Tuesday, 21 December 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE GIFTIE GIE US

Just when we thought the snow had cancelled too much excitement this festive season, the moon and the sun conspired to give us one of the greatest shows on Earth...a total lunar eclipse at the Winter Solstice...last time that happened it was 1638.

I stood in the snow, looking like a red sheep in fleecy dressing-gown and furry boots, from 6.15am, watching the moon being shaved down from a perfect silver sphere to a delicate slither. Finally the last slice of silver had gone and we were presented with an astonishing copper-toned ball, the most outsanding Christmas bauble I have ever seen.

Since the same moon shines on all of us, wherever we may be, this whole event seemed other-worldly. I wondered who else might be watching...friends further south, across the North Sea, across the Atlantic, on an oil-rig, perhaps even servicemen and woman in Afghanistan....loved ones separated from each other, despite the approach of Christmas.

As people struggle to be reunited with family and friends in time for Christmas, the weather has done its level best to put hazardous obstacles in our way. The desperate frustration of those stuck in airports, stations or on the roads, the agony of those waiting at home for family to arrive, is painful to behold. I wish all those travelling a safe journey as soon as possible.

As one of our national sports appears to be a fondness for saying how rubbish we Brits are at doing anything these days, the questions have started already. We seem to be going through some kind of international embarrassment as the rest of the planet watches Britain failing to cope with unusually ferocious weather. With one Transport Minister already having had to resign here in Scotland, one wonders how many more ’heads will roll’ before we admit that Nature is bigger than us. Especially in the winter, and especially at Christmas.

Could all this frustration be the inevitable result of ‘globalisation’? Can you believe that the very concept is one that was born Aberdeen? A friend’s neighbour was the academic who came up with the word and the concept of ‘globalisation’, an idea that seems to have taken over. (By the by, if someone would invent a universal electric plug that would function in the UK, Europe and the US, I would feel ‘globalisation’ had actually achieved something.) When the current scenes at Heathrow are broadcast across the media, I can’t help wondering if we are too quick to take ‘globalisation’ for granted.

Only last night, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo was on the box talking about Norway’s vast wealth, the result of a lucky oil find in the late 1960s (I’ve bored you about all that stuff way back in spring). Reflecting on how poor Norwegians had been before oil, particularly in the 1920s when so many escaped across the Atlantic, Nesbo wondered if the soul of his nation had been damaged, if not lost in some way. While no-one would advocate a return to poverty, I know there are many Norwegians who would agree that he has a point.

If one assumes the sheer number of people on the move just now is a reflection of how our world expects everything to function flawlessly in the twenty-first century, I can’t help wondering if we’re just kidding ourselves...we assume we humans are invincible. And it turns out we in the UK are not the only struggling humans...try going through Frankfurt Airport today, try flying out of Belgium, try driving in Stavanger on last week’s ice, even with snow-tyres. I suspect we Brits are not as useless as we think we are, and I know there are thousands of good-hearted folk who are valiantly working long hours and through the night to help others. We can be world-champion complainers, if we want to be. There has been many a tale of people not saying thank you, and not being helpful, but the opposite is also true. If you ask any of the Brits who work abroad or travel for business, they will be quick to tell you that the people who hate Britain more than anyone are the Brits themselves.

As Christmas arrives, our first since returning to Scotland, I am still in a state of transition, well-aware of how Norway reached under my skin in 2010. I shall be making a note that I should count my blessings more often. And next time I see the moon, and wonder what on earth we must all be looking like from up there, I’ll repeat my favourite bit of Burns;

‘Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us,

To see oursels as ithers see us.’

Whichever part of the planet you are on, settled with family or still in transit, at home or abroad, I wish you GOD JUL and A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!





Wednesday, 15 December 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - STARTING THE WHOLE JING-BANG

As I scoff a frosted mince pie or three, topped with pointy stars, I’m wondering what it is, precisely, that marks the start of Christmas for you. Even if you are a Bah-Humbug sort of a guy, there are so many festive options that might just tip you over the edge into something sparkly.

Could it be the arrival of one’s tree, closely followed by a ‘domestic’ over how to get the lights working? Is it the sight of a paper-chain or two being blue-tacked to the office ceiling? It might be the smell of uniquely spicy concoctions wafting out of the kitchen...pepperkaker (Norsk, see above), Christmas cake, mulled wine or some non-descript experiment dreamed up by an over-enthusiastic youth.

Perhaps it’s a viewing, tissue in hand, spectacles steaming up with emotion, of the school show...who can resist melting when a five-year-old angel starts to sing? Is it the first time you shout, ‘Oh no it isn’t’ (or the opposite) at some hairy old bloke in a sticky-out dress and high heels? It might be the moment you festivify your toe-nails in a startling shade of scarlet edged with golden glitter. If you’re a bit of an old bore, it might simply be reading the papers, full as they are of the annual round-ups of Best This and That for 2010. Or maybe it’s that annual cry of frustration... ‘which fool has nicked the sellotape, I’m in the middle of something really important here, Pratt-features’.

Perhaps you are a genuinely tasteful person, and wait until an angelic choir boy sings the first strains of ‘Once In Royal David's City’ from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve itself.

Everyone has their own particular ‘Official Christmas Moment’ when the whole jing-bang kicks off and we are lost in a miasma of over-indulgence before emerging, heavier but skint, just in time for a really serious session at Hogmanay. Some of us are overly-keen and are already there ....one hard-core wassailler I know says Christmas starts when the first snow-flake falls. Ambitious, I would say....apart from being a hopeless romantic, surely THIS year he’s going to be on his knees with exhaustion by the time we reach the 25th.

I expect you have been on the absolute edge of your seat with anticipation, if not foaming at the mouth, desperate to know how our choir concert turned out. Well, as it happens, that concert, which is of course an annual village event, marks the start of Christmas for many a reveller round here. People travel miles, you know, braving all manner of hazards to delight in our dulcets. Knowing this, you can only imagine the immense burden of responsibility placed upon our choral shoulders.

Thus, we approached our Christmas Concert with reverence and glitter, decked out as we were in a classy blend of black and silver. Star-like, we belted through the music full pelt. In rehearsal, we had been reprimanded for too much nodding in parts, (especially the wiggly bits in Handel’s ‘Messiah’) and told off for not swaying enough in the more swingy numbers. There’s ‘nae slackin’ in this choir, you have to pay attention. Glancing through my pencilled-in marks on the music, you would wonder what the heck was going on....it says ‘nae noddies...keep the heed....just shut up noo...start swaying from left....put a sock in it here....eyebrows-eyebrows!!!!!....gentle wooooo’. (Obviously, I have no idea what any of this actually means.)

Well, we made ‘em laugh and we made ‘em cry, which is one of my main aims in life, so the job was done. We also shocked ‘em into singing a few times, which is always good for a laugh. Eventually, after numerous attempts, the rapturous applause was calmed with the promise of a mince-pie and a wee dram, and everyone was miraculously transformed into the very essence of Christmas Present. Fa la la la lah, la la lah lah lah.

Now, if you’re having a little trouble finding your ‘Official Christmas Moment’, I’ll just say one thing....Farmer’s Market, Noon, Saturday, Carols, Be there or don’t be in The Square.

Friday, 10 December 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE COMMON WEEL

Snow makes people do peculiar things...things they would not normally choose to do. Whether it’s clearing a neighbour’s driveway, attacking the pavement with an axe to break up compacted ice, or skytting down a hill on your backside to deliver a little festive cheer to someone’s house, if there is snow in your vicinity right now, you will no doubt have indulged in several new and challenging pursuits in an effort to help others.

This early snow has certainly been a major inconvenience and has made thousands of us very angry and upset at the difficulties it has caused. On the other hand, it is also heart-warming to see people helping each other out so magnanimously. Thousands of people have set off early, stayed late, or not gone home at all. Shopping has been fetched, meals delivered. The drivers of 4x4s, spurned like uncaring vermin when there is no snow, have become the heroes of the hour, taking essential staff to their work places, ensuring appointments can be kept, and transporting the vulnerable to safety. Strangers have leapt to the aid of struggling vehicles, hot food and drinks have been handed out to stranded travellers, snow-clearing gangs have gathered together to work more efficiently, and extra phone-calls and visits have been made to check people are alright. There’s a twang of ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ in the air this festive season, which seems remarkably appropriate.

Personally speaking, the scariest thing I have had to do sent me into a state of shock from which I am only just recovering. A phone-call came through from school...the Christmas show must go on, there’s a shortage of staff, the snow has scuppered rehearsals, it’ll only be a wee bit, we really, really, really need a pianist, can I help?

So with less than 24 hours notice, I found myself sitting at a piano with an audience of 300 somewhere behind me, about 30 children on the stage above me, madly peering at several unruly pages of music in a desperate effort to play several ABBA songs. How on earth I manage to get myself embroiled into these idiotic situations is a total mystery. But panic had set in, a pianist was urgently required, I am a mug, and nobody else could deliver.

Have you ever tried to play ABBA? With little advanced warning? For dozens of small children’s voices? At short notice? In the dark? (someone needs to invent fluorescent scores for all musicals/pantos or all piano players will soon be blind). Naturally everyone knows ABBA like the back of their tonsils, but Benny and Bjorn were both masterly and dastardly in their melodic construction. What may sound easy and familiar is in fact awash with ingenious complexity....a maelstrom of gymnastic jumps and jives around the keyboard, rapid falling sixths, unexpected tonic variations, subtle changes of key and fiendish twiddly bits. And it’s all so flaming FAST! They don’t hang around, those Swedes. You start off at the required line in the score, and you’re away, like an out-of-control sledge, your fingers bashing around in the darkness, feverishly hoping you might land on the right note somewhere near THE END.

When I reached THE END you could probably have heard my sigh of relief in Svalbard. Immense. Immense it was, and probably visible, even in the darkness. Duty had been done and the thing hadn’t fallen apart, which, in the circumstances, was about all one could hope for. The audience actually applauded, which was a plus, but I expect they felt they should as there were children involved.

With a little help from my friends, who wheeched me off to the local for a modest libation, I am in recovery now. As I sipped a gluwein in the snow, relieved that my paltry efforts were over for the day, I mused on the extraordinary ways in which people contribute to society when adverse circumstances conspire to require them to do so.

It is rather a leap to go from piano playing and snow shovelling to the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, but as the award ceremony in Oslo has taken place today, I have to pay homage. The winner, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was absent due to his imprisonment in an isolated cell in North East China. Seeing his empty chair in Oslo is extraordinarily poignant, a visual statement of what it can mean to contribute to ‘The Common Weel’ as we call it in Scotland. Few of us are that brave, and few of us could ever go as far as he has gone in seeking peace and freedom for others. But it seems the least we can do is pause for thought, reflect upon what we can do within our own, individual sphere of influence. To make a contribution still seems to be worthwhile.

NB: If you are anywhere near this house, please approach with caution and a decent set of ear plugs...there is an infernal racket going on at the piano.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - POTTERING ABOOT

I’ve been eyeing up the blackthorn hedge, just in case I need to chop a bit off for the creation of a new magic wand. You never know if one of us might suddenly require one, but the blackthorn, from which standard wands are made, is plentiful. It seems that along with all this snow, there is a sprinkling of Potter magic across the land.

Have you seen it yet? The film? It’s another goodie, and it gears us all up nicely for the final-ever-actual-end-last-what-will-we-do-next film in the whole Harry Potter saga.

If I was 10 now, I reckon I’d be quite unable to keep my bedroom window shut. My childhood bedroom, a place I still frequent as the same house remains Parental HQ, has a tranquil view of a hill, and on that hill lives Hagrid. It’s not his actual Hut, of course, but it is the place to which Hagrid retreats when he isn’t being Hagrid, as it were. And post-HP, the hill has acquired a new glamour, particularly at night when all is silent and I perch at the window gazing onto the moonlit landscape, wondering when Hagrid might send me an owl with an interesting message.

So far zilch, but the magic of Harry Potter does not seem far away. The tourist board here in Scotland is apparently expecting a Harry Potter-induced boost to the industry....after all, it’s not just Hagrid that is originally Scottish, (obviously I KNOW he isn’t Scottish in the film, but he is in real life....I keep seeing him driving his classic cars up the road to the village Co-op). Tourists are expected to descend upon Scotland to pay homage to various HP hotspots for themselves...Glen Nevis, Glencoe, the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and of course the cafe in Edinburgh where JK Rowling wrote the first book. These places have acquired a new fascination, a glamour tinged with magic dust that has become desperately enticing.

There are several Scots amongst the cast in these films, but it would be turgid to name them all. Frankly, any British actor who has not been in a Harry Potter movie must be feeling a mite peeved...it’s a wall-to-wall Who’s-Who of the great and good of British theatre. But I can’t resist mentioning one of my favourites. Dame Maggie Smith is of course an English actress, but there is no way in Muggle-land that Professor McGonagall could have had that wonderfully ‘refined’ Glasgow/Kelvinside/Hyndland accent if Dame Maggie’s mother hadn’t been from Glasgow. I can’t help being rather thrilled that this gem of an accent has gone global, thanks to Dame Maggie. So I’m sharpening my blackthorn clippers...Professor McGonagall is so very reminiscent of my own school teachers that I do sense, you see, I could still be summoned by the Ministry of Magic at the next flick of my black cat’s tail.

JK Rowling was apparently stopped recently by a fan who simply said, ‘You ARE my childhood.’ Can you imagine anything more heart-warming for a writer? Proof indeed that one person’s imagination can change the world. But as the films have rolled along, and rumours of Hollywood producers and animated characters were long-since crushed, I have become more and more relieved that JK stuck to her guns in insisting the films were made here in the UK. They are peculiarly, very peculiarly, British.

Thanks to overwhelming mountains of snow right now, our youngest has just finished reading her first Harry Potter. Fittingly, I may well celebrate with a swig of Sloe Gin, the concoction that has been gently distilling since I plucked the sloes from this very blackthorn hedge a few weeks ago. Having had ten years of Harry Potter playing a dominant role in the cultural appetites of this household, I think we know that HP has been a central character in many children’s lives, a source of solace and comfort, as well as adventure and humour. Thanks to JK’s flights of fancy, the joy of fiction has been discovered by thousands more children than it might have been. And now, publishers and book retailers are seeing a steady growth in the sales of children’s literature. Last year over 60 million children’s books were sold in the UK, bringing a most welcome £293 million into the book industry.

Pure magic.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - COMFORT FOOD

A friend of mine, a 47 year-old man, emailed earlier this week to say how very, very, VERY excited he was about opening the first window of his advent calendar in the morning. Naturally I assumed he would be greeted by a neat little chocolate, the first little thrill of December.


You will have heard, if you are not currently experiencing it yourself, that we are having record amounts of snow here right now. Perhaps it’s a Yin and Yang thing, but I do think that copious quantities of snow encourage the eating of copious quantities of chocolate...snow is so very cold and white, it seems to point us towards something warm and dark. Maybe it’s just me, but with the arrival of this extraordinarily wintery weather, I have noticed an odd phenomenon....the more snow I wade through, the more chocolate I wade through. The two must be directly related.

In Norway, there is a cross-country skiing tradition whereby you take chocolate and oranges with you for well-deserved sustenance en route. Somehow, this winning combination is now imprinted into my soul, the perfect comfort for the lonely skier as they pause for a moment's rest in the middle of a frozen plateau. Some real sticklers for tradition would only ever take Norwegian chocolate produced by the famous Norwegian company Freia, and more specifically, Freia’s ‘Kvikk Lunsj’. It seems no accident that Roald Dahl, born in Britain of Norwegian stock, was a world expert on chocolate. I’m convinced it must have been in his genes.

Perhaps it’s the snowy backdrop. Like tomatoes by the Med, or oysters in Paris, somehow chocolate in snow is especially necessary. And particularly delicious. And extremely comforting. And oh, so richly deserved.

Take today. I looked out of the window and ate a ‘pain au chocolat’ for brekka.

I put on twelve layers of clothing, went out to shovel snow off the car, came in, de-layered, and ate several huge triangles of chocolate for elevensies.

I put on eight layers, went out and shovelled two feet of snow off a sagging trampoline. I came in, boiled-alive and breathless, and polished off a pile of smarties I happened to find lying around.

I put on four layers, and went out to move a heap of 206 logs. I came in, de-layered and wolfed down an old bit of chocolate cake.

I put on two thinnish layers, and went for a three mile ski. I came in, glistening like an Olympian, stripped down to my murino thermals, and drank a pint of hot chocolate as an accompaniment to four chocolate gingers.

I’m wondering how this will all work out in the end....will nature somehow maintain a sense of balance between the endless choco-scoffing and the energy I spend every time I go outside? My weight is in even more of a state of flux than it normally is...what on earth I will look like by the end of this snow is anyone’s guess.

Then I felt even more embarrassed when my email went PING. I had done my good friend an unforgivable disservice. Turns out, his advent calendar is chocolate free. I was so shocked at my shallowness, I thought I’d better do something useful and constructive. So I finished off that bag of chocolate raisins that had been littering the bottom of my handbag.

Dinner is going to be such a surprise.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - BEING HAPPY

Having wittered on about the town of St Andrews recently, I now find that St Andrews Day, a moment when we remember Scotland’s patron saint, is almost upon us. So how will we be celebrating this momentous event? Erm, dunno.

Unlike the Norwegian National Day, 17th May, where nobody works, everyone tidies up their surroundings and themselves, parades about in national dress, and ends the day with a big knees-up, we in Scotland are rather stumped when it comes to 30th November. It looks like we’ll be spending the day shovelling snow.

However, this year I have vowed to spend a ‘wee mintie’ thinking about my nation, rather in the spirit of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ’Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’. You will know that this long poem is an intellectual and emotional contemplation of the condition of Scotland. So, I thought I’d take a moment, and being too short of time to enjoy a wee dram, I’ll act out ‘Sober Woman Looks at a Thistle’ instead.

Apart from the fact that it will be St Andrews Day, I have another reason for this naval-gazing. We’ve all been asked to measure our happiness. Prime Minister David Cameron, wants us all, throughout the UK, to consider how happy we are on a scale from 1 to 10. He wants to measure our General Wellbeing (GWB) in addition to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order to evaluate the UK’s success. The office of National Statistics is charged with gauging our happiness, so that a ‘happiness index’ might be created.

The New Economics Foundation measured European levels of wellbeing recently and ranked the UK 13th out of 22. On a global scale, the NEF found Costa Rica was top of their Happy Planet index, a system which measures a combination of human wellbeing with environmental sustainability.

And, guess which nation was at the top of the Legatum Prosperity Index (a system which measures personal freedom, entrepreneurship, health, good governance and economic performance)? Norway, of course.

But are we Brits, and we Scots, really as unhappy as our low score in these studies might suggest? I haven’t noticed every Norwegian I ever meet being in a state of permanent euphoria any more than every Scot is in a state of misery (didn’t you know, the ‘dour Scot’ is only an act with which to irritate those south of the border? After all, being miserable can be enormously enjoyable....nobody can tell me the Drunk Man Looking at the Thistle wasn’t thoroughly enjoying himself).

However, I do sometimes wonder if we forget to notice when we are happy. We are all so busy, it’s too easy to concentrate on our problems rather than our successes. Perhaps we should be looking across the pond.

Recently, our American friends have been thankful, thankful, thankful as they sit down with their families to a Thanksgiving Dinner where all manner of gratitude is expressed from the personal to the global. In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November. But its origins lay as far back as 1619 with a thanksgiving ceremony for the colony of Virginia. However, the ‘First Thanksgiving’ is generally recognised as taking place in 1621 when thanks was given to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony to survive. The settlers held a harvest feast which lasted three days and fed 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. It seems no surprise that the origins of thanksgiving are connected to nature, the earth and all that it provides.

We Brits, with our stiff-upper-lips, might be tempted to think Thanksgiving is a bit soppy, and all this talk of happiness is verging on the psychobabble. But I wonder if an official day for a nation to reflect upon the good things in life makes a population feel happier?

Would someone please research the statistics on that and deliver them to Number 10? Thank you, it would make me very happy and most grateful.

Monday, 22 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - CONSIDERING ECONOMIES

Every time my eyebrows are raised at the state of our nation’s, or anyone else’s, financial affairs, I can’t help remembering James Carville’s quote (he being Clinton’s campaign manager) which he stuck on the wall of the presidential campaign HQ in 1992...

’it’s the economy, stupid’.

This seems like an answer to most questions, and one to which I, as matriarch in this house, resort with some frequency. But boy oh boy, am I glad I don’t have to take monumental decisions on the economy of a nation.

As I write, the financial markets are jittery following last weekend’s decision that Ireland should be bailed-out. As Ireland formally applies for 90 billion (or so) euros of European-led loans, we learn that despite the austerity currently hovering over us here in the UK, around 7 billion of that 90 is expected to come from Britain. The Chancellor hastily explained that ‘Ireland is a friend in need, and we need to help.’

I realize that a blog post about the economy is verging on the turgid...but really, no matter how dull you think economics might be, it seems to me more or less impossible to ignore this subject for the time being. I know I’m a snore, but I can’t get economics out of my head, (particularly since reading Robert Peston’s explanation of how global financial collapse came about in his brilliant book ‘Who Runs Britain?’)

So far, nobody has guessed the name of the economist (and St Andrews graduate) I mentioned last time. And perhaps there is a reason for that. The man of which I speak was one of those old-fashioned civil servants, not the sort to rush off and create a ‘celebie’ ghost-written-spin of an autobiography with which to supplement his perfectly respectable pension. No, no, this man was very pleased to spend a happy retirement in relative obscurity in St Andrews where he enjoyed many contented days within the hallowed walls of the Royal and Ancient. I have always been rather keen on modest, bespectacled old gents, and this guy ranks as one of my faves.

Rejoicing in the name Sir John Cowperthwaite, here was a man whose Scottish education had left him with a strong streak of common sense, a razor sharp intellect, a talent for thrift and a head filled with the notions of the Enlightenment. Born in Edinburgh in 1915, he read Classics at St Andrews, went on to Cambridge, and then returned to St Andrews to study economics. He joined the Colonial Administrative Service in 1941. From 1961 to 1971 he held the post of Financial Secretary for Hong Kong, and by simply doing his job, brought about an immense and lasting change for the colony.

In 1961 the average Hong Kong resident earned a quarter of someone living in Britain. By the early 1990s, average incomes there were higher than in the UK. Whereas we in the North East of Scotland cannot imagine life without the oil industry, and the same is true for Norway, Hong Kong’s lack of natural resources (other than a harbour) made its success particularly intriguing. As a result of Cowperthwaite’s policies, Hong Kong saw a 50 per cent rise in real wages, a two-thirds fall in the number of households in acute poverty, and exports rose by 14 per cent a year.

Cowperthwaite had arrived in Hong Kong with the ideas of Adam Smith very firmly established in his head. His administration was termed as a shining example of the ‘potency of laissez-faire’, a policy which created conditions for rapid growth. Personal taxes were kept at a maximum of 15 per cent, government borrowing was seen as unacceptable, there were no tariffs or subsidies, and red tape was reduced to the point that a new company could be registered with swift ease.

Cowperthwaite believed government should only intervene on behalf of the most needy, and that it should be actively discouraged from interfering in business. This meant continual battles with Whitehall. He also argued that for poor countries to thrive, they should abolish the office of national statistics, believing that statistics led the state to fiddle unnecessarily, thus hindering the natural working of the market.

However, despite low taxes, figures for mortality and disease showed steady improvement. Cowperthwaite had a Gladstonian sense of obligation towards the least fortunate, but did not believe that luxury should be the necessary reward for those who benefited from a free market economy. Indeed, his frugality with taxpayer’s cash extended to himself....he refused a much-needed upgrading of his official residence, saying that since others did not receive housing benefit, he did not see why he should. I know Scots are famous for being ‘mean’ but the line between being mean and being canny is mighty fine.

On speaking of how Hong Kong became known as the ‘world’s model of free economy’ under his watch, Cowperthwaite modestly remarked, ‘I did very little...all I did was try to prevent some of the things that might undo it’. When he retired in 1971 the Hong Kong economy was growing at a rate of 13.8%. He knew that this success must be attributed to the diligence and intelligence of the people, but it cannot be denied that his lightness of touch allowed it to happen. Nobel Prize Laureate Milton Freidman said ‘it would be hard to overestimate the debt Hong Kong owes to Cowperthwaite’. And with Hong Kong acting as the gateway to China itself, his legacy has now spread into China with massive implications for future growth.

Disciples of Adam Smith are not always popular, but if one man is capable of making a lasting impression on the globe, I have to hope there might be one or two Cowperthwaites around.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - ROMANTIC ACADEMIA

Well now, there’s to be a royal wedding and all because of a certain university that lurks within the East Neuk of Fife. Heavens, this is going to make me horribly, disgracefully, nostalgic.

Within this very quad, several scores of moons ago, lectures were attended, exams were sat, champagne was poured, ball-gowns were admired, shaving-foam was sprayed, friendships were forged and life-long relationships were sealed. I expect Prince William and his bride-to-be would not believe me if I told them that one’s ‘post-finals-frenzy’ seems like only yesterday (although a glance at the happy-snappies from that time is enough to make anyone heave over our total lack of sartorial elegance....it was, after-all the 80’s, and no-one can pretend the ’glass of fashion’ was at its zenith just then). But there are certain milestones, certain moments and certain places which mark out life’s transitional stages and therefore remain unforgettable. The Quad of St Salvator’s in St Andrews University is undoubtedly one of those places for generations of graduates.

St Andrews has been rather thrilled to tell the world that it ranks as one of the most romantic universities ....one in ten graduates finds their marital partner there, a statistic that is apparently top of that particular league. And now that a Royal Wedding is on the cards, I have heard certain commentators boasting that even Oxford and Cambridge haven’t as yet managed to bring about a royal engagement. Our First Minister, Alex Salmond, a St Andrews graduate himself, appears to be tickled pink.

Looking at St Salvator’s Quad now, the place seems to reek potential, bristling with the as-yet-untapped contribution that those who pass through it might make to the world. While I can’t remember picking up a Prince from those days myself, I do recall participating in some extraordinary experiences and delighting in many strong and faithful friendships that continue to sustain and enhance one’s existence.

Of course this is no different from any other university. But whatever adventures are in store post-graduation, for most graduates, St Andrews is a place that gets under the skin. Only last night I attended a retirement dinner for a St Andrews graduate who went on to carve out a significant career in the mysterious art of operations geology. A stickler for detail and famous for his unforgiving use of the red pen, his high-standards mingled with a generous consideration for others have left a lasting impression on the oil industry across several continents.

You will know by now of my passion for that Norwegian super-hero, Fridtjof Nansen. Apart from being a polar explorer, politician, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, he was also the Rector of St Andrews University in 1926. In heading his Rectorial address ‘Adventure’, he indicated his sense that life should be viewed as such, and that student-hood was the springboard from which great ideas and achievements should be launched. In addressing the students of that time, Nansen said, ‘it is not the aim and end of life to become ‘famous and fortunate’. It is not as easy as that. You have come here to do your part and to do it well, wherever you are placed....if the world is out of joint, it is for you to put it right, to make it a better place to live in, each of you to the best of your ability: as I told you, there is ample scope for improvement.’

Well, it seems that although times may have changed since 1926, there is still ‘ample scope for improvement’. And now, as discussions on our current financial turmoil waft out of my radio, I can’t help thinking about another St Andrews graduate, an economist who changed a vast slice the world. Bet you can’t guess who?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - SINGING

Imagine you are one of 25 men, not necessarily in the first flush of youth, but none-the-less content to spend a considerable part of every Wednesday evening singing just two notes with these lyrics.... ‘jingle-tingle, jingle-tingle, jingle-tingle, jingle-tingle, jingle-tingle, jingle-tingle’ and so on and so on ad nauseam.

If you are not one of these lucky fellows, you may not appreciate just how much you are missing on a Wednesday evening. If you will permit me to mention the word ‘Christmas’ at this stage, I will report that this ‘jingle-tingle’ sound could be heard for several weeks here in our village, and it looks as though it will last throughout the festive season. At rehearsal, while the men are ‘jingle-tingling’, we ladies are whizzing through the tune at some speed...any faster and our rendition of ‘Sleigh Ride’ could gain us entry onto the Cresta Run. You see, our choir is in intensive rehearsal at this time of year, and when I say ‘intensive’ I am not mincing my words.

Last week, for example, after two solid hours of rehearsal, we all emerged from our Wednesday night session in a state of thrilled exhaustion. Anyone who has ever sung in a choir will be able to relate to this particular form of knackerment...the throat is shattered, the eyes aching, the ears ringing, the mind numb, and yet you are able to dance all the way home with a wealth of festive ditties swilling about your brain. Once safely installed in the bosom of one’s family, you irritate the blazes out of them by bursting into spontaneous song at every opportunity for the rest of the night.

We had started with Berlioz. You will remember that in this neck of the woods, we have a Doric twang to our accents. Well, our Director is having none of that. We were trying to sing ‘tender care.’

‘Stop, stop...accents ladies and gents...there will be nae ‘tendurr caiurr’...pretend you’re a posh English person and sing ‘tendaaaah caaaah.’ We put on our poshest accents. You’d never have known.

Then it was a bit of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. That man...did he ever hear of breathing? I began to think I was having a panic attack as I and my fellow sops hammered out several lines of ever-so-slightly different groups of demi-semi-quavers...I’m sure you know the bit....’fooooor unto us a child is bo-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho/ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho-, ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho/ (ditto for two more bars)...orn’ (enormous and desperate breath). It’s a serious workout for the diaphragm, but if you make it all the way, the sense of achievement is second to none.

Soon the Doric twang was threatening once again. ‘Ye canna sing ‘Peace on Eeeearrrth’ like a bunch of old farmers from the Mearns....get your posh voice out again and stretch out the ‘Peace’...I want ‘Peeeeas on Aaaaahhhth.’

We all obliged. A startling change. We could all have been born in the Home Counties, nae probs.

And now we were wrestling with Poulenc. If you listen to someone singing ‘Quem Vidistis’ you will realize it is a hauntingly beautiful piece, but you will have little notion as to just how tricky it is. Full attention is absolutely necessary or the whole thing collapses into a Latin nightmare. As for the tenors, well, they have a most awkward ziggy-zaggy bit in the middle for which, if they get it right, they should be awarded a prize of some kind.

I have written about singing before, and mentioned my belief that a ‘good sing’ is one of the best tonics a human being can experience. Perhaps this sense of choral-induced well-being is the reason so many people up and down this land are so dedicated to choirs. After all, singing in a choir takes quite a chunk of time out of one’s week. And it’s no picnic...deep concentration is required, not to mention a reasonable voice, a certain musical ability and very good behaviour. But despite these obstacles, I am delighted to find so many wonderful singers scattered throughout the Scottish population. In these days of ‘X-factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, one might be forgiven for despairing at some, not all, of the hopefuls who enter these competitions. Frankly, most choir members could give those contestants a good run for their money, but we remain quite content to stick to the local choir rather than seek the glam and glitz of the Big Time.

And here, of course, I must mention the extraordinary tale of Susan Boyle. A member of a local choir in the Borders, she decided to take things a little further and prove that normal people know how to sing perfectly well. Her performance was quite the most refreshing thing in the media last year, and quickly became a ‘You Tube’ sensation. Her album sold over 10 million copies and became the fastest-selling global debut record of all time. And now, her latest Christmas-themed album is at the top of the UK album chart. It is altogether a most pleasing story, but to all those who happen to sing in a choir, it is especially thrilling in a sort of ‘told you so’ kind of way.

You just never know where a bit of ‘jingle-tingling’ in the village hall might lead.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - REMEMBRANCE

This is the first time in four years that I have been in Scotland for Armistice Day, and indeed for Remembrance Sunday. The last three were all marked in Norway.

We stood on frosty, hard ground in the graveyard of the local church , blinking into the winter sun on a startlingly beautiful morning. Below us, chill mist rose slowly from the airfield where, sixty years before, German troops had parachuted into Norway at the start of the Norwegian Occupation. As we stood there, we watched the comings and goings of the modern airport as it is now, all of which seemed a testament to the fight for freedom that had been played out on this very soil. It was a most poignant place to mark Remembrance Sunday.

There are no Commonwealth cemeteries in Norway. Those who died are buried in civilian cemeteries and churchyards in the campaign areas throughout the country. During WW11, throughout the German Occupation, the war graves were cared for by the people of Norway. Nowadays the Norwegian national authorities take great care of them. Almost 1000 British and Commonwealth men are buried in 74 cemeteries and churchyards, casualties of the allied Norwegian campaign in 1940, and of the naval, air and special operations conducted throughout WW11.

There are so many extraordinary stories concerning these men, but I will concentrate on one in particular as it is local to the area in which we marked Remembrance Day. Several months ago, I wrote about the Heroes of Telemark. But there is a prelude to that extraordinary story. Operation Freshman was launched in 1942 by the newly formed airborne forces to attack the heavy water plant at Rjukan in the Telemark region. Launched from an airfield in Wick, Scotland, it involved two Halifax towing aircraft and two Horsa gliders. Due to bad weather and icing problems, one of the gliders crashed in the Lysefjord mountains , while the other glider and its Halifax towing aircraft crashed near Helleland. Those men that were not killed in the crash were captured by German forces, handed over to the Gestapo, tortured and executed.

To stand in a place where one knew that such atrocities had occurred just seven decades before was overwhelming. The snow-covered mountains were still there in the distance, the sea over which aircraft had flown was just behind us, the air was as cold as ever. As the names of those buried there were read out, as the British Consul, the Mayor, and Senior British and Canadian Officers laid wreaths, and as a trumpet blasted the Last Post out across the hillside, you cannot imagine how the events of seventy years ago suddenly felt like yesterday.

Here in our village, we have a First World War grave in our local cemetery, a young man who died aged 20 at the very end of WW1 in 1918. I pointed it out to one of my children just the other day, and she remarked how strange it was that so many war graves were spread across the world in so many different places. But this young man's grave is every bit as poignant as those in official war cemeteries and small, local churchyards wherever they may be. Throughout Scotland, throughout the UK, we have grown up listening to those lists of names being read out each year, and in the act of Remembrance, it seems that our understanding of peace, and what it costs, grows each time. Wherever they may be buried, we will remember them.

Friday, 5 November 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - COUNTING BLESSINGS

What do you do with a roomful of Norwegians? This is not a joke, tempting though it may be to come up with a few witticisms. No, this is a true story. The answer? Ask them a searching question about their nation.

A roomful of Norwegians were in the middle of a day-long conference which was, allegedly something to do with work, although none of them had the remotest idea as to what that might be. They sat there passively, enjoying the toe-curlingly strong coffee that had thoughtfully been provided for them. They were all given a sharp pencil and a piece of paper... even in industry, some people still use these archaic instruments. They were asked to write down their top five favourite things about Norway.

Their minds leapt from mountain to fjord, from snow to sea, from fish to ski, from cosy hytte to the spankingly-new opera house in Oslo. They all scribbled away feverishly.

The next question was to write down the five reasons they would choose to stay living in Norway. Once again their imaginations veered off into the outdoors towards some visually sensational landscape replete with reindeer, moose, Arctic fox and a serious dump of snow on which it might be possible to ski. You will have realised by now it is remarkably difficult to stop a Norwegian thinking about skiing.

But this question was slightly trickier. And when they were asked to put their five answers in order, it became a considerable tease. So, it is fascinating to discover that every one of them came up with the same Number One reason.

And that reason was......the Norwegian Health System.

I have been speculating as to whether or not a roomful of Scots would come up with the same unanimous answer. I suspect the NHS may not be the chief reason for people staying in this country, but perhaps I’m wrong. Why not find a roomful of Scots and carry out an experiment for yourself?

As the US mid-term elections have been splattered across the media, and with Obama’s moves towards healthcare reform appearing to be one of the many issues that are irritating so many US voters right now, I have been considering our attitudes to the NHS here in the UK. For many Americans, the idea of a health system that is free for all from the point of need is inconceivable.

But for us in the UK, the reverse is true....the idea of NOT having the NHS is inconceivable. Naturally, our health systems in both Norway and the UK are not perfect, and we all know horrible stories of things not working out as they should. The Norwegian system is similar to ours, although if a patient is in need of medical attention, there can be some payments along the way...for example, if I went to see my GP, I would be charged a portion of the doctor’s fee. So, it is not ‘as free’ as it is in the UK, although National Health Insurance covers all costs involving hospitalization.

We all have our health horror stories. But we also all have our health wonder stories.....the times when extraordinary expertise coupled with genuine, skilful care has brought great, life-changing joy. We know it’s not perfect, but I believe we do, after all, cherish what we have. We also all know that the funding of the NHS is akin to funding a bottomless pit. Unlike Americans, we at least HAVE a free health system. We also, for the time being at least, have less unemployment, universal child allowance, and we can still educate our students at top universities for a fraction of the cost of the US equivalent. Whichever flavour of government happens to be in power, we have to pull ourselves out of a world-wide credit crunch while trying to preserve some of the aspects of living in the UK that are most precious to us. With all the doom and gloom around, it is easy to forget that many people in the world don’t have it so good.

I’m reminded of the BBC’s Andrew Marr and his comment at the conclusion of his mega TV series on the ‘A History of Modern Britain’....he remarked that, at the end of the day, it is the most incredible piece of luck to have been born British.

I’m going to try out that experiment tonight.

Friday, 29 October 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THINKING

I’ve been thinking. A rare occurrence, I know, but it’s the imminent changes to Scottish education that’s doing it.

You will recall the sport of Norwegian rock-based-sea-gazing that I have mentioned in the past. Well, turns out they do it in Scotland too, albeit not so frequently. Working hours in Scotland and the UK as a whole are a good deal longer than in Norway, although, contrary to popular belief, not the longest in Europe. It just feels like that.

However, if the opportunity arises for a spot of Scottish rock-based-sea-gazing we can indulge in it just as well as anyone else. For every Norwegian standing on a rock, deep in thought and staring out across the North Sea, there must be at least one Scot standing on this side staring back. For example, one of our composers, Peter Maxwell Davies (Max to his mates) freely admits he has to take a walk by the Orcadian coast every morning to allow his brain to be creative before he can start work. Not a commute but a commune.

But it’s not just the arty types who need thinking time. A friend whose mission it is to find a cure for congenital heart disease admits that it is in these quiet moments, in the spaces between being busy, that the big ideas pop into one's head. So, between carrying out heart ops, running a research lab, teaching students and being a very busy Dad, he knows full well that ‘a time to think’ must be built into his day.

At present, with Government cuts looming, and while many struggle to remain employed, run a business, pay bills or simply get through the day, I suspect that ‘thinking’ is having to take a back seat. The opportunity to ‘stand and stare’ can feel like a luxury, an indulgence, if not a waste of time.

In the past, Scotland has been rather keen on thinking, a habit which came to glorious fruition in the latter half of the 18th century with the Age of Enlightenment. ‘Thinking’ was all the rage back then, and the result was a flourishing of the arts and sciences, literature and philosophy that was without parallel in the modern world. David Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature’, Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind’, James Beattie’s ‘Essays on Truth’, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ influenced the world then and still do today. In science, the discoveries of James Black, John Leslie, John Gregory, Joseph Hutton, William Cullen and John Hunter brought new thinking to chemistry, physics, geology, maths, anatomy and medicine. Scottish Universities operated an ‘open door’ policy which accepted poverty-stricken but talented students, as well as students from England and abroad. Graduates were prepared for a world that required up-to-date skills to sustain a growing economy. The tradition of Scottish doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and colonial administrators became well-established from those times.

I’ve been thinking about all this because, as a parent, I cannot help but be concerned about the soon-to-be implemented ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Over the next few years, a seismic shift is to take place in our education system in Scotland. The Scottish Government has been devising a new qualifications system for secondary school pupils, and it is our duty as citizens to ensure that it will achieve the ‘excellence’ advertised in the title. Any radical change to the education system is bound to cause scepticism, worry and fury, so the Government is braced for a barrage of criticism. However, at the moment confusion still reigns amongst pupils, teachers, and parents as to exactly how this new system will work, how it is to be implemented, and what it might mean for our pupils. The details are not finalised as yet, but we have to hope that, despite the change, the principals of Scottish education, once famous for its breadth, depth and practical thoroughness, will not be lost.

And now, there’s a second fly in the ointment. The concept of a free university education which the Scottish Government has managed to uphold until now, unlike England, is once again under threat. As our universities struggle to maintain high standards they are scrabbling around for funding , and so there is talk today of graduates having to pay back part of their salary once they achieve a certain earning threshold.

As Scotland wrestles with trying to prepare itself for the future while at the same time dealing with the aftermath of the credit crunch, The Age of Enlightenment seems but a distant dream. Of course things weren’t ideal then either, with poverty and inequality of opportunity still hampering the potential of many. But the importance attached to rigorous thinking that led to Edinburgh becoming the ‘Athens of the North’ and Glasgow becoming the ‘Second City of the Empire’ seems almost unimaginable now. 

I think I’ll go for a wee think.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - STORMY READING

I apologize for the slight break in attendance here. I was obliged to pay homage to the North East of Scotland tradition of ‘tattie howkin’, otherwise known as a ‘break in the school term intended to provide youthful workers for the seasonal harvesting of potatoes’. Nowadays, however, if I met a school pupil who had ever harvested a potato from the good earth of the North East, I would be hard-pressed to conceal my wonder.

So, we skived off the tatties, and sought sunnier climes by venturing south where we encountered some of the most dramatic weather I have ever witnessed. The sun shone, but the humidity threatened something quite different. At last a storm broke, just as we were returning home from a night of over-eating and general holiday merriment. Our small car converted into a boat as we sailed up a rushing river that had once been a road, and attempted to see through a windscreen that might has well have been in mid-carwash. Children screamed, the driver swore, the weather worsened. Right above our heads, thunder belted and lightening flashed at a rate of one flash every two seconds. It was like strobe-lighting in a 70’s discotheque, with fear-for-one’s-life added to the cocktail of thrills for extra impact. I didn’t like it one bit. I needed something fascinating to take my mind off the whole scenario.

Once ensconced in a sheltered location, I tried to distract my brain from the extraordinary thunderstorm over my head by reading ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’, a recent novel by a peach of a Scots author, William Boyd.

Now HE is a real treat. I have been trying to limit myself to just one of his books a year, but sometimes there is a lapse, and I have to read two. Or even three. He is, I must confess, my favourite Scots author by a disgracefully long way.

A quick glance at his whereabouts and you might wonder why he is considered a ‘Scottish author’ at all. He was born in Accra, Ghana and spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria. He now lives in London and often visits the South of France. But if you ever hear him talk, you’ll hear an unmistakable Scots ‘burr’ which reveals not only that his family were Scots, but that a good deal of his schooldays and adult life were spent north of the border. For several years he worked in Scotland and I suspect must visit the place from time to time too. He sprinkles his books with the occasional Scot in a manner that only a person ‘weel kent’ with this nation could do.

‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ is set in London, a thriller of a chase, a classic page-turner and a gripping distraction from any violent thunderstorms that may be causing terror overhead. It’s also funny, which is the thing about that man William Boyd. You have to plan where and when you read him, because he can make you laugh out loud, a most irksome irritation to any nearby non-Boydites.

I wonder what it is about Scotland that the place should continue to produce astounding writing. Boyd is my Number One but there are so many goodies from which to choose. Despite the wonders of technology, we Scots remain curiously bookish. 18th century Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, thanks to the Kirk’s insistence that every parish must have a school. Despite these financially rocky times, and despite the increasingly precarious nature of authorship, I am simply surrounded by people who are busily writing and publishing books. Books and reading have been a habit here for a long time. So while I cowered from the raging storm, I couldn’t help speculating as to whether writing, and indeed reading, is weather-related. Scots, like Norwegians, are still terrifically dedicated readers, and many an author, including JL Rowling herself, has found sanctuary, appreciation and inspiration in, and from, this nation. The skilful telling of a darn good tale is still a cherished delight.

But some people have all the luck. Can you believe, several years ago a friend of a friend had William Boyd himself as their babysitter....while a young man based at Glasgow University, Mr Boyd babysat for these fortunate children in the West End of the city. One can only imagine the outstanding quality of the bedtime stories. You’d never get a wink of sleep.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - CULTURAL NOTES

I presume you have been watching ‘Spooks’ on the BBC. If not WHAT ON EARTH HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO?

There’s nothing quite like getting your teeth into a decent TV thriller on a Monday night when you should be concentrating on the washing up, polishing shoes and ironing school uniform. But I have an excuse. Not only did I wish to feast my eyes on a bit of far-fetched international espionage action...I also wanted to feast my ears too. It turns out, the boy doing the music, a vital addition to the edge-of-the-seat tension that makes the series such a hum-dinger, is turning into a rather successful composer.

We are lucky enough to have some fantastic composers here in Scotland, and I shall come back to them at a later date. But for now, I am interested in this new breed, a very different sort of composer from those that used to sit at their spinets in some European creaking attic, quills poised as they waited for divine inspiration to strike. This new breed is hip and adept, casting a wider net far out across a musical ocean that encompasses old and new genres...classical, jazz, folk, rock, pop, garage, house, shed, garden or whatever they call the stuff. These guys know what's what and what to do with it. 

Imagine the scene. Just a few years ago, a young music student, Paul Leonard Morgan, was sitting about in a studio at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, fiddling with an electronic semi-quaver and generally minding his own musical business. The phone rang.

‘It’s only me, in the office,’ chirped a cheery Glaswegian. ‘There’s someone here from the telly...they want a bit of music for a football programme or something...flick your switch?’

From there a career was born. Young Paul got to work, provided the goods and made a name for himself. The next job was music for a wildlife documentary entitled ‘Galapagos’, and then there was some work with bands like Snow Patrol, Belle and Sebastian and Sharleen Spiteri. Before long, Paul had landed himself a dream job. Could he come up with an orchestral score for a BBC Scotland landmark production, ‘The History of Scotland?’ Oh, and by the way, could he also produce a ‘Concert Suite’ based on the score because the house band (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) were going on tour soon, and it would be kind of neat?

The series turned out to be a mega-production for the BBC, and one which has not been without controversy (there are tales of insulted historians and offended academics leaving production meetings in disgust at some of the editorial decisions.) I too would take issue with some of the views expressed in the series. Anyone who cares about Scotland and has an opinion would do so. But every big-budget production which aims to tell the history of a nation is bound to have its critics.....you are asking for trouble, it seems to me. However, it is certainly a ‘good watch’ and for me, part of its success is the music, the glue that binds the whole series together to ‘make it live’. It's clever and it's beautiful. And it was from this success that young Paul went on to create the music for ‘Spooks.’

The new breed of composer is not only an accomplished musician...he or she is an arranger, a producer, a DJ, a mixer, and even a sound engineer. If they are composing for film, television or computer games, they must work within a collaborative creative framework...often their perfectly-formed phrases are cut and squeezed to suit visual action. Either the composer has to learn to live with this or there will be tears before bedtime. The funny thing is, if you are promised a cheque at the end, even the artiest of arty-pants can learn to adjust.

You may well think that choosing to be a composer is an odd career choice, the path chosen by dreamers and romantics. But this kind of thing can be big business. According to the Scottish Culture Minister, Scotland is a world-leader in the creative industries, a sector which supports 63,000 jobs, and generates an annual turnover of £5.2 billion. For a nation the size of Scotland, those figures are not to be sniffed at. So as the current post-credit-crunch belt-tightening hangs over us, I hope that somehow the creative industries will be seen for what they can produce, and not merely as unnecessary frills with which to pass an idle moment.

Meanwhile, I'll get back to my fiddle, and try to remember that all this desgraceful scraping and screeching may one day bear fruit.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE AMBER BEAD

The smell, the colour, the taste, the atmosphere...all of them need to be just so for the connoisseur to fully appreciate the ‘amber bead’, Robert Burns’s term for Scotland’s most famous drink, whisky. I would never describe myself as a connoisseur in this sense (and I have often been told, usually by elderly gents, that whisky is wasted on a woman), but I am happy to share a wee dram of an evening as the nights draw in and autumnal chills steal through the air.

Whisky has been on my mind as well as in my throat this week. Despite the current recession it is slightly surprising to find that we still seem able to produce a hot seller in this country, so much so that the biggest distillery in Scotland for 30 years has just opened.

There is frequent criticism that we in the UK didn’t seem to be producing anything any more...where are our manufacturers, what do we make, where are our skills and expertise going if we can’t produce products, and if manufacturing costs in developing countries are so much cheaper, what is the point of trying to make anything anyway? This is a call often heard in a wealthy country like Norway too, and yet, from time to time, the unstoppable spirit of enterprise raises its head and, despite the odds, makes something wonderful....something that people want to buy.

Take whisky. There are strict international laws governing the status of Scotland’s most iconic product. To be called ‘Scotch’, whisky has to have been distilled in Scotland, matured for a minimum of three years and one day, and to have been matured in oak casks. The new distillery has opened at a cost of £40 million, and with 18 years before its casks can be opened and the contents sold, somebody somewhere within these recession-hit borders is an optimist.

So, in the spirit of ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, I have been considering the figures. It turns out that the UK as a whole makes £99 per second in export revenues from whisky. This is big business, with over 2,500 different brands. Last year whisky made £3 billion in exports, one quarter of the UK export sales from food and drink. Apparently, what with whisky being perceived as a ‘lifestyle’ product, the growing middle-classes of China, Korea and South Africa are lapping it up. (India is a weaker market due to current high duties). What is more, whisky has an ability to cope with a variety of economic climates....in hard times it offers comfort and solace, in good times it provides an accompaniment to a celebratory toast.

And it has been so for several hundred years. Since the early 14th century, the term ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life) has been applied to distilled drinks, no doubt a linguistic relic from days of the Roman Empire, and one which exists in Norway to this day (‘aquavit’ being the favourite choice for toast-giving moments). In Scotland, the term was translated from Latin to Gaelic...’usque baugh’, or 'uisge beatha’, and from there to the English ‘whisky’. It is known that King James IV of Scotland was a keen whisky drinker. After Scotland merged with England in the Act of Union in 1707, the taxes on whisky rose dramatically, but consumers were hooked, so production continued to grow.

Even the names, particularly when added to the actual consuming of a dram, can bring a shaft of comfort to many a Scot ....Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Springbank or Talisker....the very names themselves inspire a nostalgic longing for the hills and glens, and permit an unleashed wallowing in sentiment, a favourite occupation for many a Celt.

For those who can’t stand the taste, I have an alternative offering. Seek out Compton Mackenzie’s novel ‘Whisky Galore’, a tale based on a real incident...in 1941 , the SS Politician was shipwrecked off the isle of Eriskay. The islanders attempted to carry her cargo, bottles of whisky, ashore under the noses of the Home Guard. The novel was followed by a film of the same name made in 1949 by Ealing Studios, and was to be known as one of Britain’s most successful comedies.

Enjoy and slainte mhath.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - GOLF

Today marks the start of the Ryder Cup, which gives me the perfect excuse to mention one of Scotland's great inventions....the game of golf.

As you will know, the Ryder Cup, which this year is being held at Newport in South Wales, offers European professional golfers a chance to compete against their peers from the USA. The competition has taken place biennially since 1927, interrupted by WW11 and the terrorist attacks of 2001. It is considered one of the world's great sporting events, and is a particular favourite of golfers and fans alike.

I have to declare that although I am a Scot, I would never describe myself as a golfer. I have grown up surrounded by golf clubs, golfers and golf courses, and once, in a moment of enthusiasm, I helped to build a course (well, it passed the summer hols). Later on, I spent several years living in St Andrews, but, to the dismay and incredulity of most golfers, I never played the sacred game while living in the Home of Golf. I know...it's shameful, but I was busy.  

Nowadays, I restrict my playing to one or two favourite courses on small islands, often in fog, where the fairways are enhanced by the sheep that graze upon them and the planes that occasionally land there. My skills as a golfer are lamentable, but do at least allow me to venerate the great game with a suitable level of humility. However, much to my surprise, while in Norway, I did somehow find myself playing golf in the Arctic...at midnight, just because you CAN. 

There is some debate as to the exact origins of golf...there is a view that the Romans were busy clubbing balls as well as several other things as they went about expanding their empire. Some believe the Chinese are responsible, but nobody can prove a thing. What is generally accepted, however, is that the modern game derived from a few Fife shepherds who gained their kicks by knocking stones into rabbit holes with their crooks at the site of the Old Course in St Andrews.

Later, in 1744, a group of men met to establish some rules (and they were all men...believe me, when, in my youth, I gained employment as a 'plongeur' at the 'Royal and Ancient', the notice at the front door still said 'No dogs, and no women'). Since then, the original framework for these rules has been modified and updated from time to time, safeguarding the game and ensuring respect for its traditions. People visit the Old Course in St Andrews from all over the world...some of them play, but many simply look upon the hallowed turf in awe and wonder.

There are some who think that one is not a proper person unless one chooses to play and take an interest in this great game. I find this view extremely trying, knowing as I do many a good and courteous citizen who has no interest whatsoever. Golf can raise tempers and displays of less than perfect manners, particularly at the moment while Mr Donald Trump is busy establishing a course off the North East coast of Scotland, a scheme that has enraged many a Scot.

But whatever one's attitude to the game in general, however much one might play and however often one might enjoy watching golf, there is no doubt it lies at the very heart of our culture here in Scotland. It suits the climate, it suits our topography, it allows for a dose of exercise and fresh air that creates thrill without causing too much breathless effort. But I can't help suspecting it rather suits our character too....Scots like to grapple with things, to face challenges and seek to conquer them. The old jibe of golf being 'a good walk ruined' has an air of truth to it....is there anything more frustrating than trying to whack a wee white ball round some holes with accuracy and aplomb? Pent up frustrations can vanish.

I may not be a regular golfer, but, rather like old age, I can feel it coming on....there's a kind of inevitability about having to spend some of one's life playing golf. However, there is absolutely no inevitability about the outcome of a game, and that is why we can't resist watching a decent championship.

So, I'd like to know, whether or not you play golf, where in the world is your favourite course?

Friday, 24 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE MASK OF KNOWING BRILLIANCE

We're sitting in Children's Accident and Emergency with a broken finger which is still, just, attached to a traumatised child, albeit at a slightly jaunty angle. There are four of us trying to share two plastic chairs. We are also trying to write an essay on a truly appalling and disgracefully self-indulgent poem by Plath, and there's a physics test in the morning, so we're testing each other on electrical currents. None of us have had anything to eat for at least six hours, and all we can find is an an old piece of mouldy chocolate that was lurking in my non-designer handbag.

To make matters worse, I look completely mad. I am wearing a foul outfit that I had been using for gardening earlier in the day, so no doubt I smell of manure. I haven't looked in the mirror since dawn, my hair has suffered its usual reaction to the Scottish smir so I look like a cross between a firework and a demented loo brush. The only lipstick in my bag is jet black, a leftover from a recent dressing-up outfit. None of us have coats, or even a jumper of any kind and the weather outside is becoming less and less inviting. One of us managed to leave school wearing only one shoe, a trick which may defy all logic, but the sort of incident to which most parents of teenagers will merely raise a resigned eyebrow.

I am also missing two meetings this evening, one of which I seriously needed to attend. I had three urgent phone-calls to make, but my phone is probably down the back of the sofa at home. Maybe. I have to find radishes for someone's Home Economics lesson, and I know I need to produce six pound coins to hand out to various offspring for very specific purposes. The car is sitting in a dodgy space outside, so I may well be fined, and it also has just a miniscule dribble of petrol left in it...the nearest petrol station is shut, so I'll have to hope we can reach one somewhere else on the way home. I must complete a vital letter to the Scottish Parliament on a subject currently being debated. Oh, and I have to make a Victorian costume for a nine-year-old before tomorrow morning.

Some of the most amazing people I know are single parents. I've now had a full four months of pretending to be a single parent, the TA being stuck in Norway up to this point. All oil wives know very well what it is like to have to hold the fort for days, weeks, months at a time, and they become highly adept at doing so. Our friends in the Military have an even harder time, often longer, and without nearly so much contact. And some people manage to be single parents all the time, for which they should be given a giant medal on a daily basis. So I have been trying to find a neat trick that will help me to cope....I didn't think I'd find it in A and E.

I shove the uninjured offspring off one of the plastic seats and sit back in contemplation. I'm stuck in here until the broken finger is dealt with, and I find this kind of incarceration curiously relaxing. I can't do anything. I'm trapped until all is resolved. A kindly nurse shows great concern for the patient, and so I share some of his kindness, pretending a dose of it is inadvertently intended for me. Then the doc shows up and I am immediately comforted by her Mask of Knowing Brilliance.

I am fond of The Mask of Knowing Brilliance. I've seen it quite a bit. It is something I believe all good medics acquire, almost by osmosis, at some point during their clinical training. Whether or not The Mask originated in Scotland, no-one can say, for it appears to be universal amongst the medical establishment.  I wonder if they realize what a comfort it is to those of us who are mere patients. It can have an immediate placebo effect, and that's not merely on the patient themselves but any hangers-on too. Even when the situation has taken the doctor by surprise, and they patently haven't a clue what is going on, as long as they present The Mask of Knowing Brilliance, we mere mortals can put up with almost anything.

After reflecting on this while we wait about, I think how useful it must be to have such a mask. Perhaps it could be used by mothers, by parents in general, when dealing with the inconveniences of life. So, once the finger is sorted, after buying petrol and radishes and acquiring six pound coins, after scrabbling about for some food (sorry, darlings, I know it's junk tonight, but close your eyes and pretend you don't like it and your mother didn't really buy it), after finding it is too late to phone anyone and my phone could stay down the back of the sofa for all I cared, after sewing a unique Victorian costume from an old table cloth and an absurd colour of thread, after the Plath and the physics were dealt with, the letter finished off and the youths had disappeared off to bed, I try pulling a few faces in the mirror.

Ah yes...you see? That's powerful. Even I can do The Mask of Knowing Brilliance. Good discovery. Maybe it's the black lipstick that does it.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - A FINE PIECE

A 'fine piece' helps the world go around. It's just a fact.

Anyone acquainted with the North East of Scotland will know very well that a 'fine piece' is a treat, a little of what you fancy, naughty but nice, something a wee bit sweet, a wee bit tasty and a wee bit thrilling. In other words, a cake.

We all know that such delights should be approached in moderation, if not rationed. But in certain settings, preferably social ones, the opportunity to indulge in a 'fine piece' can produce more than mere pleasure and satisfaction. I have learnt that a 'fine piece' served at an appropriate moment can make things happen.

A friend of mine, a good citizen who contributes on a daily basis to our local community and to wider society in general, told me her view of how to run the perfect meeting. In addition to making sure that everyone was able to say their bit without people blethering on until we were at wrist-slitting point, she has adhered to a certain trick for most of her committee-filled life.

'Ye'll nae get onything done and decided wi'oot the offer o' a fine piece at half-time.'

How true. I have sat on many a committee in the past, and even chaired a few, and there is nothing finer than being able to say, 'Och, now, let's have a wee breather and scoff a plate o' French Fancies wi' a wee cup o' tea'. Just when things are getting a bit sticky, when the argy-bargy is threatening unpleasantness, when the bossiest person at the table is starting to needle the pedant (for most committees can provide such characters), oil can be poured on troubled waters with the offer of a 'fine piece' and a cup of tea.

I mention this because I was once witness to the Norwegian amusement at we Brits, particularly over the 'cup of tea' issue, although the 'fine piece' was all part of the joke. This Norwegian laddie had been a student in Scotland, and could not get over the fact that his fellow-students and flat-mates, about every five minutes, said things like, 'Time for a cuppa', or 'anyone fancy a brew-up,' or 'char's ready' or 'I could just murder a cup o' tea right now.' The Norwegian fell about laughing at the memory of his student days, slapping his thighs with mirth at the very thought of this tea-obsessed nation in which he was seeking to further his education.

'I thought it was all a huge cliché until I actually lived with you guys,' he chortled as he mopped his tear-filled eyes. 'But every time I entered a room, or stood up, or spoke, I was instantly offered a cup of tea...it was hilarious....you Brits really are totally hooked on tea and little cakes.'

I tried to explain. I pointed out that this habit is probably a relic of our imperial past....what better way to ensure the prosperity of a nation and its empire than to create a population of addicts? Whether it be tea, sugar or some rather more dodgy commodity, there is no doubt that we fell for it all and haven't recovered yet.

But why worry? If you need to cajole and persuade people to do things, if our PM Mr Cameron is to achieve his aim of establishing a 'Big Society' (we are all still trying to work out exactly what this means, but we THINK it means we all have to contribute more, in one way or another) then I reckon a 'fine piece' strategy won't do any harm. So, if you'll excuse me for a tick, I must, in my capacity to contribute to The Big Society, email Number 10 and tell the Coalition to get baking.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - MEETING NEEDS

If someone offers you a 'boatle a' soup' in Glasgow, you would be wise to decline politely. You could end up 'blootered', if not 'heavily bongoed'. The lingo may be splendid, but the habit is not. Sad to say, the culture, and therefore the language, surrounding the drinking of alcohol in Glasgow is maintaining the stereotypical image of my favourite city. But Glaswegians aren't the only ones...the stereotype has relatives throughout the whole of the UK these days. We Scots, we Brits, are drinking copious quantities, and it's not pretty, especially for our young people.

So this week, the British Red Cross announced that it is to offer First Aid classes for children so that they can help their friends if they become dangerously drunk. That is the state we have got ourselves into here in the UK. The British Red Cross has carried out a survey which reveals that amongst every 2,500 young people (11 to 16 year olds), 10% have been left with a drunk friend who was sick, injured or unconscious, and 14% reported that they had been in an alcohol-related emergency. Between 2006 and 2009 there were more than 7,000 hospital admissions involving under-15s and alcohol.

I have long been an admirer of the Red Cross. I like the organisation's 'finger-on-the-pulse' attitude and its practical, non-judgemental approach to need. Wherever the Red Cross works, it somehow manages to understand what a society is most in need of at any one time. In Norway, I know that at the moment the Red Cross is particularly concerned with 'social isolation' and works hard to ensure that the those who are hidden from society are not ignored. I have witnessed this work in Norway at close hand, and I have to report it has changed lives for the better.

You will recall that one of my favourite Norwegians is Fridtjof Nansen. I have already mentioned his achievements as a polar explorer and scientist, but so far, I have not mentioned how he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1922, the last of the German and Austria-Hungarian soldiers, who had been in Russian captivity after WW1, was shipped home. In exchange, the ships they arrived in returned with the last Russian POWs from Germany. Over 400,000 prisoners were exchanged within two years, thanks mainly to Nansen.

Nansen was grateful to the International Red Cross for carrying out the bulk of the practical work. As a result of working with him, the Red Cross decided to use his name in another regard. Lenin had deprived thousands of Russians of their nationality, after they had fled to the West following the civil war. This 'statelessness' prevented them from crossing borders, so the Red Cross proposed using Nansen's name on a special passport for refugees. As a result, the Nansen Passport became much sought-after, allowing many to make a new life for themselves in the West, including Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Pavlova and Chagall.

I realize the link to Scotland's drink problem is somewhat tenuous, but after this week's announcement, I can't help recalling all this as the Red Cross goes about its work. Whether the need is local, national or international, it delivers...with one eye on the Pakistan Flood Appeal, there is another, more local eye, seeking solutions here. (Scotland's links with Pakistan have meant Scots, and Britain as a whole, have donated considerably to that disaster, and we continue to do so.)

So, can the Red Cross help to ease the risks of our young folks' binge-drinking? We have to hope so. I have just seen a questionnaire which asked school children about their attitudes to alcohol...it makes one's hair stand on end.

At the moment, the Scottish Parliament is debating whether or not to increase the price of cheaper brands of alcohol....those against an increase fear that such a move would merely line the pockets of retailers, could potentially create greater hardship as manufacturers lose part of their market, and that hardened drinkers would still find alcohol somewhere anyway.

Well, try telling that to a medic working in a Casualty ward on a Friday night, or a school head who has to deal with the aftermath of pupils recovering from a drunken weekend, or the policeman who patiently returns plastered teenagers back to their parents' doorstep of an evening, or a parent whose child is having their stomach pumped.

I think this is a moment for the current parlance...'it's a no brainer'.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE SKIRL O' THE PIPES

I was required to go out and purchase a chanter for a certain acquaintance of mine. You will know, of course, the significance of a chanter....in Scotland, a 'chanter' is either a person who sings a great deal, or it is part of a set of bagpipes. You blow into one end, and your fingers play the tune further down the pipe. If you have picked the bagpipes as your instrument of choice, you will learn and practise on the chanter. If you insist on practising on a full set of bagpipes all the time, you will have no friends.

I am well aware that the bagpipes are not everyone's ideal sound. Firstly, they are preposterously loud, particularly if you are in the same room(there are rumours that they can be heard 10 miles away). In the past, many a Christmas dinner Chez Nous has been enlivened by a set of bagpipes, and there is no pretending they are quiet. ....glasses shatter, small children cry, dogs whimper, cats howl, old ladies block their ears before bolting for the nearest exit. It's a jolly good way to clear a room, but it's fair to say, the pipes are not exactly 'easy listenin'.

But oh, how they make my heart ache...your ears, my heart. I have to admit, I cannot listen to one note on the pipes without my spine tingling, and before long, there's a glistening about the eyes. The skirl o' the pipes must be one of the most atmospheric sounds there is, a sound which lies very close to the soul of this nation. Wherever I am in the world, the slightest hint of the pipes is the fastest route back home, enough to induce instant projectile weeping and a ridiculously self-indulgent longing for the mountains and glens of one's childhood. You'd think I might grow out of this kind of thing, but no...it's becoming worse with age. In a decade or so I'll be a jibbering emotional wreck if I go on like this. It really is verging on the pathetic.

It's odd that bagpipes are so peculiarly Scottish nowadays. After all, a form of the instrument is mentioned in the Bible, and it is almost certain that they were played in Ancient Egypt. Many countries had some form of bagpipes at one time, but today, if you think of the pipes, it's almost impossible to think of any nation other than Scotland. While many countries were becoming less and less interested in the instrument, it seemed to suit the culture of the Highlands. The pipes were spectacular for playing outside, so useful for weddings, funerals, Highland games, processions and battlefields (they still play a significant role in theatres of war today). At one time, a Highland piper was a person of immense esteem, and in battle, if he could play well, nothing else was required of him.

Nowadays, you might think all this piping nonsense is just an act, a piece of kitsch cow-towing to the tourist market...really, in 2010, what is the point of dressing up like something off a short-bread tin and parading about in the cold?

You might also think piping was going out of fashion, that the younger generation are not particularly interested in this most ancient of sounds. After all, it looks like the most appalling effort to have to get a note out of the things...why bovver?

I can assure you, there is no cow-towing, and there's plenty of keen young lungs being puffed up to deliver a decent 'skirl'. A set of bagpipes is a seriously cool piece of kit round here, and nobody messes with the piper, wherever he, or she, may pipe. And check out the clothes? The togs are a total groove...only a wimp would miss out on the chance to put that lot on.

Since our return to this fair land, you wouldn't believe the number of times my shell-likes have been treated to a quick blast from someone's pipes. I hadn't realized they were so prevalent, nor that I had missed them so intensely while abroad....they are everywhere, from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, to the Kirk door, to the village hall on a Thursday night.

It's tremendous. If you listen to a good piper, and if you can afford to risk having your ears blown off, you will find no better illustration of the turbulent emotional undercurrent that lies beneath the stoical outward appearance of many a Scot. Prepare to be moved.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - SEEKING EXCELLENCE IN THE YOUNG


'Hey, don't diss me, Mum.'


'If I had the slightest idea what that meant, I probably wouldn't 'diss' you, but if you'd take your elbows off the table and speak English, I wouldn't have to comment.'

Whether 'to diss' is to disappoint, disapprove, disassociate, dispense advice, discipline, disparage, or despair, I am desperate to discover. But, despite the long road towards the creation of civilized youths, this plaintive plea from the young caused me to pause. We probably ARE too critical of our young people, and perhaps we DO demand too much of them...the awful thing is, I don't think we should allow standards to slip simply because 'things are different now, ' and there's a recession on and we're all a bit strapped for cash. I don't think I'm the only one either. This morning I heard that the journalist Simon Heffer thinks we have been slipping way too far...he's been sending round-robin emails to his colleagues at The Telegraph pointing out grammatical errors. They may have found this kind of pedantry deeply irritating, but I suspect they were fascinated too...so now he's done a book about all our mistakes. (I'm scared, let me tell you.)

I think we're talking 'constructive criticism' here, and I mention it because I care....about grammar, about standards in general, but primarily about our young people. After all, they are the ones who have to find employment one day, and look after us lot in the future. And I object to everyone telling them things are easier nowadays, that they know nothing, that they are spoilt. Things ARE different, but they are certainly not easier.

Right now there is an almighty scramble going on amongst many school-leavers and their parents. The scramble is caused by the seeking of, preparing for and taking up of university and college places. Apart from deciding where and what to study, there are so many other major details to sort out. Where to live, what in, and with whom? What equipment will they need? How will they travel? And what to wear...we're talking 'image' and that in itself is enough to induce a paralysis of indecision. And then there's the vulgar question of cash...none of this comes cheap. It's all very new and confusing. By the time the new student is established in his or her room with their brand new duvet and fresh stationary, a microwave curry sitting on the desk, the parental hearts are aching in a toxic mix of relief and empty-nester angst.

I'm told, this wears off. Later on, however, many students admit to the real shock, a nasty surprise that many of them hadn't anticipated. They have to work. Imagine! I cannot believe how many times I have heard of students admitting to their parents that they had no idea what hard work was until they went to university...these are A Graders, with stars, bells and whistles, who sailed though school without any problems, collecting music exams, trophies, medals and awards all the way in addition to their glittering academic results. Sure they want to do a degree while making new friends and broadening their horizons, but oops...the fly in the academic ointment is, they have to sit down and work hard for it.  ( This is not the universal experience, of course...it does rather depend what and where you are studying.)

I know it is not fashionable to say that school exams are not what they were, but everyone past a certain age isn't daft. However, criticising the system does not make things any easier for our school-leavers. They have to work within the system of their day. The struggle to pass exams with top marks while winning medals for Scotland, becoming a concert pianist and saving the world is immense. How on earth the Universities are meant to determine who should win a place and who should not is impossible to fathom... we are producing vast numbers of apparently brilliant school-leavers, and it is hard to pick between them...they might as well pick names out of a hat.

As Scottish education in schools moves towards the 'Curriculum for Excellence' we have to hope that it will do what it says on the tin...create 'excellence'. Perhaps it's a matter of opinion, but I don't feel I am unusual in hoping schools will teach children to spell and add efficiently, all children, academic or not. We need a population of well-rounded human beings that can communicate properly, a population that can work to the very best of their ability. I like the sound of 'excellence'.

But we also need a population that cares...and by 'caring', I mean a rounding-off of the edges, as well as the more obvious respecting, nurturing, and loving. I can't stand it when people criticize our young people...I think they are fantastic.... but equally, I don't want them to be short-changed because we can't be bothered to make them aim high. It works both ways...I won't 'diss' you if you, just once in a while, pay attention to the boring details I, in my decrepitude, witter on about.