Friday, 29 November 2013

Harmfully Compromising Integrity


What’s the score with East Lothian Council and its anti-wind attitude? I’ve been told by some that it’s one of the most anti local authorities in the country, and they’re at it again.

They turned down an application for a turbine at Queen Margaret University – a decision thankfully being appealed – on the wacky basis that it would make people forget Arthur’s Seat existed. They turned down an application for a community-owned turbine near Dunbar which would have generated funds for the town, with local councillors expressing delight at the crushing of a community’s hopes. And now they’re recommending refusal of one wee turbine (34 metres from base to blade tip) that would generate some renewable power for a farm near Pencaitland. Why?

Loads of objections? Nope. Just one.

MoD/aviation concerns? No.

Permanent removal of agricultural land? No.

Noisy? No.

Overbearing on nearest residential properties? No.

Unacceptable impact on water environment? No.

Danger to passing traffic? No.

Danger to wildlife? No.

What then?

Well, you’d be able to see it from the Pencaitland crossroads.

I’m not kidding. Seriously. That’s the reason given for recommending refusal. The officials actually state it would “draw from the focus of the Law (Traprain Law, a hill and quarry some 9 miles to the east) harmfully compromising the integrity of it as a highly valued landmark natural feature.” 

I happen to have a photo from a bike ride looking back to Traprain from the Pencaitland Crossroads. I'll let you draw your own conclusion.
See the wee dimple on the left? Its integrity is under threat!


Let’s remember East Lothian Council is actively lobbying for a dual A1, a bigger Edinburgh city bypass, another fossil fuel power plant at Cockenzie and another nuclear power plant at Dunbar. Harmfully compromising integrity? What a bunch of jokers.

I wonder if any of East Lothian’s 23 elected members will be bold enough to challenge this sort of clowning around when the planning committee meets on Tuesday to determine the application.

Never mind accusations of Nimby (not in my back yard), has East Lothian Council gone BANANAs? (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.)   

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Deaf Dugs, Parents' Night and Freakishly Tall Rugby Players

It’s been a busy old week full of stuff. In chronological order the stuff went like this…

Monday.

I read an interesting thing about reading: “While 70 per cent of P4 pupils agree a lot with the statement `I enjoy reading`, by S2 this has dropped to 29 per cent.”

Book Week Scotland (w/b 25 Nov) is an attempt to put the pleasure back into what can seem like a chore to a grumpy adolescent. Our Bairn (age 4 years, 8 months) simply loves being read to, and is apparently the chief shusher at nursery when the other weans are restless during story time - more about that later.

My own childhood included a surrogate reader. No, not Bernard Cribbins on Jackanory but Story Teller, a vast catalogue of tales performed by A-list voices like Sheila Hancock. It was a fortnightly magazine with a cassette. I think we even had binders and cases for storage. If I was the sort of person who people asked about great literary influences I’d have to say Marshall Cavendish.
 
Tuesday.

Scotland shuffled toward the white heat of modernity today but also planted a foot firmly in the mucky past. On the plus side a majority of MSPs said yes in principle to equal marriage but Midlothian Council gave an open cast coal mine planning permission.

It’s genuinely baffling when you consider the fuss that is made whenever someone wants to stick up a low-carbon wind turbine or two. All hell breaks loose with appeals and public inquiries. But if you want to obliterate a wildlife-rich moor to get at ten million tonnes of carbon-rich coal, with massive lorries going through small communities every few minutes for the next ten years apparently nine guys in Dalkeith can say yes and it happens. Go figure.

Wednesday.

Regular readers may be familiar/tired of my statements on the state of Musselburgh High Street with its chronic traffic congestion and World Health Organisation-defying air pollution. A conversation with a local business chappie also confirms my view that the old style High Street is dead and for our town centres to have purpose they need reinvented as places you want to spend time.

One place I do spend time in Musselburgh High Street is the majestically ramshackle Hearing Dogs for the Deaf charity shop, aka the Deaf Dugs. A bag of toys is a pound! A nearly new Katie Morag story book is 20p! My office fruit bowl came from there! Sadly I have to report that the lease on this cavernous emporium is up in a few months’ time and it won’t be renewed. I am considering hiring a skip.

Thursday.

My first Parents’ Night! The Bairn’s only at nursery but it was worthwhile having a chat with the teacher. Wife-features and I were able to see the primary one classrooms and get an idea of what’s in store next June when the transition starts. It would be improper of me to boast about the Bairn’s glowing report. It is perhaps sufficient for me to point out that later that evening Wife-features and I feel it appropriate to have two scoops and a flake from S Luca.

Friday.

The civic Christmas decorations are up! The corner shop now stocks a selected vegetable! This is all too much.

Saturday.

The Bairn’s name is down for the primary school where the nursery is. It is a crisp, clear day, so we decide to go for a bracing walk around the catchment. (In my old job at a national publicly-owned water corporation walking the catchment had a very different meaning. Feel free to ask me about it some day. It involves animal poo and pesticides.)

It’s possible we’ll flit at some point before P1 starts - the current homestead was found in a bit of rush - and if we do it would make sense to keep the Bairn at the same school. It’s fascinating looking at the catchment map, which jigs in and out of various housing schemes. Who decides where the line falls and is it drawn using an etch-a-sketch?

Speaking of lines and falling, I subject the Bairn to another painful game of rugby on TV. During the match she sketches out the Scotland squad. I think the freakishly big lads are Jim Hamilton and Kelly Brown. Either that or it’s a perspective thing and they’re standing much closer to the artist’s viewpoint.

Sunday.

A bracing bike ride along the seafront from the Honest Toun to Leith Links to meet some fellow Greenies for a bit of light bureaucracy. On the way home I buy an energy efficient light bulb for the hallway. On the box it says it lasts 8 years. Remind me to de-bayonet it from the light fitting if we do move!

Monday, 4 November 2013

“I had only a little time left and I didn't want to waste it on God.”


As the carved pumpkin lantern gently sags and goes smelly, and thoughts turn to budgeting for Christmas gifts, I’m reminded of how non-religious an upbringing our Bairn is getting.

This will surely be tested next year when she goes into Primary One. I’ve yet to check what the school’s policy is on religious observance and it’s disappointingto see teachers’ representatives describing any move to a more secular systemas presenting “administrative burden”.



I appreciate that back in the day the church basically set up educationin Scotland, and for that I thank them. But we’re not living in the past so let’s see education tailored to meet modern needs.

On the issue of “religious observance” I really don’t understand why prayers have any role in the school day. Faith is a private matter. It shouldn’t be part of the normal running of a school but instead left to parents’ discretion. You hear of children whose parents have opted them out of observance being left to do utterly boring things rather than playing or being taught.

And being taught about faiths and the role religion plays in our society is very important. I don’t want to dwell too much on my experience (my primary school years were three decades ago) but I don’t remember getting any RE at all. What I do remember is a weekly assembly hosted by the local Kirk minister at which we bowed our heads and said the Lord’s Prayer. I hadn’t a clue what all the daily bread stuff was about and was probably busy thinking about playtime and whether I’d be able to swap one of my Discos for one of my pal’s Monster Munch.
 
Give us this day our daily corn-based snack
In short, a good chunk of my childhood was wasted on this stuff but I guess it did me no harm.

There was a tiny wee bit of religion at home. As a kid I would regularly stay with my gran (dad’s mum) on Friday and Saturday nights. At bedtime we’d say the Lay Me Down To Sleep prayer. “If I should die before I wake…” Again, no harm done. It was a cosy routine and a neat way of expressing love for those around me.

I think it was probably my gran’s death that nailed shut any prospect of me taking religion remotely seriously. After decades of teaching and generally being a lovely, clever, confident person (including raising my dad on her own following the death of her husband when my dad was only about ten) she retired with plans to go places and do things. Within a couple of years she was gone. Cancer. It was very sudden and impossible for me to comprehend. How could anyone have faith when faced with such random cruelty?

The Bairn recently asked if she’ll get a new grandpa. (My father-in-law died earlier this year. We avoided any talk of heaven or going to sleep, simply explaining we all get old and eventually die.) I said I didn’t think so and quickly changed the subject.

This week one of my favourite writers, the philosophic goalkeeper AlbertCamus, would have turned 100. He once wrote: “I had only a little time left and I didn't want to waste it on God.” Sound advice, if you ask me.

So, as I gear up for the Bairn’s fifth Christmas – a Christmas full of Santa and presents but hopefully not too much Baby Jesus – I’ll also be gearing up for questions about religion with the move up to Big School.

What would be wrong with keeping the Lord’s Prayer out of the Assembly Hall and Lay Me Down To Sleep in the bedroom? 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Autumn, Season Of Taste

I can’t deny it any longer. If I try to tough it out, I’ll end up sounding as sane as a UKIP-voting climate change skeptic creationist.

Summer is over.

There. I’ve said it.

Proof?

We’ve had the central heating on a couple of nights. I’ve also started to wear a woolly hat on my bicycle commute. The shops are in full “early gifting” mode. And when I got up this morning it wasn’t bright enough to make breakfast without putting the kitchen lights on.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent.

Undoubtedly one of the joys of autumn is long walks where the sun shines, the leaves crunch and the air is fresh. We’re lucky to live fairly close to some greenery, so going for such a walk isn’t a luxury, and we don’t have to use a car or indeed any transport to get there.

And making the most of the sunshine has become something of an obsession of mine. As an office dweller for 37 hours of the week I notice a real difference on days when I manage to grab a glimpse of the sky in addition to my morning and evening commute. I wind down easier in the evening and get a better night’s sleep. There does seem to be research backing this up.

And it seems at weekends if we go for a long walk there’s a greater chance of the Bairn conking out at her actual bedtime instead of making several trips up and down the stairs for pees, cups of milk, extra stories and mumbling requests to watch the “Cake Film”, ie the Great British Bake Off.

After last year’s washout summer this year’s actual proper summery summer was very welcome. Even if my forehead peeled for the first time in over a decade! We have had the obligatory sudden downpours on a few occasions, and it seems the combination of a late spring, blistering heat and a wee bit of drenching has given wild plants a real boost.

A couple of weeks back we were out for a walk along one of the many disused railway lines in East Lothian. It was Raspberry City! The Bairn and Wife-features had a field day, finding bigger and juicier and sweeter rasps with each turn of the path. We’ve also noticed hedgerows brimming with brambles. It seems to be a common theme across Britain.

Yesterday’s walk along the River Esk revealed trees groaning under the weight of fruits and seeds. There was an oak tree that genuinely looked like a Christmas tree lit up with entirely yellow-green bulbs - these turned out to be millions of vivid acorns. An incredibly tall horse chestnut was simply clarted in massive conkers; any denser and it would have resembled a giant bunch of grapes.

I don’t recall being excited about such things last autumn; I can only assume the season was lacklustre and short. But there’s no doubt a bountiful autumn makes for great entertainment when you’re out for a long walk with a four year old. We had to put up with the occasional bouts of “I’m tired” but for the most part the walk was fun because there was so much to point at, pick at and talk about.

We take such plant life for granted and I suspect most of us who live in towns and cities don’t understand what we’re surrounded by. Where we have riverside, forest and park walks I think we should have interpretation boards explaining what we’re seeing.

Until this environmental information nirvana arrives I’ve done some of my own research, which I’ll casually drop into conversation on the next walk, which I intend to describe as Nature Detectives! The Bairn will be astounded with my apparent brilliant knowledge.

For example, did you know…

A rowan berry isn’t a berry. It’s a pome.

Jays are particularly important as dispersal agents for acorns, as they transport them up to a kilometre away from the tree and bury them in the ground. 

Conkers are mildly poisonous.

Elderberries make awesome booze. (OK, so maybe I won’t share that one with the Bairn.)

As I grudgingly set the timer on the boiler and hunt for a set of front and rear cycle lights that actually work, I think how important the coming weekends will be as I make the most of nature in all its glory, shrinking hours of daylight and a daughter full of wonder.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

That's Not My... Independent Scotland

When Ruth Davidson said she wanted the White Paper to reveal what an independent Scotland would look, smell and feel like it reminded me of a series of crinkly, shiny and fluffy books the Bairn was a fan of when she was smaller.

So, here's my contribution to the frenzy of excitement as we mark One Year To Go. I really am reducing the debate to a childish level. Enjoy!








Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Sweet Smell Of Separation


Don’t be alarmed. The title of this blog post isn’t anything to do with Wife-features and me. No, it’s about the absurd tone of those leading the charge against Scottish independence.

There’s a great line in the 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis movie The Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander “Whisky Galore” Mackendrick) in which Burt’s megalomaniac newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker says of Tony’s slippery publicity agent Sidney Falco: “I’d hate to take a bite of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

By default those campaigning for a No vote are sending out a negative message: Scotland shouldn’t decide on issues such as welfare, tax, foreign policy and defence. If they were smart they’d coat these bitter opinions with something sweet to persuade undecided voters that a No vote has positive implications. But judging by the latest comments of Scotland’s Labour and Conservative leaders they’re not even trying.

In this magazine comment piece Ruth Davidson claims we have “a seat at the top table of global decision-making”. Last time I checked the UN had no reserved a space for Scotland in its debating chamber, between Saudi Arabia and Senegal. Instead we have to hope a Tory PM represents the interests of a nation that overwhelmingly votes for other parties.

Ruth talks about her commission on how devolution can be improved and says “most importantly” it includes “a number of senior ‘real world’ figures from Scottish business”. To be clear, the commission is headed by Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, and the number of business figures involved is two. As to their ‘real world’ status, I would simply point out that one is simultaneously on the board of numerous ports, film studios, housebuilders, a yacht group, Celtic football club and is a council member of the CBI big business lobby group. That's one busy boy.

It is however useful to know that the commission’s findings will be clear before the referendum vote, although whether the Tories at a UK level will commit to delivering new powers if they win the General Election in 2015 is anyone’s guess. I rather suspect if Cameron’s lot get back in they’ll be obsessing over EU membership, and Scotland will be forgotten.

“Independence will kill parliamentary devolution stone dead,” says Ruth, buzzing with positivity. Yes, the SNP have tied the hands of local authorities – and Scotland’s local authorities are too big anyway – and they’ve merged the fire brigades and the police forces, but that’s because the punters voted for them. It’s called democracy. If Conservatives genuinely want to see more local control then why do I continually hear Tory politicians talking about the bloated public sector? Oh, what’s that? You want local control but with services provided by the private sector so actually there’s nothing left for locals to control?

Hilariously Ruth hopes the Government’s White Paper on independence, due this autumn, will reveal what an independent nation might “look, smell and feel” like. (Please can it look glittery, smell of cut grass and feel like bubblewrap? And not dishevelled, patchouli and moist.)

In the same magazine Labour’s enigmatic Scottish leader Johann Lamont says the referendum will “hog” the headlines for the next year and that the Edinburgh Agreement is “grandly titled”. This sort of language is familiar. I often see Labour politicians refer to the referendum as a distraction, yet in almost the same breath they often refer to it as the most important decision we’ll ever make. Which is it?

According to Johann the debate is becoming “increasingly bad-tempered”. I have to say the conversations I’ve had with undecided voters have become increasingly constructive and informed. The clock is ticking and people are starting to seek out information so they can decide. I’ve come across former staunch Labour supporters and those who would normally describe themselves as of the Left who find the prospect of taking responsibility for taxation and welfare incredibly appealing.

Lamont says however we vote the “financial future is bleak” and “we have less money”. Argh! I’m being dazzled by such rays of sunshine.

We also have to “compete in a global market”, echoing the words of David Cameron who told CBI  types that Britain needs to keep flogging fighter jets to the Middle East, needs to keep cutting taxes for corporations and needs to cap welfare and freeze child benefit.

She then goes on to say she wants “a battle of ideas, not a battle over identity.” Characterising the referendum as a debate about identity indicates a failure to appreciate that those voters motivated by flags and history have already decided how to vote. Such abstract concepts have not cropped up once in the conversations I’ve had with undecided voters. If Labour genuinely move towards a debate about ideas I’d welcome that.

Finally, Johann says she campaigned for a Scottish Parliament so “no longer would we have a political leader like Margaret Thatcher who could make decisions that would have such a significant impact on people’s lives.” Yes, hooray for Holyrood. Thanks to its mighty powers we no longer have a Tory PM and Chancellor dismantling the welfare state. Oh, wait a minute.

Taken together the tone of the two big pro-UK parties is clear. Westminster does a grand job and if you’re thinking of reforming the way the people are served, think small.

But as Sidney Falco says in the Sweet Smell of Success: “I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players.” Scotland is a big player and this is a big game. Let’s think big.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Those Mad Ministers And Their Marketing Machines



There’s an episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper reveals a great business secret. He says advertising is based on one thing: happiness.

There must be some truth in this, as it seems we’re surrounded by fluffy, cheeky- chappie style advertising. The sort of advertising that calls you “mate”, gives you an unsolicited chuck on the shoulder and offers to get you a skinny latte with a dusting of cinnamon. Just the way you like it, mate.
Advertising. Mad.

These sorts of creepy campaigns, with their strummy, hummy music and freckle-faced children playing in the sun and ordinary suburban types trimming hedges really get my dander up. But thank goodness they stick to products and services I don’t give a hoot about. Well, it seems this happy clappy schtick has infected something I really care about – getting from A to B on a bike.

Before the last election the SNP promised to increase the proportion of government transport spending that goes on walking and cycling. They’ve done no such thing, instead committing billions to building new bridges, bypasses and dual carriageways.
Cycling. Not mad.

Two mass protests – Pedal on Parliament – have taken place and campaigners have been badgering the government constantly. To date we’ve seen little movement, with any new money going on tourist routes in the Highlands. Lovely but not what was being called for.

At some point it seems the government’s agencies – Transport Scotland and Cycling Scotland – presented ministers with a range of options for increasing cycling. Fixing the roads and making it safer would deliver great results but would cost a fair bit. However, you could run a marketing campaign to encourage “mutual respect” among road users for much less. I believe in any business meeting that’s what you call low hanging fruit, so it’s no wonder the minister gave it the nod.

The result is a half a million pounds campaign called Nice Way Code, and it certainly meets the Draper test of promoting happiness. There are cartoon cats being swung and grim reapers on HGVs. The central message is: wouldn’t it be nicer if things were nicer but let's face it, they're not. I’ve seen the campaign receive a warm welcome from keen motorists who dislike cycling and a frosty reception from cyclists who just want to be treated as human beings. That speaks volumes.

We can’t really blame Newhaven, the marketing agency, as they are simply delivering their client’s brief. But let’s assess how the brief corresponds with reality.      

A YouGov poll out today (admittedly on the back of comments made by David Cameron but still relevant in Scotland) asked people how often they ride a bike. Only 4 per cent of Scots cycle “most days”.

How safe are public roads? Across the UK 62 per cent say Not Safe. In Scotland this rises to 64 per cent.

Most popular factors among Scots for making people cycle more:

More dedicated cycle paths – 38 per cent.
Improved safety on roads – 35 per cent.
Better weather (!) – 24 per cent.
Safer storage of bicycles – 20 per cent.

31 per cent of Scots said none of the suggestions made would make them more likely to cycle. (Interestingly, across the UK this answer was given by 29 per cent of men; 39 per cent of women. It’s clearly much harder to persuade women that cycling can be made safe.)

And the big question: Should government encourage more people to cycle?
Across the UK 69 per cent say yes; this rises to 75 per cent in Scotland – the highest figure in the UK.

Nice Way Code
So, three quarters of Scots want the government to make it easier to cycle, and the most popular ways people can be encouraged are cycle paths and improved safety. Is it any wonder light-hearted images of horses on bikes have gone down like a lead balloon? Why are Scottish ministers continuing to ignore such a significant section of society? Why are they ploughing money into messages that enforce the idea that cycling isn’t safe?

So today I’m launching a copycat campaign. I’m stealing Newhaven’s idea to use classic Highway Code-style imagery but I’m replacing “Nice” with “Fix”...

Swapping “Way” for “The”…

Substituting “Code” with “Road”.
 
Fix The Road
As Draper put it, happiness is freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK.

Ministers can provide that reassurance by investing in cycle lanes and safer roads. Only then should they pay ad men to scream about it from billboards.


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What We Did On Our Holidays


For what seems like the first time in many, many years I’ve just had a two-week summer holiday. I didn’t leave the country but I did disconnect from most of reality, and spent lots of time with The Bairn and Wife-features. It was bliss.

By disconnect I really mean that. Perhaps my proudest achievement is surviving a whole fortnight without Twitter. I’m not a huge fan of having conversations on it but it is a superb way of finding interesting content and linking to items of note. In the two and a half years I’ve been using it I’ve slowly learned to take it in moderation; dipping in a few times a day for short periods. Otherwise it can be overwhelming.

I made a point of avoiding radio and TV news and tried to dodge newspapers, although did find myself slipping in a little bit of mild environmental campaigning with local media. A brief busman’s holiday as it were.
And speaking of newspapers – I consume several every day for work – I found it hard to go cold turkey and after 24 hours on holiday got the “information shakes”. I ended up walking to a late night supermarket to buy a copy of the Economist. That kept my brain fed for a bit.

I’ve also started floating the idea of stopping our purchase of a Guardian on Saturday. We used to get it and the FT for sheer enjoyment at weekends but the cost mounts up. Wife-features is a big fan of Tim Dowling but I’m afraid the Guardian has taken a shine to the Farage Balloon in recent months, inviting him to editorial meetings, taking him for pints and describing him as a reluctant celebrity. By contrast my holiday treat of an FT resulted in a detailed feature on the forthcoming IPCC report on climate change and a crossword whose answers included Celia Johnson, my secret black-and-white movie star crush. No, I’m not crying. It’s only something in my eye.

As for black-and-white movies I treated myself to a box set of film noirs (or should that be films noir?) – three Otto Premingers and a Jules Dassin – which I watched from under the brim of my fedora while I knocked back bourbon after bourbon. I read 22 Raymond Carver short stories, and looked out my record player and collection of vinyl. The Bairn got a good blast of dark and sad Joni Mitchell stuff, and didn’t object when I insisted on lining up Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. She has since acquired a ukulele. If she turns out to be a genius singer-songwriter I plan to take full credit.   

The Bairn had a whale of a time at East Links farm park, while we spent another day at Dunbar guddling for sea creatures (smaller than whales) and lounging on the amazing sands of Belhaven Bay. We also took Green Gran to the outstanding Falko cake shop at Gullane. I’m a sucker for strudel.

Belhaven. Bliss.
East Links park was actually a revelation. It’s a serious chunk of change to get in as a family but once inside you have the run of the place and it’s enormous. There’s a narrow guage railway, mini-tractor rides, all sorts of play equipment, bales of hay for climbing and trampolines for bouncing. My earlier experiences of soft play centres have been terrifying but this was actually enjoyable. Maybe it was the fresh air; maybe it’s because the Bairn is four and a bit so needs less attention. Either way I’d recommend it. But watch out for the goats. They almost ate my wristwatch.

It does feel like the last “innocent” summer. Next week she starts at morning nursery so no more sleeping after dad’s gone to work. And of course after that it’s full-time big school.

As Joni once sang:

“The seasons they go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down. We're captive on the carousel of time. We can't return we can only look behind from where we came.”