Monthly Archives: June 2014

“I’m Bored”

The call hasn’t gone up yet, at least not today, but it will.  As I scribble these notes Boy Urchin is umbilically attached to a laptop, headphones on; his sister his wrapped up in a duvet on the couch, engrossed in some years-old game show on the box.  I glance out the window.  Thin wisps of cloud are barely visible to the north, on the opposite horizon a couple of puff-balls bring variety.  Closer, the leaves of the rowan barely ripple.  And there are no molehills peppering the moss and the clover.

They have already been told.  Between the chores we will be out.  Smiling is optional.  We need to be out later in the day anyway, so I’m thinking of an early departure, a woodland walk with a backpack of goodies.  We might even call it lunch.  There is an apple in the bowl; and a tin of chicken soup for the flask.  That usually works.

Having undertaken, just last week, to reappraise the priorities during the school holidays, I decided it was well past time, but not too late, to finally pluck Last Child in the Woods from the shelf.  It is almost a decade since the seminal work of Richard Louv was published.  Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder is the subtitle.  It is a book that has inspired many a writer since.  And it is a recognition of what we all know, backed up by years of research, interviews and reports.

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The way we raise our children today is far removed from our own time at the same age.  Many reasons for that are very valid.  There are more dangers out there, from vastly increased traffic, to strangers intent on evil, and, certainly in the case of Louv’s side of the Atlantic, an unhealthy gun culture, to name but a few.

As yet I am barely half way through the book.  There are eye opening moments, evidence from far and wide.  Today’s children are sheltered from nature; and as they enter adulthood so their own children are more likely to spend increasing time indoors, oblivious to the world outside.

One memorable encounter was of a nine year old, exposed to Aids, taken on a camping trip, an escape from urban misery.  A trip to the latrines through the night brought a gasp, eyes open, staring.  Never before had she seen stars.  That moment changed her life.

The statistics from the National Parks are worrying.  Children who weren’t taken camping don’t camp as adults.  Increasingly visitors to the parks are unaccompanied by children.  They’re all indoors, in front of the television, or attached to the computer or games console.

The facts and figures on obesity and medications since those heady days of the 50s, 60s and 70s when we grew up with a certain amount of freedom are frightening.  I am minded of a brief visit to the Latvian capital some years ago.  The local youth were stick thin; bloated I felt, carrying a mere fraction of the weight of today.  But through the centuries old arches of the city walls glowed the golden arches of the west, signs of creeping misery.  In Western Europe we were fast catching up with the problems of the USA, and I suspect that a return to Riga today may confirm that the Latvians may be closing on where we were then.

So I’m going to read the rest of Louv’s book.  School holiday priorities of life will change.  And there will be a flask of chicken soup in the woods by lunchtime.  It’s a sun cream and sun hat day, for sure.  And there are wonders out there.

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Wee Duggy Dug’s been out for a walk

A midsummer nightmare more like

Ah, The Best of Both Worlds:
Did Better Together really believe that in the referendum there was nothing to discuss? Did they really believe everything would continue as before, even if they won? Did they really believe post-Credit Crunch, post-bank failures, post-Iraq, post-phone-hacking, post-Lawrence, post-Saville, post-Hillsborough, post-misselling, post-mutual-fund elimination, post-tax-avoidance, post-£1.4 Trillion debt, post-UKIP, post-pay-day-loans of 4,000% APR, post-austerity cuts, post-property-bubble, post-spare-room tax, post-zero-hour contracts, post-Plebgate, post-MPs expenses: that the UK, the Union is the best of all possible worlds, the best of both worlds, or least probable of all –the best that life could offer, or the fairest our society could aspire to be?

That paragraph came from a fine article over at Bella Caledonia. Read the full piece, and then see what else there is on Bella’s pages.  They’ve a fine series under way right now, the views of the English, resident in Scotland, and voting Yes.

And whilst we’re catching up on matters here’s a view of Scotland from a distance, as far away as possible actually, from New Zealand – fine piece put up on Wings.  Ah, New Zealand, the place where my distant cousins went in the 1850s, escaping the problems we had then; the place now heavily represented on the family tree.  They seem to have done all right as a wee country.

And as stonking articles go they don’t come much better than this one from the Wee Ginger Dug.  If you’ve missed it there’s a wee crowd funder under way for WGD’s partner at the moment, after some huge support from Stu Campbell’s regulars at Wings.  If you haven’t already done so, do help them if you can; delighted I did.  A wee nudge should see it over the line.

You know what you have to do:

IUrVN1X

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It’s Alice Cooper Time, Again

The school bus is away, but it will return again all too soon.  I have my instructions, chicken curry and naan bread, ready at lunchtime.  Between now and then all the usual chores around house and office, at bank and post or wherever else have to be done; a cycle too perhaps.

For after that, and until 13 August not that we’re counting, two little urchins have to be cajoled and tempted, bribed and whined.  Any my regime has to change.  Solitary cycles will have to be pre-breakfast, and that in itself means they need to be short ones, just as the muscles for the hills were getting into shape.  We may get the chance to cycle together, though that will inevitably mean that one zooms up ahead and the other lags slowly behind.  Which is where you may find one modelling the latest in lycra gear.  I’ll need to have a word about recumbents – we need that slogan across the belly.

We could have trips to the park, walks in the woods, rambles by the burn, and picnics in the saddle bags.  I’m determined that school holidays will not mean seven weeks of games consoles and television.  And I’m equally determined not to put up with protests every time I mention that we need to head to the shops, or the post office.

Each little outing becomes a major expedition when three have to go where one wants.  Pushing a trolley round the nearest discounter becomes stressful, though they do have boxes of three pistachio ice-creams if we happen to be good.  From this rural idyll simple things like banking or getting milk invariably mean being out for up to an hour and a half.  It’s a chunk out of the day, plans are needed.

For the next few weeks the house will ring with laughter, and squabbling.  Footballs will be banged against walls; swings will creak and squeal if ever I can get the rusted bolts loose to replace broken ropes.  The library’s Summer Reading programme will get a thrashing.  And bags will be packed for the annual trip away and two weeks of whatever the weather has in store.

And amongst it all work has to go on, the daily regime dictated by the whims of the postie, the phone ringing and the incessant pinging of the inbox.  And if that call isn’t answered, the email gets no response, or the cheque isn’t in the post, then be patient.  For School’s Out, and I’ve other things to do.

For another school year has come to an end, already; perfect attendance once again; stonking report cards; happy urchins doing well.

Let’s get the bikes out children.  Oh for goodness sake switch off that wii…  Lunch, what do you mean you want lunch; I’m not used to making lunch…

 

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A Midsummer Dream’s Night

One wanted to make a moth lure; the other to wield the mallet.  Tent pegs were duly hammered home, though the soft dry ground needed no persuasion to yield.

The night had arrived, Big Wild Sleep Out; they hadn’t forgotten.  Binoculars and cameras; notebooks and pens; stoves and sleeping bags.  A stray receipt left inside confirmed the last use of the wee tent, for wee weekends away, almost three years ago – Alnwick, the Poison Garden – and memories were found as the hot chocolate simmered.

Knowing full well how few the hours of darkness would be, how little time between dusk and dawn, expectation for energy for little wildlife walks was pretty low.  But we’d arranged for other entertainment as well.  Two tents were erected, the second coming out of the bag for the first time, sans instructions, which is always fun.

But we managed, though it was no ordinary tent.  The Garden Observatory was set up, telescope safe inside.  Then the software, the camera, and the laptop.  For some time we’d promised The Urchins a bit of moon watching, realising that images on screen would be an awful lot better than an eye to a lens.  But when the skies are clear, the moon bright, it’s usually because the temperature is sub-zero, hence the tent, with removable roof, in whole or in part.

There’s enough room for the family, for chairs, and a stool for the laptop; and for a little gas stove on winter nights.  Stargazing for Softies will be with us soon.  But Midsummer Night is not ideal.  The night itself starts late.  We were blessed with clear skies, in the main, after a week of wind-free sunshine and temperatures to tempt old cyclists out on most days.  But in the east, above the tree lined slopes, clouds gathered.  We would have to wait, and wait.

And as we waited the sun eventually set.  Horizons were rimmed in red, fading gently.  The stand of Scots pines across the way rustled as the rooks rested for the night.  Moths began to appear, ignoring the little lure of honey and fruit.  Ornamental grasses, fluttering above the roof of the shed, rustled as wraiths weaved a way between stems.  These were moths, of some size, monsters perhaps.  Closer by smaller winged beasties fluttered round the beech hedge.  My mind turned to the horrors of the clothes moths inside, and mutterings not fit for Urchins’ ears.

The barn owl held his roost, determined not to give in to The Watchers in the Dark.  But we didn’t get beyond those times of gloaming, forced to seek shelter as the night monsters launched their attack.  Sleep came quickly, as a distant bull told the world of his activities, nocturnal conquests perhaps.

It was a full-blown seige that was laid, for they were still there after the dawn chorus quieted.  We had intended poking noses and cameras through the tent flaps in the early hours.  But sleep overcame, and the chorus drifted by as we dozed dreamily on, refusing to be fully awake.  A quick blast with the heater took the early chill off the air.  Then came the sun, relentless as it had been all week, unusually so, and before long it was fresh air that was demanded in the inner sanctum.  But it was not to be.

And as we had been forced to do when the dusk crept slowly on, we sought the safety of the citronella.  For in Big Wild Sleep Out terms there is only one monster to be feared, the king of the skies, scourge of the bare, the mighty midgie.  It is proving to be an awful year for them.  The oil burner that has lain unused for many years, and the height of fashions that is the midge net, have been in heavy use.

The moon didn’t play ball either, in its final quarter, barely a sliver, hidden by clouds and probably eaten by those bloody midgies, for it is made of cheese isn’t it?  Anyway, they had a ball, slept well, and are reinvigorated for a bit of sky watching.  And the Garden Observatory could well be in good use in the months ahead, when the skies darken earlier, winter too perhaps, with the stove burning and the tent protecting.  And the midgies gone.

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I put a book down the other day

… purely to allow a paragraph to settle, to muse on it.  Let me read it to you:

Thirty years ago, for every £100 of public money spent on housing, £80 went on bricks and mortar and £20 went on housing benefit.  So most of the money was spent increasing the supply of housing to enable people to get access to affordable homes and a minority of money was given as emergency support where affordable homes were not available.  Now, for every £100 of public money spent on housing, £95 goes on housing benefit and £5 goes on bricks and mortar.  So most of the money goes straight to property owners who control housing supply and virtually none goes to expanding the supply of housing.  This pushed up rents and house prices, the opposite of what public policy should be seeking to do.

Now read that again.  Happy with this wonderful society are we?

It was only a few days ago that Oxfam were warning that the UK was fast heading to become the most unequal society in the developed world.  We were talking about the awfulness of being 4th a year ago, and recently ‘rose’ to 3rd place.  Is this what we want?

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So as I was musing on all that along comes the High Pay Centre, an independent non-party think tank, with a review of the OECD Better Life Index.  Oh my goodness.

Now you’ll know that I’m an avid fan of the vision of Lesley Riddoch, casting an enviable eye across the North Sea to the Nordic countries; to what they have achieved with similar natural resources and populations; and to what we uniquely have the opportunity to try and emulate.

In the UK the poorest fifth of households have an average income of only just over $9,500 much lower than the poorest fifth in other countries in NW Europe – Germany for instance is almost $13,500, Netherlands over $11,250, and Denmark over $12,000.  But let’s look a little further east, to say Czech Republic, and Slovenia, for that’s our closest competition in this particular league of infamy, former Eastern Bloc nation states.

And if we look at average incomes we do compare with the Dutch and the Danes, all of us > $25,000 and < $26,000.  We get there because our top 20% is the third highest in the EU, at $54,000, way ahead of Belgium, Netherlands and the Nordic countries who fall into the $44-49,000 bracket.

So our wealthy are the cream of the European crop; our poor the dregs of Eastern Europe.  Happy with that?  Now read that paragraph that I started with again.  What are we to do about it?

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Well in the UK, precisely nothing, aim ever higher, regardless of whichever combination of Tory/UKIP and Labour/LibDem, gets the next five year stretch at Westminster.

But in Scotland, we can aim higher.  Not higher up that embarrassing table, but higher at our greater good.  Which is where the book comes in.  For that’s just one paragraph from Robin McAlpine’s Common Weal vision.  There’s only one way to go, and that is Vote Yes.

And we can rise like the other independent nations, break free from this relentless downward spiral.

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As always keep one eye on what’s being said over at Wings, though there’s much more to see in the wonderful world of the cybernat:

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Oh happy days

It’s been a busy weekend.  Few aren’t these days.  But as is often the case the best laid plans, as someone once said, gang aft agley.  Today is no exception.

Saturday, you may recall, was Gala Day in town.  The float was ready, tractor sourced, children excited.  Some hasty repairs were required even before getting underway, after some scabby tup, loose on the road, found something at the right height to rub against, breaking a bit of…. ah you’ve still to wait on the photos and know not what the theme was .  Soon chaps.

Anyway a prize from the judges came again, third once more, the process every bit as mysterious as it always is.  And off we went round the town, making a noise, streets thronged, silly string and sweeties launched as the procession marched on.

But the day was half done by then.  For Boy Urchin had a football match, after the office work was dealt with.  And what a match it was too, they almost looked like a football team, for the first time.  They changed ends 4-1 to the good, and Boy Urchin handed the goalie gloves on, taking up his customary spot in the defence.

The opposition though were not happy, a long winning streak endangered, and they set siege.  I’m told by the boys on the couch on those beaches down Rio way that Parking the Bus is the in thing to do.  A breach was established, despite heroic efforts by goalie no.2 which would certainly have escaped his predecessor, the deficit was cut, and cut again.  4-3, when’s the whistle due?

Well the boys held firm; there was joy on one touchline, despair on t’other.  The league leaders’ ten match run was gone.  And if only we had footage of the third goal.  RVP himself would enjoy it.

And so to gala, excited, chuntering endlessly, weepy.  Boy Urchin was quite high too.  And if that wasn’t enough it was straight on to the old Rural Hall, after the festivities in the park, party time.  Bouncy castle, burgers, midgies, and a very late night.  Old friends too, seen too rarely these days, and cake.  What’s not to like?

Just the sort of day you like when you’ve had little sleep and no food on the one before; just the day to precede another disturbed night, and another day of fast.  A day following, indeed, when energy supplies were in demand.  For finally the plans to move stuff around, perhaps even bin some, could see some action.  The Genealogist’s Study is taking shape.  The detritus that filled that space is in the shed, in the garage, in the bin.  The old shed contents, some of them anyway, are in the new shed.  The Urchins’ plastic kitchen is out of the garage and – well it’s in the garden at the moment.

But it will find a home in the old shed, maybe; once I’ve removed all the dirt and debris that gathers after nigh on a couple of decades.  But I didn’t expect heaps of soil under the shelving, piled up in the corner.  As well as daylight through the roof and the walls, we’ve holes in the floor too.  As well as moths and moles, and midgies, the rats have been active this year, perhaps last, possibly longer, eating through the flooring.  Ah well.

So today there were plans.  And the sun rose, very warmly.  Two planes left a slipstream saltire in the sky.  Good day for a cycle, after all the other chores were done, or so I thought.

But there was pain, agony even; overdid it yesterday perhaps, not as young you know.  Still perhaps by lunchtime…

Then the phone call.  It’s the school.  Come and collect.  It’s end of term assembly tomorrow, and a third consecutive perfect attendance award.  The report cards are done.  What better time then to throw up all over the classroom floor.  So he’s at home now, very subdued, very pale.  Waiting on the first of tonight’s matches; waiting for Friday training and tales of that match; waiting for selection for Saturday, last game of the season.  And the bike’s back in the garage.  And the Doc phoned. (for me not him)

The best laid plans…

PS  … and construction’s under way – mid June and the house martin’s are finally nesting.  Strange year.

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Our Man in Tashkent

Iraq descends into chaos, again; and I see that Blair says it’s our fault for not being more active in Syria; for not doing there what he thought prudent in Iraq a decade ago, and proposes again now.  I remain of the few that judgement awaits for our Middle East Peace Envoy, preferably in this lifetime, however…

I’ve been having a very engrossing read of the days around the same area, a decade ago, when Blair had a pivotal role.  This particular work though focuses more on the Foreign Secretary of those days, and the War on Terror, before and after the invasion.

Craig Murray was appointed British Ambassador to Uzbekistan after the horrors of the attacks on the Twin Towers.  He had a turbulent three years.  Regulars will be aware that I occasionally refer to Craig’s writings on his blog, for various purposes.

Murder in Samarkand his account of events, in his embassy in Tashkent and beyond.  It covers his health and personal problems, as well as media manipulation.  But primarily it’s about the UK dancing to the US tune, turning an official blind eye to what was apparent to our man in the area.

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Torture.  Information was obtained by the security services, used and disseminated.  Britain knew that the Americans were using information gleaned by a rabid dictatorship through some horrendous, and evidenced, methods.  Murray spoke out.  Down well it did not go.

In addition to being open about what he uncovered, talking to British business and to other embassies, Murray is candid about his personal failings.  Ultimately his long career with the Diplomatic Service comes to an end.  The regime in Uzbekistan, so vital to the west for it’s proximity to Afghanistan and for it’s resources, was foul.  But for the West the ends justified the means.  Not for Murray, who stuck to his principles, ruffled more than feathers.

These were dangerous days.  Remember David Kelly?  The dealings directly with the highest offices in Whitehall reaffirm what many suspected about those dark days.

Subsequently Murray stood as a candidate in Jack Straw’s Blackburn constituency, coming up against the full might of the New labour machine.  The local authority ran the election, for the party’s man.  And postal votes, 29% as against an average 13% – Glenrothes by-election anyone?  Keep a very careful eye on postal votes in three months time.

But I digress.  Murray’s book is a highly readable account of some very dark days.  I’ll find a space on the shelf, beside Hans Blix perhaps.  And if you’ve tended to turn a blind eye as to how you think our government may operate, then it’s a must-read.  More so if you’ve any sort of interest in events in the Middle East.  To finish, two of the quotes on the back cover:

I thought that diplomats like Craig Murray were an extinct breed.  A man of the highest principle – John Pilger

Craig Murray has been a deep embarrassment to the entire Foreign Office – Jack Straw

I know which one I’d rather share a beer with.  And I’d happily invite Craig Murray along.

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