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Glasgow University will lead one of 15 Partnerships

We live in a time where the environment has never seemed so important. The changes to the world’s climate of things that affect us all – but much more needs to be done before we fully understand all of the implications.

Natural_Environment_Research_Council_LogoThis week saw something of a milestone announcement from the UK government when it announced investment of £100 million in 15 Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). All of these would focus on the training of environmental science Ph.D. students. The money would be managed by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) and the target will be to have 214 new students begin training every year for five years.

The Science and Universities Minister, David Willetts, described it as a “significant investment” which highlighted “the government’s commitment to supporting postgraduate training and research in environmental sciences. We are dedicated to providing the next generation of environmental researchers with the necessary skills and training to succeed in academia and industry.”

David Willetts MP

David Willetts MP

Prof Duncan Wingham, chief executive of the NERC, pointed out that if UK environmental sciences were going to continue to prosper, “we need to make sure we get the best of our students. These DTPs position us to compete in an increasingly competitive global environment by training students in the best possible way to use environmental sciences to help meet the challenges and opportunities facing us today.”

One of the universities to benefit from the new program will be Glasgow which, together with six partners, will host one of the DTPs. The partnership is called IAPETUS (named after the ancient ocean that close to bring together northern England and Scotland) has been awarded £5 million to fund 60 or more scholarships. The students will undertake research addressing some of the most critical questions and challenging facing the world today.

The Glasgow-led partnership will be led by Prof Susan Waldron who said the university and the others in the team were committed to “recruiting and supporting the very best postgraduate students”. She added that they were expected to produce ground-breaking science and make a real impact in their future careers as leading environmental scientists. Working with industry policymakers and other external stakeholders is a vital part of the ‘Business of the Environment’.”

The other partners include the universities of Durham, Newcastle, St Andrews and Stirling along with the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Prof Andrew Tyler, head of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Stirling, said the award recognised and supported excellence in postgraduate research within each of the consortium universities. “The award enables the consortium to work more effectively together,” he added, “providing new and relevant collaborative postgraduate research opportunities that address the key environmental challenges facing society today, whilst also training our future leaders in science.”

Princes St tramworks – more to come <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

Princes St tramworks – more to come Picture: Richard Webb

By John Knox

The baffled contractors for the Edinburgh trams are now working out how they will complete the line to St Andrew Square for a mere £776 million.

The white-collared executives at Bilfinger Berger headquarters back in Germany must be ruing the day they ever took on this contract. It has been plagued by problems from the start – vagaries in the initial agreement, disputes, delays, technical difficulties, unforeseen extra work, simple bungling, incompetent middlemen, a divided and confused council, a hostile government and an angry public.

But has there ever been a large public works project that has gone smoothly? When the original railway lines were built in the 19th century there were constant delays and disputes. The tram projects across England in the 1980s and 1990s – in Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield – took 10 to 15 years to build and were subject to alterations, disputes and financial crises before they finally proved a success. The much vaunted system in Dublin was three times over budget. And yet all of these transport systems are now the boast of their citizens and have been extended or are being extended.

It was all a question of keeping one’s nerve. And this Edinburgh council has finally managed to do, though the councillors have behaved badly along the way. How, for instance, did they ever manage to vote for the madcap option of halting the line at Haymarket? The Labour and Conservative councillors who pushed this through must have been attending a tea party in Wonderland.

The economists were telling them that very few people would want to use a line from the airport that stopped short of the city centre. It would make a loss of £4m a year. And where would the terminus and turnaround area be? And how much extra would that cost?

The Conservatives went further at the final vote and wanted the whole project abandoned. This is after £440m has already been spent. Mind you, the ruling Liberal Democrats had been drinking something peculiar too when they claimed that the cost of cancellation would be £750m – give or take the odd £100m. This must have included not just the money spent already but also the cost of buying out the construction contracts and putting the underground pipes back where they were – a little too much tidying up and somewhat disingenuous.

As for the SNP, their opposition to the trams has always been a little suspicious. It does not easily square with their ambition for Scotland as a modern, well public-serviced nation. Did they really want to leave the capital city without a vibrant city centre and without the transport capacity to expand? Edinburgh would be left as the only major city in Britain without either an underground or overground rail system.

I suspect the SNP’s opposition was all a populist ploy to take advantage of the temporary frustration with the trams in Edinburgh itself and to appeal to people in other parts of Scotland who felt that “posh Edinburgh” was getting too much of the national cake. In the end, though, the SNP saw sense and realised the only thing to do was finish the line to St Andrew Square, whatever the cost.

John Swinney, the finance secretary, finally brought people to their senses by threatening to withhold the £72m the government still had to pay as its share of the cost. That allowed the council – in the SNP’s favourite phrase – to think again.

Now it’s up to Bilfinger Berger and the other contractors to get on with the job and finish the line by, say, 2016. They have three major embankments to build. Then they need to lay most of the track, re-lay the botched section along Princes Street, build a terminus at York Place, install signalling and CCTV and arrange for the Lord Provost to cut the tape.

The council for its part needs to take out a loan for £231m – paying roughly £15m a year for the next 30 years. It needs to stop arguing with the contractors. And it needs to hold on to the vision that the line between the airport and St Andrew Square is only the beginning of a network of trams that will stretch to Newhaven and Granton on the north side of the city and to the new hospital at Little France and Musselburgh in the south and east. Then Edinburgh will be able to grow gracefully, with quick and easy access to the city centre from prosperous villages on its outskirts where property prices – and council tax revenues – will be rising nicely in the years ahead.

And as the works begin again, the investigations and the lesson-learning can begin, too. Lesson one: do not employ TIE, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, and their expensive executives. They have very nearly ruined this project. Lesson two: for big transport projects use the experts at Transport Scotland, and here the Scottish government was at fault for not offering this assistance.

Lesson three: make sure the original contracts are clear about who bears the risk of unforeseen difficulties – it should, of course, be the council. Lesson four: do not have lengthy disputes with your contractors – disagreements should be settled while work continues because delays just cause costs to rise.

Lesson five: do not enter into confidentiality agreements, but let your disputes take place in the open air. Lesson six: be patient and understanding. These public works projects are difficult, take time and are expensive. Lesson seven: try to be responsible democrats. Political parties should not give in to every passing frustration in the press or from the public.

And finally, lesson eight: try to take pride in the project. It is creating jobs at a time of recession and it is building something for the long-term benefit of the city.

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Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog. <em>Picture: eSkeleton</em>

Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog. Picture: eSkeleton

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Blackpool Tower Circus was once home to Charlie Cairoli. Oh, and Mr Norman’s multi-coloured budgies. This weekend, it’s multi-coloured balls which are centre stage, as snooker’s eagerly-awaited Shoot Out takes place.

The top 64 players in the world, a knock-out format, each match decided in one frame. It was fast, furious, and probably exactly what TV wanted. What no-one wanted was another match tarnished by the inference of suspicious betting patterns.
World Snooker, the sport’s governing body, announced the match between Jimmy Michie and Marcus Campbell had been flagged up by bookies concerned by the number of bets placed on Campbell to win.

It’s not what snooker needed. Or Michie for that matter. Rumours were rife afterwards that he had retired from the game with immediate effect, as was the subsequent speculation over his innocence or guilt.

No-one is sure whether Michie has quit or not, while his status is under investigation. What can’t be questioned is Michie’s ability to attract the wrong kind of attention.

In 1998, betting was suspended for his match against Mark Gray, when Gary was backed down from 11/10 to 3/1 on. And in 2000, Sean Storey was heavily backed to beat Michie at the Scottish Open, which he duly did. On both counts, Michie was deemed not to have breached any disciplinary rules.

Sunday
And in the LV Cup, Harlequins beat Wasps in Abu Dhabi in the first UK domestic rugby fixture played overseas.

Scores of supporters signed up for the trip. Of course travelling abroad for club rugby fans is nothing new. The European Cup has meant weekends away in Ireland, France and Italy. But the UAE is something a bit new.

Of course, football fans have been doing it for much longer. However, there preferred mode of transport is the good old coach or bus, something that would be a tad uncomfortable and impractical for a trip to the Gulf.

I mean, you can just imagine the bus convener for the Abu Dhabi trip telling his load; “We’ll only be stopping the once for a pish – and that will be in Bulgaria!”

Monday
Recession, what recession? The January football transfer window closes but not before fantasy football becomes the reality.

In the biggest deals of all Fernando Torres leaves Liverpool for Chelsea for £50 million, with some of that cash – £35 million of it – used to bring Andy Carroll from Newcastle to Anfield.

That price tag in an instant made Carroll the eighth most expensive player in history. Of course, there is a colossal difference in being the eighth most expensive player and the eighth best player of all time.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Kaka, Torres, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Hernan Crespo have cost more.

Staggering, given that Carroll wouldn’t make the top eight of all-time English players, or Liverpool players, or probably even Newcastle centre forwards.

However with £35 million dangled in front of them, and transfer request written in his best writing by the player, it was an offer Newcastle couldn’t ignore.

But Newcastle claim, quite vehemently, that did not want to sell Carroll. That explains why Magpies owner Mike Ashley used his own helicopter to drop Carroll on Merseyside before the deadline.

Tuesday
Five-time Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe confirms his retirement is over and that he will compete at the 2012 London Olympics. Great news for those who enjoy Olympic sport, great news for Seb Coe and Boris Johnson, not so good news if you spend all your time facedown in a 50m pool.

The “Thorpedo” quit five years ago. But his return to competition was sparked after a trip to the London Olympic swimming venue, and not by being chased by a series of agents brandishing lucrative endorsement contracts.

Former Olympians returning to the fold is nothing new, even in the pool which is seen more as a young man’s game.

I recall 20-something years ago being put on the trail of a certain David Wilkie, the 1976 gold medallist from Montreal who was attempting to gain selection for Seoul. Seemed to be going swimmingly well, the budding Olympic correspondent and the former champion, that was until it came time for racing the qualifying clock. We were closer to South Queensferry than South Korea after that …

Wednesday
I made my feelings known about El Hadji Diouf a week or so back. So imagine my pleasure when I found him signing a loan deal with Rangers on Monday. Come Wednesday, he was making his Ibrox debut against Hearts.

The newspapers had been full for a few days of their take on the arrival of the Senegalese striker, leading Walter Smith to comment on the negativity surrounding Diouf’s past. “In Scotland, it’s not unexpected, the reaction you get. Better treatment than a serial killer, I suppose, but there you are.”

Smith was referring to the mentions of Diouf’s previous indiscretions, which include spitting at rival fans. Walter also hired David Healy as a partner for Diouf, although maybe Bob Carolgees would have made a better double act …

Thursday
I recall going abroad with various football teams, gathering at airports where before departure, players would line up like wee school laddies to be handed their travel documents. It all looked a terribly organised system, until you realised it was done for a purpose, namely, that fitba players couldn’t be trusted to remember their own passports and flight tickets.

So I for one am not surprised when it emerges that Tottenham’s captain Ledley King has to delayed a groin operation at a German clinic by a week because he was unable to find his passport. His boss Harry Redknapp explained it away as it being “a long story”.

But before we only mock footballers, the same thing happened to world snooker champion Neil Robertson – a far travelled Australian – who also missed his flight to Berlin for the same reason.

He however did manage to find his passport and travelled a day late, though he didn’t need a groin op, even though he missed his balls when losing to Anthony Hamilton.

Friday
Having been released by Rangers on Monday, Hearts sign defender Andy Webster on a two-and-a-half year deal. I doubt any of the regulars at Ibrox will notice life without him as they’ve not really seen much of him anyway. Even when he was performing with Dundee United on loan last term, he had to sit out games against those who held his contract.

I was hosting a radio show when Webster invoked a little-known transfer clause to join Wigan – a “foreign” club for the purposes of the transfer regulations – in the third year of a four-year contract.

We discussed how like Bosman, Webster would be synonymous with certain contractual scenarios, and would probably end up with ‘Rule’ suffix.

But no. He hasn’t been a sub let alone a suffix. Back at Hearts, and with his old boss from Tannadice in charge of Scotland, he can probably look forward to an international call in a day or two …

<em>Picture: Stuart Caie</em>

Picture: Stuart Caie

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
A phrase seldom heard in a football context these days is about anyone being able to name a team, one to 11. Even 30 and 40 years ago, not everyone wore the same shirt week in, week out or conformed with the norm. Johan Cruyff was always 14 when none of his mates got past eleven, and I recall Hans Gillhaus, Aberdeen’s Dutch striker, once wearing the No 3 shirt in a game I covered. But then was nothing to now.

Hamilton Accies forward Mickael Antoine-Curier has hit the top of the shop, No 99. Using the old boating lake joke, he has already been shouted at by one referee; “Get up 66,” only to be asked 10 seconds later: “Are you in trouble 99?”

No 99 is of course an interesting choice of number for Antoine-Curier, although it may have something to do with him being a wee bit Flakey …

Sunday
Snooker, and the Wembley Masters reaches its climax with Ding Junhui and Marco Fu making it an all-Chinese final. That earns them 100 million viewers back home, Ding’s victory earns him £150,000, but not his body-weight in pies that his 2009 UK victory brought him. Fu earns plaudits for getting to the final, beating Mark Allen in the semi-finals.

Allen, like many in sport, suffered the misfortune of doing everyone else’s hard work for them by beating the big names, namely Ronnie O’Sullivan in the opening round, and world champion Neil Robertson in the quarter-finals. But again, the Ulsterman failed to convert an appearance in the last four in to a final berth for the fifth time in a major tournaments.

He will crack it one day. But in the meantime, when everyone in snooker needs a nickname to be recognised, maybe he should change his from “The Pistol” to “The Estate Agent” – for all the semis he’s sold …

Monday
For a time it looked like Kenny Miller was Florence-bound. But that just didn’t happen. And none of the other Magic Roundabout characters wanted him either. Birmingham did happen either, but Bursaspor arrive to offer the Scotland striker his latest dream move.

One out, but these days at Ibrox, that doesn’t necessarily mean one in. Rangers are linked with a loan move for unwanted Sunderland striker David Healy, and Newcastle’s Alan Smith. The shock there would be a transfer window where that particular pairing isn’t mentioned in despatches with an Ibrox switch.

Tuesday
There are times, when, regardless of what you have seen or heard before, football still has the capacity to make you shake your head. Today, it was again in disbelief as word emerged that Darren Bent had just moved from Sunderland to Aston Villa for a club record £18 million, rising to £24 million should certain targets be achieved.

Bent’s strike rate isn’t bad. Only Rooney and Drogba are ahead of him in the scoring charts.

But how many think of him in that kind of company – and how many still think of Bent being ridiculed by Harry Redknapp who reckoned his “missus could have scored” following Bent’s glaring late miss against Portsmouth. I know what camp I belong to.

Wednesday
Samit Patel is an all-rounder, which in cricket terms means he bats and bowls, or according to England coach Andy Flower’s definition, is something to do with his physical shape.

Patel was first dropped for being overweight by England two years ago, but was in the running for England’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup squad until he failed a fatness, sorry fitness test.

“Samit was chosen in the provisional 30-man squad … but it was on condition that he improved his physical state for him to be in contention. He hasn’t done that,” said Flower.

Cricket like football, has evolved over the years. And in both cases, athletic prowess is often preferred to actual ability. God only knows what would have happened if Flower and his ilk had been in charge of cricketing policy when a certain Ian Terence Botham came on the scene.

The greatest all-rounder of all-time could have been lost, just because he was Beefy.

Thursday
Davis Love III is appointed captain of the United States team for the 2012 Ryder Cup. The 46-year-old – with six appearances as a player to his name – was selected to try and recapture the trophy lost to Europe at Celtic Manor in October.

No bad player Love. But any time I’ve heard mention of him it’s always made me wonder just what kind of golfers Love I and II were.

Friday
Multiple Majors winner Padraig Harrington is disqualified from the Abu Dhabi Championship after signing for a wrong score in his first-round 65 – all thanks to an eagle-eyed TV viewer.

Harrington’s hand brushed the ball on the 7th hole as he replaced it in front of his marker.

And someone sitting at home called the European Tour, alerting them to Harrington’s actions after the Dubliner had signed his scorecard, resulting in the disqualification.

This could probably only ever happen in golf, given the gap between rounds. Good every dodgy decision in football can’t be challenged by phone.

An Old Firm game would have the capacity to bring down BT’s network, the National Grid and this country’s satellite and digital infrastructure.

Joseph Farquharson's 'The shortening winter's day is near a close'

Joseph Farquharson's 'The shortening winter's day is near a close'

Look out of almost any window in Scotland just now – with hills, fields, roads and pavements caked under substantial amounts of snow – and the idea that there could be any doubt about the likelihood of a White Christmas is laughable.

There are, however, two types of White Christmas. There is the one we are undoubtedly about to enjoy, a deep and crisp and even (well, deep and skiddy and rutted) White Christmas – which, when the sun is shining, can look like one of those lovely Joseph Farquharson sheep paintings.

Then there is the one that Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote about on a hot day in California in July 1945, and which Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Doris Day – among many others – duly sang about. The one that goes Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

And it’s the Cahn and Styne version that the bookies dread. There can be any amount of the pretty Farquharsonian snow – the sheep could be completely submerged – but so long as not a single flake of the stuff falls from the sky during the 24 hours of 25 December, the bookies will make money. By contrast, even one brief flurry on Christmas Day during the mildest, most green-field-filled winter and the bookies take a hit. It’s weird, but that’s the way it works.

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes deals with most bets, “unless it’s a horse or a greyhound”, so “novelty bets” such as Christmas Day weather-watching land on his desk. “We started doing it 30 years ago,” he says, “when it was just London – whether any snow fell on the BBC weather tower.” The bets proved popular, so it steadily spread to a wide variety of locations, including four in Scotland: Lerwick, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Donohue notes that uptake is “100% higher than last year” – not just because of the sustained cold weather itself, but through a knock-on effect with so much sport having been snowed off. “People go to their local Ladbrokes intending to put a tenner on a football coupon,” he says, “and when the matches are off they see we’ve got a book on a White Christmas near where they live, so they’ve been sticking the tenner on that instead.”

Rupert Adams at rival bookmakers William Hill similarly reports a record number of festive bets, and says that the firm is “sweating” on the possibility of a huge payout should there be widespread snowfall – even widespread single flakes – come the day. “The latest forecast suggests that there is a real chance that the infamous industry Million Pound Payout will happen for the first time,” he says.

The actual decision on whether there has been any snowfall in each of the locations rests – as might be expected – with the professional meteorological agency. “The Met Office send us an email on Boxing Day,” says Adams, “from which we either pay out or retire to our sunbeds in the Costa del Sol.”

Although nothing is certain in advance – this is betting, after all – and everything is in the hands of the weather gods, it doesn’t look likely that the bookies will be jetting off to their Spanish siestas this time round – even assuming Heathrow ever gets itself back in order.

Ladbrokes closed their White Christmas book at midday on the day before Christmas Eve, at which stage all four of their venues were odds-on. “When we closed the market,” says Donohue, “Lerwick was 1/3, Aberdeen 4/9, Edinburgh 4/5 and Glasgow 4/6 – so we reckoned it was more likely than not to snow in all those places.”

At the time of writing, the William Hill book remained open, but again it was odds-on across the board: 4/7 on snow falling at Pittodrie Stadium in Aberdeen (some might say the team’s chances of relegation from the SPL are similarly short), and 8/11 at both Edinburgh Castle and Glasgow Cathedral.

Further south, the odds are a bit longer, but not much: William Hill is offering only evens for each of Newcastle, York, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, while London, Cambridge and Oxford are all 5/4. Even locations in the supposedly less Baltic south and west aren’t exactly value bets: Cardiff is 11/8, Exeter 6/4 and Dublin 6/5.

As to the actual Met Office prediction – and what is meteorology if not a form of educated betting? – with under 30 hours to go the forecast reads as follows: “Very cold and mainly dry on Christmas Day, just a few snow showers in the far east. Becoming increasingly windy from Sunday, with outbreaks of snow spreading slowly east later.”

That “mainly dry” will bring a smile to the lips of the people at Ladbrokes, William Hill and elsewhere. While they are surely going to lose money in some of the locations, they might avoid suffering a total whiteout – sorry, wipeout – after all.

Joseph Farquharson's 'The shortening winter's day is near a close'

Joseph Farquharson's 'The shortening winter's day is near a close'

Look out of almost any window in Scotland just now – with hills, fields, roads and pavements caked under substantial amounts of snow – and the idea that there could be any doubt about the likelihood of a White Christmas is laughable.

There are, however, two types of White Christmas. There is the one we are undoubtedly about to enjoy, a deep and crisp and even (well, deep and skiddy and rutted) White Christmas – which, when the sun is shining, can look like one of those lovely Joseph Farquharson sheep paintings.

Then there is the one that Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote about on a hot day in California in July 1945, and which Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Doris Day – among many others – duly sang about. The one that goes Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

And it’s the Cahn and Styne version that the bookies dread. There can be any amount of the pretty Farquharsonian snow – the sheep could be completely submerged – but so long as not a single flake of the stuff falls from the sky during the 24 hours of 25 December, the bookies will make money. By contrast, even one brief flurry on Christmas Day during the mildest, most green-field-filled winter and the bookies take a hit. It’s weird, but that’s the way it works.

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes deals with most bets, “unless it’s a horse or a greyhound”, so “novelty bets” such as Christmas Day weather-watching land on his desk. “We started doing it 30 years ago,” he says, “when it was just London – whether any snow fell on the BBC weather tower.” The bets proved popular, so it steadily spread to a wide variety of locations, including four in Scotland: Lerwick, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Donohue notes that uptake is “100% higher than last year” – not just because of the sustained cold weather itself, but through a knock-on effect with so much sport having been snowed off. “People go to their local Ladbrokes intending to put a tenner on a football coupon,” he says, “and when the matches are off they see we’ve got a book on a White Christmas near where they live, so they’ve been sticking the tenner on that instead.”

Rupert Adams at rival bookmakers William Hill similarly reports a record number of festive bets, and says that the firm is “sweating” on the possibility of a huge payout should there be widespread snowfall – even widespread single flakes – come the day. “The latest forecast suggests that there is a real chance that the infamous industry Million Pound Payout will happen for the first time,” he says.

The actual decision on whether there has been any snowfall in each of the locations rests – as might be expected – with the professional meteorological agency. “The Met Office send us an email on Boxing Day,” says Adams, “from which we either pay out or retire to our sunbeds in the Costa del Sol.”

Although nothing is certain in advance – this is betting, after all – and everything is in the hands of the weather gods, it doesn’t look likely that the bookies will be jetting off to their Spanish siestas this time round – even assuming Heathrow ever gets itself back in order.

Ladbrokes closed their White Christmas book at midday on the day before Christmas Eve, at which stage all four of their venues were odds-on. “When we closed the market,” says Donohue, “Lerwick was 1/3, Aberdeen 4/9, Edinburgh 4/5 and Glasgow 4/6 – so we reckoned it was more likely than not to snow in all those places.”

At the time of writing, the William Hill book remained open, but again it was odds-on across the board: 4/7 on snow falling at Pittodrie Stadium in Aberdeen (some might say the team’s chances of relegation from the SPL are similarly short), and 8/11 at both Edinburgh Castle and Glasgow Cathedral.

Further south, the odds are a bit longer, but not much: William Hill is offering only evens for each of Newcastle, York, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, while London, Cambridge and Oxford are all 5/4. Even locations in the supposedly less Baltic south and west aren’t exactly value bets: Cardiff is 11/8, Exeter 6/4 and Dublin 6/5.

As to the actual Met Office prediction – and what is meteorology if not a form of educated betting? – with under 30 hours to go the forecast reads as follows: “Very cold and mainly dry on Christmas Day, just a few snow showers in the far east. Becoming increasingly windy from Sunday, with outbreaks of snow spreading slowly east later.”

That “mainly dry” will bring a smile to the lips of the people at Ladbrokes, William Hill and elsewhere. While they are surely going to lose money in some of the locations, they might avoid suffering a total whiteout – sorry, wipeout – after all.

<em>Picture: Justin Kraemer</em>

Picture: Justin Kraemer

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Winter happens. And some years it happens more than others. Unless you’re reading this from your holiday home in Barbados, or you’ve emigrated to the Antipodes, you might have noticed we’re in the middle of a cold snap which has played chaos with the sporting calendar. Football is particularly badly hit again, the mounting pile-up of snow causing a similar pile-up of fixtures. Still, it has stoked the debate again about winter shut-downs and the likes.

At one time I was all for it, particularly when spending many an arduous hour, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice while watching Rangers train in Florida. A decade ago, Rangers jetted 3,000 miles just as Scotland began to endure a pleasantly mild January.

Since the referees strike in the last weekend of November, only a handful of SPL matches have been played. Pretty much all of December has been wiped out. And there is still no sign of a thaw.

A year ago, snow set in the week before Christmas and the chaos lasted through much of January. Indeed, the “live” clash between St Johnstone and Rangers at the end of February was another victim of the cold. So, without trying, that’s three months where a case could be made for having a break.

In principal, a winter shut-down seems the right and proper thing to do. Unfortunately – and this always has been the biggest barrier – no-one has a clue the best time to have it.

Sunday
Given the environment in which it belongs, the BBC Sports Personality of The Year awards could easily have been tested for steroids given the size that it has grown to. Several years ago, it was a cosy wee show where the nation (although I always had the sneaking suspicion that it was just England who took an interest) would wait to see what hard-luck story had captured the imagination, and was therefore worthy of a trophy.

These days however, SPoTY has turned into an extravaganza, with Sunday’s gathering at the LG Arena in Birmingham played out in front of 12,000 guests.

Tony McCoy won, his Grand National success obviously tugging at sufficient heart-strings for people to register a vote, although what can’t be ignored was the support whipped up (still legal under Jockey Club rules) from within the racing fraternity. In a ten-horse race McCoy gathered 42% of the vote, an amazing statistic and one which might have the Electoral Reform Society using it as a case study.

If SPoTY has changed in size it has also radically amended just where it pulls its “personalities” from. Winner McCoy’s biggest success this year was in the Grand National, covered by the BBC, while third-placed Jessica Ennis has performed mostly in front of licence payers, which also applies to diver Tom Daley (6th).

But Strictly BBC viewers just wouldn’t be familiar with the best of the rest.
But of the rest, runner-up Phil Taylor is only ever seen on ITV or Sky, the latter also being home the majority of the time for Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowall, David Haye and Graeme Swann, while Eurosport would have a stake in Mark Cavendish and slider Amy Williams (although she did take Olympic gold on the BBC.)

Victory for McCoy (who should slip his election agent either a fiver or a few tips for a job well done) will placate followers of the gee-gees who have always claimed those involved with that industry have never got the recognition they’ve deserved, a view I’ve always subscribed to – ever since the year my vote for Red Rum didn’t count!

Monday
Sam Allardyce’s sacking but a week ago from Blackburn hasn’t so much left a void as a complete mess. While Big Sam was shown the door along with assistant Neil McDonald, coach Steve Kean was kept on, something that obviously rankles with Allardyce. Scotsman Kean is obviously well thought of in football, and the new Indian owners at Ewood Park have shown faith in him by installing him as caretaker manager, which appears to have tipped Allardyce over the edge. “If there was anybody capable of looking after the reins when I left, with all due respect to Steve, it would be Neil,” admitted Allardyce, who is still wondering, and angry, as to who has been two-faced in this saga. But better, Sam, to rise above it, keep your dignity, and say nothing – and watch on as the buggers find out the hard way who really knew what they were doing …

Tuesday
I like my darts. I like my cricket. So I was always going to love Sky’s coverage of the PDC World Championship from the Alexandra Palace when Andrew “Freddie’” Flintoff joined Sid Waddell in the commentary box. Classic TV, with Freddie giving it all the chat and delivering some classic “oooone-hundred-and-eighteeeee” calls. The fans loved it and so too did the producers on Sky Sports News, who ran the feature right through Wednesday. Whatever anyone thinks of master showman and impresario Barry Hearn, he and Sky really have turned darts into the most watchable sport on the box.

Wednesday
At a press conference, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan and its president, George Peat, give their first public reaction to the McLeish Review, the former First Minister’s report into the workings of Scottish football. Peat arrives with a toy dinosaur in hand. “A member of staff gave it to me a few years ago,” smiled Peat. “It adorns my office every day, just to remind me.” Of what George?

That the SFA is a prehistoric organisation? Or that you may be plastic? Or that someday you’ll have to ask who plays at Jurassic Park?

Thursday
When your physics master at school weds your music teacher you have to wonder what will come out of that relationship. Possibly someone who can get a tune out of a Periodic Table. But in my case, it was Scotland prop Euan Murray. So having always taken a biological interest in his career it was good to see him signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with Newcastle Falcons. The 30-year-old had been without a club since being released by Northampton, partly because he refused to play on Sunday due to religious beliefs. That problem shouldn’t arise too often with Newcastle as they mostly play on a Friday evening.

Friday
Friday and Christmas Eve. No, not a couple Tommy Sheridan met at Cupid’s. But one may wonder why his lies and fall merits a mention in this article. It is entirely because of his victory speech outside the Court of Session after winning his defamation case against the News of The World.

Back then, Comrade Tommy proclaimed: “Gretna have made it into Europe for the first time in their lives, but what we have done in the last five weeks is the equivalent of Gretna taking on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and beating them on penalties, that’s what we’ve done.”

It was a very good analogy at the time, but one that was ultimately flawed.
This tie was obviously always going to be played over two legs, home and away, Edinburgh then Glasgow, so less chance of a real upset.

At Gretna, as with Sheridan, honesty was just a veneer. And Gretna paid the price for living their dream when lying to others, and for believing they were bigger than they were and could take on the establishment. And Gretna were sent down and went out of business. But I’ll stop the analogies there.

What I will tell you is that both he and I were columnists together at the Scottish Mirror a few years back. On one particular day he asked to borrow one of my books, How To Get Three In A Bed.
A few weeks later he returned it. “Not what I was expecting,” he said, to which I replied; “I was surprised you wanted to read a book written by Eric Bristow in the first place …”

Tommy left court last night but realised he’d forgotten something. He walked back in to find the cleaning lady bending over while dusting the judge’s chair. “I’m here for my holdall,” to which the wummin replies “d’ye no think yer in enough trouble already Tommy!”‘

Ho, ho, ho and a Merry Christmas …

The Tiananmen, Beijing. <em>Picture: Francisco Diez</em>

The Tiananmen, Beijing. Picture: Francisco Diez

By Linda Kennedy in Beijing

David Cameron in China? Biggest trade mission in years? Phooey. That’s not the story. Here’s your headline: “British PM visits China to introduce New Communism with a prawn cracker offensive.”

Not PM as in Prime Minister, though. PM as in Peter Mandelson. Yes, the man famed for the art of bad news suppression was just here in Beijing. It’s like taking coals to Newcastle. Though in China, that proverb would be “coals to Shanxi”.

Mandelson was in town to promote The Third Man, his own Little Read Book (the fate of most political memoirs).

But as he recalled how he’d made a left-wing party popular to the people and won its leader friends in other lands, Mandelson seemed like a man who’d relish the opportunity to do it all again. Whereupon I started musing. Was he actually in China job-seeking? Or had he arrived on a Foreign Expert’s Visa, and was ready to take over at the Ministry of Propaganda (there is one)?

The evidence suggested it was possible:

Good timing

“New Labour” has been declared dead by Ed Miliband. “New Communism” would be Mandelson’s latest project. Could he make the Chinese Communist Party electable again? Well, electable.

Early signs of political change

The day Mandelson arrived, the Chinese government tried spin as a political policy. Their washing machine trade-in scheme sent sales soaring. China dwellers know this might have been an example of Chinglish, poorly translated Chinese/English.

His face fits

Like Chinese leaders, Mandelson is a man of uncertain age with black hair. (Grecian 2000 is the main reason Chinese leaders helped the Greek government out their debt crisis. If it had gone under, their hair would have turned grey over night. Not with worry but supply problems.)

The canapés are suitable

New Labour did a “‘prawn cocktail offensive” in the mid 1990s to woo the City of London. A “prawn cracker offensive” would kick off Mandelson’s bid to introduce New Communism to the world.

When questions from the floor were requested, I asked: “Mr Mandelson, there’s a Ministry of Propaganda here. If asked to do any consulting for them, would you?”

He answered a question I didn’t ask, showing he has lost none of his political skill.

It’s a done deal this PM will be offered a job in China, I say. All that remains is the issue of renumeration, rather than remuneration. There are nine members of the China’s Politburo Standing Committee. They are the most powerful unit here. Peter Mandelson – “The Tenth Man”?

Cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandLast week was a sad week for admirers of icons from Old Hollywood.
Arthur Penn, who gave us Bonnie and Clyde. Gloria Stewart, best known for Titanic but loved by older movie fans for The Three Musketeers and 1939’s It Could Happen to You. Joe Mantell, the man who uttered “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”. And, of course, Tony Curtis. All gone.

Curtis’s passing marked the end of another significant chapter in pop culture. The clue is in the T-shirt in this picture.

The man who lit up Some Like It Hot and The Sweet Smell of Success also popped up on Peter Blake’s cover-art for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The sleeve, originally intended to be populated by northern council dignitaries, instead became a free-form confection of philosophers, artists, painters, dancers, writers, gurus from India (presumably at the request of George) and wax dummies belonging to a hairdresser (the credit for this idea remains fuzzy).

There were a few who didn’t make the cut for the cover because of taste (Adolf Hitler), religious sensitivity (Gandhi, Jesus Christ) and demands from agents for $400 in royalties (Angels With Dirty Faces star Leo Gorcey).

The majority of individuals on the cover had died before the album’s release from Laurel & Hardy to former prime minister Sir Robert Peel, Karl Marx to Dr Sigmund Freud, Marilyn Monroe to Blantyre’s David Livingstone.

Just to break it down for the chronologically-minded, here’s a list of people on the cover of Sgt Pepper who were alive when it was released in June 1967:-

  • Former world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (died 1970)
  • A girl by Esquire magazine artist George Petty (d1975)
  • Wallace Berman (d1976)
  • Artist Richard Lindner (d1978)
  • Mae West (d1980)
  • Sculptor H.C. Westermann (d1981)
  • A pin-up girl by artist Alberto Vargas (d1982)
  • Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller (d1984)
  • Fred Astaire (d1987)
  • Marlene Dietrich (d1992)
  • Diana Dors (d1984)
  • Terry Southern (d.1995)
  • William S. Burroughs (d1997)
  • Actor “Huntz” Hall (d1999)
  • Liverpool and Newcastle striker Albert Stubbins (d2002)
  • Marlon Brando (d2004)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen (a particular favourite composer of McCartney’s, d2007)
  • Richard Merkin (illustrator for The New Yorker, died September 2009)
  • John Lennon (d1980)
  • George Harrison (d2001)

Now that Curtis has stopped Getting Better (apologies for that), may I introduce to you the current survivors from the sleeve:-

  • Dion (Francis DiMucci), aged 71, most famous for The Wanderer, currently living in Florida and practising prison ministry.
  • Sculptor Larry Bell, also born in 1939, most famous for being one of the West Coast “Light and Space” artists and his work with architect Frank Gehry.
  • Former child star Shirley Temple, now winning Lifetime Achievement awards at 82.
  • Bob Dylan, 69 years of age, most famous for being Bob Dylan
  • Canadian singer Bobby Breen, 82, now living in Florida running his own talent agency.
  • Cloth figure by US pop artist and former wife of sleeve co-designer Peter Blake, Jann Haworth (b1942)
  • Paul McCartney, 68
  • Ringo Starr, 70

The entire list is on Wikipedia if you want to check but fans of Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1973 album Band On The Run will have more luck running into its cover stars. Michael Parkinson, Kenny Lynch, John Conteh and Christopher Lee all remain with us, and Clement Freud died only last year. James Coburn lived until 2002.

But as Pepper is the truly iconic sleeve, let’s cherish Messrs Dimucci, Bell, Temple, Dylan, Breen, Haworth, McCartney and Starr and the man who put it all together, Peter Blake. Peter Blake, McCartney and Dylan are the only ones still touring. Even if they have been going in and out of style.

Nigel Farage. <em>Picture: Euro Realist Newsletter</em>

Nigel Farage. Picture: Euro Realist Newsletter

Suggestions that a little-known Belgian who may or may not run the European Commission was seen running away from the scene of Nigel Farage’s air crash with a rocket launcher were last night being treated as mischief making …

This was another bizarre event in a bizarre election. Mr Farrage was in an aeroplane trailing a banner urging voters to back UKIP when the plane crashed.

Mr Farage walked out of the wreckage, as did the pilot, but he spent the day in hospital with broken ribs and a chipped spine. It was probably a good job because he missed having to explain what had happened to the UKIP vote (for the record 917,000 votes, three per cent of the total, no MPs).

There were also more serious electoral problems at several cities in England: London, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham with voters turned away unable to vote, others arriving to find there were not enough ballot papers and others spending hours in queues.

The Electoral Commission has launched an investigation and one leading human rights lawyer suggested last night that anybody who was denied the right to vote should be able to claim at least £750 in compensation.