Monthly Archives: May 2009

Five Dogs Strangled Near Sitia, Crete

n40924485850_3286In my spare time I’m a trustee of the Greek Animal Welfare Fund (GAWF), which works as the name suggests to “bring about significant and lasting improvement to the treatment and status of animals in Greece.” This involves supporting very localised projects through small grants to neutering street cats and dogs to performing dental work on donkeys. The charity is small and the work is massive, but we do what we can.

It seems to me, with the European elections imminent, that there is much more that the EU should be doing to promote animal welfare. In Greece, life for animals is often brutally short. For instance, we have recently heard about an incident of appalling cruelty that took place near the town of Sitia, in eastern Crete. 

On the 14th of May 2009 representatives of a local animal welfare group were called to a rural location outside the town where they witnessed the dreadful sight of four dogs hanging from one  tree and another from a tree just opposite.  All were already dead when they were found, and the vet that was called to the scene reported that all five had been slowly strangled – since it was clear that their back legs were in contact with the ground – so the animals would have been able to support part of their body weight for a period – perhaps for a number of hours. I make no apology for including this picture, which shows how the animals suffered.


The dogs strangled in Sitia

The dogs strangled in Sitia

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Dogs that are bred for hunting in Greece but fail to ‘make the grade’ are often killed in this way. 


The local police have already issued a summons against “persons unknown” and are investigating the incident.  The local welfare group and its President, Maria Papadaki, are very active in calling for any witnesses or individuals that have knowledge as to who was responsible to come forward.  

GAWF has communicated with the Mayor’s office in Sitia and urged Deputy Mayor, Mr Michalis Protogerakis, to follow up with the police and maintain the pressure on them to investigate properly and take action.  We want to see the perpetrators brought to justice.

Animal lovers wishing to add their voices to the protest may call the offices of the Municipality of  Sitia…   +30 28430 26346.  The Town Hall’s email address is  

It may be even more effective to send a fax to: +30 28430 24584 as faxes receive a protocol number as they come in and are therefore more carefully recorded.  The direct line to Mr Protogerakis’ office is +30 2843 340536.

Here are some links if you want to become a member of GAWF or donate to support our work. We also have a Facebook group.



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Sunningdale Savoy Chorus


Mark Bennett as the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, 1991

As the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, 1991

I’m aware that quite a number of people have come to my blog via the Sunningdale Savoy Chorus website. Hello! Here is a picture of me as The Learned Judge in the SSC’s first ever show, Trial by Jury, aged 21. I haven’t aged a bit.

Readers of this blog may recall I was recently invited to be a Vice President of said amateur operatic society in kind recognition of the work I put in to help start it up. I am profoundly honoured.

It was gruelling at the time, from writing and designing the initial posters to attract members, to assembling costumes to making the scenery for an entire courtroom in my dad’s garage. Then there was keeping the rehearsal pianist in check and making sure everybody felt happy and involved (including the pianist). On top of that there were the singing lessons with professional tenor Maldwyn Davies – a lovely man – who opened up my singing voice to the bass-baritone it is now, even though I don’t sing on stage these days. I do miss performing in G & S and remember it all fondly, half a lifetime later!

It was the autumn of 1990 when the idea of starting a local society to perform Gilbert and Sullivan in Sunningdale first crystallised. The first show was in the April of 1991. The SSC is still going strong, and I’m proud of that.

For my part, I had been a G & S fan ever since my Grandad bought me LP sets of The Yeomen of the Guard and HMS Pinafore from a British Legion jumble sale at the age of, well, probably eight or nine. I didn’t really get Yeomen at first, it seemed very serious and distant, but Pinafore I loved from the first roll of the drums in the overture. If anyone wants to know what to play at my funeral (I have no plans to have one quite yet) it would be the Pinafore overture at the start and The Long Day Closes, a beautiful part song by Arthur Sullivan, at the end. I realise the Pinafore overture isn’t at all funereal but I come from a family that prefers not to upset people at funerals.

Later, when I became politically engaged I was drawn to the satire of W S Gilbert, which through fourteen collaborations with Sullivan and countless individual works poked fun at the British and our institutions. I’m proud to have sung in a concert version of Ivanhoe, Arthur Sullivan’s only grand opera, alongside Robin Wilson, son of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson – HW was a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan himself. G & S defies political boundaries because it defies political certainties. Even the most patriotic-seeming moment is in fact a send-up of patriotic-seeming moments.

The name Sunningdale Savoy Chorus came from a discussion with the co-founder, John Woodward-Roberts, who was also at the Civil Service College in Sunningdale at the time. I was adamant that Sunningdale and Savoy had to be in there (we were going to perform the Savoy operas after all, and Gilbert and Sullivan was longwinded) and I didn’t like the implied stuffiness of a ‘society’, so I proposed Chorus instead. It suggested singing, togetherness and equality for all members.

So we had a name. Then the hard work started – begging to get flyers up in shop windows, post offices, GPs’, dentists’ and vets’ surgeries, churches, anywhere that would take them. Then there was deciding what we would be performing when we eventually got going. And then there was the hard task of finding interested members and firmly cajoling them along to rehearsals. It was an early lesson in organising that I would pick up in politics later.

Once we got our singers to a rehearsal they were usually hooked. With bigger, wealthier societies not far away I’m not sure what made ours come or what made them stay. A draughty little village hall a way off the beaten track with hardly any parking must have seemed daunting. The welcome from new members who had settled in, though, was always friendly and very soon a spirit of camaraderie sprang up. Even the iffy piano skills of our first rehearsal pianist didn’t put people off. There was pleasure for me in having helped to draw this diverse group of performers together, though I was only 21 at the time, and quite shy. 

I think back on rehearsals and those sublime moments when everything comes together musically – the pianist enjoying a rare moment of keyboard clarity, the soloists finally on top of their part and the chorus having really got their heads around the intricacies of their line. At those moments, back then in a cold hall in Berkshire in the early nineties, it was magical. There was a sense of lift, a sense we were together and achieving as a team.

We would emerge into the night after a rehearsal to find people standing in the dark on the pavement outside, waiting to tell us how beautiful it sounded. For me, there are only two feelings to match that kind of unity in song – one is rowing as part of an eight when the blades are dipping and feathering exactly in unison, the other is winning elections.

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A Weekend In Hay With Doris


Doris Kearns Goodwin at Hay

Doris Kearns Goodwin at Hay

If you’ve never been to the Hay book festival, I’d urge you to make plans for it next year. Whether you’re a bookworm or not, the audience sessions where people get to hear from authors of new works and put questions to them can be extremely interesting.

As well as pure entertainment events (stand-up comedy, that sort of thing) and authors and personalities talking about their favourite works, there’s a lively programme of political discussions to keep the more current affairs oriented visitors in touch with what’s going on outside the beautiful little book town of Hay on Wye.

Hay, which stands on the border between England and Wales, is rightly called a book town because it’s crammed with book shops. If there’s a seemingly unobtainable book you’ve been hunting for, chances are you will find it – after a pleasurable search – tucked away on a shelf somewhere in Hay. I’ve been coming to Hay for about 20 years, and even when the festival isn’t on it’s a nirvana for anyone who loves books.

This year I was most interested in seeing and hearing Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of some of the finest political histories ever written, including Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

It’s a massive work which covers the improbable rise of Lincoln from childhood to the US Presidency and the way he bound in (and deftly united) his political rivals as members of his cabinet. It’s one of Barack Obama’s touchstone books, and there are obvious parallels between the ascent of Lincoln and Obama and in the way they assembled their cabinet teams once elected. The session, chaired by Jon Snow – who could not have been more effusive about the book, waving his copy around with numerous pages marked with random pieces of paper – was one of the best of the festival, making a vast history seem immediate, alive, very human and very relevant.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who in her twenties worked as an intern for Lyndon B Johnson (her husband had worked for JFK) has made a specialism of biographical histories of American presidents. She is currently working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt, having also written about about Franklin of that ilk, the Kennedys and of course LBJ – who she described during her talk as her ‘buddy’. 

What struck me first about DKG (it seems fitting to call her that) was her sense of humour, laced with warmth and wisdom, about her subjects. She was obviously charmed by Lincoln’s ability to tell a story, and said in answer to a question that of anyone she has written about she would love to meet him, just to hear him tell some of those tales, to see his melancholy face light up in the telling and watch him slap his bony knee as he came to the punchline. It’s a side of Lincoln which the hagiographies don’t show. Remarkably, there have been some 15,000 books written about Lincoln and yet DKG found something new and defining to say by looking at how he brought his former rivals together as a (mostly) loyal team. 

After the event, there was a big clamour to get copies of Team of Rivals signed, and I was in two minds whether to join the queue. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I didn’t buy a fresh copy – the festival bookseller had run out anyway – but instead had my own copy with me, much-thumbed as it is.

It obviously pleased the author to see, at the end of a long queue, a copy that looked like it had been opened. She said, “Looks like you’ve been spending time in line actually reading the book – great!” 

I explained I’d read and reread the book, admired it greatly and she asked me what my interest was in politics. I said I’d helped out on the Obama campaign and that I’m a Labour councillor in London.

She beamed. “A councilman, that’s a great start. Keep going. Really, keep going.”

Anyway, without exaggerating what was a brief (but to me wonderful) encounter, we chatted a little longer and this is what she wrote: “To Mark, with hopes for a successful career in politics, Doris Kearns Goodwin”.

Despite everything that’s going on in this country to diminish politics as a vocation, I will keep going. Though I might have to buy a new copy of Team of Rivals. The signed one, beside me now, has become too precious!

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“I have a very, very large house”

Conservative MP Anthony Steen (he has been described as Sir Anthony in many media reports but is apparently not a knight of the shires – see comments below – I have checked his entries in Who’s Who and elsewhere) showed the severe lack of judgement that has led MPs of all parties into the current expenses scandal by giving a splenetic interview yesterday on the BBC’s World At One.

Mr Steen, in his bluster and arrogance, showed he was sorely out of touch with the public mood. Whilst attacking the government for enacting Freedom of Information legislation, and the British people for “jealousy”, and himself for not being “cleverer” (ie being banged to rights) he said that the current situation reminded him of “an episode from Coronation Street”.

I can’t honestly understand what resemblance his situation has to Corrie, or any episode of it I can think of. I remember the time in EastEnders when Arthur Fowler stole the Christmas Club money, but nothing quite like an MPs’ expenses scandal in Corrie.

Have I been watching Corrie all these years and failed to notice a “very, very large house” a few doors down from the Rovers Return? I’m sure the people living in the terraced streets of Weatherfield might have noticed a Balmoral-like estate in their midst, complete with 500 trees.

Or maybe Mr Steen was claiming expenses as a lodger in Coronation Street. The Fees Office, apparently so sympathetic to fictitious domestic arrangements, would probably have approved of that.

But who could be his landlord or landlady? The Weatherfield Gazette should get on the case.

I can’t imagine any Coronation Street resident, accustomed as they are to public scrutiny three nights a week, nodding approvingly if Mr Steen came out with the following in the bar of the Rovers, over a G & T:

“You know what it’s about? Jealousy. I’ve got a very, very large house. What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”

Here are the opening titles to Coronation Street. If you spot a very, very large house that looks like Balmoral, or Mr Steen, or his tree surgeon, let me know. 


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Time to serve people, not politicians

The article below appears in today’s Guardian. I co-wrote it with my friend and colleague, Chuka Umunna, who is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham at the next general election.

The collective reputation of MPs has been burned to ash and the clean-up begins not a moment too soon. MPs of all parties have been shamed, but it has been most galling when associated with people on the left, who were first elected by telling voters they would change the rules – in politics and beyond – to make Britain better and fairer. Labour activists who go door to door for them have been on the receiving end of public anger and are themselves furious.

The mantra often repeated is “my claims were within the rules”, but this is a complete irrelevance when the claims do not stand up to moral scrutiny. How can they not see this?

It appears they have been deafened to political reality by the siren songs of vested interest, manifested in the deference of Commons police and staff, the patronage of the whips, the Speaker’s offices and the indulgence of the fees office. To the public, it seems they have been rewarded with TVs, kitchens, massage chairs and imaginary mortgages for doing so. If politics in Britain is to have a future, all this must change.

Another future is possible. We are two Labour politicians but there are many more of us – parliamentary candidates, councillors and activists – who still believe in what Harold Wilson called the “moral crusade” of our party. We are all putting our hearts and souls into it and a better future for our communities.

Most of our politicians are idealistic and well-intentioned. The corrupt are few, and now is the time for them to be driven from office by the many who want to rebuild trust in what should be an honest and open vocation.

As the Commons considers what to do, Labour’s next generation has a duty to make a contribution if it does not wish to inherit the public’s contempt.

We must start by recognising that if we want to dismantle the “gentlemen’s club”, we must tackle the machine ¬politics out of which it was born. Root and branch constitutional reform is a prerequisite. We must elect the Lords, make the voting system more ¬proportional and end the degraded adversarial culture of Westminster, as exemplified by the so-called theatre of prime minister’s questions.

The Labour party must change too. MPs who have acted within the rules but outside the bounds of public acceptability should be deselected. There is a moral and political imperative to do so – we will not retain seats where we are offering damaged goods. The higher education minister David Lammy has mooted introducing primaries as a way of making parliamentary selection more open, and to involve the public. The clamour for this is growing.

But first, changes to MPs’ expenses and the election of the Speaker are imminent. Gordon Brown’s proposal of an independent parliamentary standards regulator, responsible for pay and allowances, is welcome. Expenses should now be fully published online and investigated without further delay, with absolute application of the law towards MPs found to have broken it.

Whatever shape the new expenses system takes, one principle should win out: there must be an end to any privileges that set MPs apart from the people they represent – no first class travel, no London congestion charge reclaim, and no claims for anything that is not directly related to the work of being an MP.

In 1994, the then Labour leader, John Smith, said: “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask.” Service.

That is what our parliamentarians need to remember as they consider reform. The time has come to serve the people, not politicians.

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It’s A Two House Race: Part 2

It appears that Lord Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem chief executive, has decided to step down from his post citing health and family reasons. I wrote about Lord Rennard and his domestic arrangements not so long ago


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The Speaker Must Go, With The System That Created Him

Watching the extraordinary goings-on in the House of Commons yesterday I was struck by the fact that whether Speaker Martin departs or not, the quasi-masonic system that elects Speakers is in need of reform. 

Martin has been in the chair since 2000, a long run and not uncontroversial. He has been criticised throughout that time, sometimes fairly – as with his doomed attempts to protect the privileges (ie vested interests) of the House over the disclosure of expenses. Sometimes the criticism has been unfair, as with the portrayal of ‘Gorbals Mick’ by Tory snobs on the green benches and in the press gallery.

Surely the departure of this humiliated Speaker, either imminently or in a month or twelve months, presents an opportunity for modernisation. Why is a Speaker left in post for so long? Why is there no particular term limit? 

In Lambeth’s council chamber, our ‘Speaker’ (the Mayor) is elected each year by an agreement that rotates between the parties. This year the Mayor is a Labour councillor, the year before a Lib Dem, and the year before that a Conservative. The councillor in post steps out of party politics and at the end of their term they return to it. 

Why not do the same in the House of Commons and the House of Lords? The amount of criticism which is now being levelled at Speaker Martin is largely due to the fact that he has, as Cromwell or Leo Amery  might say, sat there too long and become so institutionalised by the Establishment culture of the House authorities as to be incapable of overseeing reform. To replace him with another Speaker, however well-intentioned that person is, is just to perpetuate the office and the culture that have gone so badly wrong.

If anyone in the Commons is serious about preventing the abuse of expenses and earning back public confidence, surely there is a case for limiting the Speakership to one year. If an incumbent is not performing well, their term will be finite. If they come to the Speakership from the back benches, they come fresh and in touch with the views of MPs and do not have time to lose touch, or to be seduced by the comforts of the Commons.

Speaker Martin must go and the system that created him must go too.

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