Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Wensleydale Weekend

Askrigg Common
Arrival view

Wensleydale is etched into the family psyche. It was a stop on our first family holiday with our 7 months' old daughter in a wet January. Three years later we spent a week during a cold February visiting cheese factories, local pubs, watching racehorses gallop whilst enjoying the innocent devotion of two inquisitive young girls with a third child imminent. We returned a few years later for a long weekend with family friends and walked the children 'up hill and down dale' in November rains. So when another February long weekend was suggested it seemed an appropriate season to rekindle our memories. We could wallow in the cold winds and rain and visit friendly pubs that make Wensleydale such a wild yet lightsome place.

The hills were plastered with snow as we headed down the sinuous B6259 from Kirby Stephen to Hawes alongside the Settle to Carlisle railway line. The Ure valley was swept by a raw northwesterly wind as the fading afternoon sun skipped out from behind the clouds like a searchlight picking out the  snow capped limestone scarps. The fields were filled with sheep and the roads were calmed by wide milk tankers heading for the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes. The Yorkshire Dales National Park retains a strong agricultural identity without being dominated by the tourism embellishments that are intrusive in the Lakes and other more visited national parks. We stayed in Hilltop, a much-extended farmhouse that bore the personality of the Halifax building magnate and football aficionado who owned and had modernised the property with a builder's love of salvage and blind eye to the resulting ambiguity.

The Saturday morning run after a raucous night was more of a trial than a trail with numerous stiles to negotiate alongside the river Ure, then bogs and steep grassy hills that brought back memories of school cross country races except I was now slogging through the muddy ground rather than skipping over it. Punishment over, we spent a few hours in the Wensleydale Creamery. The community-run enterprise had reopened the creamery after Dairycrest had closed it in an act of gross corporate negligence to the local economy. It now employs 200 people including all the delivery vehicles and visitor attractions. After sampling 20 or so cheeses, I turned down the lunch menu where every dish was laced with cheese. A walk around the town followed by a visit to the nearby Hardraw Force below Buttertubs pass completed the activities for the day. It was back to games of pool, table games and an attack on the plentiful supplies of alcoholic beverages that had been brought along.

The highlight was a Sunday walk to the nearby village of Bainbridge, where a traditional Yorkshire pub provided a good range of beers, a warm room and fortified us for the hike back into the wind and a sleet storm. Wensleydale had once again provided weather that made Scotland seem almost tropical but the Wensleydale landscapes were sublime.

Askrigg Common
With Wallaceand Gromit at Wensleydale Creamery
Remember when recycling was just done without fuss or fake sustainability
Gayle Beck in the centre of Hawes 
Hardraw Force
Passing weather
West towards Hawes and Widdale Fell
River Ure and Addlebrough
Looking towards Dodd Fell

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Big Noise is 10

A couple of hundred people were gathered for the 10th birthday bash for Big Noise, a project that had taught music to over 2500 children in Raploch and three more of Scotland's less advantaged communities in Glasgow, Aberdeen and, most recently, Dundee. In each of the locations, there has been a partnership between Sistema Scotland, the Council and local schools. The event was a celebration of a remarkable project that had flourished through the determination of one man in particular. Richard Holloway had been the Bishop of Edinburgh, a lifelong campaigner for social justice and an undeclared polymath. He was inspired by the work of the Venezuelan youth orchestra that had helped shape and inspire the lives of underprivileged children in Venezuela. He brought the concept back to Scotland in 2007 and began a search for somewhere to start a similar project in Scotland.

Sistema Scotland has targeted communities by drawing a line under the past and nurturing a new generation of children who grow up in an environment saturated with intensive and immersive music making. We work with children from birth through to adulthood. While our most obvious triumphs are musical our purpose is to use that music making to equip children with confidence, resilience, ambition, and a multitude of transferable skills to support them across all areas of their lives. The ultimate goal is to boost educational performance, health and wellbeing so that children grow to achieve their full potential, contributing to positive communities with fewer costly problems.

Richard Holloway founded Sistema Scotland with the backing of the Scottish Arts Council, an organisation that he has chaired. He set out in 2007 to search for a disadvantaged community in Scotland that could benefit from its primary objective of providing children with an educational environment through sustained music making. It was happenstance that Stirling Council was approached to work with Sistema Scotland to host what became Big Noise in Raploch. At the time the Council had commissioned a new community campus in the Raploch that would bring together three primary schools, a nursery, a further education facility, and sports hall in a single building that would act as the focal point for the community. It was a significant capital investment for an area that had been stigmatised for decades by its high levels of social and economic deprivation. When Richard Holloway came calling we thought that the Sistema Scotland concept could provide an extra dimension of activities that could amplify and consolidate the health and well-being of the community. The arrival of Sistema Scotland compensated for the Health Board deciding against relocating a health centre on the campus.

The funding allowed the appointment of professional musicians and together with the partnership with the primary schools that had transferred to the campus and the ready availability of rehearsal space, the project began to flourish. A generation of children have taken part in Raploch so far and 107 musicians, both paid and volunteers, have provided the tuition and leadership. It has impacted on many lives, not just the children involved but their parents and the wider community who expressed their appreciation during the celebration.

In his brief but eloquent summary of progress over 10 years, Richard Holloway gave a passionate endorsement of the need to provide opportunities and inculcate ambition amongst all children. He explained how when he was responsible for drilling soldiers during his national service in the army he realised that soldiers always marched better when there was a band at the front. Music inspires and creates a collaborative culture. He had just watched and listened to children from the ages of 4 to 18 years demonstrate the skills and exhibit the self-confidence that they had acquired through their involvement with Big Noise. Several of the older teenagers explained how the project had shaped their lives as they were about to enter further and higher education or take up jobs. For the first time, his voice trembled and the emotions of a man whose humanity has no bounds were shared with the assembled children, parents, teachers, workers and others who had witnessed the delivery of this remarkable project.

An Evaluation of Sistema Scotland was carried out in 2015 by the Glasgow Centre of Population and Health This evaluation strongly endorses Sistema Scotland’s approaches to delivery: the impacts of the programme evidenced at this stage of the evaluation are clear. What is also certain is that Sistema Scotland’s 'Big Noise programme has the potential to significantly enhance participants’ lives, prospects, health and wellbeing through a variety of identified pathways in the long term. Any endorsement of Sistema Scotland is also an endorsement of a range of local partners who contribute to the delivery of Big Noise; the schools deserve considerable recognition for their commitment.'

Monday, 22 January 2018

Big Fall

Cold comfort

After the prolonged frosts of early January, we finally had a big dump of snow, about 20cm., over the weekend making travel almost impossible. Even a hard walk became a stern workout and there were few people venturing into the white wilderness. The grey skies were peppered with smoke from wood-burning stoves, it could be Scandinavia.

Overnight the thaw began and for the first time in over a fortnight, we had temperatures above freezing this morning.

Snow 1 Gritting 0

White Out


Lochan Spling

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Cool Runnings

Bridge over the Forth
I normally enjoy running in the snow, it provides soft ground, a serene quietness, spectacular scenery and chance to observe the tracks of the wildlife. Today the forest trails had had an overnight dump of 8-10cm of snow on a hard frozen base. Every step became a whole body experience as I kicked steps through the snow. Apart from a couple of buzzards circling for food, there was no sign of fauna. The deer, foxes, squirrels, small mammals and cyclists had left the trailblazing to deranged runners.

My regular 6-mile route that normally takes 44/45 minutes, or maybe 48 minutes wearing winter gear, became a 58 minute run in the snow and extreme cold. I spent all morning recovering first from numb hands caused by peeling off gloves to take photos and then just the deep exhaustion of cool runnings.

Deep stuff
Point of no return
Cool at minus 4°C
No chance of going off-piste
Last legs
Home straight

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Der Spiegel lampoons Trump

Der Spiegel's cover image of 12 January 2018 sums up the inexorable descent of President Trump with true Teutonic efficiency. The cover was designed by New York artist Edel Rodriguez and illustrates the regression of humanity through Trump.

"Fire and Fury" is Michael Wolfe's devastating critique of Donald Trump's first year in the White House. Der Spiegel asks "Can the world's most powerful man really be dumb, senile and addicted to television as the book claims? He spends his early evenings watching three televisions in his bedroom? Eating a cheeseburger and tweeting all the while? An entire White House teetering between hysteria and chaos?"

It explains "how 'Fire and Fury' came to be and whether, and the extent to which, it approaches the truth. It delves into the consequences for an America and a world that have been confronted with a nuclear-armed fool, who is neither mentally nor psychologically suited for the job - apparently also not physically, either, given how late he starts the working day and how early he ends it. Humanity as a whole is being set back just because of one single person. The achievements of decades - the fight against a climate disaster, against the nuclear threat, for equality between men and women, between blacks and whites and so on and so on."

I'm not sure that I shall bother reading the book, the story of Trump's year is so absurd that it is probably best told by cartoons.

Presidential Inauguration
Syrian bombing

Charlottesville white nationalism

Revenge of the Chief Strategist

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Strathclyde Regional Council, ashes to ashes

Strathclyde Regional Council - India Street HQ, 2018

I was walking to the Charing Cross station after spending some time with former colleagues and veered off to see the site of my former offices in India Street where I had worked for 16 years for Strathclyde Regional Council. 

Strathclyde Regional Council was formed in 1975 as the largest local authority in the UK serving a population of 2.5 million. It was formed following a Royal Commission of Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley. Like any Royal Commission, the proposals had been meticulously researched with much evidence behind the proposals to create 9 regional councils, 53 district councils and 3 island councils to replace the 33 counties, 4 cities, 21 large burghs and hundreds of small burghs and landward districts that preceded them. The proposals had been subject to lengthy consultations that were transparent and generally accepted as a necessary reform. The existing muddle of councils with different sets of functions had failed to tackle the social and housing conditions and, in some cases, there was endemic corruption within them. 

In Strathclyde 103 councillors were elected in 1974 to serve on the council. The council was led by two outstanding councillors from the majority Labour Party: the Rev Geoff Shaw, a Church of Scotland minister who worked in the Gorbals, and Dick Stewart, an ex-miner from Harthill. They were chalk and cheese. The eloquent and erudite Geoff Shaw with his passion for social justice and the pragmatic and brutally principled Dick Stewart who was no orator but a disciplinarian equally determined to deliver social justice. 

They melded together a diverse group of councillors, not tolerating any form of corruption and providing a clear agenda for the 100,000 staff to follow. The west of Scotland was in a state of meltdown as mines closed, shipyards ran out of work, factories were closing and 60,000 people a year were leaving the region. The former Glasgow Corporation had engaged in a programme of the demolition of older tenemental properties to accommodate the building of urban motorways and the construction of huge council housing schemes lacking the range of facilities required by the residents. Jobs and people were moving to the New Towns of East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Irvine. Stonehouse had been designated as the fourth new town in the region to continue this exodus. 

There seemed to be little recognition by the Scottish Office or by the existing councils that this was eroding the social and economic fabric of towns like Clydebank, Dumbarton, Paisley, Greenock, Motherwell, Hamilton, Airdrie, Coatbridge, and Kilmarnock. The West Central Scotland Plan had called for a radical shift in urban policy to regenerate these older urban centres along with Glasgow. This was not well received by the many in the business community who were enjoying the low rentals and new infrastructure in the new towns. Nor did the majority of existing councils welcome the Plan, the exceptions being Clydebank, Greenock, Motherwell and Coatbridge, which were more positive about the need for a radical shift in policy.

The Scottish Office had planned for rapid population and economic growth in 1962 but the collapse of traditional industries meant that the opposite was happening. The outcome was social and economic turbulence in the region, which the 1971 census identified as containing the worst concentrations of urban deprivation in the UK. Strathclyde Regional Council recognised this and made its two overarching objectives the need to tackle multiple deprivation and economic development. 

These objectives were pursued with a missionary zeal that included recruitment of more teachers to eradicate part-time education in deprived areas, reallocation of staff to areas of greatest need, encouragement of house modernisation through the creation of 29 housing associations, investment in rail electrification and underground modernisation rather than highway construction and persuading the Scottish Office to establish an economic and environmental agency, the Scottish Development Agency, which included staff transferred from the New Town corporations 

Over its first ten years, Strathclyde achieved a remarkable transformation in the way local government was run with an emphasis on community development, positive discrimination, urban regeneration, investing in public transport and renewing outworn infrastructure. It used its financial clout effectively and utilised its influence to gain both European funding and government grants like the urban programme for its poorer communities. The politics were dominated by Labour but there were also high calibre and principled politicians from other parties and they worked collaboratively on many issues. 

Scottish Conservative politicians such as Secretary of States, George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind, were slightly in awe of Strathclyde and supportive of many initiatives. The same could not be said of Prime Minister Thatcher who, after disbanding the GLC and Metropolitan Councils in 1986, saw Strathclyde as the last bulwark against the neo-liberal policies she was pursuing. Her distaste for Strathclyde was shared by some of the District Councils, notably Cunningham, Kyle and Carrick, Strathkelvin and Eastwood who resented the influence of the all-powerful region and its emphasis on urban renewal. Despite the significant benefits of these policies to Glasgow, the Glasgow District Council resented the loss of its municipal muscle and there was a tense relationship between region and district aggravated by the preciousness of their chief executives. 

Rather than addressing this issue by reducing the size of Strathclyde by setting up Ayrshire as a separate region or re-examining the distribution of functions between region and districts.The Scottish Office encouraged by the UK government decided to reorganise local government for the whole of Scotland. There was no Royal Commission this time, just a set of proposals for unitary authorities with four options ranging from 15 to 63 units. There was a cursory consultation period before first 25 and eventually, 32 unitary councils were designated in October 1994. The new councils were elected in April 1995 and became operational a year later. What is often forgotten in describing the shift to unitary councils, in itself a generally positive step, was the transfer of many functions: water, sewerage, police, fire, transport, colleges, careers, children's panels, assessors and various other functions to either joint boards or national bodies. The new councils were in many ways less able to shape development in their areas than was possible under the two-tier system of local government and this precipitated the introduction of Community Planning in 1999.

Glasgow became a unitary Council again after 20 years. Although it no longer included Rutherglen, and its suburbs were spread across East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire Councils. The politicians from these councils and from the City of Glasgow adopted an anti-Strathclyde stance on many issues including the adoption of its policies and often gave short shrift to many of the staff who transferred from Strathclyde. This extended to the use of buildings, which were sold or renamed, as with Strathclyde HQ in Glasgow that became Nye Bevan House for no obvious reason other than to bury reference to Strathclyde. The eventual demolition of Strathclyde HQ buildings is a visual manifestation of the way that the many accomplishments of Strathclyde Regional Council have and are being erased from the history of local governance.

St Vincent Street facade as was
India Street, now home of Scottish Power
Happy Days
Where does this connection come from?

Friday, 5 January 2018

Good Reads

A few friends have listed their best reads as they reflect on the year gone by and the year to come. It prompted me to examine my frugal reading of the past year. I managed a mere 15 books as a result of spending more time reading news and articles on the internet. Undoubtedly the John Bew biography of 'Citizen Clem' Attlee stood out. Attlee was the PM when I was born and shaped the environment that I grew up in. The NHS, council house, new school, university education and scholarship and the profession that I joined were all products of the progressive and mainly enlightened post war government that he led. He had no great ego, little time for the press and despised corruption. He cared deeply about the conditions of working people and had the courage and nerve to begin the dismantling of the empire.

He was not a heroic figure, nor did he have the charisma associated with his peers, most notably Churchill. What he had was the vision and determination to eradicate the worst excesses of class and privilege and the provision of better conditions and services for all the citizens. Yet he remains a largely uncelebrated man in a country that satiates on celebrity. I lent my copy to a friend who was a former History teacher who was moved to tears on completing the book. "Why do we no longer have politicians like this?" His conclusion was understandable during a year when UK politicians reached a nadir in the esteem of the electorate after the mess of Brexit and their inability to address the burning issues of housing, community care, children's services, transport, tax evasion, corporate negligence and the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

Tack forward seventy years and the political changes have been equally dramatic but in a less clement way. Mrs May has presided over the most disruptive and useless cabinet in my lifetime and has then made things worse by her inability to take decisions or direct change. Two books have captured this with differing effects. John Crace's collected diary of articles were published in I, Maybot, the term he coined to describe her robotic behaviour and the failure to have 'a plan' or to be 'strong and stable'. His starting point is factual but he drifts into fantasy that is believable as fact and creates some comedy out of the tragedy. It was an easy if repetitive read.

More disturbing was the excellent Fallout by Tim Shipman, the political editor of the Sunday Times.
He dissects the outcome of the Brexit referendum in forensic detail with the help of dozens of insider interviews. In its way it is far more critical of Mrs May's government than even the John Crace diaries and leaves you thinking how much longer can this charade continue.

As for novels, well this was a poor year, I am finding it increasingly difficult to find good reads as we are overwhelmed with books from traditional publishers as well as throngs of self published works. Given that I have spent many months in Orkney and Shetland since retiring it is no surprise that two books set on these remote wild places became my best reads. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was probably the highlight telling the story of an Orcadian girl who moves to London subjects herself to various addictions in Hackney before returning to the solitude and life affirming lifestyle to Orkney and one of its remote islanda. Cold Earth is the seventh novel in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves. Her writing conjures up familiar haunts and I can visualise almost all the streets, buildings, beaches and locations described in the book. She captures the brutally wild environment, the cold weather, the warmth of the people as well as strong links to the rest of the UK. The regulatory murders are almost incidental.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

End of a Dystopian Year

The future is here

The last journey of 2017 on mid afternoon, 31 December, perfectly summed up a tragic year. The no. 2 bus was crossing the Vauxhall Bridge between the MI6 building and a platoon of multi-storey flats that looked bereft of inhabitants. The harsh urban landscape was vacant of people and traffic and dulled to death beneath the grey cumulus clouds. It conjured an image of the distempered politics and society that the first viral flush of Brexit has produced in 2017.

It echoed with the views of a senior civil servant that I spoke to yesterday and what the papers have reported today. Few civil servants believe that Brexit will work but nevertheless all other activities by departments have been sacrificed by ministers on the altar of a trivial pursuit for a false sovereignty. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


The Arrochar Alps over Loch Arkaig

After another night when the mercury almost disappeared we drove up to Stronachlachar. It is always an inspiration with the Arrochar Alps beyond Loch Arkaig luring you onwards towards Inversnaid before the alternative attraction of the road to Stronachlachar pier on Loch Katrine. There were quite a few cars parked but everyone had retired to the excellent cafe. We strolled along the lochside taking in the scintillating views and admiring the Victorian engineering that had provided Glasgow with clean water since 1852.

The by-product was to make the Trossachs a favourite tourist destination for the central belt residents in the Edwardian era. It prospered in the days when the ferries and railways provided a fine round trip for walkers or cyclists from the railway station at Balloch by ferry up Loch Lomond to Inversnaid and then to Loch Katrine. There were youth hostels and hotels on the approaches to Callander and Aberfoyle from where trains were available before these lines closed in the 1950's and 1960's as road travel ruined the sort of sustainable tourism that we yearn for today.

The area is a mecca for the sort of coach tourism where visitors are held captive in group hotels and trailed round the woollen mills. There has been far too little attempt to attract the energy and enterprise of younger visitors or residents. Cyclists and adventure racing events are beginning to exploit the natural advantages of the area including the hundreds of miles of forest trails.

This is no thanks to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, which has been notably poor at encouraging creative enterprises utilising indigenous produce and materials to entice visitors or at facilitating new housing and environmental developments with distinctive sustainable designs. The National Park has been too wedded to conservation and has stagnated since its inception. It has failed to benefit to the extent of the Cairngorms National Park, which was designated at the same time. There has been a more open approach to developments, which were retained by Highland Council with a resultant strong insurgence of younger people keen to live, work and promote an outdoor lifestyle in the national park.

View down Loch Katrine from the pier cafe
Loch Katrine from Stronachlachar
Loch Katrine and Ben Venue
The pier cafe at Stronachlachar

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Boxing Day, a whiter shade of blue

Snow melt
Apart from the big freeze of Christmas 2010, I cannot remember when Christmas Day was not a grey day during our thirty years here. It was the same again this year but there was an overnight snowfall to brighten up Boxing Day.

Boxing Day is normally a day for some outdoor activity to recover from the Christmas eating fest. Unseasonal sunshine gave us chance to enjoy a walk up Lime Craig before abandoning our attempt to cross the waterfall above so we could climb Craig Mor as well. We decided on dry feet instead and returned to enjoy the Christmas leftovers.

View from the house

Queen Elizabeth Forest from Lime Craig
Ben Lomond top right
Ben Ledi
 Thirty years ago this would have been normal on Christmas day