Monday, 20 May 2013

Going Out Is Really Going In

Our Bairn is a tree-hugger. The basis for this hilarious addiction is lost in the mists of time. I suspect it may have been the influence of one of her “aunties” (female friends of Wife-features and I), some of whom have a fondness for patchouli, meditation and literally embracing plantlife. At least that’s a better outcome than if the Bairn was spending more time with her actual uncle, my ex-stripper brother and his Guy Ritchie DVDs.

I mention the tree-hugging because a love of the great outdoors, or even a slightly squashed-between-housing-developments outdoors, is such a reassuring trait in a kid. The roads near our house can be pretty thick with traffic and we gave up the car so big forests, country parks and remote beaches are mostly off limits these days. Luckily we’ve a jungle of a garden and we don’t have to venture far to find playing fields, river walks and seaside links.

There are days, usually when the weather’s gloomy, when the Bairn insists she wants to stay inside all day. Even if there’s a downpour I normally insist we step outside. There are the obvious benefits of exercise and fresh air (assuming you get far enough away from the traffic-choked roads) but also the less-obvious benefits such as better eyesight (my childhood fondness for playing Pacman on the Atari may wellexplain my appalling myopia) as well as the joys of relaxation and connection. The other night it was dry, warm and sunny till 9pm and we had a great time in the local school playing fields. Afterwards it occurred to me it was an evening full of the kind of parent-kid activity that should result in happy memories for decades to come. I still have a memory of falling asleep on my dad’s shoulders as he walked me home one summer’s evening across a field in East Lothian. That was over thirty years ago and still gives me comfort.

The Bairn’s memories should mostly consist of doing awesome long jumps into sand pits, attempting to climb very large, gnarly trees and being asked to remember the number “999” in the event of mum and dad’s “wheelbarrow” race going horribly wrong.

We also stood underneath a particularly large, gnarly tree as a great spotted woodpecker (dendrocopos major) pecked at its gnarls. At one point we were showered with fragments of dead wood like some sort of carpenter’s confetti.
Not Professor Yaffle - Major Dendrocopos

A walk up the River Esk the other weekend was a wee voyage of discovery. Firstly we encountered four fluffy goslings nibbling on the riverbank in front of the mahoosive Tesco that has been inflicted on the Honest Toun. Going further upstream past the old mill weir (hydro potential?) we came across masses and masses of wild garlic. The whole place reeked but in a nice way.
Wild garlic
As our Bairn gets older her ability to play more challenging outdoor games grows. I think we’re fairly close to trying her out with some kerbie and you’ve no idea how excited that makes me. Of course, we need to find a quiet street. Either that or use our local roads at 6am on Sundays.

It’s unlikely we’ll go anywhere exotic this summer – we’re still trying to watch the pennies and we miss our friends in the Highlands – so I suspect we’ll be making good use of local green spaces. I’m looking forward to summer nights full of breathlessness and birdsong. As John Muir wrote: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown. For going out, I found, was really going in.”        

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Fair Drams

I love whisky. From my first taste (underage in Blackfriars on Academy Street in Inverness) to the gifts at my wedding (miniatures of Glenkinchie) to the prospect of celebrating the Bairn’s 16th birthday (a bottle of relatively rare Royal Brackla from Nairnshire has been stashed away for 2025), the water of life has played an important role in the best bits of my life so far.

But like many lifelong heroes the whisky industry hides a dark secret. I’m not going so far as to compare Scotch with Stuart Hall or Jimmy Savile (both of whom I interviewed in my previous life as a radio dude - Stuart was theatrical, verbose and knowledgeable about antique clocks while Jim was plain weird) but the actions of the industry cartel are borderline scandalous.

The Scotch Whisky Association - often assumed to be the only voice the industry has - is a club of rich multinationals currently stymieing efforts to combat Scotland’s appalling abuse of alcohol. Minimum pricing was agreed by parliament a year ago but hasn’t been implement thanks to the SWA’s court action. This was dismissed by judges in Scotland but the SWA have talked about taking it further. Meanwhile its members continue to profit while Scots drink themselves into early graves thanks to booze that’s cheaper than water.

Wife-features is on a mission to eradicate the Honest Toun’s slug population. Or at least set up a No Slug Zone within slithering distance of our veg patch. To assist I was asked to bring back the local supermarket’s cheapest liquor. Four cans of bitter for a pound. Great value slug control; dreadfully lax public health controls.    

As we prepare to lay malty reservoirs of doom in our garden I’d like to lift the spirits (!) of this discussion to highlight the ethical options available to whisky fans. If like me you want to avoid being complicit in the success of the profit-driven health-spurning SWA and its members you really must avoid the big brands. In the supermarkets it’s impossible to find whiskies that aren’t owned by SWA members, and even the ones that seem independent are owned by multinationals which leaves you with a dilemma over the tax they pay.

So, after painstakingly comparing my bumper book of distillers with the published SWA membership I’m fairly confident these are the labels to look out for if you fancy a Fair Dram, in the same way you’d look for Fair Trade on tea, coffee or chocolate:

Bruichladdich (non-SWA but owned by Paris based Remy Cointreau):

Dalmore and Isle of Jura by Whyte and Mackay (non-SWA but owned by multinational conglomerate United Brewers)

Piecharts And Marmite Eck

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Don’t worry, I’m not having delusions of grandeur. Rather I’ve been taking the refined air of Haddington, the ancient market town and capital of my home county. But the Shakespearean battle quote is somewhat apt; I’ve been waging a gentle, polite war on the streets on behalf of Scottish independence.

As a Green the prospect of Holyrood having control over foreign affairs and the welfare state isn’t usually what gets me out of bed in the morning but it’s the front and centre issue of the moment and we’ve picked a side. I say we but in fact there remain a range of views within the Green movement because it’s not our reason for being.

It’s been interesting getting involved with some of the local SNP foot soldiers, who are clearly a well drilled regiment. Of course at this stage the engagement with the public isn’t the same as during elections when an indication of voting preference is sought; at this stage we’re trying to begin two-way conversations with people about their current thinking on the issue, any questions they have and what information they would like to help them decide, assuming they already haven’t.

As a "Belter" fae Tranent I’ve always thought of Haddington as a well-to-do place. I mentioned this to someone from Gullane and they chortled. Ah yes, the social structure of East Lothian is a multi-layered and complex pattern, rather like the Argyle jumpers of the dapper golfers that pepper our landscape like mini-woollen wind turbines.

One of the three councillors for Haddington is a Tory and East Lothian has a Labour MP (the Tories came second) and a constituency Labour MSP. So, I was expecting a fair bit of pro-Union banter when I took to the streets but what transpired was genuinely amazing.

Over the course of a couple of hours most people were happy to take information and preferred not to discuss the issue - several commenting September 2014 is still a while away yet. Of those who said they had already decided how to vote most were No. When I asked why the reasons given were enlightening.
Graphics via the Bairn's Crayola Qwikflip Easel

I would say a quarter of them cited “Salmond - I don‘t like him” with another quarter saying SNP policies were putting them off. I did try explaining I’m not a cheerleader for Marmite Eck (you either love him or hate him) and I’m still planning to vote Yes, and I also tried pointing out grumbles about the actions of government were just that and not related to the referendum. If you don’t like what the Nats are doing to the health service, vote them out in 2016 and by the way in a Scottish election you get two votes with almost half the MSPs elected in a proportional way so your choices are more likely to be reflected than Westminster’s staggeringly unfair system.

Most of the Nos however gave frankly bizarre reasons. One woman said her grandkids lived in England and a vote for independence would turn them overnight into foreigners. It’s difficult to know what to say to that mix of emotion and illogic. I’ve got an uncle in Canada and I think of him as, er, my uncle. 

I was also intrigued by a couple of folk who wanted to know what “it” would be like. “It” being the future under independence. Not having a Delorian, a working flux capacitor and a spare gigawatt I was unable to definitely state what the future would be like but explained at least we’d have more of a say in issues that affect us, and what’s more we’d probably be involved in shaping a constitution. I got the distinct impression these folk struggled with the concept of the people deciding, instead being used to politics as something decided by men in smoke-filled rooms with decision communicated to them via the tabloids.

In much the same way that I found the Scottish election campaign of 2011 mostly about explaining to people HOW to vote rather than WHY vote Green I feel the referendum is still an abstract concept for most folk. At least the conversations I had in Haddington left some punters wondering about the possibilities. I can’t wait to head back unto that breach.