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

April 27, 2015

The M’Pherson brothers comb makers and Chartists

Tombstone of James and John M'Pherson, comb makers and Chartists. St Peter's graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Tombstone of John M’Pherson, comb maker and Chartist.
St Peter’s graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Guest post by Textor

Hidden away on the west side of St Peter’s cemetery is a memorial to comb manufacturer John M’Pherson It sounds unlikely to us in the 21st century but at one time this Aberdeen industry was pre-eminent in Britain if not the world. John, with his brother James, was one of a number of local manufacturers producing combs by the thousand; the largest employer in this trade was Stewart of Aberdeen Comb Works, a firm which imported vast quantities of horn from across the world as well as tortoiseshell for the luxury end of the comb market.

James and John M’Pherson, however, should be best remembered for their radical politics in the 1840s, when both men stood for the Charter and against political corruption and privilege. Aberdeen was then no sleepy political backwater but part of a large national movement which saw thousands of disenfranchised tradesmen and others demanding the right to a voice in Parliament. Chartists wished to see all males over twenty-one given the vote, regardless of wealth, and as part and parcel of this struggle take political power out of the hands of the aristocracy and large property-owners. They argued for a secret ballot to remove intimidation by landlords and employers that occurred with open voting, payment of Members of Parliament so working men could attend parliament, equal so fairer constituencies and annual Westminster elections to counter corrupt practices.

Needless to say Aberdeen Journal, forerunner of The Aberdeen Press & Journal, showed its class bias when it mocked the notion that working men might be given a say in the running of the country. As in more recent examples of class prejudice the then editor believed that those with property and wealth had a God-given right to rule.

But Aberdeen’s Chartists were not to be ridiculed and as early as May 1832 thousands of Aberdeen working men took to the streets to demand a greater say in how the country should be run. In alliance with middle class reformers they believed their time had come.

The Great Reform Act that promised so much had proved a damp squib, enfranchising middle class men but denying the same rights to the working class. They had been sold down the river by the middle class happy to turn their backs on their fellow campaigners in the reform movement. And so Chartism was born.

In 1838 Aberdeen Workingmen’s Association (AWMA) was formed, an organisation in favour of the Charter and against middle class reformism. Despite the very male-centred politics of the era the following year, 1839, saw the creation of The Aberdeen Female Radical Association which believed that all capital springs from labour, and therefore the working classes having no capital, are robbed of their hard-won earnings. Thousands of Aberdonians signed the Chartist Petition demanding political rights. Many hundreds attended open air and indoor meetings, including James and John M’Pherson.

James and John stood against the lies and deceits of the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories; both men became active in Town Council affairs and were not afraid to contradict and clash with prominent political leaders such as Provosts Blaikie and Thomson as well as Member of Parliament Alex. Bannerman. The comb makers steadfastly argued for the right to vote, education for all working classes, improved housing and shorter working hours for factory operatives.   During a debate over “City Improvements” when Whig Councillors wanted to imprison ratepayers who fell into arrears, James M’Pherson’s anger and sense of injustice is obvious in his statement: You have all heard of the great Autocrat of Russia. The improvement Bill is equal to any one of his acts.

An indication of the corrupt nature of British politics was made abundantly clear in 1847 when James M’Pherson won the popular vote of thousands gathered at a meeting outside the Town House to become the candidate in the forthcoming General Election. However the majority participating and voting for the Chartist had no legal right to vote which meant the Tory and Whig apparatchiks demanded a count of registered voters be taken. Not surprisingly James M’Pherson no longer headed the pole although a small number did back him. He was entitled to speak and made short-work of his opponents: he highlighted the opposing candidates’ military and naval backgrounds, (they) had made a profession of the destruction of men – that they made it their business to destroy their fellow creatures, and devoted their lives to carrying suffering to mankind, saying Great Heaven! Had it come to this, that in this peace-loving country, they had no choice left but to send warriors to Parliament? He called on electors to rally round him and do away with class legislation and he continued, agitation might teach the people what they could accomplish.

chartist

It was radicalism such as this that the Whig Provost Thomson described as dangerous and likely to give working men notions above their station in life; in other words the people were liable to be deluded by dangerous demagogues. He was correct, at least as far as dangerous went.   The exclusive right of the propertied and wealthy to control political power was indeed threatened by Chartists, particularly those who supported using physical force to achieve Universal Suffrage – in 1839 the AWMA passed a resolution stating Parade not your arms at public meetings, but keep them bright and ready to defend your Queen, your country, and your liberty. In April 1847 there were rumours that Aberdeen’s Chartists were arming themselves.

The truth to tell, stories of armed insurrection were exaggerated and might even have been encouraged by agent provocateurs – certainly shoemaker David Wright was known to have been a spy for the British state. It is certainly true that men such as James and John M’Pherson and Mrs Ogilvie of the Female Radical Association were courageous political souls willing to make a stand in dangerous times, against a seemingly all-powerful and at times vengeful state.

When you pass their headstones give a nod of acknowledgment and even thanks to the brave comb makers James and John M’Pherson, and recognise their contribution to an ongoing struggle for freedom from the shackles which continue to bind.   The enemy might be strong but it is not omnipotent.

April 10, 2015

Arty Farty Aberdeen: look at me street festival

Rabbie Burns is fitba crazy

Rabbie Burns is fitba crazy

Rabbie Burns in fitba socks in the colours of France and Russia is not an everyday sight, even in Aberdeen. His fitba is the planet Mercury and he’s wearing headphones created by a 3-D printer.

Don’t know if Rabbie was a fitba supporter but he supported the French Revolution hence their tricolor of red, white and blue that makes up his stockings. And conveniently these are also the colours of Russia the nation that took the great poet to their hearts and minds and who celebrate Burns almost as much as here in Scotland. Actually thinking about it perhaps more so in some ways. Wasn’t it the Soviet Union that put Burns on a postal stamp a decade before the British post office did? Yes is the answer.

The Soviets were drawn to Burns’ down-to-earth poetry elevating the lives of the humble Scot and wee creatures alike.

Why Mercury? It appears that there is a crater on Mercury named after Rabbie. Not the Rabbie crater but the Burns crater. Check it out.

The headphones Rabbie’s wearing I’ve said were produced on a 3D printer in Scotland’s and Jamaica’s colours. The colours of the Jamaican flag are a reference to the post of bookkeeper he planned to take up for there was little money in poetry but he never lived to sail to the slave island. That would have been interesting.

Rabbie Burns’ gull was most put out by all the additional attention the poet was getting and watched with a jaundiced eye from the dyke at Union Terrace Gardens as people crowded around to take their pictures. He (or she) occasionally claimed his or her usual spot on the top of Rabbie’s bonce, nudging forward the headphones to get a better perch. He (or she) hasn’t yet discovered the headphones are made out of cellulose, I think, or something like that, and possibly edible.

The Mannie outside the Athaneum, one-time well and water source for people living in the area, spiks Doric to anyone who approaches it.

On the wee mannie’s heid is a motion sensor, a bit like Spike, mind Spike in the Winter Gardens in Duthie Park? only mair Doric. The mannie’s heid is covered by a wooden box with four different faces and contained inside those clips of local people that play when anyone is close by.

Albert, Queen Victoria’s squeeze hasn’t been touched as such – still think the red moustache he sported for a time contributed 100% to his appeal. Ah well, the grass around Albert who has been sitting on his backside for well over a century is arranged with blue and white flags, not as I assumed representing Scotland but signifying ideas, as in blue sky thinking (I think). The Central Library at his back is a lucky coincidence in that it extends the association of ideas.

The statue of Robert the Bruce is decorated with ceramic birds, I assumed seagulls but apparently pigeons also.

Not sure if they add anything although they are delightfully arranged and only enhance this dull sculpture for Aberdeen’s statues often sport a gull, or three or four.

General Charles Gordon on Schoolhill is beautifully attired in vibrant knitwear. I had initially gone to the wrong Gordon. I do get my Gordons mixed up. The one in Golden Square didn’t feature in this festival. Gordon of the gorgeous woollen scarf knitted in the colours of Sudan amongst other places he was associated with is the famous, uhm, infamous butcher of all sorts of foreign lands – Gordon of Khartoum.

One of the local Gordons – all Gordons originated from Aberdeenshire – including Commissioner Gordon in Batman – Gordon on Schoolhill was himself butchered and his head paraded on the end of a pike. What had he done to deserve such an end?

This Gordon was one of the fighting Gordons among his most celebrated involvements the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War and the Second Opium War fought by the British to force China to open its rich markets to British merchants, to dominate Chinese trade and to do this without paying taxes to the Chinese. And it did it, through coercion obviously and by selling opium to the Chinese; vast, vast quantities of the narcotic.

Opium was used as a medicine in China but otherwise prohibited. British merchants bought up stocks of the drug and traded it through the British East India Company. The profits it made British businessmen were immense. The impact on China, devastating. As if this wasn’t enough General Gordon ordered the Chinese Emperor’s summer palace in Beijing be burnt down. He was that sort of guy.

Later he became a governor of a province of Sudan during which time he mapped the Nile, not for natives you understand, but Europeans who would make their way inland to carry out trade on the African continent. On other occasions he whiled away his time crushing native rebels outraged at having British imperialist armies marching onto their land and ordering them around.

To cut a long story short he was sent back to Sudan, having served in several other places, to tackle a group of fighters known as the Mahdists, Islamists who resisted Christian colonialists. Gordon and his men held out for a while but eventually he met his bloody end.

I suppose it’s therefore appropriate that Gordon should be dressed by a knitting technique called Yarn Bombing in the colours of the several places in which he served, and splendid he looks. The knitting is beautifully done – partly hand, partly machine. Nice binoculars and stick.

I didn’t speak to the artist who dressed William Wallace, the finest Wallace statue in all of Scotland. Once a Guardian of Scotland, Wallace has been transformed into a Guardian of the future. The materials in his tabard (and is his tabard a coincidence or meant to be associated with the Toom Tabard? Look it up) are light sensitive and are different day and night. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Anyone know?

Someone told me one or two complaints appeared on social meeja suggesting Wallace had been desecrated to which I say, get a life and anyway he isn’t a god. I love this statue and am a defender of the role of Wallace in Scotland’s history, regarding him as a more admirable figure than the Bruce but, honestly loosen yer corsets guys and embrace a bit of cultcha.

Look Again, Aberdeen’s Visual and Art and Design Festival is fun and meant to get you taking a second look at street furniture that is so familiar it has become invisible. For some of these statues that’s no bad thing. Perhaps one day we could employ a crane and a wrecking ball to dispose of one or two of them and have them replaced with real public art.

There’s more to the festival than this but that’s all you’re getting from me.

April 4, 2015

The most dangerous woman in Britain and the forger’s pen: Nicola Sturgeon and the Zinoviev Letter

Well, well we have scarcely seen the back of scaremongering stories in the press, along with all those patronising noises about Scotland an equal partner in the Union, when a TV debate among party leaders fuels a further onslaught of dirty tricks.

Cheering from the sidelines is the Labour Party – see how its desperate members attach themselves to their new-found allies in the conservative Telegraph and Daily Mail, quashing any doubts that they are Red Tories.

It hasn’t escaped the notice of historians among us that the Labour Party has been the victim of similar political smears not least when they were damned by association of being too socialist and likely to open the door to communism in Great Britain. Oh how times have changed.

Labour had formed a minority government in 1923 under Ramsay MacDonald despite polling far fewer votes than the Tories (take note Murphy). It attempted to govern with support of the Liberals but they would not back its socialist measures, other than a council housing programme, and in 1924 another election was called.

With exquisite timing up popped a letter shortly before polling day. Not any letter but one said to have been written by Grigory Zinoviev, the Soviet head of the communist international. It urged close ties between the Soviet Union and Britain; this was shortly after the Russian Revolution and the political right used it prove their case that the Red hoards were about to invade or get their comrades in this country to do their dirty work for them and spread their foreign ideologies of communism and socialism through the shires and cities of Britain, or England as it was known then.

It was leaked to The Mail which did its duty and published it. The clear intention of its publication was to damage support for the Labour Party in the election, for MacDonald when in power had recognised the Soviet government and was negotiating repayment of Tsarist debt from it and the release of a fresh loan which horrified the British establishment.

Zinoviev

Zinoviev immediately denied the letter came from him. He pointed out basic errors which backed his claim and soon suspicion fell on agents and officers from MI5. Later inquiries seemed to indicate involvement of White Russians, monarchists living in Berlin in collusion with the Intelligence services. Any doubts there might have been over the letter’s authenticity was secondary to the desire of the innately conservative civil servants of Whitehall and the foreign office from where it was leaked to its value as black propaganda to damage the Labour Party and influence the election outcome.

The spectre of another socialist government, one that might actually begin to shift the social certainties in Britain went down like a lead balloon with the ultra-conservative British establishment.

MacDonald was in no doubt the letter was a political conspiracy. Subsequent investigations led to involvement of Stewart Menzies, later head of MI6, and fellow Etonian Desmond Morton, also involved in Intelligence and arch enemy of the Soviets.

The Labour Party was then still fairly new and very different from its current rightwing persona. It was regarded as a threat to the stability of the United Kingdom and the establishment’s megaphone of the press was happy to collude with publishing hysterical headlines, similar to those that now define the British press’ attacks on Scotland, the SNP and its leftwing agenda for it believed then the Labour Party was a danger to the stability of Britain, or rather the establishment’s narrow, self-interests.

MacDonald

Down the decades there is a similar reaction from the press and the corridors of Whitehall and the security services to any form of social and political upheaval and it sees plenty social and political upheaval it sees emerging from an SNP government. Shock that the independence referendum was merely the opening round and not the end of Scottish ambitions and the realisation that major changes to the political landscape of Scotland are just beginning -with a huge wave of support for the SNP and the Scottish Greens and the SSP has had a laxative effect on the establishment and their lackeys.

By the way the Zinoviev forgery did not lose the Labour Party votes though it did lose it the election when a whopping number of Liberals shifted their votes to their natural allies the Tories from Red-dread thereby wiping out the Liberals for decades until they crawled back into bed with their pals in 2010.

The attacks on Nicola Sturgeon so hot on the heels of her acclaimed success in the leaders’ debate is no coincidence and only the start of a combined strategy by the forces of conservatism – Tory, Labour and Libdem, to demonise her, ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’.

The gloves are off and as in 1924 the truth is irrelevant and only headlines and their impact matter in this fight. We have just seen how quick the British press is to repeat lies meant to damage a reputation and oh, so reluctant to check the authenticity of outrageous claims making them no better today than they were in 1924.

As for Miliband his unseemly rush to add credibility to this obvious forgery in an effort to shift attention from his ineffectual and unpopular leadership confirms the general opinion of him as a pathetic and unprincipled man.

March 30, 2015

High Jinks at Aberdeen Art Gallery

They were queuing down Schoolhill to get into the high jinks at Aberdeen Art Gallery this weekend despite there being no exhibition.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

One hundred and thirty years down the line and the gallery is finally getting a major extension and refurbishment. It is not without controversy for the rooftop addition seems oddly out of kilter with the grand, sombre pink Corrennie and white Kemnay granite solidity of the weel kent facade on Schoolhill.

Aberdeen granite

The unique granite columns in a rainbow of colours, most from local quarries, topped with gilded Doric capitals are a reminder of an industry that will forever be associated with Aberdeen and the northeast of Scotland, and that the gallery was first established to promote local industry and craft.

But this blog is not about architecture. That is a dreary enough topic in the realm of Aberdeen City lately but a meandering, though short reminiscence of what the gallery has meant for me for I’ll miss it over the next couple of years.

It used to sit next door to Gray’s Art School. Not that the gallery has moved but the art school has, and while attending Saturday morning classes there as a youngster I suppose I was first introduced to the gallery.

It was a very different place from how it looks today. For example the once much loved sculpture court, filled with figures I think copies of ancient classical statues, was a source of infinite fascination for kids, and probably adults. I spent hours drawing one or other of them. I think we had names for one or two but can’t remember what those were. Can’t recall either when it was decided the sculptures were too out-of-date and were relegated to the knackers yard but they were sorely missed. Their departure opened up a large hall for temporary exhibitions but I never felt the same about them as I did about the maze of ghostly figures that invited you in to wander around and up to them to stretch out a tentative hand to trace the smooth plaster of a beautifully formed limb or take their icy cold fingers in yours.

Then came the 1970s and the space was populated with abstract sculptures equally tactile and hugely attractive for wee bairns for some of them would not be out of place in a children’s playground.

I always had more conservative tastes as far as the gallery’s collections were concerned. My favourite pictures were upstairs in the green room where a cluster of tiny portraits were exhibited on vertical display boards that you could open up. Several were by the Aberdeen artist George Reid and the translucency of his skin tones are breathtaking; on a par with Ramsay’s.

Titian's First Study in Colour

It too disappeared, into storage as the gallery changed. What did stay in that room was the hugely popular William Dyce picture, Titian’s First Essay in Colouring. The colours, appropriately enough are sumptuous and it is one of those paintings you can spend a long time staring into for its detail and magic. Aberdonian Dyce was part of the pre-Raphaelite circle and while the gallery has several by the better-known of the movement’s artists, it is the Dyce that I prefer. Here in the green room was Millais’s portrait of a young girl, Bright Eyes, with its striking resemblance to my daughter so that it became a must-see whenever we were in the gallery.

bright eyes

Henri La Thangue’s Ploughboy was another of my favourites and possibly one reason I took so much to the French realists who painted artisans, peasants and labourers with near spiritual reverence.Ploughboy Guthrie

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Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of a child Going to School is simply charming. An everyday scene from a French village the sparsity of the background means it is the elaborate headgear worn by the child as well as its sweet face which are the captivating elements within it.

And the Goose Girl or as it’s not known, To Pastures New. This wonderful study by James Guthrie is such an striking image and the colours so subtle and perfect and quiet and ideally pastoral.

goose girl

Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious I used to find oddly captivating in an understated way.

trains

As a teenager I visited the red and green rooms less often preferring to look at the Leger still life and Paul Nash’s trees in a landscape. nash

The shapes fascinated me. George Braque too was one of my introductions to cubism. But a visit was never complete without a peek at Landseer’s Highland Flood for few could resist reading this vast picture like a book brimmed with tragedy and drama.

flood

There were the chairs. Fittingly the gallery chairs were very different from any we had at home. Very designery and modern (though in fact by the time I was going into the gallery they were old designs), black leather and chrome: squashy soft seats that invited visitors to sit and stare into the fountain, once it was added and which used to have a Barbara Hepworth piece at its centre.

I never took to the café which replaced the old teashop with its cake stands filled with sandwiches and fancies. There was something quintessentially sophisticated and worthy about the old place which the cafe never achieved, always found it a noisy, uncomfortable space with far less attractive food than most other places nearby and not a patch on any other museum I’ve visited.

One upon a time Aberdeen did have a museum dedicated to, well, Aberdeen. Housed in the dunks of the Cowdray Hall it was a long narrow space, all dark varnished wood and, as I remember though I expect misremember, filled with dusty glass cases you had to peer into and were filled with all kinds of this and that to enthral young minds.

In the modern era I quite like Julian Opie’s Sara Walking for its rhythmic almost hypnotic quality. Almost. opie

My favourite of the most recent acquisitions is the figure of a Chinese girl holding flowers aloft as a salute. Can’t remember what it’s called or who the artist is but there’s something highly attractive, in a literal sense, to this piece.

boy

There were no such attractions on show this weekend. The hundreds who waited patiently to get in were the attraction in a sense, putting their mark on its walls, it is their building after all and joining in the fun and games, and cake eating on offer. By any standards it was a huge success. When it re-opens in 2017 I hope there will be something similar, to entice back the regulars and coax in some who are still daunted by the exterior grandeur of the place to persuade them art galleries and museums are or should really be about them and be palaces of fun and education.

Don’t know if the old closing bell will survive the revamp. Maybe it will. The old wooden revolving doors went several years ago, thought to be a deterrent to potential visitors. Dyce (Aberdeen International) Airport doesn’t appear to have that problem with its revolving door but there you go.

The marble staircase is going much to the disapproval of some. No idea what will happen to the marble.

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Two years is a long time but there are other museums available, not enough, but we are in Aberdeen after all. Meanwhile you can catch and play around with some of the collections at Aberdeen Quest http://www.aberdeenquest.com/home/home.asp

quest

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