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Travels in the New Mongolia

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Here is a snapshot of stories from Jill's day job as a foreign correspondent based in London, UK.

Britain's ousted hereditary peers plan European court action for
compensation

Iceland's frenzy over genetics mapping project leaves some with a hangover

High art meets tabloid TV in `Jerry Springer: The Opera'

Sorrow, anger and resignation in devastated villages

Britain's ousted hereditary peers plan European court action for
compensation
By JILL LAWLESS

LONDON: The 3rd Baron Mereworth says he was robbed. He's not alone. Dozens of British nobles who were kicked out of the House of Lords by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government claim they have been unfairly stripped of their property _ and plan legal action for compensation.

They have hired a lawyer to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, where they will seek 1 million pounds (US$1.6 million) each for the loss of their parliamentary seats.

They say the case is about human rights, although others have been less charitable. The left-leaning Guardian newspaper said the peers exemplified a spreading "compensation culture."

"We just felt the government had no right to take our seats away when they'd been given to our ancestors in perpetuity," said the disgruntled Lord Mereworth, who sparked the legal action with a letter to his Fellow peers. Two hundred expressed an interest, and more than 70 have signed up to the case.

Parliament's 700-year-old upper chamber, which reviews legislation passed by the elected House of Commons, has long been seen by many as an ermine-draped anachronism, the rest home of an elderly hereditary elite.

Its defenders say the peers, in for life, are more independent than elected lawmakers and are more free to judge legislation on its merits. They cannot kill a law, only delay it, and during conservative Margaret Thatcher's 11-year premiership, the House of Lords was often the only impediment to some of her reforms.

But Blair's Labor Party government, elected in 1997, had promised to reform the Lords, and two years later Parliament voted to unseat most of the 750 hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons.

Ninety-two were allowed to stay while the final shape of the chamber was decided, alongside several hundred appointed members, known as life peers; senior appeal judges known as Law Lords; and 26 Church of England bishops. Only 81 peers, most of them hereditary, voted against the ouster.

"They should have put up more of a battle," said Mereworth, a 73-year-old poet who inherited his title last year when his father died, aged 100, having _ according to his obituaries _ never spoken in debates during 70 years in the House of Lords.

"Nobody in this country has any guts anymore," he said.

The sidelined peers say their seats were their property, granted to their ancestors by the crown and irrevocable except in extreme cases such as treason. And while life peers will probably receive a pension if they are unseated, the hereditary peers got nothing.

"It's a matter of principle _ property cannot just be taken," said Peter McCallion, the London-based American lawyer representing the peers.

"It's as if the government came and took your house and didn't pay you.

"If this happened to a trade union _ workers were made redundant without compensation _ there would be a general strike."

On Jan. 21, Parliament will begin debating seven proposals for the future of the chamber, from fully appointed to fully elected. It won't be easy. Lord Irvine, head of Britain's judiciary, last week said it was "one of the most difficult issues that have faced politics for well over 100 years."

The ousted peers themselves are divided. Lord Alexander of Tunis favors compensation but opposes reinstating hereditary peers. "There's no harm in the government bringing in legislation to stop people, by accident of birth, being legislators," he said. "It's insupportable to have landed gentry running the country."

But McCallion says many of the peers feel slighted. "Some of them feel very hurt," he said. "Some of their families worked in the House of Lords for 700 years. They had a lot to offer."

Only about 300 hereditary peers were active in Parliament, sitting on committees and speaking in debates. For many others, the House of Lords provided a congenial gathering place and social club.

But Mereworth _ whose father was known as "The Silent Lord" during 70 years of unobtrusive attendance _ says the chamber, with its scarlet robes, medieval titles and ritual pageantry, plays an important role in British democracy.

"It's all a bit of theater, but theater is life," said Mereworth, whose grandfather _ the 1st Lord Mereworth _ was an Irish senator given the title early last century to add to his Irish one, Baron Oranmore and Brown.

"We aren't all lawyers and accountants."

Iceland's frenzy over genetics mapping project leaves some with a hangover
By JILL LAWLESS

REYKJAVIK, Iceland: Steindor Erlingsson feels like the least popular man in Iceland.

The 36-year-old science historian has just published a book debunking the newest national notion, that Icelanders' Viking genes hold the key to curing diseases, developing new drugs and making the country rich.

"My family and friends tell me this book might ruin my career possibilities in Iceland," said Erlingsson, running a hand across a stubbly beard. "In a small society like this, you can't hide anywhere." Erlingsson's target is deCODE Genetics, the biotechnology company set up in 1996 to scour the country's genes for keys to disease.

The company's charismatic founder, Kari Stefansson, said Icelanders'detailed family trees and common descent from 9th century Norwegian settlers formed a rich scientific resource that could unlock the secrets of cancer, mental illness and other devastating diseases.

Since scientists study family histories to track the route a disease-causing gene has taken, the theory runs that in Iceland they
would have a sort of extended family of the entire population _ 280,000 people _to work with.

"Our Genes," Erlingsson's just-released Icelandic-language book, accuses deCODE of shaky science, bad ethics and overly cosy ties with Iceland's politicians. But Icelanders _ a small, closely knit population with a strong pride in their roots _ embraced the project from the start.

Eighty thousand people gave blood samples. Thousands bought shares in the firm before it went public on the Nasdaq exchange two years ago.

Icelandic banks sold shares on the "gray market" for more than $60 each.

"This gene frenzy was going on in Iceland," said Erlingsson. "DeCODE was in the news every day. People were taking out loans to buy these stocks."

Many now wish they hadn't. The heroic deCODE project is looking
increasingly fallible.

The company has yet to make a profit. On Nov. 15 it announced a third-quarter net loss of $85.7 million. It recently laid off 200 people, almost a third of the total, at its Reykjavik genetics lab.

Nonetheless, the company has amassed a vast amount of information on Icelanders. It says it has mapped genes linked to 25 diseases and isolated genes associated with increased susceptibility to seven ailments, including strokes and schizophrenia.

CEO Stefansson, a former Harvard neuroscience professor, says the company's approach has been a "smashing success."

Announcing the latest financial results, Stefansson said deCODE was "making the transition from a discovery-based company to a company based on product development ... from gene discovery to drug development."

The company says it will break even by the end of 2003, but its shares, which debuted on the Nasdaq in July 2000 at $18 each, are worth about $2.50 now, swamped in the stock market gloom that has hit the high-tech industry as a whole.

"When it was going on, if you went to a bank or a trading company, everybody said, 'Whatever you do, buy deCODE,'" said Jon Eldjarn Bjarnason, a 38-year-old fishing-boat engineer. "Everybody who could loan you money was encouraging you to buy deCODE. A lot of people put everything into it.Now they have no money, nothing."

Bjarnason was lucky. With debts mounting from other investments, he sold his deCODE shares at $48 just before the company went public. A lot of people he knows did not _ and now are too embarrassed to speak to the press.

"I sold early. I was broke. I was lucky," he said. "My mother had a 2 million krona ($20,000) loan and bought shares at $24. When they were at $64, she asked the bank if she should sell; they said no, it's going to be $100. Now she's stuck with them at $2 a share, and the bank says it wants the loan back."

Meanwhile, Bjarnason's other high-tech investments have tanked, Driving him to the edge of bankruptcy.

DeCODE, in contrast, appears to have flourished. Founded in 1996 with 20 employees and $12 million from venture capitalists, the company now employs 450 people and has a shiny new wood-and-glass headquarters in Reykjavik.

In 1998, deCODE signed a deal worth up to $200 million with Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche to look for genes that cause 12 common diseases. In September it linked up with U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck to develop anti-obesity drugs.

In May, Iceland's parliament, the Althingi, agreed to guarantee a $200 million bond issue as deCODE seeks more investment to develop new drugs.

The company says a breakthrough is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the economic fallout has heightened criticism of deCODE's close relationship with Iceland's government.

"The difference between deCODE and other genomics companies is that they are located in one of the smallest economies in the world, and the government has done everything to help them," said Erlingsson, the "Our Genes" author.

Prime Minister David Oddsson appeared frequently with Stefansson in the company's early days. In 1998, parliament passed a law allowing a private company _ deCODE, though no specific company was named _ to obtain medical records from everyone in the country. Consent was assumed unless people opted out. Many doctors and medical ethicists were alarmed.

"Patients ask me: `What will happen to my data? Will it end up in the hands of deCODE? What will happen to my blood? Will it be used against me?'," said Petur Hauksson, a physician who heads the Association of Icelanders for Ethics in Science and Medicine, a group of anti-deCODE scientists.

"Having these valuable records in the hands of a private company is worrying."

Others criticize the company's scientific approach, which uses "population genomics" to study the genetic causes of disease.
The company says Iceland's advantage is its detailed medical and genealogical records and the relative homogeneity of its small
population. It's estimated there have been fewer than 1 million Icelanders since Norse settlers first arrived on the North Atlantic island.

DeCODE was launched with plans to build linked databases of medical records, family trees and DNA samples to create a genetic roadmap that could be searched for disease-linked genes.

Some scientists say Iceland's genetic purity is a myth. They say the island was actually settled by a mixture of Scandinavians and Celts and is just as genetically varied as most European countries.

"We are not as homogenous as we were meant to be, blue-eyed and blonde," said Hauksson. "We were valuable because we were willing to participate."

While deCODE remains publicly confident, it has had to change its corporate game plan. The database of medical records that the 1998 law was designed to establish does not yet exist _ and may never be completed.

More than 20,000 Icelanders have opted out. And on Nov. 14, talks collapsed between deCODE and Iceland's largest hospital over a plan to share medical records.

Most Icelanders remain supportive of deCODE, and the company remains a powerful force in Iceland.

"People discouraged me from writing this book," said Erlingsson. "I am criticizing the government. I am criticizing Kari Stefansson. These are the most powerful people in Iceland. I'm just a Ph.D. student."

Criticism, though muted, is growing. One lawmaker has called for an investigation into the relationship between deCODE and the government, and others have asked to look again at the database bill.

Erlingsson takes it as a sign that Iceland is maturing. At the beginning of the deCODE saga, Icelanders were "extremely gullible," he says.

"The stock market is only 10 years old here, and until recently it was like the Wild West."

Bjarnason, the rueful investor, agrees.

"Everybody was saying, 'Buy this, you can make money.' But I knew nothing about the stock market. I do now."


High art meets tabloid TV in `Jerry Springer: The Opera'
By JILL LAWLESS

EDINBURGH, Scotland: One of the hottest tickets at this year's
Edinburgh Fringe festival features expletive-spitting louts, a man clad only in a diaper, a talk show host and Satan. Naturally, it's an opera.

"Jerry Springer: The Opera" is selling out its daily performances _ and generating talk of a transfer to London's West End _ with its collision of high art and trash TV.

Britain's Observer newspaper called it "very funny, very foul-mouthed, superbly sung"; the Sunday Times deemed it "splendidly disrespectful."

Audiences in Edinburgh's ornate Assembly Rooms howl with laughter from the moment the operatic chorus appears _ intoning "My Mom used to be my Dad" and emitting a melodic stream of unprintable, four-letter asides.

But the show's creators insist it's no joke.

"You think it's going to be some sort of knockabout burlesque, but it starts to affect you emotionally," said Stewart Lee, the opera's
London-based director and co-writer.

That may seem an odd claim for a show that features a chorus line of dancing Ku Klux Klansmen and an all-singing cast of adulterous spouses, strippers, crack addicts and transsexuals.

But Lee and Richard Thomas, the show's composer and lyricist, insist Springer is a fit subject for opera.

Thomas is an unabashed fan of the Chicago-based show that has explored topics such as "I married a horse" and "I refuse to wear clothes," and pits trash-talking guests against catcalling audiences.

"One night I was watching the show, and I realized there were eight people screaming at each other, a chorus baying for blood, and I thought _ that's opera," Thomas said.

His dual aim, he said, is to reclaim opera for a mass audience and to celebrate the king of tabloid TV, whose syndicated program was recently named the worst television show in history by the editors of TV Guide.

Last month, the real-life Springer was sued by the son of a former guest, who was killed by her ex-husband hours after the airing of an episode in which the couple appeared.

"I like the moral dilemmas the Jerry Springer show poses for the
people who watch it and the people who are on it," said Thomas, whose other work includes the opera "Tourette's Diva."

"It's a show filled with despair, but it's a huge commercial success. People are ashamed to admit they watch it, but it's a success. It's shameless and it's shameful. That's great for opera."

Despite the opera's cavalcade of kitsch, it treats those moral issues seriously, if not subtly. In the second half, Jerry descends into hell, faces the tragic fallout from his guests' on-screen confrontations _ "A person with less broadcasting experience might feel responsible," he quips _ and attempts to reconcile Jesus and Satan.

"One of the few negative reviews we've had said the show missed its satirical target," said Lee, better known in Britain as a comedian and comedy writer. "Well, it's not meant to be a satire.

"It needs to be staged with the same kind of dignity with which you'd do 'Parsifal.'"

Staged simply and performed with gusto by a cast of 21 singers, the show has a hummable score that touches on everything from Wagner to jazz to Broadway musicals.

While purists say it's not really an opera _ the character of Jerry doesn't sing _ the piece is operatic in its sweeping emotions and use of familiar archetypes.

"When Wagner wrote his operas, the myths he wrote about were common currency," Lee said. This show, he said, is "an opera that people can relate to, about a subject they can understand."

Audiences so far _ in Edinburgh and in earlier workshop runs in London _have been enthusiastic. So have Britain's theater critics. But Thomas and Lee are slightly apprehensive about Springer's own reaction.

The pair have met Springer _ "He said, 'I hear I get shot at the end of the first act,'" recalled Lee _ and say he was sanguine about the use of his name and image. Springer is coming to Edinburgh for a television festival later this month and has reportedly said he wants to see the show.

"I hope he'll be flattered by the high level of seriousness that we've applied," Lee says. "I hope he won't be annoyed."

Thomas said he has always believed Springer would like the opera. "I kind of think of Jerry Springer as Mephistopheles. He's a chancer _ but he doesn't actually judge his guests. I think he's on the side of the angels," Thomas said.

"That is," he concedes, "a minority view."

Sorrow, anger and resignation in devastated villages
By JILL LAWLESS

KABARAU, India : Ambulaben Patel had just returned from fetching water when the roof fell on her. Under the force of the earthquake, her house _ and nearly all the buildings in this village of 1,100 people _ collapsed into mounds of concrete and clay tiles.

Two metal water jugs still sat gleaming in the sun on Monday, beside the ruined house where Patel's two sons dug for three days, shifting chunks of debris by hand, to reach their mother.

Finally, Vasant Patel and Keshab Bhai Patel were able to pull their mother's body from the wreckage. They wrapped her in a blanket and carried her gingerly over the mounds of rubble for cremation.

The scene was repeated throughout the villages of Kutch district, the epicenter of the Indian earthquake that flattened much of the western Indian state of Gujarat on Friday.

By official count late Monday, the 7.9 magnitude quake had killed 6,287 people in the industrial state. Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel said the toll could go as high as 20,000.

Homeless survivors in Kabarau were struggling on Monday to live, to cremate their dead and wait for aid that has yet to come.

"For two days we were hungry," said Dinesh Padily Singh, 32, who camps with his neighbors in clearings amid the destruction.

"Yesterday, some private people came with food and medicine _ but not the government."

The earth-movers and emergency supplies that are starting to arrive in the worst-hit town of Bhuj have yet to reach surrounding villages on the arid Gujarat plains.

In Kabarau, 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Bhuj, scarcely a building remains standing. Household effects _ a poster, a sandal, a cooking pot _lie scattered amid the stones.

Seventy-one villagers died in the earthquake, residents say, and about 150 were injured. Almost all the dead and injured were women and children as most of the men were out in the fields.

In Aamarvadi, a village a few kilometers (miles) away, 86 people died. There are some 60 villages in the district, and all have been almost completely destryoyed. Government officials say many of the more remote settlements have yet to be contacted.

Bulldozers began to arrive Monday in Bhachau, a town of about 35,000 people a few kilometers (miles) up the road from Kabarau. Here, too, the vast majority of buildings were reduced to rubble.

One government official, who did not want to give his name, said the death and destruction in Bhachau was "uncountable."

"Nearly 50 percent of the people are untraceable," he said. "And how long it will take to move all this rubble, no one knows."

With little relief trickling in, looting broke out in the prosperous village, according to the Press Trust of India. The news agency reported that armed gangs had begun to attack survivors and were looting jewelry and goods from shops in and around Bhachau.

"Mother Nature has already played a cruel joke on us, but we have people from our own region looting us in this inhumane way," said Suresh Bhai Thakor of Manfara village. Thugs stole some cash and jewelry from his shop worth 750,000 rupees (dlrs 16,000).

Survivors, meanwhile, were growing increasingly anxious, and at times, angry, about their isolation.

"My sister and brother-in-law are in there," said Jayndai Gala, keeping vigil outside the collapsed hulk of a four-story guesthouse as bulldozers began to shift chunks of mortar. "Until today, there was no help."

Some relief is reaching the area, but it is a piecemeal effort. Along the main road that runs through Bhachau, jeeps and trucks arrive throughout the day bearing donations from charities and communities across the state.

People clamber to grab donated clothing or packets of food.

For a few families, the hope that their relatives would be found alive has been rewarded. At a makeshift campsite in Bhachau, 21-year-old Bhawna Kumar cradles her 7-month-old daughter Sweta _ pulled alive from their ruined home on Monday, three days after the quake. She was saved by the arrival of one of the first bulldozers.

"We found the baby laughing inside," said the infant's father, Suresh Kumar, 25. "She didn't get hurt at all."

 

 

 
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