Friday, 28 December 2012

Post-Christmas Cold Turkey

January’s going to be a dry month. This has nothing to do with the droughts predicted by mild-mannered environmentalists - or as the Telegraph's Delingpole describes them, Eco Nazis.

No, my dry January is about a lack of booze rather than a lack of rainfall. I know a few folk who go without drink each January and I’ve decided to join them. I appreciate I am risking my reputation as The Life And Soul Of The Party, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Some people are taking it on as a challenge to raise money for charity, which is very worthy. I’m doing it for someone special. Me.

Jaffas. Not for sharing.
I have pretty addictive tendencies. They say the first step to tackling a problem with alcohol is acknowledging you have one. That’s not where I am so I don’t need to go there but I am happy to admit I find it hard to give up on a good thing until it’s gone. Even simple things like tea and biscuits. I will drink the whole pot and woe betide anyone who thinks those Jaffa Cakes are for sharing.

Even in the wild, physically pushing myself, I find it hard to resist extending my enjoyment. One summer’s day a friend and I bagged four Munros in a row - twice as many as we’d planned but we were easily tempted because they looked so close. I’ve never felt so puggled in all my life. But incredibly satisfied.

All the chocolate I got for Christmas from various sources has been scoffed in flagrant breach of the GDAs printed on the wrappers. I’ve never been the sort of bloke who gets drunk for the sake of it, and sadly I’ve known too many people whose lives have been wrecked by the inability to say no to another round.

The health experts (aka Wife-features) will tell you the best advice is moderation. You can have a drink five days out of seven, apparently. You just need to avoid binges and sustained pummelling of the liver.

It’s my birthday in early February so that gives me something to aim for. Mind you, I don’t think I’ll celebrate by going on a Harry Nilsson-style bender. The last time I abstained was when Wife-features was heavily-laden with the Bump (before it became the Bairn), and when I attempted to “wet the baby’s head” in the Corriegarth pub in Inverness, I almost passed out after my first half.

Going without could also save us a few bob. I prefer artisan ales to cornershop lager and well-aged single malts to Buckie, so a trip to the wine merchant to stock up isn’t usually cheap. I have a feeling those boxes of herbal tea at the back of the kitchen cupboard are going to be pressed into action. Wish me luck!

Carrots And Sticks, Bananas And Pyjamas

Carrots and sticks. Incentives and punishments. The impossible balancing act that is parenting.

How do you encourage a three year old to eat her greens without resorting to a promise of ice cream for pudding?

It’s an eternal dilemma and if anyone ever properly cracks it they deserve a Nobel prize. Luckily our Bairn loves her greens - except peas. And sprouts. And lettuce. Basically, she likes broccoli. We regularly have to explain that she can’t say she doesn’t like something she hasn’t tried. And we try to praise her for trying.

It’s hard work and it seems to us the answer is to be pretty firm. Here’s your tea and that’s all there is. If you don’t eat it and you get hungry later your tea will still be here. No sneaky bowls of cereal and biscuits to fill your belly when you could fill it with perfectly reasonable things like bangers, mash and wholesome vegetables.

For a while I slipped into pudding promise mode. Eat up your tea and you’ll get a sweet treat. But in our house puddings aren’t the norm so I’ve had to wean myself off that tactic. We recently made some stickers with different pictures on them and created a sort of combined reward-height chart so we can track the progress of polite eating and physical growth. It sort of works.

Not a carrot or a stick but a spurtle
I’ve also hit upon the notion of making potentially boring food fun. It’s completely against my nature so I do have to work at it. I am the sort of guy who, like Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes, loves the idea of a bowl of plain oatmeal after a 6am bike ride in the snow. Thankfully our Bairn has responded with enthusiasm to the idea of adding things like bananas and raisins to porridge.

The other thing we’ve been trying is having porridge after bath and before bed. I looked up the sorts of food that can help aid sleep. It turns out porridge, bananas and toast are excellent snooze-inducements. My ideal breakfast is super-soporific!

The first few times we tried it we both conked out within minutes of hitting the pillows. It’s less reliable these days but does at least give assurance that the Bairn is going to bed with a belly full of goodness rather than gulch. An 8pm bowl of porridge also prevents me snacking on cheese and other comfort foods later on as a coping strategy when Question Time comes on the telly.

And my spurtle is ideal for making violent gestures at the screen.

The Bike Bells Weren't Ringing Out On Christmas Day

The streets round our way weren’t exactly packed with kids on new bikes and scooters on Christmas Day but we did see a few. It does seem traditional toys are increasingly old hat while iPad thingies are what the kids of today crave.

Our Bairn got a wee scooter, replacing a little wooden tricycle she’s had for two years and hasn’t shown a huge amount of interest in. Except when the Tour de France appears on telly - then she starts racing round the flat.

Quentin and Ned
She also got what could have turned out to be a thoroughly boring board game about buses. But she loves it. I love it too. Mainly because the passengers look like Quentin Tarantino and a Ned from Still Game. (Did I hear you say no wonder, all bus passengers look like that? See me in my office afterwards.)

Anyway, back to the scooter. My heart stopped briefly on Christmas Eve when I smugly suggested to the Bairn she was getting a bit big for her wee trike, to which she replied no she wasn’t. Aarrgghh.

But in the end the scooter proved a huge hit. Helping her maintain a straight line instead of veering off into bushes has brought back all sorts of memories of Christmases past for me. I remember my younger brother and I getting matching BMXs in the late 80s. They were red and white. Mine had stunt pegs. In my jogging suit and wearing my Sony Walkman I can tell you I was the hippest dude in town.

In fact, I can recall every bike I’ve ever had, all the way back to a wee metal tricycle with a red and yellow dragon on it. (Does that mean it was a Raleigh?) I had a Grifter at some point (three gears!) and when we moved to Germany I got a bike with a back-pedal brake. Awesome for skids.

No new bike for me this Christmas - the three I have in the shed are enough to be going on with. This past year has been a bit of cycling revolution for me - I do much less leisure cycling and lots more commuting in the saddle. I’ve also been made acutely aware of the insanely car-centric society we encourage.

Edinburgh in many ways leads the field when it comes to supporting cycling in cities. The council has promised to spend a decent (and increasing) chunk of its budget on cycling infrastructure. The city is full of ups and downs and cobbled streets but it’s also full of amazingly straight avenues with dazzling architecture and green spaces. If any of Scotland’s seven cities is suited for a cycling culture like they have in Holland and Denmark it’s Edinburgh. I love the idea of simply going from A to B without breaking a sweat and needing high-vis gear and a survival of the fittest mentality.

Sadly it seems the car is king and there’s the most violent reaction to any suggestion to make areas of the city centre car-free. The other day I tried to get from George Street to Holyrood and was genuinely terrified. Between the roadworks, the tram tracks, the HGVs, the buses and the hoardes of Christmas shoppers ignoring the pedestrian signals I was utterly confused and mortified. Quite why Princes Street couldn’t have been made a walking and cycling only zone I don’t know. To have that world famous shopping avenue cut off from the gardens by lanes of zipping traffic is pretty idiotic when you think about it.

My switch from cycling for fun to commuting also seems to have led to an increase in punctures. Maybe it’s just that I cycle through fairly industrial bits of Edinburgh. I’m also increasingly aware of the behaviour that gives cyclists a bad name. I recently stopped at a red light at a very busy junction near Meadowbank stadium only watch the woman on the bike in front go sailing straight ahead. A bloke on a bike pulled up beside me and pointed out he’d cycled behind her for a fair distance watching as she went through loads of red lights. When our light went green he set off with the intention of flagging her down for a chat. I wished him luck.

My favourite encounter of the year has to be the one on a main road between Portobello and the city centre. It was early morning and there wasn’t much traffic but I still pressed the button to use the crossing. Off to my left I could hear a roaring noise like a jumbo coming in to land. It was a motorbike. He’d clearly just got up to a good (almost certainly illegal) speed and was having to slam on the brakes to allow me to cross. As I did so he yelled “Come on! 7am! Give us a break!” I pedalled on with the coolness of Quentin Tarantino on a bus.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Loafing About On A Long Walk

Wife-features misses the Highland air. I know what she means. Although we’re by the sea and technically in East Lothian rather than the throbbing metropolis that is Scotland‘s capital, we‘re also on a bus route and in a town centre that gets choked with commuting traffic every morning and evening.

I also think there’s more of a culture of smoking in public. Maybe it’s just there are more people, so more cigarettes.
Levenhall Links, looking west to Musselburgh.

But although we miss long, bracing (and at times genuinely balmy) walks on Nairn beach we’re lucky to have another kind of wilderness on our doorstep here in Musselburgh. It’s Levenhall Links.

On the eastern edge of the town the links are probably best known as home to Musselburgh racecourse and a golf course. In fact, not just any old pitch and putt - this is the oldest course in the world! I have fond memories of playing a birdie on the course back when I was a teenager and my dad thought it’d be fun to show me how to play golf. I think he immediately regretted it and I probably spoiled a good walk, as the saying goes.

The real treat lies behind the gowf and the nags. There’s a massive area of “claimed” land composed of ash from the Cockenzie coal plant along the cost. (It’s not reclaimed as it’s never been land before.) Over decades this ash has been heaped into massive grey mountains which have formed murky lagoons which in turn have slowly transformed into amazing meadows of grasses and flowers. The area is famed among twitchers for its flocks of migrating birds.

There are hopes to have it designated as a Local Nature Reserve. Worryingly the quality of some of the operational ash lagoons is deteriorating as Cockenzie owners Scottish Power focus their attention on what happens when the plant switched off next year.

It’s amazing to experience such peace and quiet aware of the area’s industrial DNA. On our walk there the other day we kicked a ball about, spotted a buzzard and watched it flit about from treetop to treetop, and we hunkered down in a brick bunker bird hide to munch mince pies.

En route we were treated to the spectacle of a horse race, which the Bairn didn’t find terrifying as I had feared and she loved hearing them clip-clop round the enclosure at the end.

Bizarrely we witnessed a plonker in an SUV heaving a couple of loaves of bread into the pond - sorry, that should be onto the pond, as it was frozen. Every town should have a Joe the Swan Man like Nairn, to keep numpties in check. (Joe’s top tips were small pieces of bread so the birds don‘t choke and dropped at the water’s edge so it’s not just seagulls who feast.)
Ice and a slice (or twenty-three)?

What a great, low-fi day we had with zero expense. Access to green space is so important. We forget about it at our peril.

The real highlight was on the way back home - we somehow got onto the subject of growing old and the Bairn promised to look after us. “I’ll feed you soup and carrots and cucumber.” I’ve suggested to Wife-features we get that in writing.

Meantime I’m looking forward to lots more long walks. As the first professional golfer Walter Hagen famously said: “You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Noisy And Sickening - My Wind Farm Pilgrimage

The other weekend I combined two of my great loves - cycling and wind farms. NIMBYs and climate deniers like to scaremonger about turbines killing tourism. Some go even further - check out this Argyll community councillor’s crusade. She’s off to the UN to tell them wind farms increase CO2 emissions, make people ill and result in opponents getting death threats. Good luck with that.

While there’s no evidence wind farms deter visitors - indeed many developments are attractions in their own right - there’s plenty of evidence that cycle tourism is an important sector of the visitor economy. The other weekend I attempted to put the two together.

Having been granted a day pass from The Bairn and Wife-features I checked the maps and set off for the nearest wind farm to Musselburgh. An absolutely glorious bike ride ensued, weaving up and down the rolling East Lothian countryside - mostly up if I’m honest.

Apart from a slightly hairy bit between Ormiston and the turn-off for Humbie I was able to use very quiet B roads. My ultimate destination? Dun Law wind farm. It produces 120 Gwh of electricity a year, enough to supply 24,000 homes. It’s pretty visible from the main A68 road as you cross into the Borders.
Dun Law. Turning blades and swirling mist.

And it was the A68 that proved the only real hurdle in my renewable pilgrimage. The path beside the road runs out a couple of hundred yards short of the turn off that goes up the hill to Soutra Aisle from where you get a pretty close view of the wind farm. So, after a bit of trudging in a lumpy grass verge and an extremely cautious hop across the A68 I made it.

I counted almost 60 turbines in a row, their bases smothered in swirling mist. I could feel an enormous smile stretching across my face. I noticed a couple of very large birds of prey strutting about in a nearby field and watched a massive flock of geese honk by. None of them got minced by the blades as they steered well clear.

After a while I became aware of a strange, and frankly annoying whooshing sound. Then it dawned on me. It was the traffic over the horizon on the A68. Stop the traffic and it would be so peaceful.

If only Soutra Aisle was still an epicentre of herbal remedies, perhaps I could have calmed my queasiness.

I desperately wanted to spend some money in the local visitor economy and fill in some sort of form to say how much I enjoyed my trip. But the nearest shop was shut and from what I could tell the local pub was further up the A68 which only an idiot would attempt to cycle on.

This website describes the Borders as “Scotland at its traditional best“ and lists Dun Law wind farm as “thing to do”. Well, I’ve done it and will consider making a cycle pilgrimage there a new tradition. 

Leveson, Lying And A Local Christmas Dinner

“He can’t fit down the chimney! You’ll have to leave the front door unlocked.”

I can tell our Bairn is going to become one of those film-goers who quibbles with impractical events despite them happening during a work of fiction. Superman turns back time by reversing the earth’s rotation? Winged monkeys that fly and obey complex hostage-taking instructions? A Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own?

She’s only three and a half and it seems we’ve gone very quickly from realising Santa is a thing that happens to questioning the practicalities of Christmas traditions. I don’t recall her understanding the idea of Santa this time last year and I suspect by this time next year we’ll have been given a Leveson-style four-volume dossier of reasons why he can’t possibly exist in the way we have claimed.
Octonauts. Not real.

She’s already had words with her Octonauts toys in the bath, explaining to them that they’re not real animals living lives of drama under the sea but are in fact playthings. “Look, there’s the plug,” she tutted at them the other night.

So, I intend to enjoy the next couple of weeks of reasonably-wide-eyed festive innocence.

I’m not a great fan of Crimbo kitch and commercialisation, nor am I religious. In short, this for me is the time of year when I struggle to get out of bed in the morning because it’s dark and cold, struggle to stay awake past dinner because it’s dark and cold, and find the process of choosing gifts for people because of some arbitrary albeit well-signposted date a bit stressful.

Blimey what a Grinch I sound like. Twinkly mince pies, warm lights, hand-knitted drams and generous jumpers however I love. More than that I love being with people and having a laugh. My ideal Christmas and New Year break would be at a But n Ben in the wilderness with nothing but a roaring fire, Wallace and Gromit-sized piles of cheese and crackers, and a well stocked drinks cabinet to keep me, Wife-features, the Bairn and our best buddies merry. Yes, connecting with selected people - not the whole world.

The Bairn’s meeting with Santa was very different this year. It took place in the school where she’s been going to nursery since August. She was bold enough to sit next to him and tell him what she really, really wanted. (It’s Octonauts-related. Incidentally, meeting the big man in the red suit cost £1. His margin will be trimmed by the goody bag each kid is given after their visit. Ours contained a packet of Haribo. I mean - Haribo! What‘s that all about?) Last Christmas she was very unsure of him; indeed many other toddlers burst into tears. This is a common reaction I’m told.

The Bairn understands if she’s very good between now and the 25th Santa will probably bring her a fabulous present. We are basically lying to our child for a month solid. And then rewarding her compliance with material possessions. Yeah. You’re right. I’m over-thinking.

This Christmas will be pretty restrained. Bairn’s first was an utter blow-out. We ended up shovelling half of her loot into the shed and bringing it out in instalments over the following twelve months.

Our flit from Nairn to Musselburgh almost a year ago due to yours truly’s so-called career dented our finances a fair bit and since then we’ve been pummelled by rises in grocery bills and energy bills. We get a local, organic veg box once a fortnight and by comparison the contents are cheaper than the big supermarkets. We’ve certainly spent a fair bit dining out when friends and relatives have visited, and it’s been far too easy to pig out on the delicious offerings of a certain Honest Toun ice cream emporium.

Hopefully that’s us settled and next year will be on an even keel.

Meantime, Wife-features is keen to have all local food on Christmas Day so I must remember to “book” the chicken from the poultry place along the coast. We’ll toast the New Year with some Archerfield Ales, Thistly Cross cider or maybe a dram of Glenkinchie (although that would require overlooking the dodgy tax arrangements of owners Diageo).

Perhaps the highlight of the festive marathon so far is the spectacularly inept parenting I displayed at the weekend in a major department store. The Bairn and I ended up in the toy department and I spotted a couple of games that would top off her pressie pile nicely but obviously I didn’t want her to see me buying them. I was holding our coats and began to wrap them around the games when it struck me that at that very moment an eagle-eyed security guard monitoring banks of CCTV images was probably leaping from his chair and calling for back up to deal with a highly suspicious character.
Kris Kringle. Not me.

I opted for a slightly-hidden carrying technique, making for the nearest till in case my motives were doubted. I thought I had got away with it but sadly two hours later when we had arrived home the Bairn took off her coat and shoes and said: “Can I see my games now?”

I’m ashamed to say further lying was required and the poor lassie now believes she was simply mistaken. But just to be sure, the games in question (if they magically appear under the tree on the 25th) will be from me, not Mr Kringle and I will make a full and humble apology for the deceit.

Never mind the media - where’s state-backed regulation of daft Dad behaviour when you need it?

Friday, 9 November 2012


Picture the scene. It’s early evening and I’m just finishing work. The missus phones wondering if I’m nearly home yet and to, ah yes, report that the Bairn has made it to the top of a climbing frame in a play park. This is not the call of a proud parent who feels their offspring has a future as a telegraph pole repair person.

It turns out the frame, covered in rope ladders, is quite tall. More than twice as tall as Wife-features. So our little person is aloft and mummy is unable to retrieve her.

Do I get her to jump? Er, no, I suggest. Isn’t there someone else there - an adult - who can help?

In the end a kindly grown up offers to catch the Bairn if Wife-features climbs up and lowers her down.

To add to the laugh-or-you’ll-cry situation I find out the missus had been attempting to hail passing cyclists thinking they were me, speeding superhero-like home but not realising the need for an en route rescue.

So, if last week you were barrelling quite the thing along Fisherrow Links on your bike wondering why a woman was waving at you while a small smiling child peered down from a swaying perch, sorry. Just my family.

It has now given me a great comeback for every eventuality.

For example:

Wife-features: I’m feeling a bit poorly.

Me: Oh dear. But at least you’re not dangling our child from a dangerous height like a bad Michael Jackson impersonator.


Wife-features: We need to change the light bulb in the stairwell.

Me: I’ll get a ladder. Maybe we could put the Bairn up it. You know how much she likes heights and darkness.

Then again, maybe I’ll let it lie. After all, she might retaliate with her arsenal of Green Dad shame stories including Cream Carpet Lasagne Disaster and Early Shift Hangover Bailout.

Maybe we’re even. For now…


“We climbed a mountain with a whale’s jawbone at the top and went bump, bump back down and there was lots of rabbit poo and I hurt my knee and we ate cake and did mopping on the beach.“

The mad ramblings of our Bairn, following a wild adventure to North Berwick. Yes, that’s right - after a couple of futile attempts to get to the Forth Riviera (on the first occasion we missed the train and got on one to Dunbar instead, and on the second attempt Scotrail cancelled the trains) we finally made it. And boy was it good.

Our jaunt came courtesy of a refund voucher from the national rail franchisee after I wrote a polite letter suggesting they’d let the side down a bit with the whole maintenance works/no replacement bus/no information on their timetables incident.

Hilariously their response, enclosing a refund of the ticket price, was very apologetic right up until the last paragraph when suddenly the tone switches to “you’re a doofus” mode. Apparently our wasted trip to the rail station was entirely preventable because the maintenance work had been communicated to local media, was on posters at the station and was in some exotic section of their website. I read all the local newspapers and hadn’t seen anything; I couldn’t have read the posters at the station until I got there; and when I check the timetables page of their website the night before travelling there was nothing to indicate a problem.

Oh, and before I forget to mention, what is it with the genuinely wacky variations in ticket prices? We took a trip back to the Brighton of the North recently and when I was looking for train tickets for the three of us I was being quoted three figure sums! I tried simplifying the journey - making it Edinburgh to Inverness instead of Musselburgh to Nairn - and suddenly a family ticket costing a whole £90 less was available. Barking.

Anyway, yours truly, Bairn, Wife-features and a pal got to NB and made a bee-line for the Law. It’s a real landmark, a 613 foot high upturned cone, visible for miles around. And it was the Bairn’s first proper hike. She’s only three and a half but she tackled the near vertical toddle with gusto. Wife-features went a bit wobbly at the top observing the dramatic drops so we didn’t linger too long. Upon reaching the summit I tried quickly to shield our pal’s eyes but alas their view was utterly ruined by a handful of quite distant, slowly turning wind turbines. Yup, you’ll not catch us going back to North Berwick any time soon. Horrific. Landscape scarred.

Pushing our revulsion at the turbines deep down inside (by contrast the view of Torness nuclear power station made us feel all cuddly and secure) we bravely contributed to the local economy by ordering some magnificent cakes, bacon rolls and coffee in a very cool café, followed by a visit to almost every shop in the town’s bustling High Street.

The Bairn got a book, I got an OS map (how on earth I’ve survived this long without Explorer 345 I have no idea), two pork pies, a dough scraper and some gin, and our pal picked up some clothes. I’m positive Wife-features didn’t come away empty handed but precisely what she bought escapes me. We then went “mopping” on the beach with big stringy bits of seaweed.

The town centre seems to be holding its own against the relentless march of out of town supermarkets. On the train ride home my thoughts were mainly about how some things change and other things don’t. The missus and I last climbed the Law sixteen years ago when we were “courting”. It seems like a long time but looking at photos we took on our most recent trip compared to those we took back in the 90s there’s not a lot of difference. But blimey what a lot we’ve done with our lives in those sixteen years.

The addition of a few turbines to the horizons is like the death of civilisation to some people but I can’t help seeing it as a positive development. Our landscape is man-made and it’s always going to change. There are some places that are special for wildlife, plants and to a certain extent, scenery, and these are protected by designations. It’s absurd to argue about development near these areas because let’s face it you can see pretty much anything from our most scenic hills. It is a much wider view we need to consider - the prospect of leaving future generations with a goosed society.

Sadly those against such positive developments are pretty vocal and the media and right-wing politicians aren’t shy at giving them the oxygen of publicity. I recently spotted an advert in a magazine by the John Muir Trust. I do wonder what the great naturalist from East Lothian who gives the charity its name would make of its current obsession with objecting to wind farms, surely one of our best hopes of reducing the carbon emissions that are doing so much damage to our environment.

The advert warned of a sharp loss of "wild" landscapes in recent times, citing a report by Scottish Natural Heritage. I looked up the report. I couldn’t find the figure quoted but even more worrying is the fact that SNH explain what they mean by "landscape unaffected by visual influence". It doesn't just mean wind farms, which is the impression the JMT are giving - it’s down to “airfields, major bridges, motorways, trunk roads, A roads, B roads, minor roads, railways, wind turbines, overhead lines, offshore structures, buildings, artificial light, extraction industries, plantation forest.“

Like I say, our landscape is man-made. Some things change. Some things don’t. Some of us simply need to get over that and take a wider view.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Indy And the Tellers of Doom

Have you signed the Declaration yet?

The independence referendum is still two years away but already those pro and anti are getting stuck into each other.

As a Green independence isn’t normally the first thing I think of when asked about political priorities. I’m also not one for flags. I may have been rooting for Shetland Jumper James on the Great British Bake Off but even I thought the Union Jack cake was a bit of a flop.

Those who like flags and identity have already decided how to vote. But there’s a good chunk of people who honestly don’t know and remain to be persuaded. My pitch to them at this early stage is simply that it’s surely better that Scots take decisions affecting Scotland. I’ve always liked the idea of decentralising decision-making so that people are more involved in what’s going on.

We have a parliament that decides how to spend £33bn a year. Why shouldn’t it be allowed to decide how it gets that money? We have a UK parliament that uses a first past the post system so routinely Scotland doesn’t get the government it votes for. Our priorities are different and we have immense opportunities coming up that we should be allowed to take full advantage of.

I’m looking forward to a deep and meaningful discussion about where power lies over the next two years. I hope soon I’ll be able to stop reminding people who are currently in the No camp or No-leaning that we’d still have elections in an independent Scotland; many seem to assume a Yes vote automatically triggers an SNP government. It doesn’t.

Take today’s Sunday Post. A mighty organ that still reaches the masses. If only it would give up on the anti-wind farm agenda. Or at least balance its coverage rather than continually lapping up the words of Donald Trump and Tory MEPs like they were Ma Broon’s homemade broth.
Crivvens. Nuclear 'safe and clean'?

In their handy guide on how the Yes and No sides see a variety of issues they claim the following under the heading Environment:

“An independent Scotland is committed to ending Scotland‘s reliance on nuclear power. The SNP has ambitious targets to generate most electricity from renewable sources.”

In fact, the power mix would be up to the government of the day. The Nats are happy to extend the life of Scotland’s ageing nuclear plants and Labour want to build new ones. The Nats’ targets are to generate from renewables the equivalent of Scotland’s electricity consumption - that’s a far cry from being mostly reliant on renewables.

“Reliance on renewable sources will mean more intrusive wind turbines and tidal barriers. This will damage the Scottish tourism industry.”

Intrusive? Aren’t they in remote places or, increasingly, out to sea? Tidal barriers? I can’t think of any planned. Can you? And they will damage tourism, will they? How do you know? They haven’t so far and in fact there are people like me who actually get a kick when they’re on a bike ride to the Borders and see a row of turbines in the distance. Better that than some smoke stacks.
Turbines on my horizon. Devastating.

It’s a shame this is all that is said about Environment. No mention of how capitalising on our massive renewable energy potential can reduce our carbon emissions and no mention of how removing Trident and banning other nuclear-powered submarines from our waters would prevent a potential environmental disaster on our shores. We would also have the opportunity to use taxes and regulation to ensure polluters pay and environmental responsibility is rewarded.

Like I say, for me this is about where power lies. I don’t think I’m the only one who flags at flag-waving.

Bags Of Optimism Required

Plastic bags. They’re either the scourge of the planet or a harmless symbol of convenience, depending on your point of view. Just to be awkward I’m somewhere in the middle.

I’d like it to be easier not to use them. I see the Federation of Small Businesses has urged the Scottish Government to postpone a proposed 5p tax on single use bags as their members have concerns. I’m sure those concerns can be resolved.

I won’t go into the usual environmental background about the harm that plastic rubbish does - there’s bags of it (ho ho) - but I do wish government would shift the guilt away from ordinary punters and onto the big businesses that condition us into such unsustainable practices.

I’ve just read a great wee book called Requiem for a Species. It’s not exactly Chucklevision. But still great. Basically, damaging climate change is incredibly likely and it’s too late to do anything. Scientists can recommend actions till they’re blue in the face (or red due to the heat) but politicians will always water them down for fear of losing votes. The author, who also wrote Affluenza, talks about our “fetish” for growth and the way individuals are made to feel bad.

This hit home the other day in a certain supermarket whose bright orange carrier bags yell that they’re made of 50 per cent recycled material. What about the other half I wonder. I was buying a lemon and a bottle of wine. (Typical middle class Green. Yes the wine was Fair Trade and yes the lemon was organic and unwaxed.) I had to practically fight off the assistant who tried to bag my purchases. I would manage fine with my work bag and a deep jacket pocket I explained. (Typical bloke. What could possibly look unkempt about waiting for a bus with a bottle of wine poking of your raincoat pocket?) By contrast the shopper in front had loaded up a trolley with a dozen orange plastic bags of groceries and I watched as they wheeled them out to their car and lifted them into their boot. You’d expect me to roll my eyes and tut. But no. My thought instead was why hasn’t this person been conditioned into keeping a couple of small boxes or sturdy bags in their boot that they can reuse?

Part of the problem is supermarkets. They’re convenient to the point that you’re encouraged to load your trolley with piles of stuff you never intended to buy and then at the checkout you can fill as many bags as you need. It’s not in the retail behemoth’s interest to make you think about the carrying device on the way in. Don’t worry your pretty little head, we’ll help you scoop everything up at the end. And speaking of scoop, don’t forget the 2 for 1 in our ice cream aisle…

If governments truly recognised the damage done to the environment and people’s pockets by food waste they’d regulate the supermarkets that suck up the majority of our hard-won earnings. They’d enforce responsible retailing.

Instead it’s easier for them to give our money to a PR firm to punt the kind of individualised guilt that lets the culprits off. The Sunday Herald seems to have launched a monthly supplement full of this kind of thing - sponsored by a government agency. It even contains a sentence: “In fairness the supermarkets are doing their bit. M&S and Sainsbury’s have updated their guidance on when we can freeze their products.”

In fairness? In fairness! What was it that champion of retail Bernard Black said in Black Books? Don’t make me sick into my own scorn.

The supplement also highlights these guys who are trying to live without too much plastic in their lives. A noble cause but that’s exactly my point. We shouldn’t need martyrs who have to work hard at making responsible purchases of everyday household goods. We need to encourage more refill facilities for bulky items like washing liquids. And we need to force the big retailers to take back all packaging so they realise the scale of the problem and change their ways.

I bought loo roll the other day. Wrapped in plastic and on the back there’s a friendly symbol of an almost closed loop and a message saying the wrapping can be recycled at a store where facilities exist. Such facilities don’t exist at the store where I bought it. So, in the bin it goes where it’ll end up in a hole in the ground giving off greenhouse gases twenty times worse than CO2. (I know, I said I wouldn’t go into the eco background but it‘s bubbled to the surface like a pocket of, er, methane.)

Even worse it might end up going to a proposed incinerator along the A1 on the doorstep of Sunny Dunbar. Yup, if all else fails, burn stuff. That’s a good solution.

But never mind flimsy plastic bags or bog roll wrappings, the piece of recycling guilt that will probably tip me over the edge is our old telly. It’s a proper cathode ray thing and as documented on this blog a few weeks back it went kaput. The other day a friendly looking leaflet came through the door telling us about the wide variety of materials we can recycle at the local recycling centre. Tellies are included so I should do the decent thing instead of what everyone else seems to do - leave it out on the street in the hope it gets nicked or smashed and removed by council cleaners.

But because we’re already doing our bit (as very occasionally encouraged by government PR fluff) and don’t have a car I don’t see how I can get the telly to the recycling centre which is two miles away on a busy road. I even phoned Lothian Buses to ask for advice but they warned me I wouldn’t be allowed to board a 113 with my recycling as tellies contain “dangerous gases”.

The council offers an uplift service but it’s £22.50 and I’m damned if I’m going to shell out for a service car users get for free. To make the point maybe I’ll liberate a shopping trolley from the nearby evil plastic bag proliferating supermarket and wheel my TV the two miles along the busy road to the recycling centre. Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do. While wearing slippers and a bathrobe. And swigging from a bottle.

You can make me recycle but you can’t guilt trip me into it. I intend to enjoy this.

Just Call Me 'Two Jags'

I see MMR uptake rates in the west of Scotland are up. Now there’s a riveting first line of a blog. Of course it wasn’t that long ago that simply mentioning the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination was tantamount to witchcraft. Parents were whipped into hysteria thanks to fraudulent doofus Wakefield. Not that the scaremongering has gone away - check out “Doctor” Trump here.

If I’ve learned anything since becoming a dad three and a half years ago it’s that it’s positively sickening watching your bundle of joy being jabbed with a syringe. Our bundle had her MMR the other day. Wife-features had cunningly scheduled it for one of my rare days off. Hip hip… I’m on holiday! Hip hip… And I get to take my baby for a controversial injection! Hooray?

There was a bit of an explanation while we waited at the shiny new “Primary Care Centre” in the Honest Toun. (Why can’t they call these things Health Centres? Do you get Secondary Care Centres? And if the GPs are Primary what does that make A&E?)  

“Now, darling, we’re going to get some medicine to keep you healthy and strong. You’re at nursery now, mixing with lots of other kids, so we need to fight the bugs we all have.”

I felt like a great big fibbing liar whose pants fire was visible from space but in the end Hard As Nails Nipper sat calmly on my knee not flinching in the slightest while a doctor and a nurse jabbed her arms in a pincer movement. Two jags but zero tears. Cue stickers and a lolly, and off we go home for spaghetti hoops on toast and Finding Nemo on DVD. Overcompensating? Most certainly not.

I will remember until my dying day the look she shot me when the nurse gave her an injection during the bird flu fluster a couple of years back. Her head swung round and her big baby blue eyes burned holes in mine. You monster!

But never mind the effect on the child, good grief. What about me? You have no idea the steely determination required to witness my own child being needled, given the way injections utterly floor me.

I’m not squeamish. Far from it. I can happily watch a syringe going into my arm but I guarantee you a few minutes later the room will spin and I’ll probably pass out. It’s happened in the dentist’s chair and while giving blood. Even more hilariously I once had to fill a dozen vials with my blood as part of a potential bone marrow donation. Years before I’d signed up to join the Anthony Nolan register and out of the blue they said I was a possible match for someone seriously ill. They sent a package for me to take to my GP who would then extract a bucket of my life force for further testing. Sure enough after the first prick the room swam. We resumed a short time later, doing both arms so I wouldn’t end up lopsided. I still remember the nurse saying “what lovely big veins”. I swear she was salivating.

Then, weighing a lot less, looking grey and struggling to stand up straight, the GP put the tubes of crimson gloop into the pre-prepared jiffy bag and handed it to me. The instructions said I had to post them. I tottered through the streets of Inverness to the post office carrying my silver package covered in warning signs at arms’ length like some sort of bomb. When I slid it across the counter the post office mannie asked if the contents were valuable. I said I wasn’t sure. It’s just a few pints of my blood. But on the other hand it could help save someone’s life.

This was obviously too much information so he stamped something vague on a label, gave me a receipt and off I staggered. I think I went to a café and ate black pudding.

In the end I didn’t have to go through with the GIANT NEEDLE INTO YOUR ACTUAL SPINE as I believe marrow transfusions require. I hope the person in need got what they needed. This chap from the Daily Record had a similar experience. I’d heartily recommend you put your name forward to Anthony Nolan if you haven’t already.

Meantime I will continue to pin hopes on someone inventing a way of giving blood or receiving medication that works using osmosis rather than piercing skin with a pointy thing. Uh-oh. Feeling queasy. Down I go again….

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Lot Of Bottle

Alcohol. The solution to and cause of all life’s problems. I think Alain de Botton said that. Or maybe Homer Simpson. Some baldy guy anyway.

My thoughts have yet again turned to stiff and soft drinks. On alcohol I note the Scotch Whisky Association is taking the Scottish Government to court over its plan for minimum pricing. It’s not a giant Alka Seltzer that will clear Scotland’s national hangover but is a small measure we’d be daft not to take. Research suggests it will save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of hospital admissions every year.

I’m probably what the opponents of minimum pricing would call a moderate drinker, and do you know, I have no problem with my booze costing more.

The other day Wife-features scolded me for buying “non-essential” alcohol. I admit it was an impulse purchase. I spotted Noilly Prat vermouth on the shelf in the local wine shop and remembered we had none in the drinks cabinet and that it had been months, possibly over a year since I last stirred up a decent dry martini. We had a friend visiting for the weekend and as I was already buying gin…

I’m comfortable with booze being a treat as it can so easily become a crutch. Anything that steers our culture in that direction has to be welcomed. And I’m particularly conscious that our three and a half year old Bairn already knows how to clink glasses and go “cheers” to mark special occasions. I’d rather her memories of me weren’t all with me holding a dram or plinking two olives into a Gibson.

On soft drinks I note a selfish move similar to big whisky’s minimum pricing challenge is underway in the States following the perfectly reasonable idea by the authorities to limit huge servings of fizzy pop - or soda as they cutely call it over there. Who on earth drinks more than half a litre of Coke in a sitting? And the companies suing claim they’re worried about their reputations. I wonder if they thought how stalling a public health measure would look?

Finally for now on soft drinks I feel a small battle coming on with the company responsible for “Simply Fruity”.

We were out for a stroll in Dalkeith Country Park recently (£4 entry fee, amazing if slightly wobbly tree top trail, lots of sweet chestnuts falling in the massive forest) and stopped at the tea room for a cuppa. I usually take a bottle of tap water on our walks but on this occasion we bought a bottle of what appeared to be fruit juice.

Upon closer inspection here’s what “Simply Fruity” contains:

5% fruit juice (blackcurrant and apple)
Citric Acid (excellent limescale remover)
Natural Flavourings (these are food essences and contain no nutrition)
Sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K) Each is 200 times sweeter than sugar, which makes 400 times. There are claims that aspartame gives rats tumours but the FSA seems OK with it.

Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate - described as a skin, eye and respiratory irritant - and Dimethyl Dicarbonate - a bug killer)

Stabiliser (Carboxymethyl Cellulose - the thickening used in KY Jelly)

Contains a source of phenylalanine (Pain relief created by genetically engineering e-coli bacteria. Yum.)

And who makes this rollercoaster ride of a refreshment?

AG Barr.

I thought they made things in Scotland from girders. They certainly have a brass neck targeting kids with a cocktail of chemicals called “Simply Fruity”. Simply not on. I shall be taking them to task. Better have a stiff drink first.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

When Life Hands You Lemons - Go To Port Seton

Someone on Twitter recently gave me a sympathetic mention (or should that be “shout” - I have no idea what the hip terminology of the day is) simply because “It’s not easy being green.”

It can indeed feel like a struggle. The sort of struggle that leads you to conclude that everyone else is a muppet and humanity is as safe as an audience member in the vicinity of a Gonzo motorcycle stunt.

I’m one of those Greens who argue (politely) for choices, options and ease, rather than a finger-wagging Green (do they still exist - indeed did they ever?) who lectures people about the evilness of their car use, supermarket shop and cheap flights to the Med. I’d rather it was easy to cycle to the shops, choose to take the bus and go on holiday by rail.

So what’s all this jibber-jabber got to do with Port (Seton) and lemon?

Well, a recent Sunday family outing highlighted how difficult it can be when you’re Green and a parent.

It was a lovely sunny day - the last of the season it turned out. Today we’re battling a hurricane, floods and a John Carpenter-esque sea foam invasion. (I’m imagining the husky-voiced late night DJ on Northsound: “Ahoy there Footdee. Be warned the foam is moving towards you. Stay indoors.”)

We decided to make for North Berwick, to scamper along its golden beaches and climb the Law to marvel at --- spoiler alert --- the fibreglass replica of a whale’s jawbone.

I’d looked up bus and train times and worked out we could catch a bus from outside our front door that would take us a couple of miles to the train station where after a short wait we’d catch the train to North Berwick. From house to beach would take just half an hour, and all by modestly priced mass transit. Hurrah!

Sadly upon arrival at the rail station we were greeted with the dreaded words: Engineering Works. A quick call to the Scotrail helpline confirmed there would be no trains but a replacement bus was operating. I say replacement and operating but after almost an hour of waiting we saw no replacement and no operation.

Would it have been too much trouble to place a notice about this work on the timetables I had looked up? Or how about - and this is really radical stuff - a display screen at the bus stop that not only tells you about the current running of the buses but also other notable public transport issues locally? You can bet if the Forth Road Bridge was closed for Engineering Works the fact would be advertised on massive roadside gantries before you even got on the city bypass never mind the bridge approach road.

Luckily the cakes we’d packed for our beach picnic kept our wee Blonde Bairn occupied at a very lonely train station, along with various games involving dancing and stepping on shadows. We eventually trudged half a mile to a bus stop from where we could get a bus along the coast but I’m an idiot so we got on a number 26 without realising it was one of those pesky 26s that goes to Tranent rather than Seton Sands. We had to bail out in Prestonpans and walk to Port Seton where we could be guaranteed something that might resemble a sandy beach but nowhere as cool as NB.

We paused to wolf the remainder of our picnic next to the colossal coal power station at Cockenzie. The giant ring and ball bearings you see are from coal crushing chambers inside the plant. The coal needs to be a fine dust before it’s burnt. These massive widgets rotate almost 40 times a minute! It’s extraordinary to think the power they consume is less than what the plant produces - coal is powerful stuff.

Scottish Power is still swithering over whether it should convert the station to gas when the coal operation ceases next spring. You can’t help wondering what else this site could be - why another fossil fuel dinosaur?

Further along the coast towards Port Seton harbour we found an amazing little sheltered bay that proved to be seaglunk heaven - see the haul of treasure on the right. Wife-features was mesmerised, literally sifting the shingle to reveal a kaleidoscope of polished glass and pottery fragments. After twenty minutes I had to drag her away. I wonder if there’s a rehab group she can join?

We enjoyed a coffee while the Bairn played in a park. This led to a revelation, which I’d urge all local authorities to act upon lest I visit my wrath upon them. Wife-features is not a fan of wasps or bees. I don’t mind them, although stop short of tickling their tummies and saying who’s a clever vespidae.

But here’s the thing the missus has noticed and I’m now spotting everywhere I go. Why are bins put next to benches? Especially open bins like this one? They inevitably contain sticky rubbish, a major attraction for bees and wasps. Keep the bins away from where people are and hey presto no buzzing stinging brutes flitting about you when you’re trying to relax.

An alternative location for sticky bin wasp magnets? Scotrail HQ.

Jings! Crivvens! The Answer, Boab, Isnae Blowin’ In The Wind

I don’t know if you saw the survey in the Sunday Post (I’m a big Broons fans so never miss an issue) at the start of the month about wind farms. It made the following claims:

    ·        70% are concerned by how much is spent on wind power
    ·        72% worry at turbines’ impact on areas of natural beauty
    ·        54% worry about wind farms’ impact on tourism
    ·        32% think there are already too many turbines
    ·        60% are concerned by turbines’ efficiency
    ·        82% are concerned about wind farms’ impact on fuel bills

This anti-wind group have helpfully posted it on their website as the Sunday Post aren‘t exactly “with it“ on the web.

Of course it’s useful to have some context, such as how many people were surveyed, what was their demographic make up and what questions were they asked. No such details were available in the article.

I’m genuinely intrigued because the answers are about ‘worry’ and ‘concern’ rather than belief or knowledge. And if 32 per cent of however-many-were-surveyed think there are already too many turbines, does that mean 68 per cent aren’t fussed or indeed think there should be loads more?

I asked the Sunday Post if I could see the survey details. Interestingly the survey was carried out by a company called, which it turns out is owned by DC Thomson who own the Sunday Post. (It is also worth remembering DC Thomson’s clients include Donald Trump whose naughty adverts appeared in their publications earlier in the year.)

Well, help m’boab. I’ve been told by the Sunday Post “the survey is part of our own research and is to stay confidential.”

I’ll leave you to sook on a pan drop and consider that.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Will Rail Upgrade Move Up Agenda Now Business Back It?

The latest edition of Greenprint is hot off the press (use oven mitts to open this PDF) and already corporate interests are jumping on my bandwagon.

To be fair, improvements to the railways are something chambers of commerce around the country have been banging on about for many years but uprading roads has traditionally been the priority. Today the chambers have challenged the SNP Government to deliver on their rail promises.

(For the record here's what the Nats promised in their 2011 manifesto:

“Our proposals will also mean faster and more-frequent connections between Inverness and Aberdeen, and between these cities and the central belt.”

“Our plans will also include progress on a new integrated ticketing system for Scotland."

“We will also take forward the important Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement programme."

“We will begin to develop the infrastructure to support electric cars, beginning in our urban areas and in the central belt, and will continue to increase the proportion of transport spending that goes on low-carbon, active and sustainable travel.”)

Here's what I wrote for Greenprint, urging other Greens not to lose sleep over the folly of a dual A9 which is certain to happen. Those of us who care about social inclusion, the environment and local businesses should put our energies into getting a dual railway line to the north...

In “The West Wing” there’s a great episode in which Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are running for President and are told by their advisors at a rally for corn growers they must pledge support for subsidies for ethanol, regardless of their true feelings. Smits has his doubts but chooses to take the pledge. Alda chooses to be honest and tells the farmers that ethanol is a bad bet. It gives him a rosy glow but doesn’t win him the White House.

In Scotland we have our own version of the Ethanol Pledge – it’s called Dual The A9. Whatever your true feelings you’d have to be on a political kamikaze mission to publicly say the notorious main road between Inverness and Perth didn’t need upgraded.

And I have a real problem with that. As a Green the last thing that comes naturally to me is support for laying down swathes of tarmac through the Cairngorms National Park. But given the apparent universal popularity of the pledge how do I stick to my principles without alienating voters?

Firstly, let’s address this “notorious” reputation.

If you Google “dual A9” the first thing that comes up is – a website set up by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser. He claims the A9 has the “highest fatality rate” of any road in Scotland. He’s wrong.

The A9 has the highest number of fatalities of any road in Scotland, which given its great length isn’t hugely surprising. The highest rate – that is the number of fatalities per mile of road – actually belongs to the A730, a four mile route in Glasgow between the Gorbals and Rutherglen. It is closely followed by the much longer A92, which despite stretching right across Murdo’s Fife constituency, doesn’t seem to get him terribly exercised. The highest rate of injury is found on the A8 and M8.

Furthermore, the A9 is assessed as a low to medium risk (the second safest category out of five) by the European Road Assessment Programme.

The SNP Government clearly sees dualling the A9 as a vote-winner. Its £3bn of improvements will begin in 2015, cunningly around the time of the next Westminster election and just before the next Holyrood election. The first phase of work earmarked is at Aviemore, right on Danny Alexander’s doorstep.

The infrastructure minister Alex Neil says dualling will “reduce driver frustration”.

I think this is where Greens come in.

A recent report showed fewer deaths and serious injuries have occurred on roads where safety cameras have been installed. If dualling must happen it must surely be accompanied by cameras.

Then we should consider the claims that dualling will create jobs and support the economy. In fact, a consultants’ study warns of centralisation of local trade in Inverness and Perth, causing the small towns and villages along the A9 to lose out.

All the while a review is gathering dust on the shelves of Transport Scotland. It says running faster and more frequent trains between Inverness and the Central Belt would significantly benefit the economy, accessibility and social inclusion. And crucially, the improvements could be delivered for peanuts compared the dualling the A9.

The review says with more double track and passing loops – which would be easy to construct – we could reduce journey times by 20 minutes, making the rail service more competitive with car travel and more attractive for freight. This in turn could reduce congestion on the A9, addressing that holy grail of “driver frustration”. The review highlights the potential of removing over 13,000 HGV trips each year from the A9, with another positive knock-on effect of improving air quality in towns and villages along the route.

It would also benefit Highland business by enabling an effective working day in the Central Belt, boost tourism and make life easier for those who don’t have a car.

We don’t have to “take the pledge” on the A9 but should recognise we’re going against the flow of traffic, highlighting the need for proper safety features and support for the small communities who stand to lose trade, and campaigning hard for a much better rail service. The Tories have “” – why don’t we have “”?