Monday, 30 November 2009
The journey included Pinewood Studios (where I was the voice of a Pictish warrior in a Roman Epic); Glasgow where I helped the city restaurants hold the recession at bay; a musical expedition to St Kilda courtesy of Alyth McCormack and finally to Bethnal Green, where Point's answer to Van Morrison - the Gaelic singer Iain MacKay - held the stage in York Hall. Afterwards we got a torrential soaking walking home from the pub which made it all feel very circular and Hebridean indeed.
Lots of adventures, and a few political lessons from Reykjavik and Scotland, which I will write about in the coming days.
Getting back online after what seems like a lifetime , and shovelling out the todhair from the inbox, I see that a bigger todhair-storm than the Referendum proposals has hit the SNP. The exposure of one a senior aide to cabinet secretary Michael Russell as a cybernat.
Mark MacLachlan quit as constituency aide to Constitution Minister Mike Russell following the revelation, which appears to have delighted but not surprised most of Scotland's journalistic community.
Cybernats, a bit like cybermidges, are a depressing part Scotland's media moorland but MacLachlan's unmasking at least puts an end to the big lie that these poison keyboarders were rogue Nat males rather than, as we all suspected, tax-payer funded character assassins.
No one is immune from them but for the most part they can be swatted away like the midges.
Realising what was ahead when I started penning a column for the Sunday Herald I got my retaliation in first. The extract contains some useful advice from a female friend.
Sunday Herald 19 August 2007
"The anonymity of the web is one of the more depressing features of the internet age. Try catching up with the future of Scotland on any newspaper readers' forum and you'll end up wanting to take a shower.
The flipside of Alex Salmond's "big conversation" on the constitution is like wading through slurry on a foot-and-mouth infected farm yard.Online, the debate is swamped by the "Wha's like us" faction of nationalism that brooks no criticism o' the oppressed Scots nation and does its best to engage in the most derogatory language possible, anonymously and preferably in a Scots accent. It's the online equivalent of being sat blindfolded in a Lochgelly pub on a wet October night with 15 bar-room bores talking simultaneously.
You begin reading a string in the hope it's penned by teenagers with a loaded sense of irony. Midway you cling to the notion of a clever, single-scripted satire but finish in the depressing knowledge that the authors are serious and beyond parody.
This army of cyber woads is tireless. Look at the timings, they hover around newspaper websites at midnight competing to be first to hurl abuse at whatever a political editor has laid out for them.
A generation ago, Scottish local newspapers were notorious for elevating the poison pen letter to an art form, printing vile allegations on letter pages under nom de plumes or "name and address withheld". In print, most have cleaned up their act but that hasn't drained the peatbog, the Pantone 300 ink brigade has been reborn online.
When I read online comments on the London or indeed Californian newspaper sites contributors sound informed and even courteous to each other. Why is online Scotland cursed by kilted keyboards with cyber Tourette syndrome where serious debate is reduced to how much you can make yourself read like a bad imitation of a James Kelman character?
One of my friends has a remedy. When the playground bile gets to boiling point she posts a comment to stall traffic. She just types: "Do you boys not have girlfriends?" It shuts them up, until they remember that online no-one can see how empty your life is."
Monday, 16 November 2009
I'm indebted to Iain Pope for spotting this staggering picture on Gordon Scott's Tiree blog, staggering that is if you think the Mv Isle of Lewis is the biggest ship in the Minch.
In front is the Mv Isle of Lewis, the largest vessel in the Cal Mac fleet, and behind is the Queen Mary 2, all 148,528 gross tons of her, flagship of the Cunard line and still the largest ocean liner in the world.
The Queen Mary 2 has 15 restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino, a ballroom and a theatre. Aye, and if the Isle of Lewis were no stay docked in Stornoway forever she could boast just about the same facilities.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Hopi deconstructs , in the nicest possible way, Ben's despair about how poor people keep voting for Labour. The answer seems to be the bleedin' obvious - they know Labour improves their lot - but let's not let the political debate be settled there.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Probably still worth staying up late to see if the SNP make a dent (they're ready to throw in the towel early my sources say) and next to see where in the running order the BNP comes and, with three hard left parties standing, whether they fight each other or the fascists.
Once again, no sign of Cameron fever breaking out, but this is a working-class Glasgow constituency.
The result is expected quite late - 2am is the estimate - but that's usually a safety slot given by the returning officer to cover any eventuality. It will be all over much earlier than that.
Legendary BBC Radio Scotland reporter Iain MacDonald and I yesterday took part in a radio reminiscence of the late Hector MacDonald, who wrote the brilliant satirical View From North Lochs column for the West Highland Free Press for 15 years.
The latest collection of Eachann's writings, More Views From North Lochs, has just been published and will have you rolling on the floor over Christmas.
You can hear our tribute to Eachann on Highland Cafe, including Iain MacDonald playing the part of a Stornoway Cove, on the BBC's play it again machine. It's on from about 28.45 for about seven minutes. One day I will learn how to audioblog.
It was the last Prime Minister’s Question of the current term. Next week we will have a Queen’s Speech and according the strange lunar calendar of Westminster new parliamentary year will begin. In politics time has a weird rhythm anyway, one day the whole process drags on interminably and the next minute events move at a headspinning pace.
Question Time was moved to 3pm because of the special Armistice Day service and Commons traditionalists felt comfortable to be back where they had been more than a decade ago. It was all very bad for the body clock but any chronological measure Mr Brown should have been dragging himself over this parliamentary finish line.
But the Prime Minister, just back from Golgotha by Wapping, looked as if the Afghan crown of thorns and the tabloid’s vinegar-soaked spear had actually pepped him up.
David Cameron, who if he is guilty of anything it is over-rehearsing his synthetic anger, went for the Prime Minister on unemployment figures. By rights the number of young people out of work ought to have been over one million by now for this particular script to work - the figure is 943,000 - but he pressed on anyway.
He accused Mr Brown of failing in his promise to abolish youth unemployment, putting to one side that this government has been around so long that the pledge was probably fulfilled and broken again on the back of the global economic crisis.
No government in Europe was doing more than his to get young people into work said Mr Brown and the Tories had blocked every measure.
"Parallel universe," squeaked Mr Cameron. He flourished a leaked memo, a theatrical gesture matched by staged laughter from the Labour benches, that indicated the Government wanted to cut apprenticeships by 10 per cent because Gordon Brown created the "longest recession since the war".
It was the usual ding dong but Mr Brown had, for once, the sharper blade. "Every measure has been opposed by the party opposite," said Mr Brown having trapped Mr Cameron on a simple question of investment for jobs. "Every time we mention policy he loses it."
Mr Cameron flushed red as he sought to avoid the parry from the Prime Minister. He raised the issue of the mortgage rescue scheme which has helped "just 16 families". That, explained Mr Brown patronisingly, was because the government beat the forecast number of repossessions and had helped people in other ways. "Every time he tries to talk about policy he doesn’t have a clue what is happening," mocked Mr Brown.
At one stage Peerie John, the Speaker, who hates being left out of any drama, intervened to quieten Labour backbenchers. They were cheering Gordon Brown, really cheering him, because this time (3.10pm on my watch) he was actually quite good.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
A deeply upset Gordon Brown yesterday apologised once again for the errors in a hand-written letter of condolence he sent to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan
At a sombre press conference in Downing Street - during which he signalled that British troops could hasten withdrawal by moving to an overwatch role in Helmand province in Afghanistan as they had in southern Iraq - a haggard looking Mr Brown said the sentiments in his controversial letter had been genuine.
Mrs Janes had angrily dismissed the Prime Minister’s error-strewn letter on the death of her son Jamie as "disrespectful" and attacked his failure to apologise properly.
It was only by drawing on his own experience as bereaved parent that Mr Brown able to draw a line under the affair after being confronted with the raw emotional anger of Mrs Janes in the published transcript of a telephone conversation he had with her
"I’m a parent who understands the feelings when something goes terribly, terribly wrong, and I understand also how long it takes for people to handle and deal with the grief we have all experienced," said a tired and deep-voiced Mr Brown.
Last night Mrs Janes said she accepted Mr Brown’s apology after 48 hours that left the Prime Minister personally battered and his officials bitterly anger at how The Sun newspaper had "manipulated" the story to make him appear uncaring when he had not intended any offence.
Downing Street officials held that the Sun story was deliberately timed around Armistice Day to inflict maximum damage on the Prime Minister, a charge the newspaper denied.
Advisers to the Prime Minister, grasping for good angle after a bruising few days, said the incident had at least brought to people’s attention that Mr Brown sends a personal letter to the families of all soldiers who lose their lives in action. Downing St also received calls and e mails from the public expressing sympathy for the Prime Minister who had to apologise on Monday for his bad handwriting, the result of his poor eyesight.
Almost lost in the controversy was Mr Brown’s confirmation that by mid-2010, British forces will begin handing over control of some districts of the southern Helmand province to Afghan military leaders and local politicians — a tactic aimed at preparing the way for an eventual withdrawal from the province.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed her call yesterday for a strategy to eventually hand over responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces. Germany has more than 4,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan in non-combat roles.
At his press conference Mr Brown rejected demands - voiced by former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells - to adopt a "fortress Britain" strategy by abandoning its mission in Afghanistan and concentrating on homeland security in the UK.
He said it would also be wrong to concentrate purely on al Qaeda by attacking its strongholds in the Pakistani province of Waziristan, while allowing the Taliban to regain control in Afghanistan.
Mr Brown claimed that "half of the leadership of al Qaeda have been eliminated in recent months", but said Britain would be at greater risk if they were once more allowed access to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He accepted that he faced a huge task to explain to the public how important the mission is. "This is a land that is far away and people have got to know why we are there," he said.
His news conference was held early in No 10 so that its broadcast would not clash with tv images of the bodies of six UK servicemen - five of whom were shot by a "rogue" Afghan policeman- being flown into RAF Lyneham. The cortege was met by hundreds of members of the public who lined the rain-soaked main street of the nearby village of Wootton Bassett in a now familiar ceremony.
The MoD yesterday named a British soldier who died in hospital after an explosion in Afghanistan as Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, 1 Platoon, 4th Battalion The Rifles, serving as part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group. He was injured by a bomb near Sangin, in northern Helmand province on 1 November. He died on Sunday, aged 20.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
You’d think that the whole row, stoked by the Sun newspaper, could have been over much earlier if Mr Brown or his official spokesman could have admitted at the outset, to Mrs Janes and the press, that he had made a mistake.
But in the world of jackal journalism it is impossible for Number 10 to admit the Prime Minister is fallible - he’d be strung up for not being the Pope if they said that.
The whole episode has given us all a taste of the cynicism and the ferocity of the tabloid onslaught against Mr Brown from here to a general election in which the rest of the media is swept along.
So the war over the letter continues for another day and it dominated the Prime Minister’s press conference although it’s hard to see where it goes from here. Having said sorry in person, having apologised to everyone for his handwriting (which is much the same as having to apologise for being blind in one eye) and having said that he has experienced a parent’s sense of bereavement through the death of his own daughter there is not much more the Prime Minister can do.
The Sun is unlikely to call a truce until it detects that its attacks on Mr Brown on this front are actually engendering some sympathy for him. It’s clear from the recorded telephone conversation between Jacqui Janes and the Prime Minister that her anger is about a lot more than a mis-spelt word. Some people think the Sun is manipulating her grief (it is) but she is nobody’s fool. She is steeped in military culture and seems to know all the issues when she is discussing equipment or lack of medivac helicopters.
Meanwhile the war trundles on. The coffins of another six soldiers - including the five killed by a rogue Afghan policeman - have been flown into RAF Lyneham and the MoD have named a British soldier who died in hospital after an explosion in Afghanistan as Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, 1 Platoon, 4th Battalion The Rifles, serving as part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group.
Rifleman Bassett was injured by a bomb near Sangin, in northern Helmand province on 1 November. He died on Sunday, aged 20
Monday, 9 November 2009
There were lots of stars out at the Baftas but the best hand I grasped on the weekend was that of Malcolm Jones, the Runrig guitarist, who was playing a set in the Park Bar on Argyle Street when I pulled in for a pitstop pint with Capt. Bob on Saturday night. Slainte leat, Malcolm.
"Commenting on the letter he wrote to bereaved mother Jacqui Janes, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:
“I take very seriously my responsibility to the bereaved. Every time I write a letter to mothers and fathers and partners who have suffered bereavement to express my sincere condolences, it is a moment of personal sadness to me. And I am in awe of the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces.
“I send a handwritten letter to every family and I often write to more than one member of the family.
“I have telephoned Jacqui Janes to apologise for any unintended mistake in the letter.
“To all other families whom I have written to, I can only apologise if my handwriting is difficult to read.
“I have at all times acted in good faith seeking to do the right thing. I do not think anyone will believe that I write letters with any intent to cause offence.”
It all turned into a slow motion crash with questions over whether the Prime Minister had actually apologised to Mrs Janes (not Mrs James as he wrote) for making a mistake or simply said he was sorry that she had been upset.
It culminated, as you knew it would, in questions about the Prime Minister's eyesight and if he can accept that, like every other human being, he does make mistakes sometimes. The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman appeared reluctant to accept that his boss was capable of the latter.
Not a great start to the week for Downing Street, but there have been few of these of late. A wee glimmer of hope for Mr Brown in this morning's Herald poll showing Labour dominating in the Westminster vote ahead of this Thursday's by-election in Glasgow North East.
Friday, 6 November 2009
"One of Heaven's Jewels" tells the story of the life and times of Cook and the 19th century Highland church. His preaching was preserved on many Highland bookshelves into the 20th century in copies of "Cook's Gaelic Sermons". This is the story behind the legend.
The pulpit and the congregation were driving forces of politics in the 1800s and the radical land reform movement helped tear the Presbyterian church apart. Cook was bang in the middle of that upheaval and this book gives you a flavour of the spiritualism and the politics of the age. You can buy it through the click-through below.
Cue drum roll, here's the plug:
A fearless minister who influenced wide areas of the Highlands and islands is the subject of a new book -- One of Heaven's Jewels -- published in aid of Bethesda Care Home and Hospice on Lewis.
Vast numbers of west coast fishermen and herring women heard him preach at the Gaelic services he set up in Wick in the 1820s and this helped bolster the new wave of evangelical ideas in places like Lewis and Skye. His brother Finlay was the first evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland in Cross in Lewis. People can still recall hearing anecdotes of preaching by Rev Archie Cook of Daviot or reading his Gaelic sermons. The original Free North church in Inverness was built for this Arran-born preacher who attracted thousands of hearers at communion seasons.
Cook would challenge landlords face to face about plans to evict individuals he knew and Cook fearlessly criticised the competitive tenancy where people were forced to bid against each other for the right to pay rent on crofts or farms. The losers in the process often had to leave the Highlands and author Norman Campbell suggests the clearances in Arran during Cook's childhood may have radicalised him.
One of Heaven's Jewels tells how Archie Cook's generation lived and worshiped. A warm-hearted mixture of community, social and church history, it describes a man of deep spiritual discernment who was loved for his ability to detect and encourage the least sign of genuine spiritual life, while also exposing hypocrisy. A man of action, he would tramp through deep snow to keep preaching .
It also tells of a time when preachers were the celebrities of their day and when the Scottish Gaelic culture was dominant from western and southern Caithness to the south of Arran in the Clyde estuary. Campbell also places the stirring events of these days in Scottish and British political and historical context. Some of the issues such as Patronage (where the landlords and councils and crown chose ministers up until the late nineteenth-century) went right to the heart of debates about freedom and state recognition of religions.
The first six chapters describe the revival-era atmosphere in Arran where Archie Cook grew up, as well as his three pastorates and the famous struggle by the Daviot people during the Ten Years' Conflict to call him as their minister. Several further chapters describe urban grass-roots evangelism in Inverness, the 1857-1861 revival movement in the Highlands, the Union controversy, the early Inverness career of the Rev Duncan Macbeth (now better known for his later Ness ministry), Cook's friendship with Rev Jonathan Ranken Anderson, communion seasons and the Separatist movement. The last two chapters discuss the possible influences that his mentor, the godly Dr John Love of Anderston, Glasgow, had on Cook's thought, and Cook's own emphases.
The paper-back sells at £19.99 pounds and all profits will go to the Bethesda Care Home and Hospice in Stornoway. One of Heaven's Jewels has 27 colour photos, several black and white pictures, 278 pages and reflects many year's worth of research by Norman Campbell. It is available in Borders Inverness, Roddy Smith's (Stornoway), the Blythswood book-shops in Dingwall and Stornoway, Harris Christian Bookshop (Tarbert) and on-line at the Bethesda Care Home web-site shop:
Gordon Brown will this morning pledge to stay the course in Afghanistan against mounting political and public disquiet over the eight year military campaign that has now cost 230 British lives.
At the end of grim week for British soldiers in Afghanistan Mr Brown is due to make a major speech in London in which he will restate his personal determination "not to walk away" from the war.
With increasing numbers of voters questioning why British troops are losing their lives in Afghanistan the Prime Minister will use speech to define the mission to deny Al Qaeda at training ground on the Afghan-Pakistan border from which to plot attacks on the UK.
With Remembrance Day approaching Mr Brown is due to set the mounting British losses in Afghanistan in the context of the sacrifice of British soldiers in WW1 and WWII, saying the fallen in the conflict would be remembered as heroes who "fight to protect freedom both in our nation and the world".
An as yet unamed serviceman from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles was killed yesterday in an explosion in Afghanistan bringing to six the number of soldiers killed in the last 48 hours. This year 93 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, making it the bloodiest year of the conflict to which 9500 troops are now committed.
SAS troopers are still seeking a rogue Afghan policeman who turned his weapon on British soldiers, killing five and wounding six, on Wednesday. The UN yesterday began withdrawing more than half its foreign staff from Kabul after five of its employees were killed in an attack last week.
With a call for British withdrawal by the former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells adding to the sense that a tipping point is approaching for British involvement in Afghanistan a poll for Channel 4 news showed that public support for the war has fallen sharply.
Two weeks ago the Yougov poll showed 42% of the British public thought the Taliban could be defeated, while 48% thought they could not. Following the deaths of five British soldiers on Wednesday and President Karzi’s much-challenged victory in the recent election, just 33% of those questioned think the war can be won, while a clear majority, 57% think victory is no longer possible.
As a result, 35% now think all British troops should be withdrawn immediately – compared with 25% two weeks ago. Only 20% think they should remain in the country "as long as Afghanistan’s government wants them there" – down from 29% two weeks ago.
Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader who was vetoed by President Karza for the role of UN representative in Afghanistan, said the government had "completely failed both to make a cogent case for this war or to convince us that it has a strategy worthy of the sacrifices being made."
He added: "There is a real chance we will lose this struggle in the bars and front rooms of Britain before we lose it in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan."
Today Mr Brown is expected to say that Britain will not be deterred by setbacks and while he will emphasise the international nature of the forces in Afghanistan he will not bring any fresh news of an increased contribution from European Nato allies.
Despite the killing of five troops by an Afghan policeman they were training Mr Brown will state that the mentoring strategy will continue "because it is what distinguishes a liberating army from an army of occupation’.
Labour left-winger Paul Flynn MP said last night that politicians were "deluded" about the mission and that Britain was relying on an Afghan police force that was "endemically corrupt" He said: "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan and we must stop now sending our young men out there to die in vain."
Thursday, 5 November 2009
With each of these big stories it feels as if we are close to arriving at a tipping point.
Howell's interview on Afghanistan was gloomy indeed. He's no left winger, he's no dafty, he knows the situation on the ground and he's linked into the intelligence community through his supervision of the Intelligence and Security Committee. More tellingly, on the day of five deaths in Afghanistan, no Minister stood up to contradict him.
Gordon Brown will make a "major" speech on Afghanistan tomorrow, which we reckon will be a retrenchment and a commitment to keep on keeping on. Instinct, and the front pages of the newspapers today, says that he has a very short time to start spelling out a very clear exit strategy or he will end up behind the curve of public opinion.
On Europe, Cameron made his big speech and while it will mollify neither his own Euro-sceptics or the Europhobic British press it confirms his status as a lucky politician, and you need luck as well as policies and skill to become Prime Minister.
He will hope he has now parked the issue of Europe for a parliament and that the tears before bedtime will be well out of the way before a general election. Europe has a nasty habit of biting the Tory Party in the bum though, and UKIP might benefit. But while dropping a referendum pledge might cause internal divisions the voting public don't give too much of a toss.
Expenses - the saga of the year is not over yet but the Kelly report goes a long way to cleaning up the image of parliament, even though there are genuine doubts about the new rules discouraging less well-off people from standing.
You can read my take in the Herald page on expenses and thanks to Jo Swinson and Michael Connarty for taking time to stick their heads above the parapet.
I should point out, for the record that the quote from an anonymous MP "This is tempting - I could sack my wife or divorce her" should not be attributed to Tom Harris MP who appears in picture next to the article with Carolyn Harris, his wife. I'd hate to land the blogpin in trouble.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
It is probably the first of many rumours we'll hear about possible dates. This one apparently emanates from the Labour whips office. It concurs with what staff in the Palace of Westminster have been saying for weeks and dispenses with the need for a difficult budget but that could mean nothing - or everything.
Monday, 2 November 2009
There's an article in the Guardian today about granting ex-pats not just voting rights but their own MP in the House of Commons which is persuasive, up to a point.
I remember Ron MacKenna, former Herald hack turned lawyer and food critic, launching a late campaign to be elected as an ex-pat member of the Italian parliament a few years ago.
But where does it stop you ask, all this ex-pat political voting power? What about voting rights in Scottish parliamentary elections for the estimated 800,000 Scots living in England, the kingmakers over the water?
Should they have a say in a referendum, if it comes to it, on the future of their own country?