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
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
Britain's ousted hereditary
peers plan European court action for
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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
"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,"
"That is," he concedes, "a minority
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
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
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
"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
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."