Archive for ‘Scotland’

May 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary Week 9

And here we are again. Week 9. Doesn’t seem too unlike week 8 although each week does have subtle and sometimes not so subtle variations mixed in. It struck me I don’t really say much or, indeed anything, about what I actually do through a week – and that’s not about to change. I’m not one of those let it all hang out types but here’s what I am prepared to tell you.

It won’t surprise you to know I’m still mouthing off at the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic. Machiavelli will be spinning in his grave at the sheer audacity of the lies being dished up daily by government which we are expected to take at face value. My main source of information about coronavirus is the Financial Times which has been unerringly informed and informative on the virus.

No 10 has been spinning like the proverbial top. Matt Hancock is as useless as he looks. No you haven’t ever reached 100,000 tests on any single day – my ref is the FT. And Boris Johnson is now in full Trumpian flow promising even more. It is quite, quite extraordinary that anyone retains any regard for Johnson. He is evidently a lazy, rather stupid man who hides behind other people – occasionally popping up for a photo opportunity such as hypocritically clapping NHS staff and carers and making ridiculous inflated promises.

starlings at nest

Another family birthday this week. Mainly virtual but virtual can be good fun. We’re fairly getting into this singing online lark. Presents were actual and delivered as promised by the Aberdeen shop entrusted to do so.

The starlings are still living dangerously, nesting under the eye of jackdaws and rumours of them having given up on the hole in the ash tree have been greatly exaggerated as they are indeed installed there. With the beech next door to them coming into leaf it will become more difficult to see what they’re up to very soon.

House martins' nest with remains of last years additional nest

The house martins have also being playing games with nest building. Came and seemed to go after a day or two. Then they came back again. We saw them mostly in the evenings for a start and surely they must have been constructing their classy nest under cover of darkness because suddenly it was up. Lots of activity now with them flying back and fore so suspect there are eggs there already or wee ones hatched out. I know why they build under eaves etc – as protection from rain. That probably sounds obvious but it’s a bit strange to build in the open given their nests are made out of regurgitated mud. Last year we had a lot of rain in late summer and the nest collapsed with young dropping to the ground. We tried to save them but couldn’t. The martins then quickly built a second nest, alongside with a late brood being produced. One little one was slow in flying and while the others were champing at the bit to fly away south it couldn’t leave the nest. Fairly sure it did eventually get away but it was late.

carob in greenhouse

Young plants doing well in the greenhouse and the plug gherkins arrived looking in great shape. Those runner beans are now going at a jog. This week we launched our inter-generational radish growing competition. Doesn’t have many rules so far, not even an end date which we’ll have to fix although there seems plenty time since there’s three days after sowing my five seeds there’s no sign of germination. Meant to mention in earlier blogs that our carob tree is looking tip top. It’s kept in the greenhouse, grown from a seed for a bonsai carob, bought by a friend in Aberdeen at least 15 years ago. The carob is also known as the locust tree or St John’s bread and in its natural Mediterranean habitat produces large edible seed pods. Among its uses is as a chocolate substitute. They can grow to up to 50 feet but doubt our little bonsai in a greenhouse in Aberdeenshire will get anywhere near that – or else we’re moving. And I doubt there will ever be a Lenathehyena chocolate. Which is a pity.

Lots of wandering around the garden, in between weeding. Still very dry. The burn is getting lower and lower. Our water supply is, to some extent, reflected by the amount of water flowing downhill. Will be one to watch.

Many of the rhododendrons are passed but several still to come. We have lots of rhododendrons as this is a great area for growing these acid-loving plants. Some are real beauts.

rhodie pic for blog

My marsh marigolds have come on a treat. Can’t tell you how I got them but they’ve taken to their habitat in the old sink. I’ve got a soft spot for marsh marigolds since I was a child in the Black Isle and they grew along the burn at Rosemarkie. Here we’ve grown different varieties on the burn bank but one by one they’ve been washed away downstream during spates.

Got another delivery of all sorts of goodies from a wholefood company in England. Our spare bedroom aka pantry aka food quarantine area smells like an eastern bazaar. We’ve almost finished eating the madjool dates we bought from them last time. There is nothing that can compare with a medjool date from Palestine. Big, fat, soft and bursting with flavour.

Our two hours evening screen watch has moved into suck it and see mode since we finished Breaking Bad. What’s that Walt White like!! We’ve finished Outlander. Good last episode after one or two weak ones. Had to give up on the latest Bosch as it’s far too ‘bitty’ and the fast, clipped accents of some actors are too difficult to make out.

Bedtime reading has moved from fiction to the tragic events of the Bavarian uprising in 1919. Dreamers by Volker Weidermann gives an account of the chaotic attempt to establish a worker’s state in Bavaria on the back of the Great War and its horrific impact on the lives of ordinary people. Dreamers because behind the movement and influential in it were writers and poets whose hearts were in the right place but they lacked the ruthless selfish drive of politicians for their movement to succeed. They had some ideas but no roadmap, as today’s parlance goes. Contrary to the impression always presented in the press and by politicians of most stripes it is the right who tend to be most violent and this was true in Bavaria in 1919 when the extreme right started to shoot anyone suspected of siding with the revolution. The intellectuals and workers who supported a people’s revolution and survived the bullets during the rightwing crackdown were hauled off to concentration camps when the right achieved what the left couldn’t in Bavaria following Hitler’s rise to power. He has a bit part in Dreamers though always denying he was anywhere near there. Wouldn’t recognise truth if it slapped him on the face. A true politician. They’re the real storytellers.

Stay safe.

May 13, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 8

Hello again. Week 8 has come and gone and we are as is. Short of a vaccination for Covid-19 being found that is as good as it gets.

Death statistics are still pouring out of the mouths of politicians. All very sad. So they say. Do we believe them? Not when “…and sadly blah blah hundred died…” becomes a meaningless mantra. If only there had been warnings – examples of the spread through other countries to allow our governments to be proactive and not reactive and so alleviate the necessity of the daily mantra becoming a monthly mantra soon to be a seasonal mantra. What if they had been forewarned. Oh wait, they were. They waited – and – waited – and – waited – did they arrange orders for PPE? Did they pick. And so it is necessary to recite the mantra –“sadly” “sadly” “sadly.”

Heard today that the daily test number proudly announced by Hancock or someone like Hancock but probably not Johnson because he’s a work shirker was claimed to be on 10 May 70,000 when the actual figure was around 30,000. “Sadly.” Fewer than half the entirely fictional figure issued and regurgitated by UK journalists. “Sadly.”  Not only are politicians getting younger – they’re getting more duplicitous. Possibly. And very bad at arithmetic.

Daily deep clean of parts of the house continues to the extent it smells permanently of a gigolo’s oxter. “Sadly.”

The young seedlings in the greenhouse are looking pretty good. Apart from the courgettes which are very slow to germinate. “Sadly.” The compost discs eventually reconstituted themselves back into something resembling actual compost but now I’m wondering if that’s what the courgette seeds went into. Peas are doing great. Don’t think I mentioned peas before. They’re outside most of the time, which is more than can be said for the rest of us, despite the weather changing from summer back to winter (that relates to the peas, not people.)  I won’t add a “sadly” there because I don’t mind changeable weather.

In the garden tree seedling show their usual determination and grit and succeed in germinating everywhere. If we didn’t howk them out this place would become a forest in a matter of 6 months. Ash is the worst culprit but all sorts find their way in via air currents and birds’ backsides. “Sadly.”

Beech seedlings are popping up wherever I turn. They are very distinctive and beautiful – almost frilly cotyledons. See photo – if I remember to post it. But a blooming great beech tree or several is not a good idea in a relatively small garden. “Sadly.”

No food deliveries this week but there’s one due this next weekend. Been trying to order from another supermarket and after hours and hours  and days and days of clicking on ‘book a slot’ we got one – for the very end of the month. That’s June, all but. Good grief.

About the most memorable sight on my walks has been the reappearance of a local farmer who has been away recuperating from a heart attack. He looked as pleased as punch. And quite right too. Wild flowers keep on blooming in big numbers which is delightful always. Tree blossom, too, which is a joy and last time I meant to mention the bird’s eye cherry blossom which is now nearly past – “sadly.” I’m not so fond of it as our wild genes which look spectacular against blue skies but close up the bird’s eye is bonnie enough.

Our house martins seem to have deserted the nest they began. “Sadly.” I spotted three the other day – two flew round and around a deserted hut and eventually flew in through the open doorway. Then three flew out! One flew off while two (presumably the pair) flew back in. Perhaps they are ours who’ve chosen to go elsewhere. Looks like one martin has not got a mate. “Sadly.”

Our woodpeckers are ravenous, as usual. Eating peanuts and pecking at the occasional fat ball as though there was no tomorrow. The starlings, like the martins, are still not committing to their nest. In their case that’s good because the jackdaws will have the young. “Sadly.” The pheasants that visit everyday are great at picking away at seed thrown out of feeders and the bird table by smaller birds but I wish the cock pheasant had a more pleasant voice. And it amuses me when all those poetic types who talk so fondly of the dawn chorus and how lovely it is – never mention that after the blackbird strikes the first chord the coarse rasp of a cock pheasant comes next. “Sadly.”

Also sad was the poor bloodied body of a large toad on the road. The road beside us is crossed by hundreds of toads (used to be, fewer now) every season to lay their eggs and then they return across the same road. Every year they are killed under the wheels of motor vehicles. With this year’s lockdown the road has been much quieter – hurrah – and hopefully, fewer wee toads will have made the dangerous crossing unharmed. But not that poor wee soul we found – “sadly.”

Finished MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. A good read. Impressive at times but it descended into melodrama towards the end. Tragedy for all concerned. “Sadly.”

Still no time to update you on our friends back from New Zealand. Maybe next time. Hopefully.

Stay safe.

May 7, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 7

Week 7 has flown past. We’ve had jubilation from Matt Hancock, Westminster’s Health Minister, that 100,000 tests daily for Covid-19 have not only been achieved but surpassed by over 20,000 – never mind the detail that his numbers included test kits posted out, many without return labels making them meaningless, and examples of test centres with no test facilities. No doubt the posted out tests will be counted again when they come back in to be read. But why carp on detail when the press will present Mr Hancock of master of all he surveys. And it has been quietly forgotten that the number originally promised by Boris Johnson was 250,000 daily tests. Also being quietly parked is news that test numbers have fallen dramatically since the humungous effort to save face on one day at the end of April. Circuses.

Brexit shambles/ferry contracts to company with no ships/ easiest thing in the world to make commercial deals. Circus clowns.

Never mind the PM is back at work – as much as he ever is. Has anyone seen him – apart from that photograph of him strolling through a park with a cup of bought coffee in his chubby mit? Crisis? What crisis?

On the home front there is much germination happening in the greenhouse: chard, lettuce, radish, dill, nasturtiums, courgettes, basil, Scotch marigolds, runner and broad beans, tatties are sprouted. Did get a very few bags of compost but found little discs of peat? which was a thing many years ago but we didn’t use because they didn’t seem very good. Anyway, they’ve been brought back into service so we’ll see how that goes.

We’re a bit behind this year because we never intended growing any veg or extra herbs but with the weather being so warm and sunny plants will surely catch up. The begonia plugs have been potted up and are looking good.

We had two food deliveries this week. One muckle one on the Saturday and a smallish one on the Sunday. They went straight into quarantine, as per usual for the requisite three days, followed by the soap bath – for all except frozen and fridge foods which get the bath treatment immediately. Still not getting the eggs we order. Replacement of a box of tiny what look like pullets eggs arrived. Oh, and just for the sheer hell of it bought a vegan kate and sydney pie – in a tin!

Neighbour’s are getting restless. Visits from family, folk dropping off plants and even negotiations going on with some builder bloke. There are people who take this virus seriously and people who don’t.

Now carrying my mask on my walks, on my wrist so I can put it on when it’s needed. I live in a rural area and usually on my daily walk I don’t meet a soul but sometimes it’s non-stop pedestrian traffic. Had to put it on a few days ago when to my horror a young guy was walking towards me on the wrong side of the road – so I crossed with my mask on. We said our hellos but he had showed no sign of moving away. I also wore a mask when we went into our local filling station to buy the compost to grow our food this summer – first time into anything like a shop in 7 weeks. Another young guy came in after me, no mask and no social distancing but then the filling station had not taped off any area either. As I say some folk take it seriously.

Lots of lovely wildflowers and tree blossom to enrich every walk – primroses at the end of their blooming period, sadly, but wood anemones by the thousands still glowing white among the dappled shade. And the golden marsh marigolds are in full bloom in ditches and burns. What a fabulous sight.

The starlings across the road still can’t make up their minds over whether to nest in the tree hollow or not but the house martins are building in our gable end – three of them – not sure what that says about the home life of house martins. Great to watch them as they diligently create a masterpiece of engineering.

Must tell you about the curious case of two coos. Noticed one heifer struggling to remove a large piece of black plastic from her mouth and was obviously in some distress. Plastic is used to wrap silage for feeding the beasts. She was being watched by another cow who comes to her aid and pulls at the plastic with her mouth, freeing it and the two walked away as though nothing had happened. The co-operation of cows is a joy to behold.

Still reading MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. Some great descriptive passages in this work – e.g. clouds described as ‘fantastically shaped islands asleep in that vast hyacinth sea’ and ‘the ambush of hope’ I’m going to purloin that. Brilliant.

Don’t have time to tell you about my friends just back from New Zealand who are horrified by the casual attitude of people here towards Coronavirus and furious at the UK government’s inaction. Maybe next time.

Stay safe.

April 29, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 6

Week 6 was fairly uneventful. That is probably a good thing.

News and figures of casualties of Covid-19 continue to be grim. It’s a strange kind of reality that we grow accustomed to high numbers of dead and dying overnight from a single cause. It is a shock to the system that so many of those we are dependent on, carers and NHS staff of every level, have lost their lives to this terrifying virus. It is a sharp reminder that our complacent lives built around consumerist capitalism and celebrity banality are nothing compared with the force of a tiny virus with knobs on; rich 21st century nations brought to their knees.

We learn revelation by revelation prised from the mouths of politicians of rising numbers of dead. We learn there are so many different ways to count the dead – confirmed by tests, confirmed at hospitals, confirmed by GPs but some dead are omitted. Some in this case being around the same number again and way above the figure of 20,000 quoted by Sir Patrick Vallance on 17 March as the number below which would be a “good result.” As that figure has already been swamped by upwards of 100 per cent it appears the get-out-of-jail card “we are following the science” used as a shield by politicians has been exposed as not being quite THE science it was held up to be. THE science behind Westminster’s response to the virus is a secretive club called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and includes Sir Patrick Vallance who is the government’s chief scientific adviser. Westminster has been forced to admit that SAGE includes Johnson’s political aids. So, the mantra should be – “we are following the political science.” The political science isn’t that good for as the Financial Times has been highlighting the real number of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is running in excess of 40,000. Perhaps SAGE should change its name to STAGED – Scientists and Tories Advisory Group for Emergency Deception.

The seeds are out of quarantine and sown so fingers crossed we’ll have good germination and a bumper crop of veg and herbs later in the summer. Some begonia plug plants arrived, too, for pots and containers which would normally be packed with annuals but as we can’t get out to buy them this year it’s going to be a begonia summer.

Walks have been largely uneventful although I did have a socially responsible social distanced conversation with a local man who cycles for exercise and was lugging around a plastic sack full of empty drinks cans thrown out of vehicles by litter louts or as they are known in these parts, minkers. I felt obliged to do my bit a few days ago and picked up yet another can, the usual Red Bull, and placed it in a recycling bin near at hand. Only then did I remember I should have been wearing gloves so had to do the whole washing of hands thing when I got home. Would love to walk along a beach but the nearest beach is 25 miles away so I’m making do picking over some delightful types of rock filling our ditches. Mainly granites there are other igneous rocks, some white quartz, lots of stones with shiny pieces of mica and bits of flint. You have to find interest where you can and rocks and minerals are fascinating – and every one is different.

Birds – house martins have arrived. Not yet building nests but flying overhead with that fast, darting movement. They are only in penny numbers where in recent years we would see lots of them. It’s beyond sad that some people actively prevent them from building their beautiful nests against gable walls. We love our house martins, waiting impatiently for them to arrive from the south, watching them build and following the broods fly for the first time catching insects in the air. Some folk need to get a life and stop complaining about bird droppings. In actual fact there was no mess beneath our martins’ double nest last year although that’s not always the case. Hanging plastic carrier bags on the end of houses and garages to prevent birds building nests is shameful – and looks mingin – adjective from the noun minker. Pulling down nests is criminal.

Those starlings still seem interested in nesting in the tree hole still under scrutiny from jackdaws. It’s a strange setup. These starlings are like cowboy builders – start a job, turn up once or twice then disappear for ages.

I’ve been re-reading some of Stewart Alan Robertson’s essays in A Moray Loon (loon is a youth in northeast Scotland.) Stewart from Loanhead in Midlothian was a teacher in Scotland and England and for a time an inspector of education. He wrote engagingly on all kinds of fascinating Scottish topics from Kale Kirks to the scientist Mary Sommerville (science writer and polymath – I bet she would have come up with better science than any emerging from SAGE.) Stewart used his extensive Scottish vocabulary to great effect in his articles – many largely forgotten terms such as halflin for a young loon (usually a farm labourer) and blackneb which was one who sympathised with the French Revolution.

I’ve just started J. MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. MacDougall Hay hailed from Tarbert. Goodness know what sort of place Tarbert in Argyll was in the mid-19th century – this is where the novel is set. It’s dark. Very dark. Perhaps too dark to read during these dark times.

Keep safe.

April 25, 2020

LOCKDOWN COOKING: 5 Blooming Tasty Tofu Noodles with a kick and Rolled Oats Biscuits

How are you all doing? A couple of recipes today. The first is tried and tested the second isn’t but you can’t go wrong combining porridge oats with syrup so confident it will turn out well. We had the spicy tofu noodle dish this week and very fine it was.

tofu

Blooming Tasty Tofu Noodles with a kick (2 very generous helpings – ramp up or down amounts as required, as any government minister might advise on the best scientific advice – unless Cummings vetoes it.)

Pack of tofu (any flavour but not silken – drained between kitchen paper if you like, I don’t bother) cut into cubes
2 tblsp cornflour
1 red pepper sliced (I used mixed frozen)
8 oz noodles (rice or any – I used wholewheat)
2 tblsp brown sugar
¼ cup soy sauce
2tblsp sweet chili sauce or any spicy sauce you have – or bit chili powder or hot paprika
Dash lime or lemon juice
Olive oil or coconut oil
¼ cup peanuts (roasted for a few mins in a hot oven or fried till crispy but nae burnt)

Cook noodles, drain and rinse with cold water to stop them cooking further.
Coat tofu cubes with cornflour using a spoon (for the really inexperienced among you.)  Combine soy sauce, sugar, chili, lemon or lime juice.
Heat oil and fry pepper for about 4 mins in a large pan.
Add the tofu cubes and cook for about 4 mins.
Add the cooked noodles, soy sauce rest of the ingredients and stir while heating till very hot. Add more soy sauce if you want. Serve immediately.
Rolled Oats Biscuits dates from 1938 and is atributed to a Mrs Allen of Plantation Farm, Birchleigh, Transvaal. It sounds easy peasy.

2 large cups rolled oats porridge oats (porridge oats) (113g)
1 cup four (142 g)
1 cup sugar (213g) I would use about half this amount
1 cup coconut (113g)
2tblsp butter or margarine
1 dessertspoon golden syrup
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch salt.

Mix all dry ingredients, add melted butter and syrup and bicarb dissolved in a little milk. Knead and flatten on floured board or counter. Turn out and cut into small biscuits with cutter or lid of a jar. They spread on baking. Bake moderate oven (180 – 190C or 350 – 375 F ) for about 15 mins. Carefully remove with spatula and cool on wire tray before eating or you’ll burn your mouth.
goeie aptyt

April 8, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 3

Actually into our 4th week of isolation but writing about week 3 and already I’m losing the ability to count as far as the fingers on my hand. Been an up-and-down week which started fine but a few days ago I became suddenly ill including the worst headache I’ve ever experienced, a real sledgehammer job, which has resulted in this blog being a day late. Don’t suppose any of you are counting that accurately either, or caring.

The morning clean continues apace with a well-established routine set using diluted bleach for bits and anti-bacterial spray (I know Covid isn’t bacterial) for other parts. Being very canny with the spray as last time I ordered it from my online supermarket I was sent floor wipes (which I haven’t used.)

On Saturday, gloved up, I moved the supermarket groceries and foods received from an online health food store out of quarantine bag and carton by bag and carton and gave all a good wash down in warm, soapy water – dried them off and put them away. Yeast and flour – self-raising and bread are in short supply and prunes, sadly, but we’ve now got lots of dates, sunflower seeds and even a bag of sour cherries to add to our daily porridge. The bag of linseed had a tiny hole in it. Couldn’t see it but seeds were dropping out so it couldn’t be given a bath and instead the seed was poured into a baking tray and given the heat treatment for around 30 mins. Lovely smell, if you like painters’ studio type aromas.

On the issue of flour and yeast shortages – there are unscrupulous people out there, one I noticed lives in Barrow-in-Furness selling flour and yeast at exorbitant amounts on Ebay. Presume they’re organised going in and out of shops buying it up and selling on. This crisis has brought out the best in people but it has also brought out the worst. Those Ebay types are despicable human beings. Expect they wouldn’t know what to do with a bag of flour if it hit them in the face, which might be a good idea.

Bag of peanuts arrived for the birds. It was so heavy my husband’s legs almost gave way. Should have used the sack barrow. Very grateful to delivery drivers who are dropping off our orders in the porch so allowing us all to keep our distance. I put up a thank you/appreciation notice in the porch for them and our lovely posties, men and woman, who we can’t stand and chatter to as we did in the good ol’ pre-coronavirus days. Husband did have a shouty conversation with one a couple of days ago. He’s become adept at shouting to neighbours across a road. Roadside shouting matches aside we’ve been in telephone conversation with neighbours as well as friends, and emails – messages flying around so much this past week with friends as far afield as New Zealand.

The New Zealand connection is tenuous as these friends were there on holiday when coronavirus hit. NZ closed down and they were forced to move out of their accommodation. They found a self-catering motel where other Europeans were staying while trying to get home. The British Foreign Office and British Commission did not want to know and offered no assistance so our friends were left to negotiate multiple-million-pound airfares with companies taking advantage of peoples’ desperation. They’ve sorted something out but I think they’d be better-off staying put in New Zealand. They were very impressed by its PM’s response to the deadly virus.

Able to get out for short walks most days. Weather still very good. In fact it’s been so dry in my part of West Aberdeenshire the burns (streams) are very low. That might not appear to be a problem but we have a private water supply. If that sounds high faluting it isn’t – just means water running down the hillside is collected in a gathering tank and piped to our homes. When there’s no rain (or snow in winter – and there hasn’t been) then our water tends to dry up. Then we have a problem. Along the banks of the burns the primroses are looking very beautiful with their creamy yellow petals, the darker yellow of whin blossom, stunning white wood anemones flower in abundance round here, goat’s beard glow in the sun and the marshmallow leaves are well-formed. Lots of ladybirds in the garden. Having been such a mild winter they’ve survived in big numbers.

In the tree hollow I mentioned last time starlings are visiting it often but so too, bizarrely, are jackdaws who also appear to be trying to nest in it. I don’t think the two species will make for the best of neighbours.

My bedtime reading has picked up from the last book. Currently enjoying Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, a trilogy of stories relating to London’s seedy pub culture in the 1920s. The descriptions are masterful and the dialogue fairly zings along from this accomplished novelist and playwright who wrote Gaslight and Rope, both made into popular films. Our two hours of television daily means we’re still ploughing on with Better Call Saul, nearing the end and series five has I’m pleased to report picked up from the dreary series four. Squeezed in a couple of episodes of Outlander, too, Sam Heughan should be placed on prescription at times such as these.

Stay safe.

March 31, 2020

Year of the Plague – Self-isolation week 2

Another week of self-isolation and it’s beginning to feel normal. Odd that instead of lying in bed planning the next day’s activities there’s a feeling it doesn’t really matter because what’s not done tomorrow can be done the day after, the week after or the month after – all being well. All being well is the qualification of everything said and planned at present. All being well. The great unknown has taken on far greater resonance of late. About the only thing that has become regular and a priority is the daily assiduous bathroom clean followed by door handles including the front door, inside and out, the letterbox, doorbell and computer keyboards.

But, anyway, one or two events shook up the monotony of last week. My new spectacles arrived. As all deliveries are placed in quarantine for three days before moving into their permanent positions it took a few days to check them, usually done at the opticians. Two pairs, both varifocals – one normal and the other sunglasses. The sunglasses are fine although their designer case is way too over-engineered but the ordinary pair made me feel I was walking through syrup. Phoned the optician who were very good about it – clearly I couldn’t take them back or post them and anyway they were about to close down until – well, until whenever so I’m back to wearing my old pair.

Lots of deliveries this week from online shopping to join the specs in quarantine. Notice now up in porch for packages to be left there, quite safe as we’re always in except when out for a short walk and anyway all the criminals are in lockdown, too.

Mild panic when we couldn’t get access to our usual supermarket home delivery. Gave up after 30 mins on phone but days later persevered, waited over 50 mins and someone picked up. This someone was a young woman with young children who could be heard crying in the background. Felt for the poor woman. She sorted out our problem and a delivery is due next week – a moderate-no-panic-buying-type delivery. I’d highlighted an issue for people like me in Scotland on Twitter and it was taken up by an MSP who was straight onto the supermarket concerned and so now, hopefully, the difficulty is sorted for others in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s one of the advantages of living in a small country, sense of collectivism. Also on Twitter had a bit of a run-in with someone from BBC Scotland over its haphazard broadcasting of daily updates on coronavirus from the First Minister, Medical Officer of Health for Scotland and a Scottish government minister. Radio listeners in Scotland have got used to second best but is it too much to ask for them to take Covid-19 more seriously than sport or local news bulletins? Evidently it is.

Been having usual sort of printer problems which involved having to order a supply of paper. It arrived about two weeks before the date given – that is blooming fast. So many jobs to do on the computer it was almost like being back at work but with the weather being generally good am still getting out most days for a walk on what has become far busier roads and even the farm track where it’s always been just me, my shadow and I is attracting neighbours in their multitudes (relatively speaking) entailing a good bit of nipping onto verges and general awkwardness. First primroses flowering, lambs appearing and dippers darting up the burn. Talking of birds the little hollow in a tree opposite the house where various birds have nested over the years is been investigated by a couple of jackdaws, one sticking its head right into the hole and another pecking down from the top. Today starlings looked like they were thinking of moving in. That’s not going to end well.

Eventually got around to running off the FT weekend crossword. It’s almost completed. As another week’s gone by there’s another one waiting to be run off. Rushed through His Bloody Project I mentioned last time. It’s set around Applecross but could as easily be set in Devon for as a Highlander I don’t recognise it as in any way Highland through description or language. Different setup for a novel. Just not to my taste. Still not finished watching Better Call Saul. We’re on season 4 and frankly it’s a bit dull, not as good as the first three. Began an occasional blog of quirky recipes for the self-isolating (nearly the whole of the world) but don’t think many are impressed with my selections so far.

Our household has had one birthday and one anniversary this week – with all the fizz of flat Champagne. There are far worse things to contend with. And finally, we updated our wills by speaker phone. Desperate times.

Stay safe.

March 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

Hellebores in the garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe.

March 19, 2020

Covid-19 – Coronavirus and the Libertarian

Guest blog by Textor

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

That is if you let your guard down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 7, 2020

The High Price of Coffee

Guest post by Textor

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

Coffee by Mike Kenneally

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central America c1840s

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

Smout Peeler and Polisher

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

Guardiola Dryer

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

Okrassa Dryer

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

Harvesting Coffee, Guatemala 1870s

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

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

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

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

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

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