Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

August 6, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 20

I’m writing this account of week 20 on Wednesday, the first day of week 21 hours after news that Aberdeen will go back into lockdown because of growing cases of Covid-19. Thank you, whoever you are. 

Easing lockdown, an inevitable part of moving on, before a vaccine becomes available was always going to be risky. Just how risky was/is dependent on people being sensible and considerate. Those are two qualities not usually associated with boozing.

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It’s not a blame game, our government insists. Oh really? Why not? The majority of folk are not playing Russian roulette with the lives of people they know and don’t know. But some just wanna have fun. So, I know who I blame for this present state of affairs and it isn’t the mask-wearing keeping social-distance thoughtful folk it’s the me, me, me I’m entitled to play around like there’s no risk type of heid banger.

We were in Aberdeen yesterday meeting up with our son who lives very close to the Hawthorn Bar the origin, apparently, of this spike in cases. Across the other side of town our daughter has just returned to work from furlough. Her employer has spent time and money organising things to make it as safe as possible for everyone. Then Covid walks in the door, apparently linked to the bar outbreak, and everything and everyone are thrown into confusion, some into a 14-day quarantine and others hoping they aren’t carrying Covid back into their homes, endangering family members.

This is a reminder that danger lurks and we should be vigilant and responsible in protecting ourselves and others. Of course, not everyone agrees. Twitter is full of crazies and weirdos ranting on about dictators and folk choking on their masks. Okay, many are spammers from goodness knows where but many, far too many, are the mad, bad and sad who spread nonsense because of the thrill it provides them with and satisfies their craving for attention.

Back in week 20 I eventually made contact with an old friend – very old friend – we were fifteen when we met so it wasn’t yesterday. I was concerned because he’s usually active on social media then wasn’t. Eventually we spoke to one another and it transpired he had been ill and in hospital. It is not a good time to be ill, especially when you’re no longer fifteen, so wishing a man who was a hugely talented writer in his time, well.

The pair of lovely yellowhammers still entertain us on our regular walk. Can’t say we’ve missed the raucous call of our pheasants lately but their disappearance is troubling since there are folk who prefer their pheasants served on a plate. We’ve had a number of bird casualties in recent week with them flying against windows. Some survive but others quickly expire. We have things dangling inside several windows in an attempt to deter them but with so many birds in the garden I suppose it’s inevitable that some will fall victim to seeing reflections in glass windows as part of the great outdoors. To try to limit our aves deaths my husband purchased an owl. Not an actual owl but a larger than life version with a head that moves with the wind, allegedly, and eyes that gleam in the dark, allegedly. It perches on a table on the balcony in front of a very large window and so far since it’s been on the job we haven’t picked up any dead birds from there.

Blackcurrants are still coming and, yikes, so are the gooseberries. We have different ones – why do we grow so many? Seemed a good idea years ago. Yellow-green ones, really big yellowy-green ones and red ones. They are all best eaten straight off the bush along with handfuls of plump blackcurrants and deliciously sweet raspberries. On the subject of raspberries I’ve noticed how heavy this year’s crops of wild rasps along the verges are and as usual few seem to attract birds. Could it be they don’t relish chewing through all that flesh to get to the tiny seeds? We, on the other hand, love the flesh but aren’t too fond of raspberry seeds.

Our cat’s been fine this week aside from his dodgy eye. I’ve been applying those expensive eye drops for weeks but suspecting they weren’t doing him much good and wondering it they were actually exacerbating the problem I stopped them for a week. The eye then looked a little better until it didn’t once more and so back to the drops. He wanders around doing an impression of Nelson. Without the telescope.

The blue salvias still haven’t fully opened. Is there a lazier plant in the whole of the world? Beginning to think it’s down to the variety. The blue that’s showing is vibrant only there’s not much of it. Will keep you informed.

Watched the film Knives Out. Boring. Daniel Craig is miscast as an American. On the other hand started watching season 2 of Ozark. It’s just okay and not a patch on Bordertown but I have to say that the excellent Peter Mullan’s American drawl is way better than Daniel Craig’s insipid-nothing-like-any-American-I’ve-ever-heard accent. W-a-a-y better.

Some of you will remember we passed hundreds of our books to charity shops before  lockdown so I’m struggling for reading because so much of what’s left is fairly heavyweight or I’ve read them. This week I picked up one of the slimmest volumes I could find, as good a ways of selecting a book as any. Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie.  No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one.  Pass the port and cigars.

They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

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Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI  –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

 “The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

 “Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”

Lord McGowan was instrumental in establishing the German chemical industry after WWI through company amalgamations including ICI. There’s a fair amount of detail on the wheeling and dealing in the book.

Finally, back to Scotland where we are used to being denigrated and treated with not a little contempt within the union. The authors explain that in 1939 a question was asked in the House of Commons about anti-aircraft provision in Scotland (on the verge of WW2) and the reply ran along the lines of – it’s all hunky dory. When pushed for detail it transpired there were two anti-aircraft units for the whole of Scotland… that Glasgow was eventually issued with one barrage balloon (lent by London) but when London MPs demanded they get their balloon back it was admitted the Glasgow balloon was a dud.

A scandal. Yes, “there is a tremendous amount of fraud and swindling… the government is either impotent or quiescent…”  Sounds all too familiar.

Stay safe 

July 30, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 19.

Nineteen weeks in chokey and it doesn’t seem a day too long. I get the feeling I’ve said something like this before. I realise it’s been easy for us. We’re used to being self-sufficient and let’s face it we’re both happy with our own company – or as some might express it – we’re anti-social. As that well-known Aberdeen salutation/godspeed goes – “Happy to meet, sorry to part but not too sorry – Bon Accord.” Well, that’s the version popular in our hoose.

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We did break lockdown to visit ‘the young folk’ in Stonehaven as the wee one was having a birthday. He’s the nearest human contact we’ve had in 19 weeks – and very pleasant it was too. Of course this visit required a run over the bypass – a good outing for the car which is also in relative lockdown and it was a pleasure for us seeing parts of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine we haven’t seen for a bit. Still bonny.

I nearly forgot. On our way to the bypass, round about Mason Lodge I think, we drove past a field with a tall stone dyke and looking over the dyke was a coo (cow.) As the dyke was pretty high only the coo’s heid (head) could be seen; a bonny cream beastie. There were folk walking by and the coo’s heid followed them, watched them come, pass and move away. It turned to follow their movement and eyed them up and down. It reminded me of my late Aunty Isabel who we used to take for treatment to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. During the inevitable waits for and between treatment, Isabel (in her nineties) would inspect fellow patients walking by – eyeing them and the often weird clobber they wore or their hair styles and colours and half turn to me with a knowing nod and trace of a smile. I should add at this point that Isabel was complimented on her own appearance by a man at the hospital – totally out of the blue he remarked, maybe a bit uncalled for and personal but, along the lines of that’s a beautiful outfit you’re wearing. She did have an eye for quality – and mutton dressed up as lamb, as she might have thought but never said. I miss that shared look and smile that wasn’t meant unkindly but spoke volumes, none-the-less.  

This week I phoned my optician to place on record I’d phoned early in March to report my two new pairs of varifocals made the world spin so much I relegated them to the top of the desk in anticipation of returning them once the lurgy passed. Back in March it looked like that was a real possibility. Oh the innocence of early lockdown. The opticians isn’t back to full operation but said they would be happy to see me given that I’ve been using the old prescription specs. It was very good of them but apart from being willing to hand over the useless pair I wasn’t keen on submitting myself to face-to-face interaction in a closed space and said I’d get back in touch in a couple of months. A couple of months! Where will we be in a couple of months apart from bowling downhill towards winter?

More blackcurrants have gone into the freezer. And still they come. They are handy and most mornings a handful of blackcurrants or other fruit but mainly blackcurrants because we have tons of them is added to our breakfast porridge or cereal. Unfortunately, one morning this week husband announced there weren’t any in the fridge. Not possible. With an exasperated sigh I found the plastic container with its dark red contents in the fridge but when I opened it instead of blackcurrants found cooked aduki beans! I had somehow managed the night before to pick up the blackcurrants and put them into the freezer instead of the beans. I love aduki beans but am holding fire on trying them as a breakfast topping. You never know. Nah, I think we do.

19 mix

Our sweet old cat was ill this week. As he’s getting on, about 112 in human equivalent years, we were preparing ourselves for the worst. Not that you ever are prepared. Next day he was as right as rain and our daughter suggested he might have been suffering from heatstroke. It has been hot and as soon as the sun’s up he’s out to laze under an apple tree or baking in his straw-packed kennel beside the greenhouse. I think I mentioned before that he loves a picnic so doesn’t even come in for grub until evening on the nicest of days.  

 We have a linnet in the garden. Fairly certain that’s what it is. Are they simple? This bird brain can’t find its way to the many sources of bird food we have scattered and dangling. Hope it hangs around. Lovely wee thing. Our house martins are still in residence high up on the gable. See them when we’re round that part of the house and every evening out of the sittingroom window we admire them darting through the air grazing on airborne insects. 

Yesterday I crossed paths with a tiny brown frog yesterday while walking. Thought it was a leaf blowing across the road but then the leaf began hopping and stopped for a moment for me to admire it before hopping off into the grass. A speckled brown butterfly occupied the same spot on my way back. Do frogs turn into butterflies? No? Are you certain of that?

Our blue salvias flowers are taking geological time to open. First saw the plant in a park somewhere in Germany. Can’t recall where but they were massed together and looked fabulous. We have only one or two plants and I suspect winter will be upon us before they fully open. Talking of blue – the wild chicory has been blooming for a good while now in the verges. It’s very pretty and one year I made the mistake of introducing seed into our garden. We are still trying to get rid of plants that spread like wildfire. Every year more spring up. Bloody stuff.

And on the subject of garden pests, although ones we are quite fond of – the badgers are still at it. The heavy pot and bird feeder stand goes over night after night. Now along with the peanuts having to be brought in overnight so, too, is the seed feeder for they pull it to pieces searching for seed. Not that there’s any left by the end of the day. 

The latest trend in lost jobs continues to pick up pace. Three out of five of one arm of our family have recently been made redundant. As they are anything but alone finding work is going to be a nightmare for them. And the knock-on consequences very serious.

It’s a while since I finished reading Ethel Mannin’s series of essays Brief Voices. It covers very many topics; far too many to comment on here so one or two points only. Mannin flirted with Buddhism but was hugely critical of Buddhists in Burma where her writings were banned as a result. She criticised their cruelty and claims of being against killing animals while happily consuming them on grounds they didn’t personally kill them – e.g. fishermen don’t kill fish only take them out of water – where they die, it was the servant who bought meat at market so nothing to do with them eating what was prepared while butchers who definitely did kill animals were, at this time, despised – yet not the meat they produced.

She was very much a woman of her time and class. Despite her radical political views – she was a member of the Communist Party for a time – Mannin was, nonetheless, a bit of a snob and was intolerant of things she didn’t understand or care to understand. She didn’t have much sympathy for aspects of working class lives and positively railed against Teddy Boys and the rock and roll generation (slack-jawed and joyless she described young people), beats and Angry Young Men literature. She thought the ‘atomic generation’ brought up on violent films would become inured to death. How wrong. The protests of the 1960s were just around the corner. Interesting and complex woman, nonetheless. I will look for more of her works in future.

 Stay safe.

 

July 17, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 17

The door has been wedged open for lockdowners in week 17. Some of us have peered out and aren’t sure we like what we see and have shut that door again. Some of us have raced out over the doorstep and were last seen driving to a campsite, our cars packed with trashy camping gear designed to be left behind as litter in some of Scotland’s most beautiful settings thereby destroying the beauty of those settings that attracted us in the first place. Some of us have hot-footed it down to our local bar or non-food shops to purchase stuff because we can’t ever get enough of stuff. Some of us are off to see our mates – although some of us have never stopped seeing our mates, if we’re being honest – certainly not the two driving very noisy motorbikes with lawn mower engines around these parts.

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Our granddaughter who lost her job recently received a not unexpected double blow when her partner heard he is also likely to lose his job. Working for oil and gas related companies is proving hazardous for many folk in the northeast nowadays with petroleum production seen as yesterday’s technology. Things are already tough but surely they are about to get far tougher.

When granddaughter and partner visited us this week it was intended to be a garden call but the afternoon was overcast and not too warm so we had a socially-distanced catch-up indoors instead with a thorough clean once they left. Good to see them but there’s an edge to visits in these Covid 19 times.

Took ourselves up to the nearby recumbent stone circle at Old Keig. Doesn’t matter how many times we visit the partial remains of this stone circle – Aberdeenshire’s recumbents are unique – we are in awe of the sheer size of this slab of stone. How on earth did people move such immense rocks – uphill, as many are positioned? Several stones from the circle have been removed and scattered but the recumbent and its flankers remain. Hardly surprising.

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The emergency-grow-our-own salads have been proving their worth for ages now. All sorts of leafy things, some decidedly peppery, and in rainbow colours (kind of.) Gherkins coming thick and fast. Courgettes doing well and peas swelling up. I still have to do rigorous slug/snail searches of the sacks we are growing our runner beans in as they’ve reduced the bottom growth to lacy doilies. They get thrown to their new life across our burn, usually, but I have witnessed ancestors of these snails determinedly working their way back over the bridge to our garden before now.

It is also getting to that time we’ll have to pick the blackcurrants. And we’re only finishing last years such was the size of the crop then. Raspberries offer a change of flavour for grazing gardeners but the cherries are well out of reach in the wild French cherry tree my husband grew from seed a number of years ago. Every year we think it’s stopped growing. But it hasn’t. As it is disappearing into the vast blue yonder of sky we’re contemplating getting someone in to cut down to size.

 Dreams have become more memorable recently. Is this a pandemic thing? Usually my dreams evaporate into the morning light but one that has stuck with me involved a quiz, much like the family quizzes we’ve been doing except it was taking place in a bar/café/room. A large dark-haired woman who spoke a combination of English and Welsh was asking the questions in a language I couldn’t decipher. Despite not knowing what she was saying I attempted answering but couldn’t keep up – although there were only three questions by the time I woke. Apart from the language things I couldn’t get my pencil to write my answers on the inside of a chunky grey woolly man’s jumper – which I suspect was a reference to Nordic drama.

 The Nordic drama causing me so much angst was Deadwind from Finland. Now we are partial to all things Nordic but this should have been entitled Deadloss. Why we watched two series I don’t know. It was formulaic and derivative of the excellent The Bridge, down to its main protagonist, Sofia, a dead ringer for Saga, also clad in a coat. Like Saga she lives for her work with family coming a long way back in her priorities. While The Bridge was well-scripted and directed Deadwind is full of ridiculous howlers such as her referring to photographs she hadn’t previously seen and while investigating a deserted house gets out of her car and goes straight to a flower border, lifts up a plant and discovers the concealed whatever it was. Plain silly. Evidence turns up at the drop of a hat. Where Sofia wins over Saga is in her ability to shine a torch in the invariably dark buildings she forever enters. Seems there’s a lightbulb shortage in Finland. And, the grey woolly jumper in my dream was presumably related to Alex in Series 1 of Deadwind. He ay wore chunky knits. Finland has also produced Bordertown which is pretty good and way above Deadloss in terms of production values.

Alternative viewing came in the form of Netflix’s Midnight Diner – Tokyo Stories … for any who have nostalgia for 1970s comedy – this is up your street. Plus you get some food ideas.

Coming to the end of the journey with Ethel Mannin around Germany. Still enjoying it. She was greatly affected by the appalling condition of children in Germany post-war – many were orphans or abandoned and living like ‘stray animals, pale faced, elf-like,’ ‘living in holes in the ground beneath ruined buildings’ and some very tiny ones didn’t even know their own names. Russian occupying forces organised an event to encourage adoption of these kids called the Lost Baby Show.

 Going back to living in rubble. Mannin tells how some landlords continued to charge people rents for living in bombed remains of flats and cellars where people were reduced to sleeping on the ground or on tables.  The United Nations Refugee Relief Agency (UNRRA) was known in Germany as You Never Really Relieved Anyone. There are some terrible accounts of suffering – few of which ever found their way into the British press.

Mannin reserves her greatest criticism for a Brian Connell of the Daily Mail for distorting the truth about conditions in Germany at the time such as claiming food supplies there were greater than back in Britain. Mannin never tires of saying – some in Germany did live the high life with never ending supplies of champagne and cognac for Britain’s top military brass and journalists who were treated as officers. But for the German people food was virtually impossible to obtain. Cigarettes became currency. Folk were paid for services in fags – virtually never smoked because they were the only means of bartering for something to eat, usually through the black market. A joke in Germany ran – “anyone found alive after 1947 would be prosecuted for black market activities.”

 Stay safe.

 

 

July 10, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 16


Week 16 has come and it’s gone. Covid 19 is as virulent as ever. Numbers affected are jumping in some parts where people are becoming bolder and re-entering society. We aren’t. Well, maybe a little. Wrote last time about meeting up with one or two family members outside. This week we had a rendezvous with our son in an Aberdeen cemetery. Readers of my blog will know I like being in cemeteries – just so long as I can leave when I want to – for they often offer fascinating insights into lives once lived in times past. And they tend to have benches for sitting on.

Back to the vet with our cat to get his eye checked again and see how the expensive eyedrops are succeeding. Quite well it seems. He threw up again on the journey. Because of very restricted access (none for humans) we had to wait outside for quite some time for our cat’s turn. That wasn’t a problem other than we shared the tiny carpark with a muckle great Jaguar 4X4 that had the engine running the twenty minutes and more we waited and as they were there before us I imagine the engine was running for well over half-an-hour. Forget air pollution. Forget folk with breathing and problems. Let’s just run our engine because we can. And, yes, we came away with yet more expensive eyedrops.

Covid19 has affected social interactions and we noticed a little curious piece of social behaviour this week – a man talking to a woman, neither masked, stood quite close to each other during their conversation but when my husband, masked, spoke with the same man – he, the man, stood more distant from my husband. Our thinking was that noticing my husband was taking precautions (wearing a mask) so he (the man) reciprocated by taking precautions, too (mirroring the behaviour.) Yet, that is counter-intuitive for you might think unmasked folk might keep a greater distance apart. We found it interesting.

Lying in bed unable to sleep one night it struck me that the large polystyrene lining that came in the box containing our new garden chairs (last week) would have been perfect to mount a painting of mine. But we (he) binned it so it’s gone. Never throw anything away.

Week 16

The intergenerational radish growing contest was won by ME!! We measured them by photographing the best ones beside a teaspoon or rather three teaspoons as we were miles apart. It did cross my mind to use an egg spoon but then I thought what kind of example is that to set to the young and anyway I was confident of my crop. With good cause. However the fly in the ointment is that when we ate the two biggest radishes one was fine enough but the other was well teuch.

The weekend family quiz took the form of 20 questions mystery object/concept. It worked very well, lots of laughs and rolling eyes but was more exhausting than the normal quiz for some reason, maybe because it’s a bit more interactive. Modesty prevents me telling you who won. I’ll come clean after proudly declaring how quickly I finished the FT Magazine crossword a couple of weeks back  for I’ve struggled with the latest two so that on average I’ve got a long way to go to claim any aptitude for this fairly new hobby (more a Sudoku and word puzzle person.)

Pheasant chicks are growing fast. Other than that not much to report on the bird front. Lots of them as usual – great tits, blue tits, longtail tits, blackbirds, chaffinches, spurdies (sparrows), jackdaws, wood pigeons, collar doves, greenfinches, woodpeckers, goldfinches, robins, wrens, starlings, another fly catcher I’m glad to report, and on Saturday evening during our quiz session the heron flew very close to the window veered away and circled back again. Magnificent in a prehistoric way. Crikey, I almost forgot the house martins.

Still worries on the jobs front for the family. As you know our granddaughter was summarily sacked at 11.30pm one night but our grandson has been retained and begins work again soon. Two of his colleagues lost their jobs such is the weakness of Aberdeen’s dependence on oil and gas now that this industry is falling out of favour in the 21st century.

Oh, and the Tories were out clapping their greedy little paws for the NHS on its 70th anniversary – while planning to privatise it. Ah well, no-none ever said becoming a Tory came with scruples. Or if they did they were lying. Tories – never short of a stunt or two. Our local MP is a Tory. He was in hospital – for a small procedure. Suspicion in this house is he was having the last piece of conscience removed.

Said last time I would say more about Walter Benjamin’s biography but I’ve already forgotten it so won’t be. Having raided our bookshelves I dusted off another volume from around the same time (Benjamin a little earlier)  Ethel Mannin’s German Journey.

Ethel Mannin, a prolific English writer, returned to Germany and Austria post-war, in 1947, where she was appalled by the imperious attitudes of the British authorities and journalists there; what she described as the Poonah* attitude of the British in divided Berlin.

Thoroughly enjoying her book for Mannin is engaging in both style and what she has to say about the destruction she found there and attitudes of the conquerors and the vanquished. Germany gained such notoriety in the run up and during WW2 – with good cause but Mannin does not lump every German into a basket marked Evil Germans. A great traveller, Mannin, was familiar with Germany (and Austria) before the war and was an acquaintance of  several natives of both countries. She points out many Germans were, themselves, victims of the Nazis and were the first interned in camps and executed in great numbers. She questions the collective guilt the German people were expected to accept – questioning how the British public would react if held responsible for the shameful treatment of Irish people by the Black and Tans, the massacre of thousands in Amritsar by the British, the degradations and killings of Kenyans. Her point being individual Britons would argue they knew nothing or next to nothing about any of these horrors while they were happening yet it’s assumed every single German knew precisely what outrages the Nazis were perpetrating and so should be held collectively responsible.

Mannin saved her own rationed food which she took with her from Britain to give to German friends expected to survive on 1200 calories a day of mostly of inferior quality. When she was in Germany and Austria she ate what her fellow Brits were eating – quantities of food and drink available far in excess of rations back in Britain – comprising of at least three large meals of several courses daily.  All British military, relief workers, journalists etc enjoyed a high standard of food and drink in Germany, far too much in Mannin’s view, and she would keep back some of what was served up to distribute to desperate Germans, including undernourished children, shrunken from lack of food. On a visit to a friend she discovered his only food that day was half a tin of sardines. She encouraged her fellow-Brits there to see what was under their noses if they chose to look – which they didn’t. Haughty indifference to all German suffering irrespective of age was not confined to conquering Brits and the US position was, perhaps, summed up in her description of one guy she came across as “six feet of over-fed American manhood…”

I’ve been to Germany several times on holiday and love the place. Her warm descriptions of exquisite little red-roofed towns with tall slender spired churches as seen from trains rattling through the countryside matches my own observations to a tee.

No time for our viewing this week – not really worth speaking about other than the old film Hoppity goes to Town. A wee classic.

*A high-handed attitude associated with the town of Poona or Pune in India.

Stay well.

July 3, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020 – a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 15

Bit of unusual activity this week of eased lockdown number 15. Nothing that would warrant much of a mention outside of a far from average year but I suppose for many people whose lives have not been personally affected by Covid19 there’s a growing sense of confidence that it’s not so bad or it’s probably passed us by. Neither impression has any logic to it. Fact is Covid 19 has not gone away. It will not be going anywhere for years and years and years. Some of us have, fortunately, not contracted it. One day some of us who mistakenly think we’ve beaten it will be nonchalantly rounding a corner and walk slap bang into the virus.

But, as I was saying, there is a feeling among some of us that it might be okay to go out a bit more. Now, I don’t mean go to a crowded beach, a crowded shop, any sort of pub or the hairdresser. I mean meet up with a handful of tried and tested family members.

Diver and Mexican on gates at Dunecht Estate

 

So, this week we did just that. Met up with our daughter and son-in-law and went for a walk – a very long walk as it transpired – through Dunecht Estate. Hot day and there were lots of exquisite damsel flies flitting about. Dunecht Estate was owned by the Cowdrays who made their cash in Mexican oil and salvage hence their arms on the gate. The body of one of the Cowdrays disappeared from the family vault at the Aberdeenshire estate. This particular wealthy Earl was fond of travelling, a hobby he carried on after his death, in Italy in 1880. His corpse journeyed across the Alps, across the North Sea, and was driven by coach up through Scotland to Dunecht – during one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit this country, it is said, so delaying his arrival by weeks. Hope he was well embalmed. Local poacher/rat-catcher led police to the shallow grave where the body lay for many months and was sentenced to five years penal servitude – as poor people often were.

Next day we travelled a little further afield to visit a relation of my husband who lives down the coast. She’s on her own and has ‘neighbour trouble.’ Boy has she got ‘neighbour trouble.’ I think that subject should be avoided for the present. During a brief visit we took a quick shufty at a track one of the village folk restored down the steep slope to the shore. A bench at the top includes names of local people who have died – a nice touch and a map of the world next to the bench so you can find your bearings between Aberdeenshire’s coast and a’wy else. The sun was shining. The day very warm and the sea was sparkling blue but it was time to leave and westwards we headed, over that marvel of the northeast, the bypass, and home.

But in the way of these things – the relief of scarcity comes in threes – like buses. Our third and final outing of last week was closer when we took our old cat to the vet. As usual our travel-averse cat threw up during the short drive there. He was handed in and duly handed back out with some expensive eye drops. He really is nae keen on eye drops.

There was also a flurry of phone calls this week. North to Strathpeffer and south to friends in Tunbridge Wells in England ( a place whose name I can never remember, Tunbridge Wells that is.) Most of the talk was Covid related, though not entirely thank goodness. Doesn’t sound like anything major is happening in either place.

We also had three deliveries this week. Our new garden chairs arrived. Well-packaged in large boxes lined with insulation that would have made perfect plant-rearing containers were they not made out of cardboard. Our self-assembly Adirondack chairs proved challenging. Between bewildering written instructions and absurd illustrations what should have been a straightforward assembly turned into an afternoon of scratching heads to the point my husband was about to drill out a larger hole for one set of screws when I suggested swapping over a couple of things – it worked. Second seat was put together in no time. We like them.

A second delivery was also due from Royal Mail. I didn’t worry when it failed to arrive ‘next day’ since where we live there is no such thing as a ‘next day’ delivery. But when it didn’t come the following day I was getting a bit pee-ed off. About tea time my husband called down from upstairs asking if I was expecting a delivery as there was a man walking about the garden. On looking out our front door in that tentatively Covid way, hoping not to bang heads with someone round the other side of the porch, I spotted the said man, large box in hand, about to go back to his car at the end of our drive (it’s a very short one.) I shouted to him and he shouted back that Royal Mail had dropped parcels at his place, they’d opened my box but they hadn’t got Covid. I thanked him for driving it to us and he dropped it where he was, at the end of the drive. Now despite my gratitude to him for taking it to us and not just arranging for Royal Mail to uplift it, it occurred to me it was a funny place to leave the heavy box, it being much too heavy for me. And open by now.

The third delivery was our fortnightly grocery delivery. We’ve never yet received an order exactly as we’ve selected but they usually come there-abouts. Substitutes are fairly normal so what was unusual was that no coffee arrived. Not even a substitute. Now I don’t drink coffee but luckily I’d ordered ground coffee from the supplier of the box in the drive so not all was lost. The perils of online shopping.

mix 15

There was a less-than-dramatic thunder storm around 5 am on the Saturday. Saturday being the day I won the family virtual quiz at night!! But before that I got up and unplugged just about everything that runs on electricity for the duration of the thunder and lightning. We’ve lost electrical stuff previously to lightning strikes so don’t take chances.

Well into eating our last-minute-let’s-grow- salad crops. It is the way to eat if you can manage it. Radish contest ongoing. More on that next week, hopefully.

All quiet on the house martin front. They’re still active and so far the nests are holding up. Long may that continue. Hearing a cuckoo occasionally and owl at night (suppose it’s a night owl.) Just the one I think which is a bit sad. Those starlings that persisted in nesting in a tree hole frequented by jackdaws appear to be proven right for there are lots and lots of starlings flying around here now and quite a few are feeding off the seeds and nuts in the garden. Such striking plumage when the sun hits it. Haven’t seen the heron for ages. Don’t know what that means. Certainly whenever I look down into the burn that runs alongside our garden there are no fish – which is unusual. Think we know who to blame for that Ms/Mr Heron.

Made some pancakes half and half with banana and ordinary SR flour and added a handful of some freeze-dried raspberries which were delivered last week. The pancakes rose beautifully but were not dissimilar to shoe leather texture. Eaten fresh were fine. Left a day or two – forget it. Those raspberries are strange. Astronaut food, our son described them which I suppose they are. Like instant coffee. Freeze dried, that is, not the taste. Disappointed with the pancakes I decided to bake what turned out to be a large consignment of flapjack-type biscuits made from a huge amount of porridge oats, dark sugar, sour cherries, a handful of aronia berries, lots of chopped up dried apricots, desiccated coconut, ground ginger, cinnamon, syrup, marg – think that was about it, oh sunflower seeds. Message here is bung in what you like, mix it up, drop spoonfuls onto baking tray and bake for about 15 to 25 mins depending on how chewy or crunchy you want them. You cannot go wrong with anything that uses porridge oats. It is the best food ever.

Just time to tell you to watch the 1933 film of Alice in Wonderland with Gary cooper as the White Knight (funny scene on horseback), Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (doesn’t look a bit like him,) W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty (absolutely brilliant) and Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen (pitch perfect performance.) Alice (Charlotte Henry) is good as well. Some very funny lines. Amazon Prime or YouTube. But, whatever you do, do-not-watch  The Sinner on Netflix. Annoying and stupid.

Nearly finished biography of Walter Benjamin. It’s a tragic tale of victims of fascism in the 1930s but the guy would have driven me mad. More on it next time, hopefully.

Stay safe.

June 4, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 11.

What a difference a week makes.

Week 11 and I was taken unwell, phoned 111 and ended up being taken by ambulance to hospital about 25 miles away.

Safety precautions are very tight, thank goodness, with restricted entry by way of a Covid-19 corridor where questions are asked such as what day is it? where was I? but thankfully not the name of the Prime Minister or else someone would be mopping vomit off the floor. A mask was placed over my face and away I was wheeled into the Accident and Emergency Department that was filled with staff but few patients.

I was seen by so many doctors and nurses I lost count of the number and underwent tests and tests and more tests, including one for Covid-19. Not sure I’d believe results from home-testing for it’s an uncomfortable one to do and I was just glad I had a nurse to jamb the swab into the back of my throat before jamming it up my nose. No waiting for x-ray which took a millisecond, as it is digitised I was told, and a CT Scan that took two milliseconds. Efficiency everywhere, moving through more corridors and up or perhaps it was down empty lifts in this ghost hospital.

Abutilon Rhododendron Peony Cactus Poppies Peony Rockii

Until my Covid result came back I was isolated in a single room with a large yellow notice slapped onto the door warning staff to keep alert on entering – always protected by much PPE. It is an uncomfortable moment. It was said to me,  I hope we can make you better. It was meant so caringly by such a kind member of staff  but it brought home, although it didn’t need much bringing home, just how deadly dangerous Coronavirus is. There is no certainty of recovery and everyone who treats this as nothing of consequence, moves into another’s space, insists they won’t cooperate with imposed restrictions needs to get a reality check and fast develop a sense of responsibility towards others.

Unlike pre-Covid days room doors are not left open with staff wandering in and out to pass the time of day and carry out treatment with cheery chat going on in the corridors, doors are kept firmly shut. Aside from being masked and gloved everyone entering puts on a fresh apron outside which is removed before they leave, disposing of it in the room and washing their hands all inside the room before they go. I can now appreciate how quickly supplies of PPE are used up during this pandemic and how dangerous it must be in parts of the world where it is not available.

As the hospital is in tight lockdown no visitors are permitted. Rarely has time passed so slowly. That afternoon and into the evening I watched the hands on the clock opposite my bed turn more slowly than any clock hands have ever turned. The window blinds and all the windows were open which was probably a mistake but it wasn’t cold and I liked having the air to help breathing. Aberdeen skies don’t darken much at this time of year but when the light in the room grew too gloomy to read and I didn’t know where the light switches were I just gazed out at the subdued pink and grey sky from when things began to go quieter at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 11pm, 12midnight, 1am, 2am, 3am – wind back – 2.45am seagulls on the roof opposite started calling to one another. At 2.50am a nurse came in to take my temperature and blood pressure. Looked through family pictures on my phone. Closed my eyes and at 3.50 another nurse came in to do more checks and we had a chat about this and that. Beginning to get weary and closed my eyes then around 4am another nurse appeared to do more checks. Eventually fell asleep and woke up with a start and wide awake, looked at the clock – hurrah 7.30am – desperately wanted it to be daytime and not feel so isolated. Waited a while longer until I thought it a reasonable time to phone my husband at home. Picked up the phone. It was only 6.30am. Looked out at the only bit of sky I could see over the roof tops opposite listening to the gulls and a couple of screeching oyster catchers flying by the window.

By 9.30am I heard my Covd19 test was negative. I expected the result to take around 24 hours and was astonished and relieved to have it so quickly even though it seemed like an age. Well done SNHS.

A wonderful doctor came in to talk me through the various test results, what she thought my issue had been and told me that I could go home.

Getting home doesn’t happen quickly in hospitals but anyone who leaves them during this horrible time is very fortunate and by early afternoon I was being wheeled down to an exit by the lovely young nurse who had provided me with washing things, towels, toothbrush and paste, all forgotten by my husband when he did the 50 mile round trip to drop off an overnight bag. The bag contained a pair of pyjamas and my phone charger. I used the prongs of the phone charger to comb my hair in the morning.

It is very good to be home. Very good. I am so grateful for the Scottish NHS. I am so grateful for the staff who were not only professional but friendly and helpful: the delightful local para-medic who spoke to me throughout the long journey to the city at a tense and worrying time, her partner who drove like a demon, cleaner, radiographers, tea woman, Keith the porter who wheeled me through empty corridors, so many people from so many countries around the world – the young Asian nurse who was with me all the time I was in A&E and who was such a delightful, attentive person, a host of other nurses (the one who said she loved my hair), doctors who struggled to make sense of me and my problem and who took time to explain and discuss my test results (I was even phoned at home by another charming woman doctor the day after my release.)

To each and every person at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary I encountered, including the guy in the carpark, who asked if I was okay as I headed out with my bag with the pyjamas and phone charger to a tearful reunion with my husband. Thank you, one and all.

Nearly finished Laxness’ epic, Independent People, a book about sheep – wet sheep – mainly because of my hospital night. I’ll say more about it next time.

Stay safe

April 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 5

Another week gone. Five down and we are now into our sixth week. So how did last week turn out?

Weather has been running hot and cold and very dry. Our last rain consisted of some light showers on 2nd April and we wouldn’t mind a good drenching because we don’t have water to spare for tubs and pots outside which this year will have to be used to grow vegetables and herbs. Bought seeds online and they have now arrived. Didn’t foresee this as after a lifetime of growing fruit and veg we recently got rid of our vegetable plot and this is the year it has become more vital than ever to grow our own this summer so will have to see how that goes. Some vegetable seeds are in as short supply as bread flour and yeast but in a way that’s encouraging because more people appear to be returning to growing plants in their gardens instead of hard-landscaping that has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years.

After deciding to cut down on fresh vegetables because of uncertainty about contamination since so much supermarket produce comes in from abroad, just like PPE, we have refreshed our stocks of gherkins, pickled red cabbage and sauerkraut (I know but it’s pickled) but I did order one or two British-grown apples, red and green cabbage and carrots and tomatoes. The cabbages are tiny wee things hardly worth a damn as my late aunt might have said. The tomato arrived. I stress tomato singular. Described as a British beef tomato it was quite a nice example but a single tomato between two people over a fortnight will take some mathematical calculations over the best way of dividing it up. Cost 85 pence which fairly astonished me. None of the vegetables that arrived I would have selected had I been able to do my own shopping but they are fresh – even having spent their three days in quarantine and undergone a warm soapy bath.

More essential items were sent out by an excellent health store in Aberdeen, although it only posts out a tiny fraction of its food. Our reserves of Vego chocolate and hazelnut spread have been supplemented by two jars. It is the nectar of the gods and just the thing to perk up folk in lockdown who receive a single tomato to last two weeks.

My confidence in the legal profession has taken a dive this week. I’ve had two experiences over recent months – dire and fairly dire but amusing. Dire has descended into dire hell in sheer incompetence. I suppose fairly dire has also but I’m more amenable to that solicitor. I suspect solicitors are finding their proofing skills are sadly lacking without their office staff to check details for them. Latest signed update went into the pillar-box today hot on the heels of another one yesterday. Professionals huh?

Having dipped my toes into the waters of picture communications I set up a WhatsApp account this week to speak with family and friends and have discovered the signal is much better than on our landline.

Still walking locally. Some days it can get a bit too busy for comfort although it’s always good to catch up with neighbours and folk we hardly know who live about the area. This week the cotton mask I ordered arrived. It’s well made and won’t be as hot as wearing a scarf as the temperature increasingly heats up. Lots of unfamiliar faces keep appearing to walk up the hill at the back, most presumably farther away neighbours who’ve always kept their distance till now. Heard from a social media friend that his wife who works in a care home had a run-in with people who had travelled some distance to walk their dogs in our local village park. Some people don’t seem to recognise the devastating impact of possibly carrying infection from one place to another. My friend now has Covid-19 and so his wife is also in quarantine. One of the women who had been delivering groceries and medicines to people in this area is now also self-quarantined.

Still reading Jack London but think I’ve probably reached my limit of stories about dogs and heroic canines taking down other animals. I suspect for many readers times have changed and the thrill of a kill is confined to a blood-thirsty deranged minority. However, London’s To Light a Fire is very fine piece of writing which I urge you to read.

As for our couple of hours of TV in the evenings we gave up on the BFI’s recommended films for a while. Like the parson’s nose, they’re an acquired habit. The final straw was The Long Day Closes by film director Terence Davies. Having spent an inordinate amount of time watching the opening credits scroll down the screen in a font that was all but illegible and around half an hour staring at a bit of a rug I asked my husband if the film was by that bloke that ruined Sunset Song?” It was. I won’t ever forgive him for that. He took one of the best books ever written misunderstood it totally and made a masterpiece into film kitsch. To prove not all directors are self-indulgent bores we watched two super films – The Guilty is a Danish drama largely comprises a single actor in a police control room. Perhaps a little predictable towards the end but enthralling nonetheless. That was on Netflix. On Amazon Prime we watched the Chinese movie The Farewell that explores eastern and western attitudes towards death – charismatic and charming film with the subject ably handled. On a completely different level we’ve started watching Breaking Bad. Yes, I know – so behind the times. But good huh?

And finally – my alter ego Alex Chisholm published the latest magnum opus on Amazon Kindle and paperback due out soon. The Durer Affair is set in the little town of Nuremberg in the year 1504 where the artist, the painter Albrecht Durer, lives in harmony with the world until strangers arrive who turn his world and that of his fellow townsmen and women upside down. It’s comic and it’s tragic – as is life. You can follow the adventures of Durer and his friends Willy and Otto who all have prodigious appetites for pork knuckles washed down by Ana Brauer’s blackest beer and there’s even a doggy aspect to this page-turning thriller in the form of a very un-Jack London little hound called Ulf.

Stay safe.

My blog on Davies’ Sunset Song

March 24, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 1.

Today is Tuesday March 24th which marks my (our) first week in self-isolation. I was lucky enough to have a pre-booked hair appointment on the Monday before taking to inside. My wonderful hairdresser, Sarah, cut my hair with a view to me not getting back to have it cut for months. Was in two minds about going along to her because of anxiety over contagion but she cheered me up. Her website shows her salon is now closed, till the pestilence has passed, as she puts it.

Next day we did our final shopping in the local village. A sombre affair with people clearly worried despite the gorgeous weather. Not everything available but that’s become the norm. Drove back home and locked the door (metaphorically speaking.)

Wednesday was again very sunny and spring-like. We’re so fortunate to have a garden with lots of flowers, shrubs and trees all behaving normally and bursting with life and colour. And a garden means we can work in it and wander around and sit in.

Hellebores in the garden

Ongoing sore throat and cough, so ongoing I’m sure they’re nothing to worry about. Lucky, too, we have quiet places to walk close to us. Check when neighbours go out and come back and nip out before the next lot get their boots on. We’re very rural so there aren’t many immediate neighbours.

The weather is still great on the Thursday with the briefest of a shower later on. I have food intolerances so a bit worried about not being able to get what have become essential foods for me as small shops close so ordered online from a health chain. Phoned the optician to explain I couldn’t get in to pick up my new glasses and they promised to send them out.

On Friday made short video while walking locally along a farm track, always things to see and hear – birds, flowers, mosses, trees, the sky, running water in the burn. Very uplifting but I was suddenly hit by the threat we are all living under while nature does its usual spring stuff. Nature = benign and nature = malign. Our supermarket order from 3 weeks ago was delivered. I dreaded being confronted by the guy at the door. He kept his distance and I kept a scarf over half my face! Probably he thought I was mad. Ah well. I’d let them know I was in one of those ‘vulnerable’ categories so brilliantly they’d packed everything into those usually shunned plastic carrier bags. We put them into an empty room and left everything except fridge and freezer items for three days in case of contagion. Yes, we’re that paranoid. Lots of alternatives and some things I’d never ever order but we couldn’t find the stuff quickly so just accepted the lot.

Couldn’t face not having the FT’s weekend quiz and crossword to do so took out digital subscription to it but haven’t worked out if I can fill in the crossword through the downloaded pdf so decided to print it off.

Days are taken up editing writing. Discovered read aloud on Word and find it a great way to speed up tedious proofing. Publisher was in touch to say that book due out in May might not be because of events. Got me thinking that some of the companies included in it might not be around once we get out of this horror. Sobering thought.

Ordered a few more items online from an Aberdeen health store. They’re always reliable but I wish they’d offer more such as food items. Trying to figure out if dentists will be available if things go wrong. What if the central heating breaks down?

Kindnesses emerge. Online contacts offer to deliver food/medicines and a couple of local women have put a leaflet through the door with their phone numbers on offering the same.

One week in and my mood fluctuates between feeling optimistic (don’t ask me why) and horrible sinking despair. I’m very worried about my family, several have health issues and so are vulnerable and some have lost their jobs as places shut down. Friends, too – and so I got back in touch with a very old friend on Facebook (which I dislike) and found he’s doing okay but very reliant on a younger relative. Lots of messaging going back and fore.

Yesterday, Monday, the teenager next door was out exercising, running around their garden, and soon her mother joined her. Today we went out for a walk along the road. All quiet, a wave from passing farmer, until on our way back another farmer chose that moment to drop off his ewes and lambs – getting out of his truck to open the gate. We slowed down, shouted our hellos, and speeded past once he’d crossed the road. Can’t be too careful. I’ll repeat that, can’t be too careful. And I still haven’t run off the FT crossword. Maybe this afternoon. Our evenings are largely taken up reading – just finished The Life of Irène Némirovsky and starting Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project watching Better Call Saul which is hugely entertaining. Thumbs up for Netflix. No sign of my new spectacles arriving.

Stay safe.

March 19, 2020

Covid-19 – Coronavirus and the Libertarian

Guest blog by Textor

Things, as they say, are sometimes liable to come back to bite you.

That is if you let your guard down.

And let’s face it many of us have in one way or another let our guards down.

Coronavirus aka Covid-19 has bought home to us that as content as we are in our privileged advanced (there’s a cultural joke) economies the world is other than it seems. Assuming we are not in the gig economy, not queuing at a food bank then things can only get better. We who have access to a fair number of the good things of life; we who thought the real world was little more than novelties in the digital market place – including the delights of Amazon Prime or Netflix – or ever more commodities; we have been brought up short in little over three months by the brute fact of Nature.  Bang! Nature has reared up and taken an almighty bite out of this hubris.

Yes, we are all more or less aware, all more or less concerned/unconcerned about climate change and the impact of the Anthropocene (the Age deemed to be when humankind’s effect upon the planet Earth has been sufficient to cause global, catastrophic change.) Regardless of the evident societal alterations required to alleviate a “far off” doom we – those lucky enough to avoid floods, devastating fires etc.- could in the short term just get on with it; recycle as if there were no tomorrow you might say. Waiting for the end of climate change.

But sometimes Nature does not allow us the luxury of waiting for the apocalypse: coronavirus is just such a time. For decades microbiologists have been predicting the coming of a pandemic. The so-called Spanish Flu provided a model of how devastating a modern microbiological disaster could be. Wikipedia gives figures as high as 100 million dying in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20; more than the man-made slaughter on the battlefields of the Great War. Science had the capacity to devise the most wonderful weapons of death but could not stop the ‘flu.

Evolution has “designed” a human organism capable of sophisticated speech with the capacity to adapt itself to wide variations of environmental conditions. At the same time, and perhaps a necessary part of being human, it put its stamp on Nature. Beavers might dam rivers and create lakes but humans could build the Grand Coulee Dam, produce electricity to power a so-called Second Industrial Revolution. Clever, even ambitious. But no matter how sophisticated is the vast commodity producing system that is industrial capitalism it is no match for the potential speed at which a micro-organism might evolve. Humans have brains big enough to predict outcomes and have the technical knowhow (probably) to design and manufacture anti-virals capable of slowing and even halting the spread of Covid-19 – yes humans could in the next few months do this. But for all this Nature remains unconquered. Natural selection continues without any mastermind operating behind the scenes. And we know, or should know, that this process of selection can be good for some species and bad for others.

And so, the long-predicted crisis has arrived. The pandemic is here and the search goes on for a solution. As with previous modern national and global health events the pharmaceutical industry play a crucial role. However, historically necessary component solutions come under the direction and control of local or national state apparatuses. In other words, individuals/institutions are first advised and then told what to do. Sanctions are threatened and sanctions are imposed.

Nothing new in this. Here in northeast Scotland as far back as the 15th century Aberdeen’s magistrates fearful of plague had the bell rung through the medieval town proclaiming the city’s ports (gates) close, lokit with lokis and keis, at night to prevent strangers entering unobserved. A compact medieval town could very swiftly succumb to viral and bacterial threats. Medieval doctors and apothecaries knew little of the causes of infectious diseases but empirically they were aware that for all claims of God expending his wrath on a sinful community, contagion could be slowed by isolating infected families and potential carriers. Whether this would thwart Divine justice was maybe a theological point not to be dwelt upon. And, it’s worth noting that certainly by the 17th century Aberdeen’s magistrates were also attempting to clean the city of middens, street filth and asking that households be kept clean. This lesson on the need for cleanliness was largely lost by the early 19th century when poorer parts of Aberdeen where people living cheek-by-jowl and in slum conditions were condemned to the horrors of cholera and dysentery. This was industrialising capitalism; the poor were there to be exploited and maybe pitied.

As the centuries progressed even more controls were imposed. Vessels were prevented from entering the harbour, merchandise was left in ship holds. On the other hand, when the threat was seen to be coming from internal migration strangers were banned from entering the town. Town ports were watched and at one stage in 1606 dealers in timber were told to stay away under paine of death. Trade suffered as commodities ceased to flow between manufacturers, tradesmen and consumers. In 1647, again in the midst of plague, draconian measures were introduced with, for example, all ydle stranger beggars . . .  forthwith removed and banished. Any who returned were to be scourged, branded and driven out.

Authoritarian management is a basic mechanism for control of epidemic-pandemic events. Our current crisis has stark contrasts. On the one hand the relatively fast and severe imposition of lock-down in parts of China. With over seventy years of state control the Chinese Communist Party has an apparatus better adapted to widespread controls than liberal democracies. Compare the Chinese response to the bumbling worlds of the UK and USA brought stumbling towards closing doors and mass quarantine.

These manoeuvres will probably bring howls of anger from libertarians both right and left – those who don’t want to be told what to do by the state. Their individual rights, some might say entitlement, trumps (if you’ll pardon the expression) all else. Allowing for the nastiness of all three states mentioned (China, US and UK) this form of libertarianism smacks of, at best, infantile petulance and at worst disintegrative individualism which fails to recognise a larger vision of human community even one within a capitalist formation. Remember the outcry about seat belts and crash helmets – with cries of freedom from state tyranny? Of course the consequences of a libertarian freedom to roam in a time of a modern plague threatens not only the lives of the defence of freedom lobby but ultimately the well-being of global communities. 

And the bite of Nature? As much as humankind imagines itself master/mistress of the world the reality is otherwise. From small nibbles such as occasional volcanic eruption to the all-encompassing bite of climate change Nature exists, not dependent on human imagination, not caring one way or another what happens to humans or any other species. It, if that’s the correct word, does what it does.Humans although in Nature and of Nature are different insofar as this species can make choices. It can gather knowledge, can know history and can act. There lies the rub.

March 7, 2020

The High Price of Coffee

Guest post by Textor

Agent Dale Cooper’s much-loved phrase damn fine cup of coffee helped put the dark beverage back on the trending map in the 1990s. Since then it has been once again boosted, this time by hipsterdom and the emergence of the barista. Long gone are the days when the most exotic flavour of coffee was one containing a slug of whisky – or roasted bullocks’ livers; sometimes added to coffee as an adulteration in the 19th century.

Coffee by Mike Kenneally

We hear so much about globalisation today as though the machinations, strategies and practices of industry and capital across the globe are a recent invention. There’s no doubt that since the 1980s the international mobility of capital has increased with whole industries moving lock-stock-and barrel across state boundaries. Commentators tell us that this free-flow of capital and enterprise in search of cheap, more “efficient” labour, and advantageous tax and tariff benefits offered by some national states, has led to the abandonment of so-called traditional industrial workers and their communities. Those affected have to compete for low-paid work or try to live on desperately poor state benefits. It is this, it is said, that lies behind the pathetic fight-back seen in the rise of Trump in the USA and closer to home in the votes given to the Tory party by working class voters in the north of England.

But don’t be fooled. While acknowledging the rapidity of industrial and commercial change in the past four decades it remains true that industrial capitalism was founded on its global reach which entailed the creation of new labour forces and the destruction of “traditional” communities. At times this was a zero sum game with winners and losers across the globe; in the 19th-20th centuries most of the winners were in Europe and North America as national capitals industrialised and turned to far-flung countries and communities for raw materials and cheap labour.This global division of labour literally paid dividends not only for investors but portions of the British working class, although given the necessary competitive nature of capitalism this was always vulnerable to the fluctuations of business cycles, technological innovation and the turbulence of international relations. This meant booms as well as times of depression  with unemployment and wage struggles as workers fought for their own interests. Britain was the empire builder of the 19th century. The stretch of its “pink” across the globe was achieved by a mixture of commercial power and military might with “formal” and “informal” forces conspiring to bring the benefits of global trade back to British capitalists.

Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire 1886

A player in this ever-expanding world-wide market place was William McKinnon of Aberdeen, engineer and iron founder. Originating in 1798 this business on the north side of what was then still a compact city, more medieval in form than modern industrial, McKinnon’s seems to have made do with local customers until about 1850. Its integration into the global market came as a result of an expansion in demand for tropical products, notably coffee, cacao and tea; raw materials which had the distinction of involving the exploitation of indigenous and migrant  labour and land in “faraway” places. While historian Regina Wagner asserts that in the 1840s McKinnon’s “mass produced” coffee machinery I think it’s more accurate to date this to the 1860s and I’d be hesitant about calling it mass production. These caveats aside, it’s true to say that the tropical product market gave McKinnon’s an international reputation which lasted into the 21st century. What’s in a name? In the case of some of McKinnon’s processing machinery are references to a history of imperial enterprise, industrial expansion and, at times, ruthless exploitation; specifically the names Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa who designed machines manufactured in Aberdeen for exporting to coffee plantations in places such as Guatemala in Central America.

McKinnon’s penetration of a markets thousands of miles from Aberdeen seems to have flowed from  a connection with one James Gordon, a locally-trained engineer who in the 1840s “followed the flag” to Ceylon where he became a partner in Affleck & Gordon of Bogambara. After about seven years abroad he returned to Britain and founded the London-based John Gordon & Co. Colonial Engineers. Familiar with Aberdeen’s engineering industries he linked up with McKinnon and this relationship led to the expansion of McKinnon’s tropical trade. To get back to the Guatemala connection and coffee. Three men, Julius Smout, José Guardiola and Emil Robert Okrassa independently designed coffee processing machinery which McKinnon, through either expiring patents or acquisition of rights, manufactured products to their designs.

For something like 700 years (250-900 CE) Mayan civilisation dominated the American isthmus. The area’s entry to European history came in the 16th century when Spanish forces landed with the intention of plundering, Christianising and colonising what became Guatemala, part of the so-called New World although, of course, it was only new to the colonisers. This brought to the land and its peoples an abiding connection with Europe which after the fall of the Spanish Empire and Guatemalan “independence” in the 1820s the country became a small focal point in the web of global trade.

Central America c1840s

Julius Smout, from Landsberg in Prussia travelled to Guatemala in the 1840s, an employee of the Belgian Colonization Company. The name betrays its intention. With the connivance of Leopold I and the Guatemalan government the BCC acquired 264,000 acres of “undeveloped” land and was responsible for expelling indigenous peoples from the land. In return the company committed to invest in commerce and industry and in typical imperialist fashion it was awarded tax concessions and monopoly rights. But even this was not enough to guarantee success. BCC organisation seems to have been shambolic; local merchants opposed its monopolization of trade and the company went bankrupt in 1854. Julius Smout was nonetheless in the right place at the right time, at least right for any westerner hoping to benefit from the potential of the tropical land. The ingenious Smout designed a coffee huller and polisher (essential processes in coffee production) so good it was said to process beans to perfection. When Julius sold the patent to John Gordon the Aberdeen connection was made. McKinnon’s went on to manufacture thousands of Smout’s compact hullers and polishers as well as large models, including one which could process 123 tons a day. The compact machines were ideal for small plantations: cheap and fairly easily transportable – to high ground inland where coffee was grown. Replacement parts were despatched from distant Aberdeen or London. Coffee production burgeoned in Guatemala with Europe’s and North America’s near insatiable demand for the beverage.

Smout Peeler and Polisher

Between 1860 and the 1870s production spread like wildfire. Managers, engineers and agronomists arrived to oversee plantation labour, mostly indigenous Mayans whose land was taken for turned over to satisfying the international taste for coffee. While foreign capital invested in coffee production some local landowners, too, looked to take advantage of this expanding market. One such Guatemalan landowner was José Guardiola. Guardiola owned an estate close to the city of Escuintla. He was enthusiastic about the commercialisation of the area’s agriculture and when the Catholic Church began to sell off parcels of land once farmed by independent Mayan families, José was an early investor. Eventually he owned close on 8000 acres. His coffee and cacao estate was called Finca Chocola: Chocola was Mayan for ancient city – little consolation for dispossessed Mayans with ever increasing wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of men of European origin. The inventive landowner increased the profitability of his estate with his design of a dryer capable of processing 120 sacks of beans per day. Apparently when the dryer patent terminated McKinnon stepped in to manufacture an improved version that could be used on either coffee or cacao beans; this was about 1882. In 1891 Guardiola sold the estate to a German businessman.

Guardiola Dryer

The last of the trio, Emil Robert Okrassa, was yet another German. He arrived in Guatemala in 1884 to work on an estate near Antigua in the country’s central highlands (Antigua is now an UNESCO designated World Heritage site.) Famed for its Spanish-influenced architecture the city is evidence of Guatemala’s role in the history of colonisation. By the time Emil arrived coffee exports from Guatemala stood at more than 134 million kilograms annually. Similar to earlier inventors he recognised how technological improvements could ease labour shortages while ensuring the quality of processed beans was consistently high. Okrassa patented a de-pulper in 1891 and an improved polisher and huller. In the first decade of the 20th century he sold patent rights to processors in the USA and McKinnon in Aberdeen. Their roles in the development of coffee processing is the reasons the three names, Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa were cast onto the sides of the coffee trade’s iron machinery and recorded in the pages of the company’s catalogues.

Okrassa Dryer

This period of High Victorian enterprise had its winners and losers. In Aberdeen men fortunate enough to find regular employment in McKinnon’s engineering shops were guaranteed an income. In addition, through a combination of political and trade struggles, allied with progressive employers and others, conditions of employment were improved. It was not a Golden Age for Aberdeen workers but compared to, for example, the horrors which were to be found in textile mills pre-1850 things were definitely better for these men. On the other side of the world workers harvesting tropical products such as coffee were being marginalised from the political process while workers in Britain were slowly being granted franchise rights. Economic power in tropical estates was concentrated in non-indigenous hands and local workers were pushed into debt bondage where running away was often the only way of escaping the clutches of employers. Even today gang masters are still to be found, as is child labour. The long history of colonisation and racism has left a deep and dark mark on Central America.

Harvesting Coffee, Guatemala 1870s

So, enough of the current whinge that globalisation is something new. Enough of the story which has Britain hard done by. Enough of the cry “if only we had not surrendered sovereignty” life would be so much better. This is and has been for a long time the mark of capitalist exploitation. British capital advanced through the 19th century by doing just this and in the process was able to concede benefits to the working class. Of course at the same time it was wasting other cultures and at times reducing foreign labour to all but slavery. This was the hugely productive economic and colonial chain which bound the Victorian world.

McKinnon’s, for all the skills that went into the manufacture of Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa machines, and the pride that men and their families might have felt seeing the company’s name on crates bound for the tropics, it should be remembered that this was but one link in a sometimes cruel enterprise.

The machinery developed by Smout, Guardiola and Ossaka were mainly successful in ensuring beans left plantations in fine condition and ready for roasting to satisfy differing tastes. They still do but Aberdeen’s engineering works, once indispensable to the trade have long gone. And just as 19th century processing technologies can still be found in 21st century plantations so, sad to say, are harsh exploitative conditions. At the larger level, as with all capitalist production, the industry is subject to the ups and downs of supply and demand and practices of their major producers and processors. At the local level – where the trees are grown, where the coffee cherry is harvested, where pulpers, peelers, dryers and graders turn out beans for the world market, there is still child labour, debt bondage and environmental damage – all to satisfy a craving for caffeine and, of course, turn a profit.  So next time you have a cup of Joe remember how it was and still is manufactured. What might be good for you might not be so good for others.

See http://www.chocolaproject.org/finca.html

See https://old.danwatch.dk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Bitter-coffee-Guatemala-2016.pdf

See https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/coffee/