the staff are unfailingly helpful. Rooms are furnished in traditional wood, but though small-ish, are well-equipped and good value at about £70 a night. Two particularly good local restaurants worth a visit are the Sera in the Hotel Armada, where the YTL58 chef's tasting menu gives you the chance to taste over a dozen dishes while you gaze over the Marmara sea from the wonderful terrace; and the fish restaurant allegedly favoured by the city's elite, the Balikci Sabahattin set in a garden in a surprisingly rundown neighbourhood. Full dinner with wine for two costs about YTL160 in both restaurants. Escaping Turkish food for a night, we greatly enjoyed the good value Dubb Indian restaurant, and for a top-notch dinner 18 floors over the newer part of town, we couldn't fault the drippingly trendy Mikla restaurant in the Marmara Pera hotel. Expect to pay YTL260 for dinner and wine for two there. Other local kebab houses offered lunch with beer for under YTL10 a head, and wine is needlessly expensive in most places we ate across Turkey. We returned to London via BA but there are also EasyJet and Turkish Airlines alternatives.

Our visit provided a good mix of sun and sightseeing, enjoying good accommodation and excellent meals across the country. Turkey is modernising fast but its history and culture remain endlessly fascinating.