July 1, 2015

The Ersatz World of Germany

hunger berlin

Throughout Europe and large parts of the world the 1930s was an era of extreme levels of poverty and suffering. The Hungry Thirties as they were called followed on from the hardships of the post-Great War twenties. The twenties, following the huge expenditure of that obscene war 1914-18, and the misguided peace settlement that the French President insisted would squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked did just that, creating economic, social and political chaos in Germany.

German scientists looked to the country’s greatest natural resource – timber to provide solutions to its increasing shortages of food and other products. It is just incredible what could be produced from felled trees during pressing times and with a high level of imagination; sugar and sweets and bread, cellulose clothing, wooden shoes, mattresses, bedding, chair covers and cushions stuffed with wood-pulp. Coal and chalk were turned into glass. Nettle fibres replaced wool to make jumpers. String was made out of cellulose. Fish skin was turned into slippers (there’s a great coat made of fishskin at Aberdeen University) and can you believe it? Germany’s most loved food, the sausage was made from fish (all of the fish, not just the skin). And on the subject of fish it was pulverised and mixed with flour to create an egg substitute when stocks of eggs disappeared – only the flour wasn’t so much grain flour as potato flour (also used as a substitute for wheat flour for bread in Scotland during the Great War when importing flour from Canada was problematic) combined with a pinch of wood-fibre.

cellulose

The early twenties saw German workers collecting their pay by the barrow load, sometimes twice daily, because hyperinflation had eroded the value of the mark and hourly depreciations of the currency meant as soon as wages were received they had to be spent on buying essentials for even an hour or so later the cash value would have reduced still further and the barrow full of near useless paper might buy a fraction of what it could have earlier in the day.

Inflation Geldscheine werden gewogen

In 1914 four marks was equivalent to one US dollar but by July 1923 one dollar cost 160, 000 marks and by November you needed 4, 200, 000, 000, 000 marks to exchange for one dollar. The impact on Germany was devastating. The country was not able to produce enough food to feed its own population and had no currency to purchase imports. Then in 1929 there came the Wall Street crash and the Depression affecting much of the world just got deeper. In Germany it was no longer hyperinflation that caused widespread unemployment and poverty but deflation which had much the same effect.

The middle classes had lost all their savings, the working classes were impoverished still further. These people looked for political solutions from the left, right and centre. A message offering an escape from their predicament and swallowed by many came  came from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. By 1938 when Leonard O. Mosley’s piece appeared in the Press & Journal Hitler’s Nazi party had been in government for five years. While some commentators warned of impending war Mosley did not believe this. He was sympathetic to Germany’s struggles over two decades and looked to that country for lessons on how to cope with crisis.

People had to eat and where there wasn’t food something to fill their bellies had to be found. So ersatz became the means of tackling hunger and shortages.

Mention ersatz and it is generally ersatz coffee that springs to mind but there was more, much more to the imitation business going on there than that. I would use ersatz as an adjective but in Germany it is a noun, being strung together with whatever it refers to: Ersatz – a substitute becomes Ersatzkaffee – ein kaffee, bitte became ein Ersatz, bitte. Germans became fairly adept at ersatz nearly everything it seems.

Mr Mosley report on Germany shrugged off the opinion of some that the work of its scientist producing inspired ersatz goods was part of the preparations for self-sufficiency during what some feared was impending war in Europe. Mosley explained that Germany had a long track-record of being creative with, well, resources. Mind you so were food producers in Britain who thought nothing of adding floor sweepings to loose tea, alum and plaster of Paris to flour and strychnine to beer to enhance its flavour. That was adulteration and fraudulent. What Germany was doing was creating cheap as-near-as. Everyone knew, I’m supposing, what it was and was not.

The writer was impressed, not for the sake of it of the ingenuity but its capacity to deal with the growing mountains of rubbish accumulating in European countries not least Britain and the prospect of turning that waste into something wonderful, or close to it, was welcomed by him. The German government went as far as introducing laws against waste – clothing rags, items containing metals such as copper, nickel, tine, aluminium, lead, iron and steel including toothpaste tubes, paper, glass bottles, rabbit skins, bones were collected and reused or transformed into something else. Unwanted food redistributed. What was unsuitable for human consumption went to feed what pigs remained on farms.

Shop bought jam used to be notorious in Britain for using neep (cheap) to bulk out more expensive fruit. I’ve even heard of wood shavings for pips to create the illusion of authenticity so it may surprise you to discover German jam did actually contain fruit though of course not real sugar but Germans love their meat and jam proved less than popular spread on their neep flour bread than you might imagine.

 

 

The article claimed around 90% clothes and furniture in Germany were ersatz by the late thirties and nearly 50% of the country’s food. There were drawbacks, for example a man caught wearing timber-sourced trousers in a shower of rain could expect 20% shrinkage which wouldn’t be a great look. Coats were often paper which restricted their use. German men had to endure getting a baldy with each visit to the barber for human hair was saved and used for manufacturing carpets and felts. The country’s buses ran on tyres made from coal and limestone which were not as good as rubber but then Germany did not produce its own rubber.

Oh and the coffee? It was might be made from, well virtually anything – ground acorns or sugar beet or barley or oats – roasted of course – or chicory or carrots or the old standby, the neep. The bland flavour enhanced by a soupçon of coal tar.

 

Germany doesn’t waste even Barbers’ Clippings The Aberdeen Press & Journal Friday June 3, 1938

June 22, 2015

The House of Lords is fundimundily wrong

The Sunday Times 1 Feb 2015

There are around 200 more members of the unelected House of Lords than sit in the House of Commons, surely an indictment of the state of democracy in the UK. Westminster is rotten at its core. The shamefully undemocratic nature of government in the UK is boosted and bolstered by the self-proclaimed progressive parties; Labour and Liberal and their eager members eyeing up a place in the second chamber – men such as Alistair Darling – one-time socialist and now new boy to those coveted red leather benches. darling a peer Our politicians don’t so much represent life outside Westminster as create a parallel existence within its walls that can extend to careers beyond the normal stretch of a working life. Labour, the fundillymundily party, has huffed and puffed for over a century but it is a game it plays and its supporters pretend to believe it is serious when it promises to reform the Lords. All bluster of course for Labour MPs and their cronies are falling over each other to reach those red benches alongside their pals, where the powerful go prior to death. foulkes There are inevitable attempts at justifying their pampered existence – claiming to bring experience and expertise to scrutinise government but only to a point for only the most corrupt of governments in the world operates a chamber as iniquitously  stuffed as this one. john reid As the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals all support the Lords there is no prospect of real advances in democratising government in the UK, certainly not under the party which speaks so often of reform then goes on to inflate its membership there, Labour. In any case why is it talk of reform? There should be no place for any such unelected chamber that makes government into a perk for the few in the 21st century. Michael Martin No the fundilymundily party is in love with the whole panoply of the Lords; the ermine robes, the cosy camaraderie within its soporific atmosphere, optional working hours, the £300+ a day plus expenses, the subsidised food and drink – what’s not to like for erstwhile lefties such as Alistair Darling? darling young List of Labour Party peers Labour Peers

June 19, 2015

The Monarch Abideth: Queen Victoria Comes to Aberdeen

Victoria

Guest blog by Textor

 

As much as Scotland has now a reputation for trashing the status quo in British politics it’s sad but probably true that the Scots since the Union of 1707 have favoured monarchy over republic.   Even the attempt to overthrow the established state in 1715 and 1745 was in large part to do with re-establishing the rule of an ousted royal family, the Stuarts.   The Stuart cause was defeated, extreme violence, cultural suppression and changes in the mode of Highland landholding took the heart out of the clan system.   And irony of ironies by the end of the 18th century many of the members of the formerly oppositional tribes had rallied to the British flag (with the enthusiastic urging at times of their commercially orientated clan betters) with the kilted Highlander becoming an icon for all that was brave and loyal in the post 1746 world and after the Crimean War many a kilted “Jock” proudly wore the mark of valour, a Victoria Cross.

Having leased Balmoral Castle Queen Victoria first journeyed to Aberdeen in 1848. She swiftly adopted not the manners and culture of the locals but what she thought was their mode of dress.   She and her husband Albert adored tartan and when in 1852 they bought Balmoral, their Highland Home, tartan became de-rigueur, found on floors, walls, attendants and covering the Royal torso.   With the political and military threat from the Stuarts dealt with, so the trappings (or what was claimed to be the trappings) of clan society could be brought back to the daylight and used to demonstrate the Royal affinity felt for the Scots’ traditions and their nation, at its most visually preposterous when George IV wore pink tights in 1822.

For Aberdeen Victoria’s Balmoral, the royal connection became an object of local pride and a cultural link in an ideological chain which helped secure many Aberdonians fast to the established order.   Until the 1840s Royal Visits had been few and far between, but now, with Balmoral so close to the city visits became at the very least an annual affair affording subjects frequent opportunity to see the monarch.  

When Victoria first landed at Aberdeen the harbour was in the process of converting from entirely tidal to one with a lock system ensuring some deep water berthing at part of the quayside although other areas at low water still stank and consisted of mud banks, betraying effluent and occasionally bodies.   And it was to this mix of a very insanitary and an increasingly viable commercial harbour that she arrived on the 7 September 1848.   The Aberdeen Journal, a local conservative newspaper, was overjoyed and immediately set about constructing an identity for Victoria and Balmoral, something which the paper hoped would lead Aberdonians to show deep respect and some reverence (being then a Presbyterian country straight worship of the monarch would have been idolatrous) not only for the Queen but for all that she embodied, in other words the British state.   Aberdeen, Victoria and Balmoral all became agents in an ideological threesome.

When it became apparent in August 1842 that the Queen was to tour Scotland Aberdeen Journal assumed that all who bear the name Scotsmen would be naturally aware of their duty and have the correct inclination i.e. fervent loyalty. This for a tour which missed Aberdeen.   Six years later the Queen’s highland jaunt was scheduled to include Aberdeen, the local newspaper was overjoyed: God Bless Her; the new harbour lock almost completed was, if not the very wonder of the world then at least one of the noblest work in the kingdom and would provide an impressive berth for Victoria’s ship.   By the end of August 1848 the Town Council had prepared to meet Her Majesty and the editor of the Journal believed that the visitors would find a city at fever pitch with loyalty, greater than any ever previously seen in the Granite City; sounding like a free market in ideological emotion the editor wrote that citizens will vie with each other in acts of devotion.  

Balmoral

There is a question mark over the extent to which the weekly newspaper directly impacted on the working classes of Aberdeen as it was relatively expensive (4½ old pence) there still being a tax on newspapers, a circumstance introduced specifically to put radical publications out of circulation. The Journal was not directed at working classes but largely at the “opinion forming” men (not women) of the city, primarily businessmen and professionals including clergy, especially men of the Church of Scotland most of whom could be relied on to give a lead or place a restraining hand on all who might be inclined to republicanism.   This was not an academic question as it was a time of revolutions on the Continent and Chartism at home, not to mention unrest in Ireland .   So serious was the latter that Victoria and her advisors decided to cancel a visit to this particular “dominion”- The Times noted that sound-minded and sound-hearted Englishmen would approve cancelation of the Irish tour as it would save the Queen being confronted by wretches and seditious and calumnious cries.   Just in case any wretches might confront the Queen in Aberdeen Special Constables were sworn-in to keep order as the royals processed through the town.

The occasion became an opportunity to show loyalty and make money.   Leading the charge in this was a local shopkeeper, Martin the Hatter on Union Street, a man with a keen sense of advertising who placed many humorous and lengthy ads. in the Journal.   Victoria’s coming visit was too good an opportunity to miss: he called for Three Hurrahs for our Noble Queen for the mother of Britain’s future, and was pleased to report that Scotland has not degenerated from the loyal and patriotic feeling which has ever characterized her as a nation; first extolling patriotism he then went on to the hard sell advising customers it would not do to gaze at the Queen wearing an unseemly old hat better that they should be seen in Martin’s beautiful Satin Hats.

As Martin laid in a stock of silk hats so also the Town Council prepared by commissioning the building of a triumphal arch bearing the Royal Arms and national banners all under the supervision of the City Architect John Smith.   Additionally an immense ampitheatrical stage was erected to hold 2000 spectators anxious to behold the person of their beloved Queen.   The Journal confidently predicted that Aberdonians, a free and enlightened people, would show a deep feeling of attachment . . . towards the person and Government of Her Majesty.   The beauties and tranquillity of Balmoral and Deeside were emphasised and the editor asked that Victoria be allowed to enjoy them undisturbed much as was said to be attainable by her humblest subjects.  How far the lives of Aberdeen ‘s unemployed, not to mention the distressed in Ireland, were tranquil and beautiful is a moot point and not one that concerned the Journal.  

Effusive exclamations of loyalty began to pour from the mouths of the North East’s great and good.   Civic heads, churchmen and local aristocrats met to assert their devotion to Victoria and all that she symbolised stressing that in no part of the Empire could your Majesty be surrounded by more loyal, more attached, and more devoted subjects.  

In the event the royal party arrived twelve hours early on the 7 September, catching the expectant Aberdonians off-guard, many still in their beds, but in an act of gracious condescension the Queen chose to remain on board the royal yacht in order that her subjects were not disappointed.   Victoria and Albert appeared on deck with their interesting children . . . arrayed in the simplest garb . . . the picture presented was one of high moral power and grandeur, producing an ecstasy of feeling which could only vent itself in tears.   The Queen stood on deck as mother of her children and by implication mother of the nation, capable of love, affection and through her government a strong hand when required, as had been applied to Chartists and others.   Hinting at how things had changed since the Stuart’s had sought to impose themselves upon Britons through Divine Right the editor stressed devotion was freely given by rational beings, not because of idle or superstitious regard for rank or outward show, but from a solid conviction of the many privileges and blessings which they enjoy under her sway.   In other words she was monarch under parliament.

Victoria

It was from this visit of September 1848 that the whole sorry mess of Victoria and Deeside emerged.   There’s little doubt that the area gained from the royal connection, especially after the railway was pushed westward 1853-1866 (although Victoria insisted as much as the hoi polloi might love her she did not want them disgorging from trains near Balmoral, hence the railway stopped at Ballater).   She bought Balmoral from the Earl of Fife’s estate in 1852 and finding the property, a pretty little castle, too modest had built the silliness which stands by the banks of the Dee.   Almost 170 years on and Balmoral remain a favourite amongst many Royals and is still a potent part of the ideology of the British state even if today the Monarch must tolerate the great adoring unwashed walking in the castle grounds, through the castle doorway and gawking as she attends services at Crathie Kirk.   Some might see this as a sign of the willingness and ability of the of the Royals to be “just like us”.   But they are not like us, they are part of an institutional framework which helps maintain class divisions and the ruling power of capital.   Reminders of Victoria’s foundational role in this abound in the North East not the least being signage for the Victorian Trail.   In this tale of forging mind-chains the Queen is dead but the Monarch abides.

June 7, 2015

Picture of the Month: Darkened Figure by Anthony Scullion

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion’s figurative paintings are ethereal and mysterious. To me his subdued palette emphasises a profound sadness that haunts the people that populate his canvases.

Sketchily drawn figures move silently across his pictures, oblivious to the viewer, intent on activities we cannot even guess at, absorbed in their own worlds, or else gaze out, their stare seldom engaging with us.

His figures are like characters from a play or people inhabiting a parallel universe that seems consumed by conspiracy or anxieties – victimised and vulnerable and to me reminiscent of Goya although he is influenced by the ‘chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and the spirituality of Giacometti and distortions of Francis Bacon’.

This Scottish artist, born in East Kilbride, studied at Glasgow School of Art in 1992.

Darkened figure oil on canvas

This monochrome study of a female drawn entirely in black emerges from a greyish-white background exudes mystery and contemplation. The girl’s downcast eyes suggest her uncertainty, her vulnerability, that makes it uneasy for the viewer staring at her as if we’re intruding into her thoughts.

May 27, 2015

What next for Broadford Works? An auld sang nae ended

There’s an amazing historic industrial collection of buildings in the heart of Aberdeen which comprises the largest group of A-listed buildings in Scotland – although alarmingly I’m informed fewer than there used to be.

How does that happen? Enquiries please to Aberdeen City Council.

 

Broadford Works, Aberdeen

Broadford Works, Aberdeen

Known locally as Richards or Broadford Works  it stopped operating as a factory over a decade ago and according to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) was/is the

‘oldest iron-framed mill in Scotland and the fourth oldest known to survive in the world (after others of 1796, 1804 and 1805, all inter- related). The adjoining South Mill may be the third iron framed building in Scotland’

This impressive maze of incredible architecture in red brick is distinctively un-Aberdeen – the city built of mainly grey granite and is the frequent victim of fire-raising.

But who cares?

 

There was a plan to transform this large site into an urban village. It seemed a great plan. Across the road from Broadfords is another red brick building, a former store, which was very successfully developed as a block of flats, known as the Bastille. Surely the Broadford site would make a stunning and important architectural asset to the city and mark its contribution to Aberdeen’s industrial past.

There is an owner, reputed to be the 12 richest man in Scotland and certainly very, very rich, Mr Ian Suttie.

Now I don’t know anything about its owner Mr Suttie so I went looking at newspaper reports from around the time he took over at Richards (Broadford Works) and some more recent ones popped up as I googled on.

Short clip of women working in Richards in 1962 from the Scottish Screen Archive

I found this in a newspaper from 2011 –

“More damaging, though, was the saga of Richards of Aberdeen textiles, which he (Mr Suttie) bought when it was on the brink of receivership in 2002, moving it from city-centre Broadford to a heavily subsidised site at Northfield on the outskirts of the city. However, the company collapsed in November 2004 and 196 workers, many of whom on low wages, lost their jobs and pensions and received little or no redundancy. Although Suttie was not solely to blame (the pension fund was in a parlous state when he bought the company and by 2004 was £5m in arrears) the former Richards workers’ received an average payout of £3,500 each from an employment tribunal.

“Worse for Suttie, not only did tribunal chairman Nicol Hosie say that “staff were treated in a cynical and insensitive manner”, but there was fury when it emerged that Suttie’s First Construction company were planning a £50m “urban village” development on the Broadford site. Union leaders accused him of “asset-stripping”, and implied that the Richards workers and their pensions had been sacrificed so Suttie could get the site.”

(Scotsman Sat 01 October, 2011)

In 2002 a consortium headed by businessmanIan Suttie bought over the Richard’s factory on Maberly Street, Aberdeen when it was about to go into receivership. Within two years the business had shut down throwing 200 employees out of work, some of whom had spent their entire lives working at Richards. That was bad enough but the first any of the workforce knew of being made redundant was when they went to withdraw their pay and discovered it hadn’t been paid into their bank accounts.  They had been told nothing about the factory closing. There were also real concerns for their pensions for it was public knowledge there was a large shortfall in the fund.

 

Union officials hit out at Mr Suttie’s “mismanagement” of the company and described his behaviour as “barbaric”.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4022695.stm

There had been warning signs immediately before the closure when supplies to the mill suddenly stopped. Union official Graham Tran commented at the time,

” For a multi-millionaire to treat people on the minimum wage like this is just absolutely disgraceful,”

and he demanded answers from Ian Suttie who declined to talk to the union.

The 200 year old mill had been a major employer of Aberdonians, once the largest single employer in the city, it was built in the area known as Broadford, and the first manufactory opened for business in 1808. With its closure ended Aberdeen’s textile production. When it suddenly closed Aberdeen City Council’s head of economic development, Rita Stephen, described its closure as, “disappointing”.

There were people in Aberdeen who recognised this site’s importance just not anyone in a position to do anything about it, it seems.

Sir John Maberly, whose name lives on in the street on which the old mill lies, was an entrepreneur and speculator. When he bought over the factory in 1824 it was Scotland’s second power loom linen weaving factory.  Almost immediately he sold it to Richards & Co. who used it to produce heavy canvases and similar products were manufactured ever since.  Richards was an important and major employer – including from among my own family.

Precious little is preserved of Aberdeen’s very varied industrial heritage, partly because the city has been run by people with little grasp of history and even less interest in it. There is scarce pride in Aberdeen of the lives and occupations which shaped the city, instead there is only enduring ignorance and a desire to replicate other places in preference to preserving what is unique about Aberdeen.

The plans for the urban village appear to have fallen through because no agreement could be reached over the precise arrangements for the development.

Since 2009 an increase in the incidences of fire-raising in Richards led to a risk assessment survey in 2012 that highlighted potential hazards and a Dangerous Building Notice was served on Mr Suttie for protective work to be carried out.

At the start of May this year the Evening Express reported Mr Suttie was served with a second dangerous building notice – for the former E&M building, on Union Street.  Aberdeen Council’s head of planning was quoted as saying the property constituted, “a danger that requires to be reduced or removed.” The report ended by saying Mr Suttie complied with both notices. (Evening Express 2 May 2015)

Ten years earlier, in November 2005 the Press & Journal’s front page featured a report entitled,

“Tycoon thought fraud inquiry ‘a nuisance'”.

It told of an Inland Revenue investigation which resulted in Mr Suttie appearing in court in Aberdeen charged with trying to cheat the taxman out of £21,000 by failing to declare more than £179,000 of interest from a bank account. One of his accountants was quoted saying in evidence, Ian couldn’t understand why this had been raised.’

He was further ‘charged with trying to defeat the ends of justice by submitting a falsified report to try and get the Inland Revenue to stop scrutinising his business affairs.’

Broadford employees angry at their treatment

Broadford employees angry at their treatment

At the time Mr Suttie’s former employees at Richards were continuing their desperate struggle to recover something of the pensions they had paid into for years. Hopes to alleviate something of their loss of wages and pensions rested with the then Blair government but it showed no sense of urgency to deal with their claims for assistance.

Aberdeen was represented then by three Labour MPs. One, a Frank Doran, was reported to have written to the liquidator to disclose if,

“Richards has been paid a substantial portion of the £2.9million it was owed by another company which bought some of its assets.

“The politician also wants to know if the £5million for land bought at Richards’ former Broadfold(sic) Works home by a firm called Hawkrow, in which Mr Suttie is a director, was paid into Richards’ accounts.” (Press & Journal Thursday Nov 25, 2004)

It emerged in the same report that Scottish Enterprise Grampian had paid over £127,000 of public cash to Richards in 2003-04 and Aberdeen City Council provided over £1million in grants and for buying premises for the firm to lease smaller out of town premises.

The same newspaper mentioned that Mr Suttie was believed to have spent in excess of £10million on the Richards venture.

“He could recoup some of this if Richards’ former site at the Broadford Works in the city centre wins planning consent.” (Press & Journal Tues 7 December 2004)

The same newspaper had the previous month reported on Mr Suttie’s other business interests.

“Mr Suttie, 59, holds 18 live directorships of trading companies, but he is reticent when it comes to speaking to the press about his ventures. He has not commented to date on the Richards’ liquidation.

“Mr Suttie is chairman of a holding company called Arnlea, whose subsidiaries included Richards, Inverurie-based technology provider Arnlea Systems and Aberdeen bar Enigma.

“Arnlea accounts for the year to the end of April, 2003, showed pre-tax losses of nearly £2million. Mr Suttie also owns independent energy operator First Oil, which had pre-tax profits of £199,000 that same year.

“The businessman has amassed a multimillion-pound fortune from his oil industry ventures. His biggest payday came in 2001 when he sold oil service outfit Orwell Group to Weatherford International in a £100million-plus deal.”

Despite the city’s triple-lock of government party MPs nothing was going well for the former Richards employees. The liquidator brought in to wind-up the company told the press he was surprised at the delays the workforce had to endure without even an acknowledgement of their claims by the government’s Redundancy Payments Service far less a payment by them for those wages they did not receive from the company. Normally applications were acknowledged within 5 working days with payments following within 6 weeks.

Humiliation upon humiliation was piled on the Richards workforce. One of the great brains of the Labour government then made the staggering observation that, ‘In this case the claims seem to have got held up.’

The Richards’ former workforce were about to embark on years fighting for their pensions.

When weemin were wrochtin roon o’ the clock

At the Jute Works or Broadford’s auld mills

They’d set aff wi’ a shawl and a kwite owre their frock

To try to get owre a’ their ills.

By gaun ilka pay-nicht alang Cassey-eyn

To buy there o’ mair than ae size

Sae tasty as kitchie, het, sappy and fine

Jist ane o’ John Bendelow’s pies.

As for Mr Suttie the Scotsman published a profile of the elusive businessman and was complimentary about his philanthropy but added a paragraph referring to his “mixed reputation” in Aberdeen,

“Last year his First Construction company was sued by Archial Architects for unpaid fees, which eventually put the architects into administration, while in 2002, Arthur Anderson sued him in the High Court for £151,000 of unpaid fees.”

The same article referred to his trial on charges of tax fraud in 2005 and followed it with,

“Nor has Suttie always been popular with the Granite City townspeople. In 2005 he was forced to deny that his donations of £23,600 to former deputy first minister, Liberal Democrat MSP Nicol Stephen and almost £4,000 to then Lib Dem transport minister Tavish Scott were connected with his opposition to Aberdeen’s controversial Western Peripheral Route’s passing near to his Pitfodels home and close to a luxury housing development that one of his companies has just built. Pitfodels disappeared from the plans soon after. (Scotsman Saturday 1, 2011)

Mr Suttie was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in 2012.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/profile-ian-suttie-tycoon-with-natural-reserve-1-1887410

I have no idea what will happen with what remains of Broadfords site. Any more delays in transforming it into something beautiful and extraordinary for future generations of Aberdonians would be an outrage and disgrace.

What we have here is an example of what is so wrong with land holding in Scotland and why it is imperative that communities, urban as well as rural, should be able to influence what is theirs and our shared heritage.

RCAHMS have a wonderful series of photographs of the Broadford site:

http://canmore.org.uk/site/76204/aberdeen-maberly-street-broadford-works-hackling-building-and-sundial

McJazz has a good piece on Richards

 http://mcjazz.f2s.com/BroadfordMill.htm

There are some photographs and information relating to production at Broadford Works at Aberdeen Quest website

May 20, 2015

Rebel without a cause: Seatgate – Dennis Skinner rebel or establishment?

Rebel without a cause

Skinner

The House of Commons rebel, in name at least, doesn’t care much for rebellion it seems – not when it involves him. The House of Commons rebel is a man of custom, sedentary custom. This rebel is not in the vanguard against the British establishment, no  this rebel is none other than Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs or the Great and Powerful Oz – for this week the curtain was drawn back exposing him to be a puny yet ardent stickler for convention in the tradition of the most obsequious envoy of the British empire proudly planting the Union flag on some piece of foreign territory in the name of the monarch and the Empire by God.

The man who once terrified the establishment is now a compliant part of it, albeit the circus act. He is less firebrand than damp squib. Socialist? up to a point Lord Copper, up to a point.

If socialism extends to pushing others out of the way, he’s a socialist. If being a socialist is insisting a public bench belongs to him by rights or custom, he is a socialist. If being a socialist comes down entirely to age then he is a socialist. If socialism is about common ownership he is not a socialist. If socialism is about sharing the means of production then his jibes about Scots (SNP) and their Barnett Formula suggest he is not a socialist. At best the rebel champions not socialism but localism.

When the great rebel accuses the people of Scotland of living off his constituents you have to question the extent of his  socialism..so much for sharing the burdens placed on us by capitalism. If the establishment’s rebel really cared he would not be carping on about what monies Scotland has but demanding his constituents should match them, instead of grousing that the Scots have too much. That we should all wallow in equal levels of poverty seems to be the ambition of Labour, rebel or not.

His comment about North Sea Oil lacks a punch line so I don’t know what he meant other than another apparent disparaging aside aimed at us in Scotland which again doesn’t sound too socialist to me. Certainly not internationalist which is what so many self-proclaimed Labour lefties say they stand for. His remarks seem grudging and bitter and divisive, not at all what you might expect from a socialist or even anyone in the Labour party.

The rebel believes he has traditional rights no different from an 18th century English country squire or absentee Highland laird wielding their power to evict their tenants from their (tenants) land by any means available to them.

The rebel who is happy to sit for 45 years issuing the occasional humorous one-liner is not a threat to the system he claims to despise. What exactly is he rebelling against? At the moment it looks like the audacity of the new intake of Scots to demand equality with old-timers in the Commons. They are public benches and unless he is advocating privatisation of them then he ought to practise what he preaches.

Labour lefties come in a range of shades; espoused socialists who retire from the Commons or public life straight into that most undemocratic house of cronyism, the House of Lords; wealthy Chelsea and Kensington deluded types who talk the talk but take a taxi or limo in preference to walking the walk; hoary-handed salt-of-the-earth types who live off reputations carefully nurtured and preserved but amounting to very little in the grand scheme of things. And they don’t like it when someone comes along and exposes them to be none other than Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs instead of the rebel whose socialism amounts to nothing more than sporting a red tie.

http://www.newstatesman.com/staggers/2015/05/dennis-skinner-warns-snp-mps-trying-take-his-seat-one-victory-it-will-be-battle

May 12, 2015

Washerman’s itch, vermin, TB and scarlet fever: the perils of the laundress

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen (Aberdeen City Libraries)

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen
(Aberdeen City Libraries)

 

Before washing machines the weekly wash was a major event as many a household manual will testify. Fabrics tended to be heavy…very heavy when wet. Woollens, flannels, cotton, muslin, lace, prints, cretonne, silks… all sorts of fabrics requiring special treatment: handkerchiefs, shawls, stockings, sashes, ribbons …you get the idea. Women worked with scalding hot water and freezing temperatures in those outside tenement washhouses and in wringing wet clothes and bedding through a mangle in the back green then hanging it all out to dry.

Washday might begin the previous evening with the steeping of soiled articles. Then it was a case of up well before dawn to fill the washhouse boiler with pails of cold water and light the fire beneath it; soap, very likely from Soapie Ogston, already shredded into a jar of water and melted into jelly. This along with washing soda and starch – hot, cold or gum – were in every working woman’s armoury. Heated water was scooped into wooden sinks for soaking or washing coloureds and woollens while whites would be boiled directly in the boiler. Before detergents, dirty and stained linen was scrubbed clean on a washboard, extremely tiring, as was agitating the wooden dolly to plunge the washing. Every clean rinse took several bucketfuls of water. Whites were treated with washing blue, a cube of bleach wrapped in muslin, thanks to Scottish chemist and friend of Burns, Charles Tennant who created the first bleaching powder commercialised a century later in 1897.

As the population of Aberdeen expanded so did its hotels and boarding houses for travellers and weekly boarders. How could an entrepreneurial mind fail to recognise a business opportunity in the mountains of bed linen produced as a result?

The lack of domestic running water in the past created difficulties with cleaning and while today we link dirt with disease until Pasteur and Koch presented their research into germs in the 1860s and ‘70s no such relationship had been made. For people living cheek by jowl and without sewers and safe drinking water life meant running the gauntlet of numerous fatal illnesses; Aberdeen’s own Professor Alexander Ogston continued important work into the identification of staphylococci.

The notion of cleanliness might not have been associated with hygiene but it did take on social significance as a further distinguishing feature between rich and poor. The aspiring and the wealthy desired clean clothing and bedding and it was someone else’s job to provide it. Domestic staff included a laundress…live-in or hired once or twice weekly. For working class women there was a living to be made from taking in other peoples’ washing. Some advertised in the local Post Office Directories, others would spread the word by mouth. But even in this apparent innocuous occupation dangers were lurking.

A special commission published in The Lancet in 1877 pinpointed laundry handled by washerwomen as a significant source of smallpox. Washerwomen were susceptible to contamination from soiled linen and in turn they were likely to be carriers of disease. And not only smallpox. Scarlet fever and tuberculosis were widespread among laundresses.

Smallpox claimed the lives of several Aberdonians during the 1870s and at the end of this decade Aberdeen Steam Laundry was launched, the city’s first commercial laundry, opening in May 1879. A ‘select company of ladies and gentlemen’, including Lord Provost Jamieson, made their way to Claremont Street to hear reassurances from its Directors that ‘all the bad features of public steam laundries have been got rid of’ – a reference to careless handling of linen rather than any hygiene worries and promising to make washing day a thing of the past in Aberdeen – for a few perhaps. The forty people employed at the Claremont serviced city businesses but the majority of people could not afford the luxury of a laundry.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Claremont Street

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
Claremont Street

There was great anticipation however at its opening and William Clark, an old hand in the workings of steam laundries in England, and his staff of ‘neat and tidy maids and dames’, including the manageress Miss Porter, led the official tour of the washhouse with its steam washers and range of hand tubs, boilers, rinsing vessels, hydro-extractors and so on. Outside there was ample space for open air drying and traditional grass bleaching but the laundry also had indoor drying and airing facilities with fans circulating currents of hot air.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry, believed to be the earliest in Scotland, need have had no concerns over its durability for it was still operating a century later – its 120 foot chimney (erected in 1917) was demolished in 1977. Aside from washing, the laundry provided carpet beating and later French cleaning, dry cleaning and linen hire. It serviced the city’s hinterland by rail and road; north to Elgin, south to Stonehaven and west up Deeside but its principle business came from hotels, institutions, shipping and public companies, manufacturers, clubs etc who were charged 8/4 per hundred articles in those early years.

Incidentally the first BBC studio, set up in Aberdeen in 1923, transmitted via masts attached to Aberdeen Steam Laundry’s chimney at 40 Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Ironing Room from Aberdeen Libraries Local Studies M45_22

Competition to the Claremont arrived in the form of the Bon-Accord Steam Laundry in 1886 at Craiginches, Nigg. It was also financed by a syndicate of local business and professional men. An astounding 400 guests were taken to what Aberdonians affectionately refer to as the Laundry Brae from Market Street in what would have been a trip to the outskirts of the city for tea, coffee, aerated waters and fruit to the accompaniment of the Aberdeen City Artillery Band. Of course there were the inevitable speeches with proud Chairman, Baillie Kinghorn waxing lyrical on the advantages of the 3-acre site removed as it was from the smoke and dust of the city with its abundant water supplies gathered from neighbouring hills and collected in a 6000 gallon holding tank – water pure and soft and filtered before touching a single garment.

In the 34 ft long sorting room items were given bright red identification numbers then stored on corresponding racks. The washing room, nearly twice as long was where the initial rinsing took place and if necessary an overnight soaking in big slate tanks before being placed in one of the state of the art perforated hexagonal concentric dash wheel washing machines. These early washers were slightly corrugated inside replicating the action of a washboard, again unique in Scotland, and the frequent changes of water during the washing process prevented dirt residues building up. Wet linen was fed through a wringer before a further soaking if necessary, in boiling water this time, then wrung and rinsed in a tank of filtered water. Whites would be treated with washing blue then put through the mangle or partly dried in a hydro extractor, an early form of spin dryer.

The 41ft long drying room was fitted with 22 closets; heated to 100 and 150 degrees, the cooler for blankets and flannels. In each closet a 12 ft iron clothes horse ran along double tracks so linen could be loaded and removed easily. Above, a further heated area was available for drying and stretching long curtains.

All the work was done without any form of protection, no rubber gloves for example and inevitably the washroom floor was slippery with soapy water. In the ironing room the problem was sweltering heat and hot scalding steam. Here in the 108ft long hall large rollers pressed sheets, curtains and tablecloths while smaller items were finished with a range of hand irons for calendaring and polishing collars and cuffs to give high gloss finishes and goffering pleated garments.

This impressive set-up cost just short of £7,000 including the building, machinery, horses and lorries and its costs were met by its 121 shareholders’ purchases of £1 shares.

The Directors were at pains to deny they were encroaching on any other business (meaning the Aberdeen Steam Laundry) maintaining there was plenty of work for both. This was possibly true for within a decade a third steam laundry, the Belmont in Chestnut Row, was up and running but such were its concerns that it sued (unsuccessfully) its former manager Robert Innes when he left them for their rival in Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry  ironing hall

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
ironing hall

Other city laundries were to follow among them the Empress and Stevenson’s both Seaforth Road; Borthwick’s of Gilcomston Steps and Holburn Street; City, Seagull, Hygienic, Whitehall – one of whose employees later recalled pushing baskets of linen on a trolley to out to Culter, a distance of several miles. Her pay day was a Monday, to ensure she and her fellow workers returned for work each week.

There were lots of smaller laundries. Who could resist Miss Green’s Snowdrift laundry? or Miss Hogg’s Victoria Hand laundry? It was clear than these home-workers satisfied a niche demand. Torry had one on Sinclair Road, King Street had Mrs Smith in Jasmine Terrace, Mrs Strachan was at Whitehall Place, the Finery laundry on Rosemount Place, Sunlight Hand laundry on Thistle Street and the Central Hand laundry and dye works on Crown Street. All followed in the footsteps of laundresses M. Petrie of Long-acre in 1828 and Mrs Rhind of Burn Court Upperkirkgate in 1850.

Working from home offered flexibility to women and they competed with company laundries in a sense but they would have drawn their customers from a different clientele.

Irrespective of where it was being done, laundry work was physically demanding and dirty. Even the mechanised systems in the company laundries offered little respite in that regard and the hours were long and gruelling. There were concerns about the extremes of temperature women had to work in, the hot, steamy washing and ironing rooms, the stifling heat of the drying halls, the frequent cold outdoor drying and bleaching greens and of course perpetually wet floors. This was especially true in bigger laundries where the hot steam in badly ventilated halls was suspected of causing phthisis (wasting of the body associated with tuberculosis of the lungs) among women and girls and there could be no argument over the high incidences of TB among laundresses. The main danger, however, lay in the sorting room where soiled items were carriers of disease. A bill went through parliament in 1873 to restrict women’s employment in commercial laundries within a month of having a baby such was the fear for mothers and their children but worry over profits superseded any such concerns and the legislation was delayed for 30 more years.

In an 1890s issue of the Aberdeen Journal weak young women enduring extreme temperature fluctuations at work were advised to dose themselves with Dr Williams’ pink Pills for Pale People as they were credited with having saved an English laundress ‘from the jaws of death.’

In addition to the ailments mentioned laundry workers were susceptible to dhobie or washerman’s itch, a form of ringworm caused by damp conditions. Its association with men doubtless comes from its prevalence in non-Western countries where laundering was often the work of men – think of Chinese laundries. Dhobie was contracted from dry laundry containing moulds and bacteria.

Infestations of vermin were a phenomenon of poverty and overcrowding so when cotton cloth became more widely available it assumed importance for being able to be boiled and so destroy, however briefly, disease carrying beasties in clothing and bedding.

A century after the first commercial laundry opened in Aberdeen five operated out of the city. The Claremont was still around, its catchment stretched from Shetland to Fife. Then there was the Gordon Cleaning Company, Modern Method Dry Cleaners, Silver City Cleaners and Stevenson’s –all with branches and agents operating widely. Notice the term ‘cleaners.’ Increasingly affordable domestic washing machines, the 1960s vogue for nylon shirts and sheets and commercial linen hire spelled the end for the old laundries but dry cleaning was carried out with toxic substances such as benzene, petrol or chemical solvents so unsuitable for the home.

And there was a new contender on the block, launderettes. Cheap and quick, they were popular with those who didn’t care about extra finishes.

We still do the washing but it has become a matter of popping clothes into a high-tech machine, adding detergent and closing the door. That’s it. Our fabrics are lighter and more manageable than ever. Gone is the hard, health sapping labour. Gone are the lice and fleas which spread so much disease. Even the hot steam has gone. The cold winds whipping around the ropes remain.

15 Feb 2012 010

May 7, 2015

A grisly tale of the councillor and two in a coffin

 

James Dewar

James Dewar

In the midst of the horrors, anxieties and deaths of the Second World War the people of Aberdeen were rocked by a home-grown outrage on their doorstep.

A poem typed on a single piece of flimsy paper dated April 1944 was retrieved from a suitcase of ephemera belonging to a late relative. It was entitled The Talk of the Town and as I began reading I realised I knew nothing of this revolting episode from the city’s past.

The Talk of the Town:

Aberdeen’s crematorium chief –

Not yet convicted as a thief,

May find himself in Peterhead

If it is proved he robbed the dead.

On first reading I imagined it was connected with the grisly tale of Nellfield Pies but quickly realised that gruesome episode came from a much earlier era. (Nellfield is a graveyard – you can imagine the rest) The subject of this poem was Aberdeen’s relatively recently opened crematorium.

Councillor James Dewar, managing director of the city’s crematorium at Kaimhill and Alick George Forbes, an undertaker from Woodside, found themselves on trial in the High Court in Edinburgh during 1944. Dewar was charged with the theft of over 1000 coffin lids, coffins and shrouds while Forbes faced accusations of reset of 100 coffin lids and two coffins. The offences took place between 1939 and 1944.

‘It is a conspiracy’ insisted the councillor on his arrest.

People talk as people will,

And some who’ve never seen Kaimhill

Will tell you yarns with bated breath

Of what takes place there after death.

The initial hearing was held in Aberdeen but aroused so much interest with the public queuing in great numbers to get into the courthouse it was decided to transfer the case to Edinburgh to avoid their ‘ghoulish curiosity’ and ensure the men got a fair trial.

The trial created such a stink (literally) that perfume was sprayed around the court to counteract the odour emanating from repeatedly used coffin lids brought into the court as evidence. The judge resorted to inhaling smelling salts to prevent passing out.

Councillor Dewar who represented Woodside was, as well as being in charge of the crematorium, a police judge and JP. He was also the owner of a garage. When the police had it searched they found a substantial amount of chopped up wood and a number of intact coffin lids. Even more lids were found stored at the crematorium, as Dewar had straightaway alerted them to the basement.

‘What you will find down there is the lids of coffins.’ He explained then the ‘usual procedure’, ‘… when a cremation takes place the coffin lid is removed, and that coffin lid is held here and used as firewood, or is thereafter employed from the economical point of view of not destroying the lid. This is the general practice throughout the whole crematoria movement …the coffins are the property of the company…in the case of babies the coffins are used simply for the service in order to avoid unnecessary expense to the parents. That is all I want to say.’

Undertaker Forbes told how bodies were removed in simple coffins or shells from hospitals or other institutions and taken to the crematorium. There the families would purchase a proper coffin and shroud etc through his shop for the cremation. When the exchange took place the shell was returned to his shop. Forbes explained Dewar and he worked out a deal that Dewar hired coffins and shells from him and following the funeral service the body was cremated sometimes in an open coffin or no coffin at all, squeezing two corpses into one coffin. ‘Spare’ coffins were returned to Forbes’s shop for resale. Similarly with lids, they were removed and stored.

When Forbes realised they’d been found out he went about trying to remove evidence by cutting up lids and hiding what he could of the wood that had been kept to make into other items for selling on, such as rabbit hutches.

In evidence it emerged some of the coffins involved were for children. The lining in one that had been re-used was found to be stained with blood. Another showed signs of wear where the screws had been worked in and then back out again.

Unseemly, but then the evidence was to take a more bizarre turn.

Our Fire Force Leader never tires

Of fighting local city fires,

And sees that coffins never burn

When there is cash for their return. 

At the city fire station headquarters on Queen’s Road the police discovered all kinds of wooden objects from a bureau to a date-rack. Yes, the fire service was acquiring timber from the crematorium for a spot of woodwork on the side in what was described as a ‘hush-hush’ arrangement. The idea there was anything illegal going on never occurred to any of them it was claimed. Dewar insisted the reason he told the firemen to keep quiet about their arrangement was to prevent a general clamour for wood. Asked why he had told the NFS men to pick up the lids at night, Dewar replied that was when they finished their duties.

Imaginative use of flogged-off coffins and lids popped up right across the city. It appeared there were several hush-hush arrangements that led to the production of tea trays, radio cabinets, seed boxes, desks, hutches on a near industrial scale.

It was put to Dewar and Forbes that poorer people were not treated with the respect and decency provided to richer ones when evidence emerged of corpses being cremated together, including adults and unrelated babies who were placed at their feet for cremation.

For £50 they’ve each found bail,

And there is many a gruesome tale,

Of dark deeds done at dead of night,

When moon and stars are hid from sight. 

You can only imagine the impact these revelations had on the people of Aberdeen whose family and friends had passed through the crematorium during the war years until 1944.

In evidence Dewar described seeing a hand from a corpse move in the intense heat as he watched through the peep-hole of the furnace door, for the coffin was without a lid, it having been removed, he said, to prevent it being blown off and damaging the furnace brickwork.

His defence for running the crematorium in this appalling way implied too little was paid by Aberdeen hospitals for disposal of bodies: 21 shillings for a stillbirth and 25 shillings for newly born babies. Defiantly he maintained there was no obligation to provide coffins, and it was an unnecessary expense for parents.

When pressed on the treatment of dead children whose mothers had trustingly placed them with an undertaker and paid for a coffin and funeral Dewar argued that when the coffin with the child reached him from the undertaker the need for the coffin was completed – the child could then be cremated without a coffin, it having become scrap.

One such ‘scrap’ coffin was discovered to have been repeatedly reused in the crematorium between 1941 and 1944.

This month we speak of April showers,

Though some may talk of re-sold flowers,

And gazing up at darkening clouds

Will ask, who buys the dead men’s shrouds? 

In his defence Dewar hinted there was nothing underhand going on and that the crematorium was liable to be inspected at any time. When asked if it had ever been inspected, he replied, ‘No.

It emerged that brass name plates and handles had also been removed. This was explained again as being necessary to prevent damage to the furnace.

Let each one to his daily task,

And no more Kaimhill questions ask,

Like Asquith you must wait and see

The verdict of the powers that be. 

It took the jury 26 minutes to find them guilty. When Dewar heard his sentence of three years penal servitude his head fell back and his face flushed. Forbes, given six months in prison, showed no emotion. 

In total Dewar was convicted of stealing 1000 lids from unknown persons, 44 lids from known persons and 2 coffins. Forbes was found guilty of reset of 100 coffin lids.

Both appealed their sentences arguing under Scots law it was not possible to be convicted of stealing from the dead. Their appeals failed. Anyway I would have thought it was the living who made funeral arrangements and purchased coffins etc..

Finally it is interesting to note that a local doctor, who counter-signed cremation certificates, without checking identities of the deceased, was given a reprimand. I suspect there may have been a degree of class prejudice involved in his light slap on the wrist.

In the end justice was done. I expect Dewar was found employment in the quarries around Peterhead prison for his spell behind bars. What happened to them on their releases from prison goodness knows. Their faces would not have been made welcome back in Aberdeen, of that I am sure.

The crematorium at Kaimhill is no more. It was replaced by the current one at Hazlehead. But it too has been embroiled in unsavoury activities relating to the cremation of babies. It seems lessons are never properly learned by the people who need them most.

May 6, 2015

Picture of the Month: The Dominee by Henry Wright Kerr

 

'The Dominee' Henry Wright Kerr

‘The Dominee’
Henry Wright Kerr

Henry Wright Kerr was a Scottish artist born in 19th century Edinburgh. He is best known for his rather couthy impressions of scenes from Scottish life and character portraits.

Kerr began his working life as apprentice in a factory (manufactory) in Dundee before returning to his native Edinburgh where he attended evening art classes at the Royal Scottish Academy.

To extend his artistic skills Kerr went to the Netherlands, to the famous Hague School.

He became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1891, an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1893 and member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1909.

Kerr preferred working in watercolour and gouache. Often his subjects were portraits, as here in this etching, but he made a half length portrait of the horticulturist James Grieve, of the apple fame, and this picture is held by the National Gallery of Scotland.

Kerr was a book illustrator and best remembered for his illustrations for John Galt’s celebrated work, Annals of the Parish. He also illustrated Dean Ramsay’s (Edward) Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character.

This etching, the Dominee, is a cracking study of an elderly man, his tie knotted into a floppy bow and from under a dark felt hat pulled down over his brow the man’s shrewd eyes settle on someone or something out to the side. Kerr has captured the quiet confidence and intelligence of the man, the Dominee or headmaster. Note his signature is seen as reversed from the print process. A fine study.

 

May 3, 2015

Cyber bullies and journalists ‘only doing their jobs’

Bedrooms –  incubators of extremism

Once upon a time journalists were expected to be balanced, fair, factual and accurate in reporting news. People swallowed every syllable, each overcooked adjective, each slight tilt of opinion. Perhaps. Objectivity was the journalists’ watchword. Some understood it. Some didn’t care. And anyway as every historian will tell you there are few facts which are incontrovertible…everything in its context. And there is opinion. And there are the doorkeepers to news – the newspaper proprietors and the head of broadcast news – the tail wagging the dog. pilger on journalists Then came social media and the professional journalist found him or herself faced by a snarling dog biting back – too much canine association so I’ll stop it. Good Morning Scotland 3rd May on BBC Radio Scotland featured a piece about ‘bullying’ of journalists by the status quo’s latest demon, the cyber bully. Cyber bullies are people who talk back, some shout, some swear, at opinions they don’t agree with, presented by other people ( not gods) called journalists. Social media has provided a voice for those previously known as the silent majority The phenomenon of cyber bullying has often been raised on programmes such as GMS, often, as today accompanied by the adjective chilling. A definition of cyber bullying is proving difficult to clarify but the National Union of Journalists is launching a ‘campaign’ along with Strathclyde University ‘to highlight the increasing incidents on online attacks on journalists in Scotland.’ The research is led by former journalist Dr Sallyanne Duncan. ‘Cyber bullying of journalists is a serious and growing problem’ it was claimed, citing two forms: social media and comments made under online articles (by journalists). These often comprise views counter to the journalist’s and may be abusive or offensive which is unacceptable as journalists are only doing their jobs. Journalists, it was claimed by Ms Duncan, are being attacked for their political beliefs – ‘which often journalists are not expressing explicitly because they are attempting (to be) or are impartial in their reporting’ and are subjected to attacks not only on their opinions but ‘bullies’ may make sexual or homophobic remarks. Several references were made to actual threats to life. Now this is already illegal and should be reported to the police. That women are more targeted than men was discovered not to be true. Perhaps it is what is being said and not the gender of the journalist that upsets people? Dr Duncan’s worry is this phenomenon could lead to a ‘degree of self-censorship’ which I assume goes on all the time – she earlier remarked, journalists attempt to be fair-handed in their reporting (therefore must constantly be suppressing their own views). The argument continued that freedom of expression is therefore curtailed…infringing human rights. The accusation being that public opinion is preventing reporters doing their jobs …the freedom to connect (UNESCO) has become limited because journalists are frightened of being abused for their views. My problem with this piece was that Dr Duncan clearly revealed she has already decided what might in objective research be its conclusions. It can only be that she will look for evidence to confirm her belief that journalists should not be expected to ‘toughen up’ but be protected from the great unwashed Scottish public … ‘Try being the one who’s receiving that abuse’ she said in reply to that point. ‘… they (journalists) are just experiencing something that is vile… why should journalists be subject to that kind of abuse when people in other professions are less likely to get it? Does it happen to lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants?’ – is she seriously asking that question? James Doherty NUJ national executive was also on the programme. The research is being done for the union. He sounded pretty angry about the abuse received by some of the union’s members. Of course there was a time when journalists would write anything they liked, sometimes looking for a response from the public. Letters would be sent and received and sifted through and one or two would be published. Most would not. The public were entitled to their views but not entitled to their views being widely circulated. That privilege has been reserved for journalists. Mr Doherty made reference to ‘angry’ protests outside BBC in Glasgow, as though protests are not, in most cases, angry. I just thought of angry women hurling stones and abuse at politicians, including the prime minister, for denying them what they thought should be their right to vote. I just thought about the hungry and disenfranchised who rose up in the 1820s for an end to their miserable living conditions, dangerous working conditions and for an end to poverty and to the Chartists years later, still fighting for the same, still challenging a hostile press, still angry, still demonstrating. Trade Union member Mr Doherty said it was intolerable that demands were made for journalists to lose their jobs. That this ‘rising sense of entitlement’ emboldened people. And it should not be that casual and idle threats are common parlance nowadays but anger at audacious bias, used as black propaganda, tarted up as even-handed journalism that needs to be criticised and there appears to be confusion over where the dividing line lies between abuse and strong opinion…as there is confusion in some quarters between stretching the truth, omission and downright lies. Isabel Fraser offered up the description ‘chilling’ a few times during the interview in relation to social media which struck me as gratuitous. In much the same vein Mr Doherty referred to social media types who sit in their bedrooms, anonymously madly typing away on their ipads as though bedrooms are by their nature incubators of extremism. This is mainstream media fighting back. It has lost its domination of news and it doesn’t like it. Until now we’ve had a one-way street for journalists; radio, TV and newspapers who have enjoyed the privilege of having their opinions aired across the country but who don’t recognise the advantages this has given them. Ordinary folk have had no such opportunity to express their views. I don’t deny there is horrible abuse out in social media. I’ve been the target of attacks from unionists, many who drape themselves with the Union flag and profess Rangers forever – the sort who don’t get their hate messages reported on mainstream media (objective, balanced and fair-minded) and it is nasty but they are just words and I don’t believe I’m in danger for my life from them anymore than I actually believe the Labour MP Ian Davidson is heading towards my house to bayonet me. The NUJ may wish twitter didn’t exist but it does, and a good thing too. Whatever is said on twitter is nothing compared with the behaviour of professional journalists bunged up in the slammer for their corrupt practices. People are people and people have opinions. As Hunter S. Thompson said, ‘ I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.’ We get flat-out lying from professional journalists. Daily we are subjected to jaw-droppingly biased reporting. How hard is it to distinguish between pro-Labour and pro-Conservative newspapers? They cannot all be presenting objective news stories. It is not difficult to witness BBC, Sky, STV journalists include, omit, spin items they will swear blind are FACTS. Journalists are not demi-gods beyond criticism. They are still privileged as they beaver away, if not in their bedrooms, in their own equivalent of the news sensation incubator, sifting through the FACTS to concoct their own versions of the actualité. If I may indulge in an aside – sport reporters, the majority of whom demonstrate the folly of bunking school between 7 and 16yrs are mainly attracted into their ‘profession’ through their desire to watch fitba for free, every week. An FE lecturer whose job was to broaden the horizons of these myopic young professionals found it an uphill task for there was nothing in their heads but football which goes some way in explaining their uncanny ability to pronounce the most tongue-tying names of footballers and their complete inability to pronounce accurately the names of female Russian tennis players – and so they don’t bother – even to mention the sport when Andy Murray isn’t playing – and anyway they are women – and foreign women – and not even just foreign women but Putin’s foreign women…which is my way of saying that putting professional in front of journalist amounts to nothing worth respecting in itself.

Journalists must be judged on their work not for simply being journalists.  They are open to greater scrutiny than ever and that can be no bad thing. We don’t need threats of violence anymore than we need the pretence of balanced reporting.

As a final aside it hasn’t escaped my notice that BBC presenters are rarely shy about condemning other professions for allegedly shoddy work and suggesting they should be sacked, particularly teachers and nurses come to mind. Yet they scream bloody murder when they are judged as incompetent. That’s the behaviour of the playground bully isn’t it?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11167778/Senior-Sun-journalists-accused-of-corruption-on-a-grand-scale-as-trial-begins.html http://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/sep/04/broadcasting.bbc http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/25/screw-objectivity-study-finds-opinionated-journalism-boos http://reason.com/blog/2013/06/24/washington-post-puzzled-by-strange-new-c

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