Archive for ‘politics’

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.              

Jan 6, 2021

Unions and Alliances: Divorce and the Bidie-in

D I V O R C E sang Tammy Wynette, an expert on the subject.

Divorce, yes divorce. Divorce is in the air. Have you noticed? When the UK filed for divorce from the EU it was complicated because there were four partners in that relationship – five if you count the EU. Two of the partners got their way and three did not. Now it should have been possible in those circumstances for those three unhappy with the breakup to stay in the relationship; being consenting partners. Actually one of the partners has, albeit by quirk rather than design. The remaining one of the original four, hope you’re keeping up, has been told she must cut off all connections with the former fifth partner even though she really wants the relationship to continue because one of the four is less of a partner and more of a tyrant. Isn’t that so like many unhappy marriages – in which one partner is overbearing?

Let’s put some names to the partners. The four are, of course, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales and the EU that has already been identified as partner number five. It’s a poor sort of marriage in which one partner is controlling but that’s always been the way with the constitutional setup of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland did not want this divorce but they’re stuck with it – only NI is being treated with more care and consideration than Scotland and now embarking on a ménage à trois with the EU and UK.

It is not that Scotland is averse to divorce. The majority of Scots would love to divorce the UK and reinstate relations with her Continental suitors. She would not be against rekindling some kind of relationship with the UK but on a more equitable footing – not the current one under the domineering and manipulative partner, let us call him England. England holds all the cards and for three hundred years has been playing with a marked deck.

England and divorce has a troubled history. I’m talking personal relationships now for I think it reasonable to compare how a nation handles its personal relationships with the way it handles constitutional ones. In the case of England marriages have always been unequally skewed with men of power and wealth able to obtain an annulment whereas wives, on the other hand, have struggled to extricate themselves from an obviously failed marriage, even where the husband is controlling and abusive. English laws have been written by men for men. Even from the grave a vindictive rogue of a husband and father could continue to harm his wife and children by omitting them from his will so leaving them penniless and homeless.

Vindictive and controlling are the traits that mark out England’s attitude towards Scotland’s desire for divorce. Okay, so to begin with the attitude was more derisory – to belittle and discredit but the tone has got more shrill and tinged with threat. Only days ago in a debate in the Commons, former Tory minister Liam Fox suggested in the event of divorce between Scotland and the rest of the UK Scotland would be punished by blocks on trade (that is so close to the events in 1707 which led to the Union it’s uncanny.)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman [Ian Blackford MP]for giving way. Perhaps he could tell us what estimate he has made of the cost to the Scottish economy of losing access to the UK single market through independence. (Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset)

Dissolving the Union –

What? Nonsense! You can’t pull out of it now! Why? Surely not? What have I done? I haven’t done anything wrong! No, I won’t agree to any divorce! I’ll make your life miserable! I’ll punish you in every way I can! You’ll be made to suffer! Divorce me! How dare you even try!

These ridiculing and hostile attitudes have not gone down well with the majority of Scots who are expected to believe the Union is one of equals while experience shows it is nothing of the kind. This Union was always a marriage of convenience that quickly turned into a loveless trial. The dominant partner has never concealed his lack of respect for the other, denigrating and belittling her and keeping a tight hold on the purse strings to prevent her from leaving him. Confiscating the house keys will no doubt come next. Like almost every failing marriage there’s bad contemptuous behaviour, constant criticisms, secrecy, avoiding each other, arguments and the sex is lousy.

Scots attitudes to divorce have always been fairly liberal with both sexes tending to be treated equally and the assumption is this progressive perspective is shared. Far back in the mists of time Scottish marriages could be simply annulled or couples choose to go their own ways and lead separate lives while technically still married. Women as well as men could obtain formal divorces on grounds of adultery or desertion from the 1500s. When a relationship was shown to have irretrievably broken down the Scots were more pragmatic over the hopelessness of the situation and the union terminated. Threats of punishment and coercion were not considered suitable alternative actions.

Women’s standing has always been more robust in Scotland than in England. A Scots woman’s individualism did not get extinguished on her marriage, as was the case in England and you can see the majority of older Scottish gravestones display women’s own last name along with reference to her status as wife or relict of a man. Until relatively recent times that is. Now the English habit of a woman relinquishing her identity to her husband has become common here in Scotland. For a time it was the norm for a married woman to be addressed by her husband’s name – as in Mrs David Macdonald. That piece of nonsense is now hopefully relegated to the misogynist dustbin of the past.

You know why divorces are so expensive? Because they’re worth it. 

Scots women and children have always been better protected by the law than their English counterparts. For example a Scottish widow  could not be deprived of her jus relictae and the children of a marriage of their legitima – meaning they could not be written out of a husband’s/father’s will. A wife was entitled to one half of the movable assets of a marriage and her children to the other half and in the case of there being no children, the wife’s share comprised one-third. That should tell us about the type of society that operates in this way and the type of society that does not. As we’ve seen above this has never been the case in England.

A marriage in which one partner enjoys more rights than the other so able to restrict the rights and freedoms of the other partner is no worthwhile relationship. A union in which one member nation assumes greater privileges than another nation and gets to impose rules unilaterally is no worthwhile union. Under Scots law this union would have been dissolved long ago. Under English law Scotland remains a chattel of England’s.

The English state does not respect Scotland because Scotland’s status within the Union is so weak. Scratch a unionist and they’ll argue that Scotland’s position within the Union is comparable to an English county. Labour leader, Tony Blair, in 1997 epitomised this view when he described the Scottish parliament as having no more powers than an English parish council because sovereignty would remain “with me” i.e. the prime minister at Westminster.  So much for Scotland having an equal voice within the UK. This Union is nothing more than an abusive relationship but mentions pulling out of it and unionists are aghast then angry then more abusive.

Divorce after 300 years!

300 and a bit years. Call that a union?

Here’s a union. France, you know that country that a section of English xenophobes love to describe as their ‘traditional enemy’ (to which the obvious retort is – who isn’t?) has never been on the receiving end of such animosity from Scotland. Quite the reverse for links between Scotland and France are greater than those between Scotland and England.

This is a Union

The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, established in 1295, has never been formally ended so the Union with England is bigamous. England is the bidie-in. It has been argued the Auld Alliance was wound up in 1560. If this is so it means Scotland’s union with France lasted over 260 years, just 38 years shy of that other union with England.

When Scotland was badgered and blackmailed into the Union in 1707, against the wishes of the people who signed petitions, demonstrated and rioted their disapproval, Scotland lost her legislative powers, many of her public offices to London, with a knock-on impact on Scottish trade and commerce. Resentment within Scotland has simmered ever since with fluctuating degrees of support for independence or Home Rule.

Divorce is a piece of paper

Back in 1890 a piece in the Westminster Review described how the demand for Home Rule for Scotland was gaining popularity on the back of the movement for Irish Home Rule. The article went on to observe –

“But the grievance that impelled her [Scotland] to do it [go for Home Rule] have been long and severely felt.  And they have a deeper root than the English people seems yet to understand. It is not only that Scotland has been shabbily and unfairly treated in the matter of Imperial grants; it is not only that the Scottish people have been put to enormous and needless expense, vexation, and trouble in connection with so-called private Bills; it is not only that Scottish affairs have been grossly mismanaged in London; Scottish legislation trifled with by the leaders of both parties, and the verdict of the Scottish constituencies on Scottish questions reversed in Parliament by the overwhelming votes of English members knowing little, caring less, about Scottish affairs, and merely voting as their party leaders bid.”

Those observations could have come from yesterday in parliament at Westminster. In 1890 the two parties in question were the Liberals and Tories. Labour would later traipse along in their wake and with some notable exceptions follow the line of England knows best, back in your box Scotland – that has been the attitude of all the UK parties.

A feature throughout the life of the Union has been the English tendency to deride Scots and Scotland – as the Westminster Review put it – “wrong done thus and otherwise to Scotland’s life and honour and progress as a nation.” And nothing has changed.

“England seems scarcely to know that Scotland remains a nation.” (Westminster Review)

And nothing has changed. That is the position of Johnson, Starmer and their party acolytes. What the English know or think they know about Scotland comes from Anglicized Scots, the Westminster Review tells us. These people rarely represent their own country and so misrepresent the Union.

Divorces are made in heaven

Scottish Secretaries of State at Westminster represent Westminster in Scotland not Scotland at Westminster. Their role is to squeeze the life out of Scotland and ‘denationalise’ her. Scotland’s junior position within the Union has meant from the very start she was being milked for whatever she was worth by London, from the malt taxes to oil and gas.

Against the grain: Scotland pays the English Exchequer | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

As an illustration take an example from 1851 when Ireland’s revenue was just over £4 million Westminster took £153,547. About the same time Scotland’s revenue was just over £6 million and of that England took £5,614,847. Astounding. If astounding is another term for theft.

Heavy burdens in the form of taxes and customs duties and making Scotland pay for England’s national debt – if only England wasn’t such a xenophobic country it wouldn’t always be spending money on costly wars against other nations – kept Scotland indebted to England and diminished her freedom as a nation within the Union. Scotland had no national debt when the Union knot was tied and England made sure that she could never have England’s freedom to borrow money. That still applies today with Scotland having to balance her books while England can accrue as much debt as it likes and demand Scotland pays a share. What kind of Scot would have agreed to a contract like that? Not any kind of good one.

Article 15 of the Treaty provided a lump sum – the so-called Equivalent – was paid to Scotland as compensation for having to agree to take on a share of England’s national debt. That and to compensate Scotland for various disadvantages imposed on her by the Union such as a reduction in the value of Scotland’s currency to match that of England’s, winding up the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies so it was not in competition with England’s East India Company.  To quell the protests from Scottish businessmen London agreed to provide subsidies as compensation for Scotland’s lost markets for its successful exports such as woollen goods. In keeping with so many promises made to woo the handful of Scots nobles who played fast and loose with Scotland’s independence those subsidies were never paid out. You can see the direction of travel this Union was taking. The Equivalent was paid to 25 commissioners who first and foremost took care of themselves with the cash – and it was mainly cash. So you can imagine how widely this was (not) spread. The Union that England holds so dear was created on a catalogue of lies and deceptions.

In place of promised financial help came an increased tax burden for Scots. Prominent Scots, such as the eminent economist, Adam Smith, tried to prevent Scotland being penalised so heavily by England but to no avail. Why would England’s government aka Westminster relinquish the grip it had on Scotland? It didn’t want to risk having a rival and potential threat to its security on its border. Which reminds us this Union was a marriage of convenience. Time for the bidie-in to sling his hook.

 I don’t see divorce as a failure. I see it as the end to a story. In a story, everything has an end and a beginning.

References:

(Julian Hoppit, University College London, Scotland and the British Fiscal State, 1707-1800. )The Westminster Review (19th and 20th centuries)

The Westminster Review (19th and early 20th century editions)


 

Dec 12, 2020

It’s a Fishy Business – Scotland’s Plaice in Brexit

Brexit – England’s Declaration of Independence as penned by Homer (Simpson) – a fish oddity.

Jaculator fishmonger, Pufferfish Johnson, blowing out his well-exercised blowhole that Brexit is destined to lead to a national revival. The great Clownfish spouts blanks whether –

  • an additional £350m a week to the NHS
  • 40 new hospitals (that’ll be 6 plus some refurbishments)
  • 50,000 new nurses or in the real world 30,000
  • his ‘do or die’ pledge that Great Brian would be out of the EU by October 2019,
  • he’d rather be dead in a ditch than extend Article 50
  • he’d never suspend parliament to force through Brexit – before illegally proroguing it for the longest period in the modern era
  • squirming u-turns on proxy voting in the Commons
  • free school meals in England,
  • the NHS visa surcharge
  • dodgy NHS appp
  • face masks in shops
  • face masks in schools
  • England’s exam fiasco
  • England’s national lockdown
  • extension of the furlough scheme
  • world beating track and trace
  • millions of tests every single day
  • operation moonshot to combat Covid

Those not Zipfish-ed up the back Smelt a Ratfish at being led by the Elephant Nose fish to Flounder as flotsam and jetsam on the seabed of international prosperity.  Given Clownfish’s reputation to not give a Dogger Bank about anything, his only Porpoise in life being himself, they Otter have known Betta over his promises of Sea Pie in the sky.

Now we’re in for a Cat and Dog fish fight because a Bighead Carp of a Prime Minister, the Blowfish PM, doesn’t give a Bombay Duck about a Dealfish.

The Chubsucker PM’s Loosejaw Minnows; Moray Eel, Douglas Ross; Parrot fish, Andrew Bowie; chief Toadfish and Hogsucker, Alister Jackfish, are in the Halibut of Swordfish propagandising straight off the John Dory party’s handbook, as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.

Barracuda done Betta cry the people of Scotland, ye Bass! And when the Britfish and Mudsucker Flounders on the iceberg of destiny the Sturgeon (or Salmond) of Scotland will lead us Herring back to tell the EU we’ve Haddock enough of Batfish Englandshire and leave them Abalone to all their racist, supremacist Pollocks.

So Dab your eyes and open the Dory to a Brill Goldfish Plaice in the sea of opportunity that’s lapping at our shores.  

Sep 4, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Final self-isolation diary, week 24

 I’ve decided to close my self-isolation diary after this one because I feel so much has changed, and not changed, over past months and the diary is getting stale. We are also moving on in our lives and so I’ll be preoccupied for some time.

Way back on the 24th March we had just embarked on what was anticipated would be a few short weeks of self-isolation. Six months later we’re not exactly isolating in the same way or with the same intensity but our lives have been turned upside down and normal back then is abnormal today. I wrote then of my final visit to my hairdresser the previous day. I miss our chats as well as having turned into Rapunzel in the meantime but I’m still  disinclined to get my hair cut. It can wait.

 We did our ‘final’ shop in the village in March. I remember it as an anxious experience with the threat of Covid hanging in the air like some 19th century miasma.  We haven’t been back! Shopping for us now is confined to online deliveries. Following a sticky start due to pressure of numbers companies have learnt to cope with vastly increased demand and not driving to the shops has saved us a fortune in petrol. With so little reason to leave the house other than for exercise which we do locally there’s been very little reason to run the car so yet more savings.

 Back at the start of all of this we were both displaying symptoms of something – sore throats and coughs – but nothing developed and we both got better. Was this Covid? We have wondered ever since.

Harvesting the barley, buzzard flying, swallows on power lines, our Aberdeenshire, roe deer in the barley

We’re still reading the Saturday edition of the Financial Times online and I print out their crosswords every Friday or Saturday. It’s not so easy reading online and I read less of the paper but my husband reads massive amounts of it as the sub means we have access to the daily editions, too. Drawback is we no longer have any newspapers in the house for all those jobs old newspapers were used for such as putting down a piece of biscuit or chocolate for the cat if he catches us eating our evening square – well we are from Presbyterian backgrounds so one square is sufficient per day.

 The garden has been a godsend for us. We’ve grown our vegetables and eaten most of them. Tatties are just about ready now. Most of the gherkins, courgettes, broad beans, runner beans have been eaten. Still got lots of salad stuff in the greenhouse and dependable chard provides our daily green helping. Blackcurrants, rasps, strawberries have come and gone. The cherries are never available to us as the birds take them. Blueberries ripening now and with fewer plums on the tree they are a good size this year. Apples coming in abundance and a few pears but that’s a sign of autumn and every day we are out with shears and secateurs trying to control the jungle.

Politically things have changed. March saw the four nations of the UK working together, after a fashion, to deal with Covid. Since then there have been different policies emerging because the pandemic has highlighted that what works for London doesn’t necessarily work for Belfast or Edinburgh or Cardiff.

 Boris Johnson in March was seen as a dilettante fool. Now in September he’s proved himself to be a bone-idle fool.  Nicola Sturgeon has grown as a stateswoman demonstrating her hands-on approach to government and ability to stay on top of her health brief during Coronavirus. Ask Johnson a question about it and he’ll divert attention from the fact he knows nothing but squawk  Trump-like about how FANTASTIC his government is in coping with the pandemic when the evidence shows otherwise.

 September and Covid is still very much with as we hurtle towards winter with the depressing prospect of flu epidemics on top of Coronavirus. It’s hard to see how this won’t mean a return to much tighter restrictions on our behaviour once more. Not that everyone has been modifying their behaviour given the spikes in the spread of the virus in some parts.

 Here in the back of beyond we’re still not venturing too far from the old homestead but we can observe activities are far greater than they were a few short weeks ago. Plenty companies are still complaining the economy isn’t opening up fast enough but I’d rather be guided by Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leach on modes of behaviour than travel firms and airport chiefs driven by what’s in the best interests of their industries – especially a certain vociferous Scottish travel company that drove someone we know up the wall trying to get them to reimburse almost £1000 for a holiday the company cancelled at the start of the pandemic. They weren’t too proactive then. We haven’t seen her since then so don’t know if they ever paid her back. I can’t get myself to sympathise with travel companies and airport managers pushing for more air travel in light of Covid and global warming. It’s as though they live in a bubble where health and well-being are counted only in terms of cash not the nation’s health.

 On the topic of health what’s been a pleasure of late is walking our local highways and byways to the accompaniment of the rustling of broom pods, like water trickling over rocks, as the seed pods burst open distributing their seeds. And that wee roe deer has been back bounding through the barley field again, like Theresa May only cute and not at all dangerous. I should have my camera ready when going along that way to get a half-decent photo but I never do and so the results are dismal. Talking of dismal photographs, the heron flew up from one of the burns right over my head as I struggled to take my camera out of my pocket. I did eventually get a picture but it was of a flying M disappearing into the distance so deleted it. Herons and horses always remind me of dinosaurs which makes them magical in a deep-rooted kind of way, having that link with the earth’s distant (near) beginnings.

 Our house martins are still with us. Frantically feeding so can’t be long before they say their goodbyes. So many of them proving what a fine summer we’ve had here in northeast Scotland. Had some feedback on whether or not martins, swifts and swallows perch on power lines because I’d mentioned seeing one or other of them last time. I checked up and swallows do, so there are plenty of them round here, not swifts and I don’t know about martins. Swallow they were then strung out along the wires.

Graceful clematis and bold-as-brass marigolds

We haven’t settled into a new series on Netflix/Amazon Prime yet. Did have the unfortunate experience of sitting through a truly dreadful film, A Fall from Grace about a woman accused of murdering her husband. What was murdered was the film production. Surely the director has watched films but that wasn’t apparent in his messy and laughable handling of what could have been an interesting subject. The characters were transparent it was easy to work out the end right at the start. The acting was dodgy and the scene at the end where women walk out of a house is straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller while attempting to be empathetic. 

 Haven’t quite finished Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow yet, the psychology book that explains so much about how we think from automatic responses to more considered and logical ones, and the biases we’re largely unaware of when imagining we’re thinking rationally. Every time I try the experiments in it I fall into a trap. Which I still find funny.

 For those of you who’ve been reading this blog over the past six months thank you very much. I might return to self-isolation at some time but then again I might not. Latest book, much delayed publication because of Covid, is eventually coming out on 15 September, you might want to consider buying Aberdeen At Work

 Stay safe and for this sort of blog, that’s  all  folks. 

 

Aug 28, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 23

Boris Johnson was on holiday this week. Don’t know why he thought that was appropriate. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since he comes across as a guy who does virtually no work anyway – getting others to do it for him. He was in Scotland – allegedly, although some people thought he might have posed beside a tent in Scotland then flew off to Greece or vice versa. Who cares. He shouldn’t have been on holiday in the first place during this terrible pandemic. The British prime minister is a man whose moral compass, if he ever possessed one, broke a very long time ago.

See that badger! Domestic crisis last week meant we forgot to take in the bird feeders one night and, of course, by morning the stand inside its very heavy plant pot lay on their sides. The peanut feeder was later found empty and abandoned elsewhere in the garden – a virtually full container of nuts having gone down the badger’s or badgers’ gullet(s.) Both stand and pot were tumbled again the following night by Brutus the Badger but as no feeders had been left on it there would have been disappointment at Tubby Badger Set that night. Angry words have been targeted at the badger.

Last time I was wondering if the house martins, swallows and swifts flew south as early as August because ours seemed to have scarpered. Someone got in touch to confirm they did.  Days later we spotted about 30 – 40 swallows, swifts, martins strung out along power lines near us. A fine sight. As for our own martins they do seem to have abandoned their Scottish homes until next year but we still see a number take to the skies in the evenings.

We’ve missed out pheasants. Not so long ago lots were coming across to the garden to feed but then they all disappeared apart from an odd sighting. One day this week a scruffy young male with a bad leg turned up. He fairly hirples, poor thing. At least there’s plenty for him to eat once he makes it here from wherever he’s from.   

The woodpeckers have also returned. They are such handsome birds we get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing them. And there’s been a magpie. At one time magpies were breeding close-by and were frequently stopping off in the garden. We’ve even had on occasions a brown and white one but all vanished until I noticed a single one under the bark-peeling acer earlier this week.

Weather has taken a turn for the worse. We in northeast Scotland have enjoyed a lovely summer with lots of bright sunny and warm days and the recent cloudy skies and cool temperatures are disappointing but at least we haven’t experienced the torrential rain that is constant in many parts of the west of Scotland. Don’t go off with the impression it hasn’t rained for we’ve had some downpours but not joined together like western areas get them. With the onset of cooler conditions comes the impression of autumn’s approach – aided and abetted by summer flowers fading and dropping off. Gardening has altered with the weather and back-end of summer so that lots and lots of industrial levels of pruning are happening – in most cases not carried out by me but my trusty husband.

Still going strong is the chard crop. One of the most reliable, tasty and easy vegetables to grow it’s used just about every day by us, one way or another. Until recently ours escaped the unwanted attentions of snails and slugs but our mollusc fellow-gardeners are now chomping their way through our crop. They’ve been warned so they know the consequences of their actions. Broad beans are a welcome addition to home-grown produce as well. We don’t have many plants this year so the freezer won’t be packed with them but we do appreciate those that we have.  Broad beans are one of the most undervalued of vegetables.

The last of the gooseberries have been picked but there are still blackcurrants unbelievably. They are bigger than ever now, presumably having had longer to mature. We must have collected around 3 tons so far.

Last year was a poor one for apples with us – the previous year having produced big crops. This year is another bumper one but several branches on our trees are collapsing under the weight of fruit. What we need are clothes line stretchers to hoist them back up and keep them from breaking entirely. Husband heavily pruned a cooker, Lane’s Prince Albert, which produces muckle-sized delicious apples. The tree grows at a fearful rate and so he topped it but several young apples came off during the operation. Made an apple tart with one or two which has lasted us four days. A slice with a side helping of coconut yogurt or Swedish glace vanilla ice cream is just what the doctor ordered (my husband being a doctor – of the philosophy kind.)

It was my turn for chairing the family virtual quiz so I selected questions for their quirkiness and stuff Scottish. Most were difficult, I admit. Far too difficult for me were it not for having benefit of the answers. All that said our grandson won by a huge margin so he is officially hailed as a genius in addition to being extremely handsome and charming.

Dark – what can I say?  It is extraordinary how it demands total concentration so that it is virtually impossible to divert eyes from the screen while watching it. Characters come and go, the same characters over different periods of time, with most managing to pick up scratches and smudges on their faces as they travel between the 2050s and the 1880s. If you have access to Netflix watch it.

Bedtime reading is currently Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a fascinating look at how our brains respond to events, questions etc through initial responses to slower more in-depth consideration. It’s written with humour and is crammed with examples for readers to try for themselves – raising a smile and some head scratching. Here’s an example of some of the exercises:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Scroll to the end for the answer. Oh, this is the end. Most people immediately answer 10c.  Before thinking about it more closely. The answer is 5c. Another nice one consists of two words –

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 27, 2020

Break the Chains of Empire: nationalism and independence

The British Empire lasted some 300 years; about the same length of time that the United Kingdom has existed. The British Empire has gone. It is time the remnants of colonialism within the UK were also relegated to the past.

Good morning, Scotland. What is it you want?

Please, sir, I want some more.

What! More!

Yes, sir. I want more.

There is disbelief all round.

You already have devolution. What more could you want?

Independence, sir. I want my independence.

Independence? What nonsense is this? Not everyone can be independent. If everyone was independent nobody would appreciate it.

That’s not fair, sir. I want to be independent.  

Want! Want! It’s not your place to want! You’ll take what you’re given. Who ever heard of such a thing! There are people who make the rules and people whose duty it is to follow our rules. You are the latter. People who want, don’t deserve independence. And that’s the end of it.

The meaning of empire

The British Empire began as the English Empire although it adopted the name British before the Act of Union. England’s imperial expansion began in the 1500s, enabled by its aggressive navy expanded to break into the slave trade. Union in 1707 was sought by England primarily to remove potential support by Scotland for England’s enemy, France – henceforth Edinburgh was denied decision-making powers over foreign affairs and so has that remained. That the Union gave England control over Scottish trade was an additional, if secondary benefit. The Union of 1707 was not set up to benefit Scotland but to protect England politically and economically. And there was no whiff of democracy anywhere about the agreement struck between a few monied interests in Scotland and England’s parliament.

The Union of 1707 colonised Scotland in much the same way England then the United Kingdom colonised other parts of the world over three hundred years. As with its other colonies the Union parliament never envisaged equality between its heart, in London, and authorities in the peripheral parts of its empire. Power lay with London and there it would remain. That was the intention and nothing changed over three hundred years. Devolution of powers has not altered the conception of hierarchy and subordination within the United Kingdom. Within the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are subordinates which are not provided with the same levers of power provided to England.  

The idea the United Kingdom represents equality between the four nations is a chimera. Power lies with Westminster and in Westminster Scotland’s representatives are outnumbered 10:1. There has never been a time Scotland has been able to influence decisions in Westminster. And there never will be a time Scotland will be able to influence decisions made in Westminster, nor will Northern Ireland and Wales ever be placed on an equal footing with England.  

United does not mean equal

Like empires throughout history which have risen and declined so has the British Empire. Empires establish themselves when in a position to wield power against weaker nations and can crumble when their dictum of might is right is questioned by the powerless within their dominions.  

When under threat empires tighten their grip on the reins of power through brutality, corruption and threat. Opposition is condemned as treachery – anti-patriotic. In the case of the United Kingdom, loyalty means Britishness and Britishness has always been largely based on Englishness.

Not only does Scotland have no power whatsoever at the heart of England’s rump empire, the United Kingdom, for most of the past 300 years of its existence Scotland has scarcely been considered. Similarly with Wales and Northern Ireland – their representation at Westminster is as tokenistic as Scotland’s. Influence they have none. The populations in the three peripheral areas of the England’s rump empire are demeaned, patronised and the butt of humour as demonstrated in national ‘pet-names’- the equivalent of the racist term ‘boy’ in farther-flung parts of the empire – Scots are Jocks; Irish are Paddies; Welsh are Taffies. Jocks, Paddies and Taffies are invariably depicted as lacking sophistication, feckless, mean, chippy, grievance monkeys – ungrateful for the protection the ‘broad shoulders’ of the empire/UK affords them.  Empires evolve cultural myths. Given the hierarchical nature of empires it is the interests and culture of the dominant state that come to embody them.  Cultural values of the peripheries are defined as archaic curiosities and sources of derision and humour which tend to be abandoned in favour of those of the dominant power.  

Faced with ingratitude/challenge from within the peripheral nations the dominant power tends to act more aggressively. Troops might be sent in/ stationed in the troublesome periphery. We see this across the world and within the Union the population of Scotland was threatened and subdued by General Wade’s army in the 18th century. Empires might impose control through more sophisticated means such as installing bureaucracies into peripheral areas for greater control in parts far away from the centre of power. A recent example of this type of imperious incursion is Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, embedding Westminster-rule into the heart of Scotland in defiance of devolution and meant as a visible reminder to Scotland of who really is in charge; and it is not the Scottish people or their own parliament. 

It is an observation often made that the farther away populations are from the centre of power the less the centre represents their interests. Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth House may be a recognition of this but given that Scotland has never figured in its consideration of what is best for the Union as opposed to what suits south-east England it is more likely this hub is the equivalent of General Wade’s force – intimidation and reminder that authority rests with London.

Where threats to empire exist but are less threatening to the dominant power degrees of autonomy are sometimes used to diminish calls for independence. This gives an impression of a benevolent centre of power willingly sharing responsibilities but powers transferred are an illusion for the centre of empire retains the ability to withdraw those same powers whenever it decides. Remember the Union like any empire is a hierarchy in which ultimate authority is retained by the dominant nation; democracy is limited to partial self-government in peripheral areas. Democracy under the Union favours England’s needs and ambitions above those of other parts of the UK through the makeup of the Houses of Parliament and chain of command of government based in London.    

India was the British Empire’s greatest source of wealth. Britain’s ransacking of it began when England set up the East India Company in 1599 and by the 1700s Britain was imposing taxes on India. By stealth greater and greater controls were imposed until eventually Britain ruled India directly, governing it with a rod of iron and keeping the ‘peace’ through a policy of divide-and-rule in which divisions between Hindus and Muslims were encouraged.  A period known as the British Raj, notorious for luxury and moral decay lasted from 1858 to 1947. This was rule from London to benefit London, the heart of empire. Rarely were native authorities and peoples consulted on any matter. When the British prime minister declared war against Germany in 1939, the announcement was made without consultation with Indian ministers although India was expected to provide millions of troops and provisions for the war effort. High-handed, disrespectful, racist and xenophobic – qualities demonstrated by the British Empire.

Sick of centuries of exploitation by the racist empire, Indians demanded self-determination instead of being administered by London. In London this was regarded as outrageous ingratitude. Lord Linlithgow, the Empire’s man-in-charge in India at the time, a staunch British unionist, threatened India by further inflaming the very internal divisions that London had so adeptly used in the past to keep India in its place. He and London were implicated in the deaths of millions from famine in Bengal in 1943 because of Britain’s policy of destroying food supplies and requisitioning of boats and other means of transport that prevented the movement of goods and food within India. Ruthless and heartless government by Westminster encouraged support for the Quit India movement that demanded an end to British rule. It’s spokesman Mahatma Gandhi said,   

“I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.”

The Empire struck back. Gandhi and fellow Indian Congress members were arrested and imprisoned. Press censorship intended to silence the independence movement and the Empire’s human rights abuses could not happen now with social media but then lies spread about India’s independence movement were fed to a lackey press.  

There are different forms of nationalism just as there are different forms of democracy in the world. Empires exist to benefit a tiny portion of their populations. When people grow sick of being oppressed for the benefit of the few at the heart of empire they try to change the political structure to better reflect their interests and needs. Empires by their nature are parasitic, sucking the life-blood out of the peripheral areas they govern. So nationalist movements emerge offering hope in the shape of government that will take more cognisance of the desires of the affected people. John Maclean the great socialist advocated Scottish nationalism as the path to socialism and a better world for Scots.  

As more Indians saw through the desperate dirty tricks employed by the British Empire so the clamour for independence grew – for India to govern itself in its own interests, not those of the Empire/UK. The Empire/UK struck out – 1,000 Indians were killed during protests and movement leaders imprisoned (Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, died in jail.)  The Empire/UK lost the people’s respect. Once that has gone it is a matter of time before any empire falls. For 300 years India had been subjugated by the British Empire/UK. Soon, Pakistan, too became independent.

The British Empire was once the alpha power and London the alpha capital. This is no longer the case. The Empire created through violence and threat declined because of its arrogance, corruption, xenophobia and disrespect for its peripheral areas. Yes, it was Scots who largely ran the British Empire. It has been said this was because Scots were better educated than in other parts of the UK. Perhaps there is truth in that. It may also have been because educated ambitious Scots had few career opportunities available to them within Scotland because of how Scotland’s infrastructure was run down so that the majority of high-powered jobs were created/preserved for the centre of UK power, London, and Etonian Oxbridge friends of friends in the capital. That Scots participated to a high degree in the British Empire is neither here nor there. Scotland as a nation was as much a victim of the imperial motivations of London as other peripheral parts of the Empire. And while other colonies have won their independence, Scotland remains trapped in a Union founded on inequality.

The British Empire’s decline left behind a debtor United Kingdom, pressurised by the USA because of world war debt to open up access to its international markets. The rump of Empire/UK that remains – the union of the UK – still exhibits the predatory characteristics shared by all empires. They are ingrained in it. The alpha power lashes out whenever its authority is challenged. Whereas India and other former Empire nations were subjected to brutal repression in response to their demands for independence Scotland it is supposed will be subjected to a thrashing by propagandists for the UK. Threats of disaster and failure; of ingratitude have been and will increasingly be made.

Empires resist their loss of power. The mythical hand of friendship extended from the centre of empire to the peripheries is always in the end a fist. Threats escalate as an empire defends its authority. The UK built on violence and threats will die issuing still more threats meant to undermine confidence in the subordinate nation’s future success.

But as India proved, lying and threats, corruption and moral decay, far from saving a venal order leads to its demise. Once people stop believing the indoctrination; once they see it for what it is propaganda concocted to preserve inequalities of the Union/empire they have won – by realising they are the means of changing the world.

Aug 20, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 22

During week 22 of Covid isolation not a lot happened – other than chaos erupting over exam grades across each of the four nations of the UK.

Ruth Davidson in place as the Scottish (sic) Tories interim leader because their last one, some car dealer bloke, was so peeing bad at the job even the Tories couldn’t stomach him. Talking of stomachs they seem to think Ms Davidson would be somewhat better. She sure can pull a sulky face better than the guy unceremoniously shoved aside in a move Stalin would have been proud to pull off. This week the queen of stunts regal procession shuddered to an inglorious halt when confronting the queen of put-downs. She was given her erse to play with, as we say in Scotland, following an attack on the Education Minister,

“They deserved new leadership in education and John Swinney cannot deliver it, why won’t the First Minister see that?” said Ms Davidson.

To which Nicola Sturgeon retorted, “I’m not sure loyalty to colleagues is a strong suit for Ruth Davidson.”

Davidson who has an unfortunate habit of opening and shutting her mouth throughout replies to her questions giving a misleading impression she is saying anything of consequence while impersonating a drowning fish continued to goad the FM who responded that on the day everyone’s thoughts were on a terrible and tragic train accident (everyone’s except the queen of stunts) she was on her own in pushing constitutional differences.

And Sturgeon continued,

“Just in a few months I will submit myself and my government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election. That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. And as we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords. Can I gently suggest to Ruth Davidson that if it comes to holding to account and scrutinising politicians, she’s really not coming at this from a position of strength. It is not me that is running away from democratic responsibility.”

As put-downs go it was brutal although oddly, that organ of honest journalism, the Daily Express interpreted the gutting and barbecuing of Davidson as her ridiculing the FM.

Badger battles continue with one stand of nuts and seeds having to be taken inside overnight because the badger makes off with the lot. One evening we put on the outside light at the back of the house and were able to watch a huge, and I mean huge, badger attempt to scale the heights of a wooden pole with its bounty of fat balls. The pole was too narrow for Brock and she/he returned to the stand that normally contains nuts and seeds, ignored the tray that sits below to catch seeds dropped by birds during the day and scuttled off to try out other feeding stations in the garden. The sheer bulk of the badger is what you get when you guzzle whole containers of peanuts. Mind you, watching the beastie search in vain for the peanuts tugged at our heart-strings and next evening when taking in the feeders we left some peanuts for her or him. And they were gone by morning. Nice compromise.

New kettle bought this week. We have an unfortunate history with kettles in this house. For some reason they break down far too frequently. A few years back we bought a whistling kettle for the top of the stove. It is a work of art but takes 6- 7 minutes to boil which is fine except when there are visitors and coffee and tea need topping up fast. Anyway, when our last electric kettle left this mortal coil – a pity as it was the exact colour of our painted cupboards – we reverted to smart stove kettle. There’s hardly been a soul crossing the threshold since March so what difference did it make? Not much. The whistle was rarely attached because if I thought the nagging sound of the tumble drier having completed its cycle was annoying (it is) it is nothing on the shrill whistle of a steaming kettle. So the whistle tends to get set aside. All well and good until forgetful me went off on my daily jaunt one day and straight into the garden for a spot of weeding and pruning, eventually wandering into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea to discover there was just enough water left in it to stop it melting all over the stove. Straight online and a spanking new electric kettle arrived within days. It isn’t as bonny as the whistling kettle but it’s a helluva lot quieter and does that remarkable thing of switching itself off – safer for forgetful dopes like moi. Oh, it takes 2 minutes to boil. Not that that’s here nor there but maybe one day.

House martins and swallows and swifts appeared in their vast numbers this week like flying dervishes across our evening skies. Usually they pop in and out whenever we walk past the side of the house where their nest is but over the last few days they’ve been visibly absent. What did those great numbers – between 30 and 50 I’d say but it’s impossible to count martins and their cousins while flying – signify? They couldn’t all be ours despite their semi-detached houses and obviously having had a very successful breeding season but then to be no sign of them at all. Had they flown south already? Didn’t seem likely but where had they gone? Nowhere it turns out. Unless some have flown off and left a late brood there are martins still in residence it transpires. And for all you folk stopping martins from sharing your home – there still is no mess after months living with us. And that is always our experience despite having neighbours insisting they make a real mess – neighbours who don’t have any birds. Isn’t it always the way with folk who are so certain in their opinions who have no experience of what they’re talking about?

A powerful thunder storm one morning resulted in a tragic rail accident that has shocked the majority of folk in the northeast. Also shocking has been the irresponsible and hugely offensive sensationalising of it and disgraceful treatment of affected families by The Sun newspaper. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to work for such a disreputable and offensive organ. But it takes all sorts and they must think it’s perfectly alright or else they would go off and take up alternative jobs.

Aberdeen experienced very dramatic flooding but oddly our son who stays in one of the worst affected areas was oblivious to the drama unfolding outside his window.

The young buzzard has been back out practising her/his call and showing off his/her flying abilities again. A small bird compared with fully grown buzzards and the voice hasn’t yet broken. Unless it’s a soprano.

Another week another virtual quiz controversy. Which pasta means little worms? Well, of course, it’s vermicelli and I had that smug feeling of being assured of one point, at last. Then our beautiful quizzer announced the answer to be linguine. Linguine? What alternative universe do our young people inhabit? Always best to create a fuss in such circumstances and vermicelli was accepted as correct. Didn’t make any difference to the final score. I still lost. Oh, and how many times must I be asked the collective noun for giraffes before remembering it is a tower? Quite a number, I suspect.

My snail banishment scheme appears to be paying off. Numbers definitely down in the garden but too late for the variegated hosta at the front. A poor specimen now riddled with holes and only the energy to send up one pathetic flower head. The angel’s fishing rods in a pot are looking splendid. Love the way they grow into the shape of a 1970s fiber optic lamp. The little pot acer is also looking healthy. The label says it grows about 8 feet by 13 feet. And that, folks, is why we are growing it in a pot.

For years we filled our medium-sized garden with BIG dramatic-looking plants. Off to the plant nursery. Oh look, a big and dramatic looking plant. And so it (they) would come home with us and now we live inside a forest. I once counted our trees and the total came to a staggering forty plus and that excludes tall rhododendrons, azaleas and other large shrubs. This year the gunnera has decided to take off like a rocket. That’ll be down to the mild winters we’ve been having. On the veg front gherkins have been brilliant. Eating them fresh and not pickling so struggling to keep up with their output. They tend to weigh down the fragile plants if not picked early hence supporting them against the greenhouse where we can. Remember the snails ate most of our runner bean flowers? Well today I’m harvesting the single bean from one of the plants! To be shared between two. There are a few more plants but I’m not raising my hopes too high – as this year’s school pupils have been saying. Our fig was really hacked back a few months ago so removing most of the summer crop. Today I picked a little ripe one that escaped the purge. A few more have outwitted the secateurs and wood saw and there’s time for them to ripen.

Finished watching Ozark on Netflix. Brats will be brats. Criminals will be criminals and lawyers will get their just deserts. Or do they? I’d have written it differently.

What to watch now? We checked newspaper and website suggestions. A German Netflix series Dark was thrown up. It requires total concentration. No time to check out twitter with having to read super-quick subtitles and try to keep up with generations of characters. Science fiction is not really my thing and the first episode bored me. By the end of episode two I thought I’d stay with it for one more. By episode 4 I was hooked.

What’s the first thing you do when returning to your house after dark? You open the door and switch on a light. It’s not difficult. So why oh why do authors and film directors present us with that trope of about-to-be victim walking into her house and wandering through it in the dark? Not since the 1930s, folks. Not since the 1930s. Or earlier has it been a thing to enter your house in the dark. The same applies to scary forests. If you lived in a village with a reputation for young residents going missing in the local forest the last thing you’d think of doing is walking in the said forest – alone – in the dark. It’s a relatively simple to equate being alone in a spooky dark forest where folk disappear with it being perilous. But wait! Not only walking the forest, alone, in the dark but entering the caves in the forest.  Oh no! Not the caves! You’d think it but there they go time and time again. Winden ought to have a signpost signalling WINDEN – SLOW – LEARNERS.

Didn’t have a novel I could decide on for bedtime reading so pored over a couple of thin volumes of poetry by Apollinaire and Hans Enzenberger. I don’t know. Some of the arrangements of words by Apollinaire were novel but my sensitivity to some poetry has been irreversibly damaged by reading too many crime novels. Got a flea in my ear from husband for my flippancy over Enzenberger especially – and to be honest I didn’t give his poetry more than a passing glance so I looked him up and he’s still alive – in his nineties. And he comes from my favourite part of Germany, Bavaria, and was born in little town also the birthplace of Hans Liebherr. Hans was a mason who invented the mobile tower crane. That’s impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they can be seen tootling about the country all the time. But even more exciting for me is that Liebherr make fridges and we have one – it’s huge and fabulous.

A verse from Enzenberger’s poem, Portrait of a House Detective

He’s twenty-nine,
Idealistic,
Sleeps badly and alone
with pamphlets and blackheads,
hates the boss and the supermarket,
communists, women,
landlords, himself
and his bitten fingernails
full of margarine (because
it’s so delicious), under
his arty hairstyle mutters
to himself like a pensioner.

Decided to try an e-book from the local library via the internet. Didn’t like the library’s website which tends to throw up a lot of rubbish and abandoned the first one I borrowed but this one which I won’t name because although I began liking it, have gone off it. It’s a first novel and a bit over-written, too lush with the adjectives. Ordered something recommended to me on how we think from Amazon, It’s an actual book. Hopefully that’ll be more engaging.

Stay safe.

Aug 15, 2020

VJ Day: who arms the enemy? War as an opportunity

15 August is VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) – marking the day in 1945 when Japan surrendered.

Japan, as you will know, was one of the Axis powers, and enemy of the UK and its allies during World War II. Defeat for Japan came hard on the heels of the US dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki causing around 200,000 civilian deaths. The more conventional weapons Japan was stockpiling from 1931 could offer no response to this new and devastating type of warfare.

In the build-up to World War II Japan’s rapid arms, naval and biological chemical expansion could not have taken place without input from abroad because Japan itself lacked many of the basic natural resources required to develop its own chemical manufacturing processes and the highly skilled engineering expertise needed to develop its arms, maritime and aviation production. Expertise in those fields lay in the west.

Witnessing Japan pouring vast fortunes into arming itself so soon after the end of the Great War – the war politicians promised would end all wars – alarmed many western powers. But it was not all bad news. It was very good news for private arms manufacturers, chemical producers and shipbuilders, in the UK. Their agents were quick to sign off deals ahead of their rivals. Deals at any price. Bribes as down-payments would oil the works – grease the palms.

Arms dealers have earned their notoriety as unscrupulous and voracious through their ruthlessness in sealing deals. If it’s called corruption then so be it. The British guns manufacturer Vickers – Armstrong was represented for thirty years by the most famous, infamous, of these agents, Basil Zaharoff, aka the Merchant of Death, Vickers Controller of Overseas Sales. Zaharoff cultivated and associated people who could do him favours, such as the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

This Merchant of Death suffered no guilt over supplying both sides in a conflict with arms. He was up to his corrupt neck in the Siemens Scandal of January 1914 which involved a number of arms dealers, including Vickers and the German arms company Siemens AG with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Vickers offered the Japanese navy a better deal than available from the German company to expand their naval programme of battleships.

It was just one more tremendous deal for Britain and British workers arranged by Zaharoff in his campaign to arm the world with the best weaponry available complete with a made in Britain stamp on them (metaphorically speaking – sometimes.) For his services to British industry even when it included arming ‘the enemy’ Zaharoff was awarded the British Order of the Bath and the Order of the British Empire.

The way western companies diced and dealt arms contracts across the globe has been a masterclass in ruthless cartel-building. Yes, there were voices speaking out against such despicable shady trade deals in Britain, the US and Germany but the interests of the profiteers whose contacts in governments did them no harm at all meant opposition was simply ignored.

Zaharoff might have been the most audacious of them all but he was not alone in his ruthless quest for making a private fortune out of death.

On February 25, 1937 Buckingham Palace released an announcement –

The KING has been pleased, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm, bearing date the 24th instant, to confer the dignity of a Baron of the United kingdom upon Sir Harry Duncan McGowan, K.B.E., and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of BARON McGOWAN, of Ardeer, in the County of Ayr.

McGowan was an arms dealer. Henry or Harry McGowan was a Scot, educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow he joined the Nobel Explosives company in Scotland before becoming chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) which was created out of Nobel Industries in 1926.

McGowan was ambitious and as free from guilt over his activities as Zaharoff. I wrote about McGowan in a blog a couple of weeks ago. Here is an extract.

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.

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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.

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.”

**

The 1930s might have been the hungry thirties for large swathes of people in Britain but this was also a period of an explosion in the weaponization of the world with McGowan and his fellow-cartel war-mongers cashing in on the drive towards the next world war. Germany’s chemical industry employed with such devastating effect in extermination camps in WWII was enhanced through help provided by ICI.

The Royal Commission mentioned above to enquire into the activities of private arms and chemical businesses providing materials and expertise to anyone and everyone with the means to pay them was set up despite the government that resisted it, ignored it and buried its results. People like McGowan are virtually untouchable, so tightly are they enmeshed in the British establishment. Not only the British establishment, it should be said.

As chairman of ICI McGowan set out to have the company monopolise chemical manufacture in Britain and to rationalise chemical manufacture across the world. He was instrumental in Britain becoming a major player in the international arms market and international arms production. The cartel of ICI, Germany’s IG Farben and Du Pont in the United States was a powerful alliance of restrictive interests and insatiable greed.

“We now have arrangements for practically all the remainder of the World America and Mexico have been fixed up, South America is common territory, and mutually satisfactory arrangements have been made for China and Japan.”

As we’ve seen above, Japan was in the early years of the 20th century aggressively pursuing a policy of rapid weapons expansion including biological warfare used in its war with China in the 1930s. Japan could not have manufactured its chemical weapons were it not for the cartel of British, German and American companies cooperating to provide the raw materials necessary. To wheedle its way into the lucrative Asian market ICI reduced its prices for its chemicals, a move well-received by Japanese biochemical industries as it meant it could obtain essential raw materials for very little cash.

Shipbuilding expertise in Britain was also sought by the likes of Japan for its battleships. While arms manufacturers often describe their output in terms of defence we know that the uses their products are put to play no part in determining a contract. They are merchants of death. Their motivation is profit. That their products result in terror, injury and death is an irrelevance to them.

The chemical firm that manufactured mustard gas – that denied it had while continuing to produce it – has no conscience. The chemical firm prepared to supply materials for the production of biological warfare to anyone willing to pay – has no conscience.

ICI’s chairman, McGowan, admitted supplying chemicals to both Japan and China at war with each other. ICI and Vickers were condemned for supplying both sides in the war between Paraguay and Bolivia. Wars for merchants s are money-making opportunities. And they provide jobs for British workers. Even though those same workers might find themselves on the wrong end of their own weapons in a war. Nothing personal, y’understand.

For his sterling services to British industry and exports (not forgetting exports to Japan) Henry McGowan, Harry, was ennobled by the British state to become 1st Baron McGowan.

That’s how the UK system works. At the end of the day there’s the House of Lords where retired merchants of death can retreat into – to live at public expense and continue to influence British ‘democracy.’

The Rise of the Chemical Industries in Japan by Harald von Waldheim, Far Eastern Survey Vol 5. No 19 Sept 9 1936. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3022774

British Armaments and European Industrialization, 1890-1914, Clive Trebilcock,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2594252

British Rearmament and the “Merchants of Death”: 1935-36 Royal Commission on the Manufacture of and Trade in Armaments, David G. Anderson, https://www.jstor.org/stable/260954

Aug 12, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 21

One of the things I’ve missed since the appearance of Covid 19 has been our weekly visit to Newton Dee for food shopping and visits to their café for a slice of some of the tastiest organic cakes and scones in the northeast. Newton Dee is an attractive community (part of the Camphill group) that supports adults with special needs where staff from across the world, permanent and temporary volunteer, live with residents and operate craft workshops for skills such as wooden toy making. There’s a farm at Newton Dee and an excellent bakery producing a variety of excellent bread. Their polenta cake is a particular favourite of mine. Given the vulnerability of its residents Newton Dee decided to shut off public access to its store, café and bakery which meant so much of the lovely produce we took for granted before March we now have to obtain online sans Newton Dee’s bakery products, eggs, fruit and veg. What’s missing is contact with the residents we’ve come to know over decades and wish them all well during this exceptionally difficult time.

It’s easy to understand the caution shown to their residents by Newton Dee perhaps best illustrated by Aberdeen’s return to lockdown following a number of the city’s bars failing to adhere to government regulations regarding social distancing. There are always selfish or thoughtless people with no consideration for anyone but themselves – folk desperate to get back into bars and footballers fall into one or other or both of those categories. As someone said to me, footballers aren’t famous for their intelligence. Now a whole city has to pay for the selfishness of pub-goers. With numbers of cases of Covid on the rise it is a difficult time for Aberdonians and those of us in the shire whose lives are inextricably linked with the city; through family, work, leisure etc, now greatly disrupted again. And all for a pint or several.

honey rasps and peanut bisc

Bought some peanut biscuits through our regular online order from a large supermarket. They were horrible. All gloss and no taste so I found a recipe and made some. No flour only straight peanut butter. As I was using smooth I roasted peanuts, broke them up a bit and added them along with an egg and a tiny bit salt. That was it. They weren’t as crisp as they might have been. I could have popped them back into the oven but they were being eaten too quickly and they tasted much nicer than those glossy and tasteless horrors. In the interests of fairness I have tasted excellent peanut biscuits from a different supermarket but they don’t appear to sell them here anymore.

One of the highlights of the daily walk has been tasting some of the yellow rasps growing along the roadsides and farm tracks. They’re small and have a different flavour from their red cousins. We call them honey rasps.

Last Thursday we decided to ring the changes with a trip to the Suie. The Suie is high ground (416 metres/ 1365 ft) between Alford and Clatt with spectacular views. We walked a short way through the pine wood and out onto the heather muir where the Gordon Way starts (or finishes depending on the direction taken.) It was a very warm day and the stiff breeze wafted unusually warm air which intensified the smell of pine.

Through a break in the trees we glimpsed the distinctive shape of Tap o’ Noth (yes, Noth not North.) Tap o’ Noth is a flat-top mountain near Rhynie – an ancient vitrified hill fort dating back to Pictish times. Further on the view opens out to take in the rural landscape around Huntly. On the muir ling and bell heathers were blooming in great profusion as well as a bumper harvest of cranberries and blueberries; ripe and glossy under the sun. And through the wood lots of fungi, always a magical sight for their sheer variety and strangely magical connotations. Marked march (boundary) stones which delineate the parishes of Leslie, Tullynessle and Forbes are scattered about the area.

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Having had a couple of weeks hiatus with the weekly virtual family quiz we were back in harness on Friday. A thunder storm was forecast and at eight o’ clock just as we were connecting up daylight turned into night outside our window and we feared the worst but aside from a single brief very heavy shower of rain it was quickly back to blue skies so we got through the quiz with nothing more dramatic happening than a query over the answer to the question – what are ladies’ fingers? Everyone knows it’s okra. Well, three of us knew. The answer expected was bananas. Bananas! I don’t think so! Apparently, there is a cultivar of banana called The Lady Finger which is nothing like ladies’ fingers. Got to keep on your toes with quizzes.

Our larger-than-life owl is still doing her/his thing keeping death at bay on the balcony among our wee kamikaze birdies who are contenting themselves with drinking plenty during this hot spell from the various water stations we have around the garden and eating a small fortune of seed and nuts. What sounds like a young buzzard has been making a right racket recently. The cry of the buzzard is my ultimate favourite bird call which I associate with being outdoors in fine, bright weather observing this majestic bird wheel overhead. The young buzzard’s more urgent, high-pitched scream is less pleasant. Saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows yesterday – the crows will be protecting young – so it might have been an alarm call. Or it might just have been a contralto buzzard. Our house martins are multiplying. Lots of them out flying in the evenings with considerable activity also during the day. It’s been a good summer for house martins in our part of Aberdeenshire. Lovely little birds.

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Missing out on home-grown tomatoes? The next best thing I’ve discovered is to store shop bought ones on a south-facing windowsill. It makes them warm and sweet. Gherkins get warm and not particularly sweet all on their own in the greenhouse. We’ve had quite a lot so far and promised some to our son in Aberdeen. That was the day before Aberdeen was locked down. Did contemplate going to the shire/city boundary near Westhill and throwing a few to him.

Courgettes have been alright but there’s something in the garden that likes them. Bite marks look too big for snails and slugs. I’m wondering mice. Do mice like courgettes?  The runner beans that got off to such a good start have succumbed to squadrons of large snails that plague us. Eaten most of the flower they have. Every morning after I’ve cleaned down the front door I check a hosta growing in a tub nearby at the front. Except for two consecutive days recently I’ve found one or several snails in the tub. I pick them out and throw most of them over the road, to a bank above a burn I might add, not a neighbour’s garden. Funny thing is the hostas we have in other parts of the garden are seldom attacked and I wonder if this particular one is attracting snails building up their shells on the lime mortar around the house. I find loads of them clinging to our house walls and dispose of them in that half-hearted way that avoids death. Do the same ones return? I don’t know. Often thought of marking their shells with tippex to see if they are returnees or different snails. Shock horror! I’ve just discovered one slithering up the wall in our upstairs sittingroom. How it got here is one helluva mystery. However that happened the little blighter has ruined what was a perfectly painted wall. What did I do with it? Should have chucked it off the balcony but took it downstairs and freed it in the back garden.

Finished series 2 of Ozark. For those of you not familiar with it the story-line goes something like this – F**k you. F**k you. F**k you. He’s dead! You killed him. F**k you. F**k you. You bitch. F**k you. I’m their lawyer. F**k you.

Reading an e-book, a novel called The Dentist. Apparently it’s part of a series of police procedural stories. I’m not really into reading full books on my tablet and I don’t find it as relaxing as a proper paper book but times must. The novel reminds me of the style of detective novels created by Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s in their Martin Beck books. And that’s a compliment.

Stay safe

Aug 10, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2

Guest blog by Textor

PART 2

The way in which the financial side of the 1832 cholera pandemic crisis was handled in Aberdeen reflects something of the social and economic climate of the period. Central government established rules and guidelines to manage threats to civic and commercial life while at local government level it was left to commercial and professional classes, ratepayers of some standing, to decide how the financial demands of cholera should by managed.

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In Aberdeen it was proposed that £4,500 would be necessary for the Board of Health to operate effectively. The question then was, how the money should be raised. Eventually it was decided against a specific compulsory local tax in favour of voluntary charitable contributions from better-off ratepayers. To this end local men-of-standing were identified and canvassed and £2,172 was raised. By the time the city came out of the crisis in May 1833 the Board of Health had £735 of this amount unspent. 

Monies were also raised in the County of Aberdeen, a portion of which was used to identify and forestall the entry of vagrants. This made some medical sense for many though not all physicians believed cholera to be contagious. Ratepayers in the County set aside £200 for constables to guard strategic points (such as the Bridge of Don) – protecting the shire from unwanted visitors. Somewhat akin to present-day migrant watches by July 1832 it was claimed 1,000 vagrants had been turned back from attempting to get into the County.
Cholera brought with it fear to communities. An incident at Skene Lane a fortnight before Aberdeen’s first case was identified demonstrates this.  Citizens on the lookout for carriers of the disease discovered a man collapsed on the roadway. He was seized, bound hand-and-foot and carried away to the infirmary at Woolmanhill where the hapless individual was diagnosed as drunk. The infirmary did not want him so the police were called and he was wheeled off in the Police Barrow: The mob cheered, the straps were firmly fixed, the cholera subject writhed and cursed, and the policeman went on with his barrow.

Not every incident connected with “mob” action had such a light-hearted (though not for the victim) tinge. Prejudice mixed with perfectly rational fears could excite communities sufficiently to result in threats of violence against those attempting to impose quarantine and other regulations. An incident at Wick found a Dr Alinson under attack and forced to seek refuge when fishermen threatened him at the quarantine hospital. He was rumoured to have been involved in scandals involving acquiring corpses for medical study and of killing patients in Edinburgh to supply the College of Surgeons with bodies for dissection. In Wick it was feared patients in the quarantine hospital faced the same outcome. Before dismissing this as irrational and blind prejudice it should be remembered that the 1832 Anatomy Act created the opportunity for surgeons to claim bodies of the poor for dissection. And who were the ones almost certain to die in quarantine? The poor. Not for them the prospect of a noble memorial stone cut in granite but the unceremonial disposal of their dismembered parts.

Before the Anatomy Act was passed, the poor or “lower classes” (as defined by the local paper) in Aberdeen hit out against the cavalier and at times illegal behaviour of the medical profession. In December 1831 the Anatomy Theatre in St Andrew’s Street was the scene of a riot when skulls, bones, and entrails were discovered on open ground. The building was attacked, wrecked and set alight while the anatomist was forced to run for his life. Nobody died. We cannot know whether the febrile atmosphere of a country threatened by the cholera epidemic helped provide an explosive edge to the “mob” but given that this was also the period of agitation for political reform and democratising of the parliamentary system the city’s streets where popular action occurred must surely have had a buzz about them we can only imagine.

Cholera visited Aberdeen very late in the day and never assumed the large epidemic proportions of elsewhere in the UK. Glasgow, for example, had thousands of deaths. Why Aberdeen had such a low number of cases is unclear. Within ten days of the first diagnosed case (27 August) at Cotton and Old Aberdeen there were a further nineteen cholera patients recorded on the register. The death rate among those affected was high – eight succumbed putting the death-rate at 40%. The spread of the disease was slow. By mid-September thirty-three cases were listed with fourteen recorded deaths. The gradual increase in numbers led Aberdeen’s physicians to conclude that while very dangerous cholera was not highly contagious, unlike scarlet fever. The editor of the Aberdeen Journal musing on the reason for so few cases in the town concluded that amongst other things it was probably the gracious interference of superior power-an interference which we shall ill-deserve, did we not gratefully endeavour to testify, as we best may, our humble acknowledgements.

With the spread of disease it became apparent it was the poor who suffered most. The first case occurred at a centre for textile production, at Cotton, and where textile and other workers lived. In late September cases emerged in the city, again among the poor, in the east end, where people lived cheek by jowl in crowded and at times insanitary conditions. By the end of the following month a total of ninety-two had contracted cholera with thirty-three cases fatal. In one particular week twenty-three fresh cases were diagnosed, mostly in the area of Park Street and Justice Street.

Through November reported cases fell away before more incidents emerged in Windy Wynd and the Vennel; areas that housed the poor. A description of the Vennel comes from the poet William Scott:

Vagrant Lodgers-

                                                 Wi tinklers, knaves, pig wives, and cadgers,

                                                The coarsest kind o’ Chelsea sodgers,

                                                          Like beggars dress’d,

                                                In holes and dens, like toads an badgers,

                                                          Here make their nest.

High occupancy where cleanliness was difficult to ensure increased the danger of contracting disease. The most shocking outbreak occurred in the fishing community at Fittie (Footdee)  where in November “with some virulence” fifty-six cases of cholera appeared out of a local population of about 480. It was calculated that the occupancy of each house was four persons per room. The Board of Health was particularly scathing at the state of drainage at Fittie. Aberdeen Town Council was the landlord.

By the end of the epidemic Aberdeen had 260 diagnosed cases. Mortality was high, 105 persons died which, however, was small compared with Glasgow where over 3,000 died between February and November 1832. In our current Covid-19 pandemic habits have changed. The emphasis on hand washing has been particularly important, even men, it is claimed, have taken to washing after going for a pee. Back in 1832 the Board of Health patronisingly commented that even the lower classes [resorted to] unwonted cleanliness in response to its injunctions. In 1833 the city’s charitable Dispensary reported on the impact of cholera highlighting a subsequent slackening in demand for their assistance from the poor. This they put down to three factors: cleaner housing; more fever wards at the infirmary; and “full employment” of the labouring classes, enabling them to have a marginally better standard of living, better diet, clothing and furnishing.

However, this apparent improvement in personal cleanliness among the poor was unsurprisingly not matched by significant improvements in the housing available to them. When doctors Kilgour and Galen reported on the sanitary state of Aberdeen, they described ill-ventilated properties with gutters running with all sorts of filth. People without privies (dry earth or bucket non-flush lavatories) and sewers had no option but to dump human waste. Dunghills built-up at doorways. The Gallowgate, with about 170 houses, had ten privies used by about 500-600 persons. Bad as this was at nearby North Street there was not a single privy. As for the availability of fresh water it was estimated that just under 6,000 persons lived in homes with their own water supply in a population of around 58,000 in Aberdeen at the time. All others relied on public wells distributed across the city. Attempts at cleanliness by poor tenants was further frustrated by the very high occupancy rates in accommodation. A Dr Keith reported crowding was fearful. His colleague Dr Dyce’s opinion was that with the first case of fever in a poor family came the likelihood it seldom ceases until all its members have been attacked.

As much as some local ministers considered epidemics to be a kind of divine retribution Boards of Health concentrated on the disease being a sign of an active and toxic agent which might be stopped or mitigated against by social measures such as quarantine, whitewashing walls and improvements in hygiene. The role of Christian God in sending cholera their way to chastise sinners might have occupied their private thoughts but their main preoccupation was with providing some form of active intervention.

Cholera, like Covid-19, is a product of Nature. Both are organisms capable of living in and harming the human frame. To this extent at least epidemics are “natural disasters.” But just as these harmful organisms can evolve so, too, can the human-social context within which they might find a home.

Both in 1832 and 2020 the economically vulnerable in society have suffered high infection rates. In both pandemics greater precautions could have been set in place prior to the outbreaks; there were no providential reasons why conditions could not have been other than they were. The NHS should have been better prepared for a pandemic as epidemiologists have been predicting one for decades.

Despite what Bob Dylan might say about the loss of lives on the Titanic there is understanding of pandemics, whether the one in 1832 or 2020. Grounded in the appearance of a harmful organism does not mean they are Acts of Nature. The way in which these organisms hit populations is dependent upon the state of scientific knowledge and divisions of wealth and power across society. The poor of Aberdeen occupied insanitary housing because of such divisions not because a God so decided. Equally the way in which the NHS found itself ill-prepared for pandemic despite decades of warnings speaks of economic and ideological priorities rather than an act of nature. Dylan’s song Tempest is wrong. We can understand and we can change things.