Wee Scoops

Measure for Measure

Yes, I have seen a white whale… #mobydick

Exhausting and exhaustive, “Moby Dick” is everything you ever and everything you never needed to know about whales, whale hunting and whalers. Woven in amongst the encyclopaedic trivia, there is a plot, that I managed to catch in my trawler net.

The narrator, Ishmael, kicks off the novel with an entertaining story about winding up as a bedfellow of Queequeg, an ex-cannibal (he hopes). The pair of them then EVENTUALLY set sail on what is meant to be a whaling trip but turns out to be a personal revenge mission of the “monomanic” Captain Ahab, whose leg was eaten by the white whale, Moby Dick.

As Ahab sails past any other ship, he yells, “Have you seen the white whale?”

I am reading this novel in the searing heat of Gran Canaria, lying on the sunbed for so many hours that my coccyx has gone numb. I lift my eyes to the pool, brilliant and turquoise, full of sharks and whales (and crocodiles) of the inflatable kind and I think, “Yes, I can see plenty of whales.”

I look around at the sunbeds and their occupants. Since we had been there last year, there were two marked differences in our fellow holiday makers. Firstly was the proliferation in tattoos, some reminiscent, perhaps, of Queequeg’s.

I think it would be accurate to say that most men there had given over one arm to shoulder-to-elbow tattoos. Usually these were based on the kind of intricate doodles one might fill a page with during a dull meeting. Some of them were pretty cool, done by skilled artists. I felt a bit bad for some of the others. Pretty much every adult had a tattoo of some kind – from cartoon characters (nice to see Korky the cat) to calligraphy in various languages to large ornate letters that one might find at the start of a chapter of a Lindisfarne gospel. One that kept catching my eye was this mother and daughter combo – the daughter had a tattoo of her mother’s face on her arm and they sat side by side and I looked from the arm to the face from the arm to the face from the arm to the face…

The oddest thing about this tattoo thing is that… one day there was a change over and one flight went home and other arrived – and all those men with half an arm of dense tattoos disappeared and were replaced by largely tattoo-free guys. So, I wonder if it was a geographical quirk and that the population using one airport followed that fashion that hadn’t reached the other regional airport…

ANYWAY (the tattoos are a by the by)

The second difference with our fellow holiday makers was the increase in general obesity. Last year I remember thinking that there was every shape, size and colour of person. This year there was a striking amount of people who seemed to be physically struggling as they moved around, with excess flesh getting in their way as they got on with their daily lives.

Ahab shouts, “Have you seen the white whale?”

And I think, eh, yes – but isn’t that a bit rude to think that way?

Meanwhile on the news the UK are thinking about increasing the amount of gastric band operations to save the NHS money in the long term. Which would help, I am sure.

But these people who end up obese have been living in a country where food producers pack all the food full of sugar – even in “savoury” foods.

There was sugar in my meatballs the other week. There is sugar in my fajita spice mix. Sugar in tomato ketchup. Sugar in pesto sauce – is it just me? – no wonder people are struggling with obesity when our diet – even our bread – is riddled with sugar.

I want a tax on sugar and better labeling.

I tried to give up refined sugar for the month of June. It is pretty much impossible. It is in EVERYTHING when you read the labels. I suppose that’s why everyone interested in healthy eating these days winds up with the “whole foods” approach.

Ahab shouts, “Have you seen the white whale?”

So I look down from the poolside and get back to this white whale that, by now, has become a metaphor for the food industry. Ahab is sure he is getting closer – “There she blows” he cries.

My metaphor doesn’t end well. Not that I want to spoil the plot of Moby Dick for you – but – I have put myself through reading it – there’s no reason you should. (Watch the movie and google the key quotes, I suggest!)

!!! SPOILERS!!!

So, Moby Dick (the food industry) manages to destroy everyone and everything, leaving only Ishmael to tell the tale, floating home in Queequeg’s coffin-turned-life-raft, thinking to himself that the moral of the story is – eh, Ahab, it was daft for you to go after Moby Dick. He never came for you and your leg. You were trying to kill him, so why wouldn’t he have bitten your leg off? It was daft to go after him when he had that form and reputation. Which leaves me thinking that the food industry, intent on selling more and more food on the grounds that it is delicious are not worth chasing and stabbing with the harpoons of taxation and regulation – they will just continue to destroy us with their donuts, pastries and hidden sugars. I will set my sail as I was before – avoiding refined sugars and eating “whole foods”, generally.

Let sleeping whales lie, as it were…

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Reflections on a visit to Anne Frank House

Anne Frank was always someone I knew about. Her father, Otto Frank, was on Blue Peter when I was wee, on more than one occasion as I remember – YouYube has a Blue Peter such interview with him.

Then, of course, in my teens I read the diary, and, at one point I went to see a play version of the events. In my twenties I bought “Tales of the Secret Annexe” which contained other writing Anne did while in hiding.

When we went to Amsterdam last month, a visit to Anne Frank House was high on the priority list. We booked our tickets online in advance as we had been advised to do – and this was good advice. A queue that looked hours long snaked away from the house, where the people with internet tickets could press a buzzer and go straight in.

The building has an odd atmosphere. Everyone was very quiet. There were rooms with quotations on the walls from the diary and a few objects to look at as the path led through the building. It took quite some time to get through the business premises and office space up to the famous book case that concealed the entrance to the secret annexe. A big step up into the hiding place.

The emptiness of the airless rooms was again very odd. While it was interesting to be there, you couldn’t help but feel cooped up and longing for daylight – and that was us just passing through for a few minutes – and the people who hid there were there for more than two years.

There are too many half thoughts that were sparked off by the visit, and I haven’t thought them all out properly – so here are a few:

The last quote of the exhibition was from Otto Frank and it was him reflecting on how much he did not know his daughter until he read her diary after her death. I found it interesting to think about how much we can spend time with people and be unaware of the core nature of their character or their thoughts.

It all seemed so recent and so near – that Hitler could convince so many to take part in the oppression of the Jews. Even before the days of the removal of the Jewish people from Amsterdam, there were restrictions in place as if to weaken the resolve of the people and to make them feel less equal than others. Anne stated:

“Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use trams; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3:00 and 5:00 P.M.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M.; Jews were forbidden to attend theaters, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public; Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8:00 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish schools, etc.”

This quote struck me as being sickeningly relevant to the world today where various minorities have their choices limited by the will of others. These restrictions placed on the Jewish community really were the beginning of the slippery slope that ended in mass murder. We should really watch out when people are forced to wear certain things; discouraged or banned from going about their daily business. The ban on cultural mixing and mixed education presumably was enforced in order to make people feel different, and with the differences highlighted, fear and suspicion was allowed to breed.

More encouraging was the exhibition about the helpers who managed to keep the people hidden for all that time, fully aware of the risks they were taking in defying the Nazi regime.

And then we drifted through the shop and into the street and went for a cup of tea – into free and democratic Amsterdam, wondering whether there were many others whose time in hiding went undocumented, thankful that the Nazis were defeated, aware that intolerance and hatred are a part of human nature and that we need to always be ready to identify and oppose oppression wherever it may surface next.

 

Sailing close to the wind

A couple of my recent posts surprised me by their relevance.

I wrote a post giving five reasons I am voting “No” in the referendum. I then got a stat spike and discovered the post had been picked up by a national newspaper as part of their referendum debate. I felt a bit sick. Then it disappeared from their site, and I was disappointed. Then it reappeared, and I was happy to see it back and stopped feeling sick.

:-)

I felt that the fact that my post was picked up does prove a little bit of a point about Scotland and its tiny population.

The second post that jumped out to surprise me was “The English Channel?” where I linked to a YouTube of James “Gideon Mack” Robertson. Then the very next week I went to a conference – and at questions, I thought, “My, that voice sounds familiar”! Here’s me listening to him on repeat for a few days and – ta-da – there he is! So I went to say hi. Managed to avoid the line “Love your work” but it came close. Luckily I wasn’t 100% sold on Gideon Mack, or I might have said it…

So, after a phase of teetering on a precipice of relevance, I fell into a contemplative lull.

Hoping to shake myself back to regular posting without ending up back in the national press…

 

The English Channel?

The BBC News team are doing their wee best to remain impartial in the World Cup news coverage, speaking of their team in the third person – although it was mentioned on Samira Ahmed’s show that some reporters have started saying “Eng-er-land” and sounding like fans, even if they are meant to be just reporting.

I like to watch Samira’s Newswatch show at 7.45 on a Saturday morning, when I have my pre-bootcamp cereal. It wasn’t on today- they were showing a feature about the world cup – but I got it on the iPlayer. Ironically, some of the views expressed were pertaining to the over-coverage of the World Cup. The fact that Newswatch was bumped in favour of someone standing around in Brazil looking excited kind of proved that point.

This week a gem of a YouTube came my way: “The News Where You Are”. The persona adopted is that of a News anchor based, in all likelihood, in London. The piece explores the subtext of the phrase “The News Where You Are” that the anchor says at the end of the news, before the channel cuts to the regions for the news there. I suppose James Robertson is perhaps making the point that Scotland is a nation, and if we were independent, it would be “The News”, as opposed to “The News Where You Are”? Here’s the clip:

It reminded me very much of Tom Leonard’s poem, “This is the six o’clock news” aka Unrelated Incidents No 3.  Here, Leonard’s persona speaks with a Scottish accent, but is saying perhaps what an English news reader would be saying or thinking. The news anchor is explaining that he speaks with a BBC accent (an English accent) so as to give the news the gravitas and credulity that comes along with the accent. This is undermined by the voice of the poem being phonetic Scots. Great poem.

So, Eng-er-land have their first match tonight. If I can stay awake I’ll watch it.

I’ll be interested to see how the impartial news reporters convey any success or failure during the following morning’s news.

Icky Politicky

It’s one hundred days to go until the neverendum. The Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns each had TV coverage today with their drives to sway the remaining undecided voters.

As the arguments have played out, there seems to have been an unfortunate change in tone – not from the campaigns themselves, but from those commenting on related posts on social media.

I felt before that there was a genuine search for answers to questions about what would be best for those who live in Scotland; now there seems to be an air of accusation and mutual cynicism.

Both sides accuse each other of scaremongering; the views of each others’ experts are immediately disregarded – perhaps this is to be expected as people become more settled on their opinion on the issue.

But presumably, both sides have a common goal – to secure the best future for Scotland.

A friend shared an interesting Orwell quote on facebook this week which puts very well the conflict at the heart of the matter:

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“By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

There’s a very fine line that Orwell draws here. I suppose, for the voter, it depends where each one has sunk their own individuality. If it is in Scotland as a discrete entity, the instinct is to feed and nurture that country so that it can grow as the people there wish. Certainly, being denied power in the structures of government that we have is frustrating for many.

This lack of power, however, doesn’t have any bearing on patriotism. It is possible to have “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world” without craving more power. I could be described as stereotypically Scottish, in many respects. I play the fiddle, love Scots poetry and eat haggis when it isn’t Burns night – and I would seek to defend my Scottishness and my Scotticisms.

But this Scottishness doesn’t lead me to nationalism, just to patriotism – and my patriotism can be maintained within the United Kingdom, flawed as the constitutional relationship is.

The politics of Europe seem to have taken a potentially sinister turn, with extremists gaining footholds. I think the term “Nationalism” is an unfortunate association that people say when they refer to the SNP, as the Nationalism they suggest is nothing like other European ‘nationalist’ parties and movements. They want simply to “be a nation again” – which is a fair enough ambition. It’s just not an ambition I share.

And I don’t feel that that is unpatriotic.

Mud, glory and a couple of lines of war poetry @themajorseries

I had a great time yesterday at a daft mud run event – The Major Series: Scotland. It was all terrain cross country with obstacles and challenges.

It was a notional 10k that involved running, wading through a river, running up and down hills, climbing over enormous logs, scaling a wall, trench walking, balancing, dodging the enemy, crawling under a cargo net, through an electric shock web, under barbed wire, over a vanishing bridge and lots of staggering about over every terrain imaginable, except sand. And a big slide.

Sand was in my mind because of the commemorations of the D Day landings – but other wars were also in my mind as I ran, such was the variety of landscape set out for us.

In the mud logged trenches, it is impossible not to think of the trenches of WW1. As I sludged my way along I was thinking of these lines from Wilfred Owen:

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
but limped on, blood shod.”

Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” conveys the horror of war and the horror of death in war. 100 years later, my stagger up some trenches was the opposite experience – I had the privilege of it being for fun. But still, these lines rang in my mind.

When you don’t know what is going to happen under your feet when you take the next step, it is tiring. Every second step takes your breath away as you stoat into the side of the trench or you go plunging down and your calf goes into cramp, and as you move along, unable to get any consistency of traction – it is fatiguing. And no wonder “many had lost their boots”, as the mud tries to suck your shoes off at every step.

I thought the course was absolutely great – the estate where the course was set out had so many features the organisers could exploit to build in the challenges. . For part of the race it was pretty densely wooded and I found myself feeling almost alone as there were so many twists and turns in and out of the burn and in and out of the trees. And it was utterly glorious weather – forecast for 80% rain – but we saw none of it – just sunshine.

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This photo was taken of me after one of the last challenges which was to run up a soapy tarpaulin and not get washed back down. I wasn’t aware of the photo being taken but I can tell you that this is me happy; Stirlingshire is looking great in the background and I am covered in mud, almost at the end of a really fun two-hour challenge getting to grips with creation.

I am thankful to be fit enough to enjoy this kind of thing. It was great.

:-)

Eh, naw: Five reasons I am voting No #voteno #indyref

I agree with the basic SNP premise. There is something fundamentally wrong with a voting system that results in a government you didn’t want. But I don’t think independence is the way to go. Here are my reasons why:

1. I think devolution is good, is working and has a future. The English need to get themselves a devolved parliament to match the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish assemblies. The whole thing is unbalanced with the daft West Lothian question hovering about until departments that are devolved elsewhere are devolved in England as well. If there was a DevoMax option in the neverendum, that would have been the way to go.

2. Scotland hasn’t got enough eggs or enough baskets. When there was a stushie at Grangemouth, we were at the risk of being stuffed, refinery-wise. Where’s our backup to Grangemouth? When the banks went horribly wrong, we needed the British Taxpayer to cough up the readies. Where is our financial safety net? Ah, the oil… A bit finite. A bit not terribly eco friendly. A bit hard to quantify. We have a lot of great things, but we don’t have many of a lot of great things.

3. The idea that constitutional change wouldn’t involve sickening spiralling costs is delusional. Spiralling costs are what we do well. That whole tram thing. Brilliant idea – but it all went out of control. Building our parliament building – try not to think about how horribly wrong that went. Lashings and lashings of public money when the CofS assembly rooms might have done – or some conference centre or other could have done. But no. The public purse just isn’t bottomless but it would have to be post-independence… what with all those free things we are getting promised.

4. Then there’s the European thing. As I said at the start – the SNP have a point about the voting system being wrong when we are controlled by a distant government – and they want to trade Westminster for Europe? They are even further away, in a state of flux and might not even let us in so as not to set a precedent the Catalans might use in future. I think that David Cameron perhaps has the right approach: renegotiate, and then think about it.

5. Salmond’s crushing optimisim puts the nail in the Yes coffin for me. Westminster says they won’t give us fiscal union. He says they will. Would they not know? Salmond says we’d get into Europe. Some say there’s a doubt about that and we’d need to reapply. The optimism about everyone being better off afterwards, with not even a ball park figure on the table about how much everything will cost… It’s like having a cross between Obama and Bob the Builder at the helm with the “yes we can”…

I’m sure Scotland will get by, in case of independence – but there will be a brain drain to the south as big business will pack up and leave, and UK funding for research will stop, and the British Navy won’t give the Clyde contracts for ships, and we are left using the pound without any influence, or with the Euro that no one wants. Will we concede to the English and keep Trident for them for use of the pound?

Ach.

Let the English get a parliament in Salford next to the BBC and let Westminster get on with the security of these islands.

As long as Gove disnae get to mess with Scottish Education, I am happy.

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The Flying Dutchmen

Taking a step out of Scotland for the weekend brought me some new perspectives on my home country. This is the first. There might be a mini-series, or there might not :-)

I went to Amsterdam for the weekend. It was a lot more… Dutch… than I was subconsciously expecting it to be.

Because it is a physically small nation, I thought, wrongly, that it would maybe be kind of like Scotland; I wondered why I hadn’t heard it held up as a possible model for an independent Scotland.

It is not like Scotland. It has three times the population of Scotland and is very densely populated in comparison. It is a natural, geographical hub; in centuries gone by it was the largest shipping port. Now Schipol airport is the gateway to everywhere.

Ignorantly, I thought Amsterdam would be far smaller than it is. The pictures I had seen of canals and bicycles I guess I thought were classic postcard shots. I didn’t realize there were so many canals and so many bicycles.

Bicycles everywhere.

People ride bicycles lickety split along all the bicycle lanes that weave along the pavements. The cyclists have right of way. Cars are few, far between and crawl sheepishly along the canal sides looking out of place. Pedestrians step gingerly off the kerb hoping against hope they are looking in the right direction to avoid getting a bicycle wedged in their side, a moped clipping them or a tram getting just that little bit too close.

The striking thing for me was the almost universal lack of helmets, and a welcome lack of lycra. These people were dressed in normal clothes, going about their normal lives. On a bike.

In Scotland, generally, if you are going cycling, it is an activity. You are going to do something aerobic. It might warrant a mention on facebook as you set out. You might even post a selfie of you in your helmet, cycling shades, luminous yellow jacked, padded cycling shorts, cycling gloves, sooking out of your cycling water bottle, posing with your hybrid.

In Amsterdam, generally, if you are going cycling, it isn’t. You are going to buy cakes, pick up a friend, go to work, the park, home…

In our defence, cycling here is, in fact, aerobic. The hills are an issue. You need gears. The lack of cycle lanes here are also an issue. No one expects to get their toes run over by a bike when they step out from the pavement to cross the road. It’s the cars that swing thoughtlessly by, while the cyclists and their bikes feel squashed out of the way. That’s why the helmets and the luminous jackets are so necessary.

But we have been made to live in a culture of fear. As soon as a child gets on a bike, the nervous tension begins to rise about the supposed necessary fall. If I see an adult without a helmet here, I think something politically correct but along the lines of “idiot”. In Amsterdam, the lack of helmets makes me wonder what the head injury stats are for the city. Even if the stats are low, one doesn’t want to be the one with the head injury. Might as well wear a helmet. But still – we have been terrified as a nation into making many purchases of cycling accessories that a nation of cyclists don’t have.

ANYWAY

The other absolutely striking thing: how many obese people did I see in Amsterdam?

Almost none. And the few overweight people were tourists. (I think).

No one in Amsterdam is fat.

They are all thin.

Yet another thing that Scotland does not have in common with The Netherlands.

Our collective obesity is worsening. The inactivity in this country is embedded into the culture by the built environment.

Cycle lanes and large scale pedestrianisation are my handy solution for today. I think that planners should be required to have cycle lanes on every new/improved road.

Unless we want to continue to congeal in our vat of chip fat, imagining that we do exercise.

Strangely Compelling Viewing #ga2014

I have been watching the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the live feed.

Despite the footage of at least one old dear nodding off in the middle distance, the Independence debate / respectful discussion was interesting, and the most civilized and gracious element of the whole pre-referendum phase so far.

How refreshing to have a break from the I’m-right-because-I’m-right-and-who-are-Westminster-to-disagree-with-me? of Salmond and the have-cake-and-eat-it of the Yes Campaign in general. How refreshing to have a break from the withering eyebrows and awkward tipping point between bossiness and apathy sought by the No Campaign.

Just some genuine thoughts, valid concerns, interesting observations and helpful whichever-way-it-goes-conclusions.

I think that politicians should perhaps give the ‘respectful’ discussion idea a go. Instead of assuming that people who disagree with you are evil and self-serving, why not go with the premise that they are sincere? Why not use your imagination and try to see and understand another point of view, even if just for a minute?

There is a lovely haun-knittedness about the whole General Assembly. The crap jokes, the inability of people to remember to say their name and number before they speak, the personal familiarities from real life leaking over into the formalities. Great to hear Scottish accents articulately convey intelligent ideas – although, it wasn’t on the TV, right enough.

On the one hand it is interminably dull; on the other, strangely compelling.

Why I have “Rocket Man” stuck in my head.

I was listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” – not on purpose; it just happened. “Ground Control to Major Tom”, he bleats.

Major Tom is in space. He goes on a spacewalk that goes wrong. He asks Ground Control to tell his wife he loves her very much, then something goes wrong and he is left in a helpless distant place:

“far above the moon,
planet earth is blue
and there’s nothing I can do.”

Then I thought to myself, hey, that’s totally reminiscent of “Rocket Man”, so I googled that to discover that Elton John’s song is based on a Ray Bradbury short story from 1951 of the same name.

It is about a mother and son who live together while the dad is a rocket man in space. He is away for months at a time and the mother confesses to her son that she lives as if her husband were dead, as she knows how risky his job is. She figures that she would find it easier to cope with his death if that is how she lives. The dad comes home for a spell in the story and confides in his son. He has an inner conflict. When he is home he wants to be in space and when he is in space he wants to be home. In space he always resolves to stay home the next time, and once home, he is itching to get away again:

“Don’t ever be a Rocket Man.”
I stopped.
“I mean it,” he said. “Because when you’re out there you want to be here,
and when you’re here you want to be out there. Don’t start that. Don’t let it
get hold of you.”
“But-“
“You don’t know what it is. Every time I’m out there I think, If I ever get
back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I go out, and I
guess I’ll always go out.”
“I’ve thought about being a Rocket Man for a long time,” I said.

Elton John’s song picks up on some of the ideas in the story. The character talks about his wife packing for him and the loneliness of space and the inhospitable nature of Mars and the long, long time that he will be away.

So, Ray Bradbury wrote the original story in 1951. David Bowie’s song came out in 1969. Elton John’s song came out in 1972. There were six manned moon landings between 1969 and 1974, I think.

Not that I think it’s necessarily connected, but the next song that lines itself up in my inner playlist is Gloria Gaynor, who seems to play the wife in “Rocket Man” in her song, “I will survive” which was released in 1978:

At first I was afraid I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights
Thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along
And now you’re back
from outer space
I just walked in to find you here
with that sad look upon your face

I had enjoyed listening to Chris Hadfield’s version of Space Oddity, but just this week is has been withdrawn from YouTube, according to the news, because he only had been granted a year of the copyright. But I found a link to it:
Space Oddity

Anyway.

I am no fan of music, much less 1970s space-themed pop, but despite this, I am intermittently singing, “Rocket Man!” and then forgetting how the rest of it goes, before breaking into little bits of “I will survive”…

Hey hey.

I have also watched some interesting YouTubes about spacewalks and I am NEVER going on one!

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