Friday, 28 June 2013

“Stiff Financial Challenges”

The tribal warfare in Scottish politics that is SNP v Labour is impossible to escape if you're in East Lothian. Since an unholy alliance of Labour, three Tories and an independent took over running the council from the Nats last Spring there’s been constant bickering over who did what to the finances, and frankly it’s a complete turn off even for political nerds like me.

So let’s take a moment to cut through the hyperbole and vitriol and crunch some numbers so we know where we are right now, and where we're heading. Today I was rummaging for up to date figures for Musselburgh’s Common Good Fund (that in itself is another story and another blog post) and as luck would have it I found the latest set of accounts from EastLothian Council, signed off just yesterday by the authority’s head of resources.

He makes clear the cutbacks we’ve seen to date are far from over. His final paragraph is particularly chilling:

“The council continues to face stiff financial challenges and fully anticipates that it will require to make further tough choices in the coming years. The projected loss in central government funding forecast by independent analysts, combined with the anticipated freeze in Council Tax, will almost certainly require a reduction in both revenue and capital budgets and a more stringent downward management of costs.”

Lots of love and happy holidays! (I made that last bit up – can you tell?)

The headline figures for me are:

-       East Lothian Council has a bottom line deficit of £25.499 million.

-       Over the next two years over 90 staff will leave under a voluntary redundancy scheme, saving the council an estimated £2.8m a year.

-       More reductions are planned and the council aims to save a further £8.5m across uits operating base.

-       The hole in the council’s pension fund has grown larger – up from £94m to £110m.

-       Investment in assets to support council services has fallen in the past year by more than a quarter, down to £52m from £71m.

-       Council rent will have to rise.

“Stiff financial challenges”? Talk about an understatement!

Given the SNP Government’s commitment to the stupid council tax freeze (it benefits the wealthiest the most) – a freeze Labour also pledged going into the Holyrood 2011 election – along with the cuts being handed on from the Slash & Burn Tory-Libdem Coalition at Westminster, it’s hard to see anything brightening for councils such as East Lothian any time soon.

Rather than bickering, the warring factions should be working together to maintain services and preserve jobs and wages. It’s clear the state we’re in is unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Communities must be consulted before the axe is wielded further, and whatever the outcome of the independence referendum next year there needs to be a new way of running local government in Scotland that improves democracy and accountability, gives greater flexibility and puts progressive values at its heart.   

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Sunny Dunny

It’s community spirit season! Yes, the time of galas, common ridings, games and shows is here. Safe oot, safe in, humorous floats, fancy dress parades and a small girl being crowned “queen” in a tent by a dinner lady. We’ve been on a bit of tour of them recently.

A couple of weekends back the Bairn and I hopped on a 26 to soak up the atmosphere of the 3 Harbours Festival. Each year Port Seton, Cockenzie and Prestonpans break out the bunting and lay on all sorts of art exhibitions and craft events. (Note to bunting-hangers: a little higher on the lampposts next year. We got quite a thrill on the top deck of the bus as the little flags strung across the main street slapped into our window at 30mph.)

Cockenzie - The art of East Lothian
It seemed every other house in Port Seton had a sign in the window saying Open House - Please Come In. Small children were handing out art guides and the harbour was buzzing with well-heeled couples in corduroy and cashmere. The real highlight for us was a visit to Sam Burns’ junkyard where a piano and a pianist had been installed for the afternoon. Raking through old furniture and books to the sound of tinkling ivories. Weird and wonderful.

We also recently paid a visit to the family fun day at Fisherrow Links in Musselburgh. The Bairn had the pleasure of having her face painted by the Honest Lass.

Last weekend we set our controls for the heart of the sun, to steal a phrase from Pink Floyd. That’s right - Dunbar. It rivals our former habitat, Nairn, as the sunniest town in Scotland. Dunbar has the highest average sunshine in Scotland and the lowest annual rainfall. Any time I’ve ever been it’s been sunny and dry. I bet there’s nowhere on Dunbar High Street that sells cagoules, it‘s that dry.

The birthplace of conservationist John Muir is also home to a cement works, nuclear power station and landfill site. I like to think old John would have had something to say about those but instead those who act in his name these days get worked up about wind turbines. Go figure.

It's alive!
Anyway, it seems a band of merry mums has revived the town’s Civic Week and what a great job they’ve done. There was no shortage of things to do. We met lobsters, crabs and urchins at the harbour, and went rock pooling at the East Beach. I don’t know if Wife-features had ever been rock pooling before because there was a wee bit of scepticism before we ventured out. However when we were well out on the rocks and starting to scoop with our nets she let out a yelp: “This place is alive! It’s absolutely full of creatures!”

Even the Bairn had to admit there was something of a “rock pool party” going on for miles around. We found brittle sea stars, hermit crabs and shore crabs. I even got to pick up a decent sized green crab, for probably the first time in 30 years.

We then found ourselves in a story tent - sorry, story yurt - in the park. A lovely old bloke was reading extracts from John Muir’s boyhood memoirs - this doesn’t sound utterly thrilling but I tell you the Bairn was entranced. Either that or just glad to be in the shade and knackered from all the rock pooling.

There’s a whole heap of great stuff going on in Dunbar, mainly through the organisation Sustaining Dunbar. Bicycles, local food, energy production - you name it, they’re doing it. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see a High Street looking so diverse, alive and independent. Apart from a wee Co-op I’m struggling to think of any other chain stores on the main street. Money spent in Dunbar stays in Dunbar.

Next up? The Haddington Agricultural Show. I’m a sucker for a massive combine, and maybe at long last I’ll live the dream and wear a badge saying “Judge” and walk nonchalantly into the home-baking tent to sample as much as I can before being rumbled.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Story Time

Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson is quite right to ask why we don’t appear to take children’s books as seriously as adult writing. In the big stack of Sunday papers I wade through every weekend there are acres of reviews of fiction and non-fiction for grown ups but hardly ever a recommendation for what the nippers should be reading or having read to them.

I remember the frustration in the last year of primary school when the reading of longer stories with no pictures was clearly a turn off for many but I couldn’t get enough. I asked the school librarian what I should read and she said something about teenage boys liking science fiction and fantasy so maybe I should head into that section and see what I fancied. There then followed a difficult period of a couple of years when I slowly chipped my way through enormous volumes by people like David Eddings and Stephen Donaldson, not to mention terrifying stuff by Stephen King and James Herbert, and the obligatory Tolkien. I’m ashamed to say Tolkien’s what I got to last, and back then I regarded it as a silly wheeze about a dragon - this coincided with my move to an English-run overseas military secondary school where cricket and rugby were compulsory, and for a very brief period I was more interested in sport than reading.

I wish there had been more structure and guidance. Think of all the great things I could have read! Never mind. I’ve done my best to catch up. Indeed, some of the best books I’ve read in recent years have been for a younger audience. No, not the Harry Potter stuff but Charlie Higson’s Young Bond stories and the heartbreaking real life grit of Melvyn Burgess. Junk comes close to being my Desert Island book. I’d also beg Kirsty Young to shred the Complete Works of Shakespeare and let me take the Complete Calvin and Hobbes instead.

We’re really lucky in Musselburgh in that we have a pretty good public library. The staff are lovely and the children’s section is incredibly varied. But on the whole it is teeny tiny compared to the town’s 20,000 population, and it‘s never busy when we‘re in. What’s that all about? Musselburgh doesn’t have a bookshop unless you count the charity shops or the Waterstone’s at Fort Kinnaird retail park three miles away.
The Bairn’s latest favourite - and I love it too - is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree. With hilarious consequences. No, really. It’s a genuine hoot.

Other recent favourites include the Mo Willems Pigeon series. Trust me, you’ll never look at a pigeon at a bus stop the same way again.

I still remember the two earliest books I read to the Bairn - Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo. Those flaps! Those holes! Genuine works of genius.

A good book is a sure fire way of uniting a kid who’s four and a dad who’s heading for forty. I’ll keep you posted on other gems we come across. Meantime please do share your recommendations for story time. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Table Talk

Many of my favourite movie scenes, it turns out, involve people sitting round a table eating. Think of that bit in Jaws where Chief Brody’s youngest son copies his hand movements and facial expressions; or the near identical scene in Close Encounters; the hilarity of The Odd Couple’s Oscar offering his poker buddies “green sandwiches or brown sandwiches” in which the green is either very new cheese or very old meat; or the syncopated dance routine that gets the Bande a Part trio up from their Parisian cafĂ© table.

In short, life without a table is pretty dull. Amazingly we’ve somehow survived a whole year without a proper kitchen table. When we relocated to Musselburgh from Nairn we had to leave behind a whole heap of solid, substantial furniture, including a handsome and rather large dining table. For the five and a bit years we were in Nairn the table was pretty fundamental to what we did, not just for breakfast and dinner but for throwing parties and having people round. I remember one year we had a Tom Weir themed shindig in which everyone came dressed in bobble hats, woolly jumpers and with their trousers tucked into their socks. The table was laden with Scotch pies and a massive cake in the shape of a bobble hat.

Another time it was a 70s party and we used every inch of the table for every possible confection of the era: Butterscotch Angel Delight, Babycham, Findus Crispy Pancakes, cubes of cheddar on cocktail sticks and Black Forest Gateaux. Barf out.
Butterscotch Angel Delight makes an ideal table decoration

As a temporary measure upon arrival at Musselburgh I picked up a second-hand kitchen table. It was small and circular and OK for me, Wife-features and the Bairn to sit at for most meals. But at long last it’s been replaced by a charity shop find. Many thanks to the big lad from the “Deaf Dugs” for helping me lug it home. (The Honest Toun’s most amazing charity shop is the Tardis-like Hearing Dogs for the Deaf emporium, accessed via an unassuming door next to Superdrug. It gets called Deaf Dugs for short. Classy.) This table’s rectangular and you could easily get six folk round it. I’m blogging at it right now and it doesn’t feel precarious.

We often hear how family meal time is the totemic societal issue of the modern age. There’s bound to have been a Daily Mail article linking Broken Britain with the demise of shared dinners. To be fair, when I think back to my teenage years (I was the eldest of four kids) I would increasingly take my tea in my own room, usually while watching the news. A bit depressing really. But there was a golden age when all four of us, plus mum and dad, would eat at the same table. And sometimes the telly wouldn’t be on. We would talk to each other about stuff. For years it was my job to set the table and then put away the placemats and give the table a wipe and polish.

It’s great to have a point in the day when the hurly burly pauses for everyone so conversation, food and unwinding can happen. Already I find myself asking the Bairn what she did at nursery even though she’s only there for a couple of hours and quite a bit of it involves playing with toys and other kids in the sort of unstructured way that would horrify a Tory government minister. I never ask “how was nursery?” but always ask what she did, so there‘s no chance of the one word response “fine.”

I hope this routine (and table) lasts, and no I don’t plan to make the Bairn polish the table after every meal. We’ve got a wipe-clean tablecloth.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Zombie Slugs and the Rollercoaster of Life

The past few weeks have been hard for us. Wife-features’ dad died. He was in his 80s and while that seems like a good innings it was rather sudden and upsetting for all.

We took our time and did a wee bit of research before breaking the news to the Bairn. Advice I found emphasised the need to be clear and avoid metaphors with young kids when describing death. Whatever you do, don’t say the person’s gone to sleep or your child will be terrified to ever go to bed again!

When we told the Bairn there was clearly sadness on her face and in her mind, and she said she understood. Moments later we were kicking a ball about and having a laugh. She hasn’t subsequently asked me about it.

Around the same time she’d asked Wife-features about zombies. Yes, that’s right. Four years old and asking about the living dead. Wife-features was disposing of some expired slugs in the garden at the time. A reassurance was given that the molluscs wouldn’t rise up and require a clean blow to the head.

First it was a pirate-themed party, then a zombie-fascination, and as I speak she’s having her face painted to look like a dinosaur’s. What next for my wee lassie? Dad, please can I stay up to watch Top Gear and break wind?

The loss of a family member is painful but it’s also reminded me of the importance of enjoying those around me now, and the thrill of the rollercoaster ride of being a dad. I’m in the process of booking a couple of weeks off work over summer, and was toying with doing what I did last year – I made sure one of the two weeks was when the Bairn was at nursery so Wife-features and I could spend some uninterrupted time together. “Date Week” I believe we called it. We went for walks, talked and generally reconnected.

This time I’m going for both weeks when the Bairn has holidays so we really make the most of our time together as a family. After all, there’s only one more year to go before school starts and – potentially – the missus is working again.

Yup, it’s a rollercoaster all right. And I’m holding on tight.