Sunday, July 25, 2010

Waiting for Conrad

There were two cases before Conrad Black took the floor at the district court in Chicago on Thursday. The first was Barry Ware, who'd been convicted of drug offences and who was sentenced to twelve years. The second was a detention hearing for two guys whose counsel seemed a bit unsure of themselves, and who you had to hope were court-appointed.

I'd arrived at 7am, as the clerk had told me the day before to get there early if I wanted to get a seat in the court for Black's status hearing. As it turned out, he wasn't due in court until 12.30. So me and anoter intern and a large part of Barry Ware's extended family were the only ones present for the majority of the morning.

Conrad Black and the media pack finally swept in with their blackberrys and posh aftershave at 12. One of Black's team of not-quite-heavies had suggested to Stephanie (intern) and I that we should go and wait in the queue for the seats with the journalists, but we told him we'd been there since seven, at which point he seemed to realize we were just geeks and let us off. He also gave te press a lecture about not filming or broadcasting from the courtroom in any way, which I assumed meant he was federal staff. It wasn't until I later saw him pushing photographers off Black's car that I realized which side he was on.

The hearing itself was brief. Black's team again pushed for him to be allowed to go back to Canada, this time on the grounds of his wife's health. The judge, Amy St. Eve, refused (again), repeating that she still did not have a thorough enough financial affidavit. Conrad Black agreed to the terms of his bond, said surety would have to come from his friend Roger Hertog as he couldn't afford it himself (hmm) and then they all rushed back out.

I'd been sat next to a guy who used to be a Chicago DA, but who now does TV slots for a Canadian channel. He got me and the oter intern into thepress section downstairs in the lobby. About fifty journalists were hoping for a few words of wisdom/apology etc from the man himself, but in the event he went straight for the doors and his own car. The doors of the building are revolving, which is an obstacle to a cameraman attached to a soundman. We also saw one crew wrap themselves around a pillar outside, with the presenter trying to get his mic into the middle of the scrum.

Anyway, I got one photo, then they were gone, so I went to get a burger.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rail trek

In Chicago. Had two nights in Denver - shared hostel room with Marielle, a massage therapist called Candice and next door to a man who described himself as 'vibrating with joy'.

My brother has rubbed off on me. I have become a train geek. These Amtrak overnighters are not like the European ones. Loads of space, no passport controls every ten minutes, no Soviet-style loos which you can't use when the train's in a station. It was three hours late however, which felt comfortingly like home.

We had a big Christian youth group in our carriage. Less pot-smoking and card playing and more boggle and guitars. One of the leaders had a very annoying habit of playing an imaginary trumpet. He nearly got a smack, Christian or not.

Felt like a character in an Agatha Christie made-for-tv film having breakfast in the dining car. There was a old gentleman with a brown shirt and braces sat opposite me who didn't say a word, and slept through the wait for his food. When it eventually came, he took three bites before puking it up on the floor, which was somewhat unexpected.

Anyway. Now in Chicago. Massive buildings, massive pizza, Transformers 3 being filmed downtown. The set looked like a disaster zone - exploded cars, trashed buildings, soldiers with M16s. Shrewsbury on a Saturday night?

Monday, July 5, 2010


One thing that's taken a bit of getting used to in Houston is that even when it’s raining hard enough to hurt here, it’s still really hot. With the air-con jacked up, you end up wearing all your layers indoors and stripping off outside.

There was a car stuck in the underpass near our house over the weekend. It’s not small – it looks like an SUV, although it’s difficult to tell – but on Friday night the driver obviously thought he or she could make it all the way through the flood water that had poured onto the Allen Parkway, and got caught out.

Hurricane Alex technically never hit Houston. After brewing in the Gulf, it turned left and made landfall on the coast of Mexico on Thursday, but the storms we had from its edges were spectacular; at least if you’re from a country where storms generally last an hour at most and everyone gets excited when there’s a rumble of thunder. Here, we were being warned by road signs and news broadcasts to fill our gas tanks and stock up on water and candles, although most of the locals agreed there was nothing to worry about.

We drove three hours north of Houston on Friday. While driving there was wet but manageable, the further we went the better it got. It was when we turned round to head back that you could really see the storm.

About ten miles from downtown, we tried to get off the freeway. The traffic was stacked up on the frontage road, but we just thought everyone had had the same idea –trucks were still powering down the I45 despite practically zero visibility. It wasn’t until it was too late to turn back that we realised the frontage road was under a foot of water. We were lucky enough that the car directly in front was the same size as ours, which proved to be the only way we could judge which bit of road we could feasibly drive on, and where the dips were. The girl in front put one side of her car on the pavement, which seemed sensible, and which we copied. We didn’t think about the fact that you can’t actually see the edge of the road, and it was only when she sank into a dropped kerb and flooded her exhaust that we realised we should back up, go round, and very slowly make our way back on to the freeway heading downtown.

Despite roads being closed, the police cordoning off drains that were flooding like fountains and cars being abandoned on the side of the freeway in two feet of water, within two days it was all gone, and everything was back to normal. You've got to give Houston credit for efficiency. England would shut down for three weeks for less.

Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup and other mass participation sports

Having been told that Americans can’t be bothered with soccer and couldn’t tell their Arsenal from their proverbial elbow, it turns out that trying to get into Sawyer Park sports bar when the US is playing is pointless – it’s packed to the rafters. This is good – it made the US vs. England game much more enjoyable last week, even if I had the only lonely England flag in the pub, which I had to quietly stuff back into my bag before skulking out when it all ended in a draw. And I’m glad I had the excuse of an airport-run instead of sitting through yesterday’s debacle.

There have been some good editorials on the sport. Once I’d got over the fact they kept talking about the US playing Britain (which hacked off Scottish housemate as much as me I think – talk of writing angry letters to editor abounded), there was a big discussion in The Week about why football isn’t any great shakes over here, despite the fact that it’s the most played sport in America outside of basketball. The journalist disliked the idea of the US being forced to enjoy the World Cup, saying those who push the US to love football are actually closet lefties, believing that ‘rejecting soccer is xenophobic, provincial, and just as disreputable as America’s “rejection of socialism”’. That seems a bit harsh to me, but he also added that people here don’t like things that end in a 0-0 verdict; that really, sports are popular because they show that all that running around achieves results.

The Critical Mass Friday night started well and ended badly. We did however manage to cover around 16 miles before the police showed up. This time they chased one guy down Washington Avenue and into a cul-de-sac before pushing him onto the ground, cuffing him and stuffing him in the back of a car. To be fair to the police, no one seems quite sure what happened – the cyclist was possibly told to stop and didn’t. But the problem with forcing one cyclist into a dead end road is that there are another 250 behind him, demanding their rights as part of the traffic and taking photos. It didn’t help that the police car had run over the cyclist’s bike, crushing one of the wheels entirely.

On a better note however, we also saw a guy playing a banjo while stood on a small plank of wood over the back tire of a bike. He was raising awareness of the treatment of veterans of Afghanistan, and did it completely naked in New Orleans. That apparently raised even more awareness than it did in Houston.

Friday, June 4, 2010

David Lee Powell's execution date is set.

On 15th June 2010, the state of Texas is due to execute David Powell, currently on death row at the Polunsky Unit. He has been there since 1978. Of these 32 years, the last ten have been spent in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, after the 1999 breakout from the unit of a group of prisoners led to total lock-down for all death row inmates.

David Powell has plenty to recommend him as a useful member of prison society. He had no priors before the murder, and had become addicted to drugs when the murder occurred - he has been clean since incarceration. In 32 years, he has persuaded inmates not to get involved in gangs, he has helped them with their legal documentation, he has helped supply materials for inmates who want to develop their art or their writing. He has edited articles for those trying to get work published, and provided a political education for those around him. On a more basic level, he has also taught prisoners to read and write, which when you’re locked down for 23 hours a day with normally not even a radio, can be a lifeline.

David Powell does not deny killing Officer Ralph Ablanedo in 1978, and no one wants to take away from the enormity of Ablanedo's death. But is it humane to give someone a life-sentence of 32 years, and then execute them at the end of it? Since David arrived on death row, 70 countries have banned the death penalty. This is a man who could make a big difference to the general prison population were he given clemency.

If you want to know more, the link will take you to Amnesty International USA’s webpage. If you feel it’s the right thing to do, please send their email to the paroles board. Execution is set for 15th June.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Staying in with Tim

I’m getting behind with this. But at least now we’re all in the house. It’s the United Nations of downtown, with five of us gearing up to beat the crap out of each other during the world cup, even if it’s only verbally. Flags are ordered, alarms will be set for the 6am matches, and now all we have to do is sort the food for the post-match breakfast.

Friday Night Lights has become an institution, at least for the ladies amongst us. We’re supposed to be getting out, seeing a lot of Texas, being self-righteous and disagreeing with the politics here. Instead, we’re watching a lot of Tim Riggins. I’m the only one who thinks that kid needs a hair cut, but nevertheless I’ve been sucked in.

We also did the second Critical Mass of our stay on Friday. A group of 300ish cyclists managed about two miles before the first rain spots started, and within another 200 yards we were all wedged under the Chevron garage as the wind changed and we all got blasted. Cyclists are very friendly in Houston though - strength in numbers. I can't think of a nicer bunch of people to be crammed in with.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Angola and the clerk

Wilbert Rideau was in town last week. He spent 44 years in Angola for the murder of Julie Ferguson, which he has never denied. Angola is generally acknowledged to be the worst prison in the USA, and of the 44 years he spent there, 12 were on death row. Wilbert has been in prison so long that his death penalty was overturned when the US initially banned capital punishment in the 1970s, and he was given a life sentence instead. He had two re-trials, both also with all-white, all-male juries, but it wasn't until a final trial in 2005 that his sentence was commuted to manslaughter. He was given 21 years, and as he had already served 44, he walked free.

Whatever you think about Wilbert Rideau's crime and the fact that his conviction was overturned, he has a perspective that's pretty unique. He's now heavily involved with capital defence teams who are trying to convince their clients to support a plea bargain - in other words, to accept life without parole in exchange for the state not pushing for death. But if you know that you are never going to leave the confines of the likes of Angola, that must be an extremely tough option.

In the same week, I met a records clerk who also had links to the prison. She first got talking when she pointed out to everyone in the room that I have a freaky way of writing. But she ended up telling me that her father was one of the youngest men to ever go to Angola. He was in for 25 years, and she remembers being searched by guards as a five year old when she went to visit him with her grandmother. On his release, her father lasted only a few months before he was back inside, and she's convinced he was institutionalised. Finally, he overdosed on heroin.

Is this the ultimate catch 22? No one wants to stay in, but it's also incredibly difficult to survive when you're out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Linda Carty

It was announced today that Elena Kagan has been nominated for a position on the US supreme court. This is a break from the norm – Kagan has never sat as a judge, although she’s solicitor general.

She’s also a Democrat. That Obama is moving the supreme court slowly towards the central ground after decades of a rightward leaning is a hope of a lot of people, and may be the case – before Kagan came Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman (and also a Democrat) on the Supreme Court.

But whether this move will make any difference to the likes of Linda Carty remains to be seen. Carty, who has British citizenship, is currently sitting on death row in Texas. Her request for a supreme court hearing was denied last week, which means her only hope is now the mercy of Rick Perry. Not a good outlook. Linda’s family has been on the radio in the UK to promote her case. Reprieve has been pushing to raise awareness of her situation, and claims that if the British government had had earlier access to Linda, they may have been able to do more to help her.

Since the execution of Akmal Shaikh in China, the British government seems to have realized that their clout in diplomatic circles is not what it once was when it comes to British prisoners abroad, but irrespective of the power of the special relationship, it may be too late for Linda.

Hopefully it’s not - there is no execution date as yet. But options are running out fast, and there’s a election coming up for governor here. Texas seems to like their leaders to impose death.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Critical Mass Houston

On Friday night we took to the streets of Houston on our bikes for the Houston Critical Mass. We arrived at the park early, and it initially looked like it was going to be us two, a guy in full lycra and pro-cycling gear, a random bloke with a guitar and no bike, and a chap who kept using the nearest bin to do BMX tricks off. Within half an hour however there were around 200 cyclists in Tranquility park, and over the space of 20 miles, we saw a pro-life protest complete with nasty pictures of cut-up foetuses, met a guy called Smithy who had made himself a couple of panniers out of the plastic election placards that are everywhere and then stocked them with beer, and ran into two separate police blocks complete with policemen who seemed unsure what they should do about trying to give everyone a ticket. We finally stopped under a freeway back in downtown, but by this time I’d sadly lost Marielle in the melee of cyclists. It’s probably the only way to survive jumping a red light on a bike here.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


There was a parade today in San Antonio, for the deployment of the 162 aerial support and medical company. They’re going to Afghanistan in the next few days, so outside the Alamo there were flags and uniforms and speeches. We only started watching when the presentation was probably half way through, but there were lots of families standing around. The general (female) spoke about these medics having faith in themselves, their training and equipment. Their equipment? Do they tell the British soldiers that too?

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to watch a member of your family standing in this parade, about to fly to Afghanistan for six months, and to hear that they’re going to fight the ‘war on terror’. Whatever you feel about the war, there’s no doubting the support these soldiers have here as individuals.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I feel I have been in the supermarket for around four days, and yet I’m still reduced to eating chicken nuggets for tea. With veg rather than chips, admittedly, but I still don’t understand how such a long period in Kroger’s can translate to such a poor effort.

We had the Saturday and Sunday in Houston in the end. We wondered about hiring a car to drive to NASA (no buses at the weekend), but the weather forecast was dire, so we went to the Museum District instead, and then had a wander in Hermann Park in the afternoon. It was the last night of Cats at the outdoor theatre, but unfortunately anyone singing ‘Memory’ brings me out in hives after the same girl sang it at every single school concert, I decided not to go. It turns out that this was the one night that George W made an appearance, as the production was involved with the Barbara Bush Foundation. But I got to sit at home eating cheese-filled deep-crust pepperoni pizza with the new series of Glee. Sadly W wasn’t singing, otherwise I’d have been gutted to have missed it.

Friday, April 16, 2010


So it turns out that at American sports events, you don’t have to have just one seat. The four of us went to see the Houston Rockets get their butts kicked by the New Orleans Hornets at the basketball the other night. Nosebleed seats in the US mean you still get a good view, and a good opportunity to people watch as everyone seems to shift places and have a wander around every now and again. We four (two Aussies, Dutch Marielle and me) seemed to be the only ones who stayed put.

It was also a pleasant surprise that unlike in the UK, at half time (or every time out in this case), the most important thing seems to be keeping the audience entertained, and on a grand scale. We had everything from the regulation cheerleaders to catapults firing T-shirts, dance-offs, players with names like 'Chase Bundinger' (or was it Budinger?) and a custard pie fight, in which a giant teddy bear smashed enormous cakes into the faces of the assembled line up with enough force to knock them off their chairs. This was right up my street, and I wish we’d been nearer the front.

We got to see the senior cheer team, as well as to watch the very large (but very friendly) father in front of us encourage his six year old to eat a box of popcorn about the same size as the boy himself. Sport (or at least watching sport) seems to be very inclusive here. All in all, a satisfying evening.

And at home, the increasingly vigorous attempts to catch both the racoon that is living in my house and the possum that is terrorizing the office are still proving unsuccessful. The possum has been seen all over the place, except in the cages which have been set for it, which are usually occupied by neighbourhood cats which have fallen for the bait.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Church on Sunday morning. 16,000 people, and a live show to boot. I have to say, I went in expecting to come out pretty hacked off. It wasn’t as crazy I’d expected, just larger.

Walking in was like that bit in Gladiator when he enters the auditorium. Lakewood church is a massive stadium, where the service starts off with a rock concert, and everything is filmed for the live broadcast. It’s run by Joel and Victoria Osteen, with his mother doing prayer services and the brother apparently being involved as well. Saige told one of the men ushering people in that we were both new to Texas, and didn’t really know what we were doing. Consequently we ended up on row two, where we got a very good view, but felt pretty conspicuous. People were extremely friendly, and there was only one time I almost choked on my Whethers Original (give generously to Lakelands church, it’ll make God bless you more), which wasn’t bad going in two hours really.

Other than that, we cycled around most of the afternoon. Other people on bikes wave or say hello. Cyclists are a rare species here, we have to stick together.

It’s beautiful at the moment, hot but not humid yet. Lots of green, not many bugs. I’ve also now found that there’s a Target store round the corner, so the frozen pizza supply is secure.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday 10th April - politics at the kids fair

I now have a very creaky, very silver bike. The Salvation Army came up trumps, and it was only $68. Bargain. They sell absolutely everything in there, and it was rammed this morning.

We worked for a couple of hours this morning, catching up a bit and filing. We then decided to try and take a trip on the river, but because there were freak rain showers this morning, the boat trip was called off. Instead, we three had a walk into the downtown business bit of Houston, where there were a lot of shiny banks, and, randomly, a kiddie's fair.

There was an intern just next to the face painting stand who was campaigning for Bill White, the democrat candidate for Texas governor at the elections in November. Rick Perry's been in office for around 10 years. His name had been thrown in in talks in the office yesterday. He's only granted clemency to a death row prisoner once; Kenneth Foster was convicted of murder and sent to death row in 1997. Perry granted clemency after a recommendation from the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons in 2007. Foster had been convicted of capital murder alongside three others. One, the man who actually killed the victim, has since been executed. Two others received prison sentences. Clemency was eventually granted as Foster had been the driver of a car the killer got into, and denies having anything to do with the killing itself.

Perry has denied clemency even when it has been recommended by the Board of Paroles and Pardons in the past. Whether Bill White would act any differently is an unknown, but what's interesting is that while he's running as a Democrat, he's not exactly what you'd call left-wing. The reason he has even a shot at Governor in Texas is because Perry increasingly seems to be aligning himself with the ultra-right 'Tea Party Movement', which also has Sarah Palin as one of it's main backers. Bill White can only hope that some things are too far to the right for Texas locals.

Houston start off...

In America, the Salvation Army sell cars. I know this because there’s a big Sally Army superstore around the corner from my house. I went in to try and get a bike today. While I think trying to cycle on the roads might be a bad idea, all the pavements are so quiet that you can pretty much get everywhere without having to get off.

This is the first night in the house. I was looking forward to a delivery pizza as I haven’t found the nearest supermarket yet, but after ten minutes of having to put on a Houston accent because the pizza guy couldn’t understand a word I said, it turned out they don’t deliver to my area. I think they’re worried they’d get shot. ;) So it was cereal, a banana and the leftovers of an easteregg brought from home for dinner.

I’m slowly working my way through the ‘Friday Night Lights’ series, but have just had to switch it off for a minute to work out what the noise was coming from the bedroom. Turns out it’s insects outside, which make an incredible blare a bit like a high-pitched fridge. It’s amazing, they sound like they must be the size of the average domestic cat.

Anyway, tomorrow’s an attempt to find a bike, maybe try and get out to take some photos, buy a cell phone and head downtown…