Saturday, 27 November 2010


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


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


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 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 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


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


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


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.