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 Yourviewk.com, 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 dualthea9.com – 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 “Dualthea9.com” – why don’t we have “Dualtherailway.com”?


Christ on a bendy bus, that was an incompetent interview. I can imagine those words fizzing out of the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It but the interview I refer to wasn't a work of TV fiction - it was the real life ineptitude of the Transport Minister on Radio Scotland the other morning.

I'm Green Dad so you'd expect me to prefer investment in cycling to eight-lane motorways but the problem I had with the minister's twaddle was his description of 'striking the right balance'.

He was being interviewed in light of this report by sustainable transport charity Transform Scotland, highlighting the poor choices that have been made by the SNP Government. Transport emissions are rising, air pollution is getting worse, public transport fares are rising and budgets are being cut. While at the same time ministers blow billions on things like another Forth Road Bridge, an extension of the M74 motorway and dualling the A9. That's about as balanced as Homer Simpson on a tiny bike.

The minister tried to defend his daft spending on roads by claiming maintenance is required (insert your own rant about crappy road surfaces, overgrown verges and potholes near you - also consider the additional maintenance backlog he's creating by building more of the bloody things) and that buses and bicycles use roads. Last time I checked you couldn't cycle on the M74 and only an idiot with a deathwish would ride a push bike on the A9 now never mind when it becomes a dual carriageway. And bikes and buses are explicitly prohibited from using the new, additional, second, uneccessary Forth Road Bridge.

It's a well known fact that if you build new roads you get more traffic, so quite why the minister thought he could get away with saying his government will meet its carbon reduction targets by 2020 I have no idea. Transport accounts for a quarter of Scotland's CO2 emissions so if the SNP were remotely serious about hitting those targets they'd make reducing dependency on the car a top priority but instead they're doing the exact opposite.

Politics is about trust and it's clear to me the SNP simply can't be trusted on transport. They listen to lobby groups mainly comprised of business interests who constantly bend their ear for 1960s style road building. There isn't an equivalent voice for bus users, train passengers and those of us who like or want to walk or cycle. The brilliant campaign that is Pedal on Parliament has kept the issue of cycling on the political radar so I'd be surprised if there wasn't a wee bit of movement on that from the ministers soon. But let's face it, whatever extra loose change they push across the table it will be paltry compared to what they're spending on unsustainable, unhealthy and iniquitous forms of travel.

One way we could make these dinosaurs wake up is by getting the business community on board. Investing in cycle infrastructure for example is much more likely to deliver benefits for small, local contractors. The SNP Government like to bang on about "shovel ready" projects; a small business contact I spoke to recently described these as "write a cheque to Balfour Beatty" projects. I also know from experience you can get more work done if you're on public transport. That email inbox is pretty hard to tackle when you're behind the wheel of a Mondeo doing 70 but a doddle when you're on the train drinking coffee and enjoying the vista.

The SNP Government's own Economic Strategy is supposed to have solidarity and sustainability at its core. Clearly they believe their own rules are there to be bent.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

One Way Or Another Our Blondie Ain’t A Toddler Anymore

Toddler Who Must Be Obeyed (3 years and 5 months) isn’t a toddler anymore. This shock development dawned on me just the other day. (Can a shock dawn like a sunrise? Isn’t it more likely to blind like a neon strip in a dark room? My metaphors are as thingy as a you-know-what.)

I mistakenly asked Toddler how she got on at Toddler Group that day only for her to correct me. I don’t go to Togglers any more, Daddy. I’m not a Toggler. I go to Nursery.

And indeed she does. Two and half hours a day, five days a week. Time really is flying by. At this rate I’ll be forking out for her driving lessons any minute now.

Our little blonde bairn seems to be thriving at pre-school, and it is with a huge amount of relief I note she has made some pals. There’s one wee lassie in particular who our Blondie (well, I can’t call her Toddler anymore - do you have a better suggestion?) is literally attached to. Like a limpet. Seriously, we get asked how many sleeps till she sees her next and there are entire chunks of the day lost to speculative conversations about whether this buddy of hers would like to do this, eat that, be here or go there.

I’m sure it’ll settle down before a restraining order is required.

The other sign that the moniker “Toddler” has to go is her sharply quizzical nature. I bet her line of questioning could make Paxman weep.

What happens after today?

Why can’t you put your bike on the bus?

Why is the library closed when we want to use it?

Who says you can’t you take the back off the telly to see what’s inside?

This all sounds like hard work but it’s actually loads of fun. She clearly tries to understand the answers I give her and it’s great to see the cogs whirring round as my responses are digested.

There are also moments of inappropriate enthusiasm that prove hilarious to a tired parent. Today’s cry of “Good bye and good luck!” to the pee she was flushing down the loo brought tears to my eyes, as did the outburst in the wine shop: “This isn’t a juice shop! I don‘t see any juice! Why did you say it was a juice shop?”

I don’t think I’ve ever made such a hurried choice over a bottle of merlot.

Cooking The Books

We have no car and no TV. What else would you expect from a Green household? In fact this blog is powered by anaerobic digestion and uses 95 per cent organic letters.

The reality is we live in a town centre where our shopping needs are met with a quick waddle, and our street is on a superb bus route into the metropolis for work and pleasure. That explains our pro-active move to get rid of car, but the loss of the TV is, I have to admit, not something of our making.

It’s simply stopped working and the sticker on the back warns against opening it up to tamper with its innards. It’s a foot-and-a-half deep cathode ray beast in silver rather than black, so that perhaps tells you we’re not dealing with cutting edge audio visual technology here.

I suggested a few days ago when it fizzled out it may have been the fuse in the plug. Less than 24 hours later upon arriving home from work Toddler greeted me with “Did you get a fuse?” Bless her little square eyes.

In the end we did get a replacement fuse to try but it made no difference. (Oh boy did I enjoy buying that fuse. I went into the Goliath Tesco at the end of the High Street as I couldn’t think where else would do fuses, and that’s all I bought despite their aircraft hanger-sized palace of consumer delights. I paid for it with copper coins. 19p. Take that, you corporate monstrosity!)

Toddler doesn’t watch a lot of telly but it’s certainly a useful tool for us if we’re trying to get something done in the house and need a few minutes to concentrate. To plug the gap until we get a new goggle box we’re deploying DVDs on the laptop, and it’s working out fine. We did toy with making do without the TV when we moved from Nairn to Musselburgh at the start of the year. WF and I lived for years without one before we got hitched but back then we were working crazy hours in our jobs and preferred to spend weekends going blind on Fuzzy Navels and going for walks on the West Coast. Plot developments in soap operas 1997-2004 is a real weak spot for me in pub quizzes.

I still hardly ever watch telly. Yessir, no TV for me. You won’t catch me lolling in front of cookery programmes for example. Just ignore what Wife-features is yelling from the back of the blog.

It is tempting to try living without it again but it is handy for the day job (what a shame the programmes that are relevant to what I do during the day are on at night) and I must have a big screen for the DVD collection. WF has been investigating and it looks like we’ll take a punt on a reconditioned box rather than buying a completely new one. Even a secondhand telly will be light years ahead of the model that has just gone kaput.

I mentioned the DVD collection - which we thinned down hugely for the flit - and it reminds me of the other collections that weighed down the removal van. Namely my records and our books. We did whittle them down but there are still mountains of them. With records (mostly CD but some vinyl) I’m afraid I’ll always be a sucker for a good album - you know, a bunch of songs with a running theme, a clear thought about running order, perhaps even a clear side A and side B, some witty liner notes and smart artwork. I-Tunes, schmi-Tunes.

But on books I may have a solution. (Which in turn reminds me of the song about solutions - Only An Expert, by one of my favourite album creators Laurie Anderson.) It has taken me about seven months to settle into the new work and home life and in that time I’ve not read a great deal for pleasure but I’m back in the swing now, and... Musselburgh I’ve realised doesn’t have a bookshop!

How could I have overlooked this when deciding on a place to live? There are plenty of charity shops that have secondhand books but you’d think the largest town in East Lothian, with a university, large high school and large private school would naturally support an independent bookshop, or at least a branch of something national. I mean, it’s got a Costa. What’s the point of that if you’ve got nothing to read in it?

My solution - and bear with me here as I’m about to get ultra-radical - is to Join The Library. Seriously, I was there the other day with Toddler to change her books (we cannot recommend the Pigeon series by Mo Willems highly enough) and I found myself fingering titles on the shelves for grown ups, thinking Hmm, that looks interesting and I’d never go out on a limb and buy that but by golly I could borrow it for a fortnight and get all the benefit of having read it without having incurred any cost!

I’m also aware with libraries it can be a case of use them or lose them. They are often seen as low hanging fruit by the Neanderthal bean-counters who run our councils. (Hello, hello, it’s Metaphor Police here again. Why would bean-counters be interested in fruit? Come along now, sir.)

And today I read the book reviews in the Sunday papers with added vim, making a mental note for titles to badger the librarian about next weekend. I apologise now if my thrifty manoeuvre results in Waterstone’s (I insist on the apostrophe) and Blackwell’s going down the pan. And no-one will know I actually did it so I could borrow The Great British Bake Off and Lorraine Pascale recipe books, pretending “they’re for the wife”.