Monday, 30 July 2012

Cow Bones On Your Cornflakes?

While my foodie thoughts have recently been on the bacon on my rolls and the milk in my tea, this chance discovery has reminded me what a nightmare it can be if you're veggie - as well as the importance of reading lists of ingredients before buying a product rather than when it's all been wolfed and the packaging's going into the recycling.

I once paid a herbivore pal a visit offering him a gift of a big box of liquorice allsorts. I was told never to darken his door again. Or I may have forced myself to eat all 500g. I forget which.

One of Toddler's favourite books is Ketchup on Your Cornflakes?

I bet if I try telling her you get breakfast cereal with boiled cow bones in it, I'll be laughed at. In this context ketchup on cornflakes seems perfectly reasonable.

Mawage. A dweam wifin a dweam…

On the issue of marriage the true authority is of course Peter Cook in The Princess Bride.

I don't recall him saying anything about it being between a man and a woman for the purpose of producing offspring. Or "pwoducing offspwing" as he might have put it.

The latest wacko statements by the Catholic Church on gay lifestyles are astonishing.

I put in a submission to the Scottish Government's consultation on same sex marriage, bluntly stating that marriage is symbolic and a great way for people to show they love each other. Quite why anyone should be denied the opportunity because of their sexual preferences is bizarre, celebrants shouldn't be forced to conduct services and bringing in equality doesn't erode the rights of mixed sex couples.

Wife-features and I got hitched in a civil ceremony at Inverness Town House to the tune of The Beatles' Two of Us ("Two of us riding nowhere / Spending someone's / Hard earned pay / You and me Sunday driving / Not arriving / On our way back home") and were advised on pain of death not to mutter anything remotely religious during the event. As if we would, good lord.

Quickly flicking through the full list of consultation responses now published I recognise some Highland church groups whose views are shockingly backward - the same groups who claim to be integral to their communities. If I lived anywhere near these churches I'd not only be offended I'd be embarrassed.

For example, the Culduthel Christian Centre (I once gave a talk there for business students about marketing and working with the media) say on their website: "We're a friendly and outward-looking group."

In their submission they say they don't even agree with civil partnerships never mind equal marriage, as do Smithton-Culloden Free Church.

St Columba Kirk, Inverness say homosexuality is abnormal and we shouldn't worry about any unfairness because it'll only affect a small number of people.

Westhill Free Church, Inverness says same-sex relationships are a "perversion" and "abomination".

One of the objections put forward by these sorts of groups is that somehow the definition of the word marriage would be changed for the worse.

It is interesting to note one definition of the word Christian in my Chambers dictionary is someone who shows "kindness, tolerance and generosity". Now there's a definition that will definitely need to be changed thanks to a small number of people. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Tar Very Much

So, six months in Musselburgh and I've already made my mark. Literally.

Cycling to work the other morning I avoided crossing the busy main road to Edinburgh and followed the official cycle route which involves mounting pavements and going under a very low arch of the Rennie Bridge next to the River Esk. You have to duck to avoid decapitation even when you're walking and during the recent flood the archway filled up with mud.

I emerged and followed the pavement rather than jumping back onto the road because there were works lorries and guys in high-vis vests doing something. As I cycled along the path I became aware of lots of shouting and pointing.

It sounded like they were yelling "otter" (having spotted wildlife in the river?) but eventually I realised they were pointing at me and shouting "hot tar".

A quick glance down and sure enough the pavement was slicker and shinier than usual. What little tread there had been on my ancient bike tyres had truly gone and I arrived at work picking little black balls out of my hair and off my shirt.

Now I think about it there was a flimsy plastic barrier on part of the path after the bridge arch but it was easy to bypass. There was a sign at the far end of the works warning of tarring - I noticed it as I sped away from the scene of my idiocy. If only there had been one at the end I'd approached from.

Council budgets being under the pressure they are, I doubt this pavement will get resurfaced for a generation, resulting in this rut becoming a local landmark. Behold! Green Dad's Folly.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Bunting Is Up!

In fact is has been up for over a week now.

Musselburgh Festival is in full swing, which involved lots of horseplay through the river and down the High Street last night. Toddler slept right through the return of the horses (hundreds of them) accompanied by a pipe band despite them passing her bedroom window.

I also loved the fact that a council street sweeping machine followed the parade, scooping the poop. I was half tempted to run out with a shovel to claim some for the tatties in our garden!

We can't wait to see the fancy dress parade on Friday. (My gran was in a similar parade of lorry floats in another part of East Lothian a couple of decades ago and tells me she won first prize for her Hawaiian theme. The thought of my granny in a grass skirt makes my head swim.)

You can find out more about the Honest Toun Festival here.

It's great to live in a community with fun traditions.

Nairn has its magnificent Farm Show and a wonderful Highland Games, both of which I'll miss this summer for the first time in ages.

Many years ago I lived in the Borders where every town has a Common Riding, similar to Musselburgh's outbreak of flagwaving and jodhpurs. I vividly remember walking through the streets of Selkirk at 5.45am singing Hail Smiling Morn with a brass band followed by Bucks Fizz for breakfast. Safe oot, safe in...

And I worked in Orkney for a while where at Christmas there's The Ba' Game between the Uppies and the Doonies. They do a similar "game" in Duns, where I used to live. Shopkeepers are strongly advised to board their windows!

Edinburgh's on our doorstep and is about to explode with festivals. But I've always preferred small town life. In short, where there's bunting there's a good place to live.

Olympic Image To Make You Fizz

Spotted in a High Street window in Musselburgh today.

It is a superb rendition of the Rennie Bridge and the babbling River Esk, with a suitably sporty looking torchbearer.

As I type, the poor kid responsible is having the front door of their house bust open by a crack squad from Lord Coe's Copyright Infringement Commandos.

Intriguing to see the Olympic legacy, or at least impression, left for the young creator of this great wee bit of art: a van advertising the multinational sugary drinks manufacturer sponsoring the event.

On the day the torch came to the Honest Toun the streets were lined with kids, many of them waving inflatable adverts for a mobile phone firm while chocolate bars were dished out by another sponsor. And every cafe and food shop in town seemed to be emblazoned with the red marketing materials of our fizzy pop pals.

Is it just me or is it all a teeny tiny bit inappropriate? I could get really heavy and point out that those dodgy geezers Dow Chemicals are also sponsoring.

But let's stay positive - more homemade pictures in shop windows please! And kids, if you're tempted to render a corporate logo, just say no.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Things We Learned On Our Highland Holiday

It’s been six months since the flit from Nairn to Musselburgh and our trip back to the Highlands last week was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing what had and had not changed in that time.

What’s changed?

Lots of Nairn town centre eyesores are being demolished at long last.
There’s an Asda in Inverness. I’m sure their grand opening went well. Oh. Er…
Imperial Records in the Victorian Market is open again! Glad Mr Stumbles (his real name) is on the mend.
The old job centre in Inverness High St is now a cash converters. Yikes.
The Mill Road Allotments in Nairn are bigger and greener than ever. I miss my plot. Sniff!

What hasn’t changed?

The Highland News still likes photos of scantily clad young ladies.
Tich McCooey still urges drivers to ‘take it easy and mind how you go’ on Moray Firth Radio.
Hootananny still does a great pint of Red Kite and thai green curry. It still has wobbly chairs and the tables are still removed for “the dancing” at 9.30.
The buses are rubbish. £1.55 to get from one bit of Inverness to another? Bus stops with no timetables and no information displays. No direct bus from Raigmore hospital to Nairn?
Girvan’s still does the most extraordinary toffee cream meringues. Mmm.

What We Saw On Our Holidays: Forbidden Fruit

So we’re back from our Grand Days Out To See The Grandparents.

My mum’s fine, thanks for asking. I did all the things a good grown up son should when visiting - fixed her TV aerial, raided her kitchen cupboards and threw out jars and packets with three year old use-by dates, and retuned her stereo to Radio 4.

We also took Wife-features’ dad on outings with Toddler to the Floral Hall and Bellfield Park, surely two of Inverness’s greatest public assets.
The prospect of a three and a half hour train journey to Inverness with a Toddler - and a similar trek back - had filled the missus and I with a certain amount of unease but in the end it was fine.

We packed plenty of books, games and crayons for entertainment. We even packed sandwiches so we could have a family picnic on the train. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy with excitement.

Toddler (her full title is now Toddler In Pants) also kept us busy with repeated requests to go to the loo, only for nothing to emerge. (She still gets a nappy at night but for a couple of weeks now it’s been dry in the morning so perhaps this week we’ll take the, er, plunge and go for a 24 hour Toddler In Pants. Wish us luck.)

The journey up to our old Highland haunts and the one back to our new digs in the Honest Toun were notably different thanks to Scotrail‘s discretionary catering. On the way north the trolley came along and the grown ups had coffee. The lad pushing the trolley (Trolley Pusher Lad sounds rather demeaning, sorry; I’m sure the role has a grand title such as Hospitality Co-ordinator) on a whim gave Toddler a pack of colouring pencils and a wee bag of chocolate eggs. Aww. That’s service!

In contrast the journey down featured a jaw-dropping moment of jobsworthery. The WH Smith at Inverness station (the only shop selling food close to the trains) had a broken fridge so was only selling crisps and sweets. We figured a less evil snack would be available on the trolley and when it hoved into view we spied little pots of fruit pieces. Perfect for a three year old! But when we asked for one we were told they were freebies for first class passengers only.

Um. Okay. But this is a long train journey on a hot day leaving from a station that had no food so surely you’d make an exception for our toddler? We’re offering you money and everything. Apparently that wasn’t good enough. We could have bought Jaffa Cakes and a can of Tennents for our three year old. Just not some pineapple chunks. For they are the Forbidden Fruit oiks like us can only dream of.

In fact I’m waiting for the new Scotrail marketing campaign to incorporate this. You’ll be at the ticket office on the verge of buying your standard class off peak return when the teller points out: “If you upgrade you might get some peaches in juice. How about it?”

A well placed source at the nation‘s rail franchisee tells me a new menu is coming soon featuring - brace yourself - small boxes of raisins! My faith in public transport is hereby restored.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Farmers Are Revolting

Yes, you heard me. Farmers are revolting. But why aren’t consumers?

Because we like our food and drink as cheap as chips. (Ironically, there’s a danger chips will become a bit pricier thanks to the soggy summer ruining plenty of potato crops.)

Dairy farmers are making a fuss this week as the price paid to them by processors who in turn are being squeezed by supermarkets continues to fall.

Meanwhile ministers and council leaders are leaping into action (or at least, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would have put it, they are giving the impression of leaping into action) at the prospect of 1,700 job losses in West Lothian.

The Hall’s meat plant looks set to go down the tubes. The Dutch owners, Vion, say the plant is inefficient. There’s no shortage of demand for cheap meat but our shelves have been flooded with imports. In a Sainsbury’s “Local” the other day I saw a 300g pack of Danish bacon for £1.50 right next to a 220g pack of Scottish bacon for £3.05.

In these hard-pressed times (unless you’re a bank boss or a quango chief) is it any wonder people are opting to save a few quid?

I heartily recommend this report by the Centre for Socio-cultural Change which puts the pig meat industry’s decline into sharp perspective. Supermarkets are all powerful and governments have done nothing to arrest the decline. One startling observation in the report, if I read it right, is that per pig the average farmer breaks even, while a processor like Vion makes £50 and the likes of Tesco make £100. So, there’s plenty of money sloshing around like a big bucket of swill and it’s the greedy guts who are guzzling it.

It’s one of many consequences of leaving our food supply to the free market. At this point I worry I start to sound a bit Soviet Bloc but tractor production quotas aren’t what I intend to advocate.

Instead we need to re-localise our food chains. To some it might sound a bit hippy-ish but just look at the mess being created by an over-centralised, corporate culture. Farmers get the food we need on our plates so we should pay them a fair amount. One of the best ways to do that is to resist the holy grail of consolidation. Any time a farmer or food producer strikes a deal with a supermarket chain this is hailed as great news. Is it really?

By cutting out the middle men and reconnecting our farmers and producers with consumers we can ensure decent prices are paid, margins are kept to a minimum and that people understand the impact their buying choices have. By buying cheap stuff in a big supermarket you will benefit the supermarket bosses and shareholders and that is probably all.

Look at what happened in my old stamping ground of Nairn, once famed for its creamery. The old Claymore place was taken over by mega-dairy Graham’s who’ve now turned it into a distribution depot and shifted production to the central belt. You have the ludicrous situation where milk from cows in Nairnshire goes to the central belt only to be sent back to Nairn from where it is transported literally across the road from the depot to be sold in the Sainsbury’s supermarket that so many people demanded.

How resilient is this set up? Pretty flimsy if you ask me. Surely a more robust supply chain would be Nairnshire farmers supplying a Nairn dairy that supplies Nairn customers directly.

Luckily here in the Honest Toun we’re close to a couple of great dairy farms who supply local shops. I can pick up Bonaly Farm milk from the wee shop on our street and it’s the same price as the generic stuff at the Tesco on the edge of the town centre. At least I know it’s fresh, local and supporting jobs in my community.

I also like the look of these guys at Yester who do doorstep deliveries.

The Halls situation in West Lothian seems pretty focussed on saving the plant and as many jobs as possible. It is unlikely senior politicians will get the bit between their teeth and tackle the local versus consolidated issue any time soon. But it will be better for all of us if we encourage and reward local food production and supply chains.

Instead of a large, centralised (and by all accounts poorly designed) plant owned by a European mega-firm supplying a handful of huge, powerful retailers we could have a number of smaller processors selling direct to the consumer using local meat. That would be the best way to bring home the bacon in the long-term.