Thursday, 20 April 2017

Mrs May's Mayhem

Announcing the election
Well that was a surprise said the massed rank of journalists who were agog at Mrs May's easter bunny present of another election. I had been thinking that there has never been such a dreadful government in my lifetime, nor such a rag, tag and bobtail of opposition parties. I listened to the announcement as we made a 9 hour journey up the M1, M6 and M74 dicing with the roadworks, seeing how far we could drive without stopping at the service stations that harbour all that is wrong in Mrs May's disunited kingdom. We were glad to have friends and relatives who are close enough to the route to make some diversions for coffee breaks.

The only sensible comment on the day the election was announced was Professor John Curtice explaining the dangers as well as the advantages of calling an early election. It will be fought on the old boundaries that give the Tories no added advantage as the new boundaries would have done in 2020. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are unlikely to change much, although the SNP may lose a few seats to other parties as opposition to indyref 2 remains strong. Most Labour MPs have solid majorities that will be difficult for the Tories to win unless their lead is well over 10%. The Lib Dems are likely to regain a good number of the 49 seats they lost at the 2015 election. So Mrs May could end up with winning only a 20 or so more seats and in the process tarnish her stainless reputation for tough talking that she has acquired in the absence of any effective opposition either within or outwith her party. Her obfuscation on many issues should become apparent as the campaign takes on a life of its own.

I watched PMQs yesterday and then the start of the debate about calling the election. Mrs May was on fire, she treated her time at the despatch box like an exam. The phalanx of her middle aged male MPs, chubby and smart in their dark suits, were fronted by a studied posse of female MPs. The Tory MPs were less smart in delivering their ingratiating questions designed to get a mention for their constituency and a pat on the back for the excellent work of the MP. Perfect material for their election leaflets.

All Labour opposition MPs had their questions ignored by Mrs May who simply challenged their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn by quoting some derogatory remark that they had made about their leader in the last twenty months. Her research staff must have worked through the night to provide her with the insults that she released with a tally-ho flourish that delighted her benches. The PM clearly believes that question time is her chance to fire the questions. She did not deign to answer any herself. She was undoubtedly well versed in numerous briefs and quite turbo charged compared to Jeremy Corbyn who simply pedalled his prosaic questions with a plodding Sturmey-Archer efficiency. They lacked inspiration although the issues were more pertinent to what is happening to Britain in the ferment that Brexit has provided. Jeremy Corbyn's aversion to issuing personal insults is an endearing feature that Mrs May could do to follow.

After the election in all probability she would be facing a smaller but far more coherent Labour opposition party assuming the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn. And this is where her notion that she would have a united stand on Brexit following a Tory victory does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Lets say the Lib Dems take 20 seats and have back Vince Cable and one or two other experienced MPs, the SNP will have 50 or so of MPs with Angus Robertson, if returned, providing a statesmanlike presence. The Greens may win a couple more seats giving the excellent Caroline Lucas a more powerful voice. The Labour Party have experienced and talented MPs, if they are re-elected, to have a team that could run rings round the insipid Tory cabinet.

It may be that the hidden reason for the election is that Mrs May is seeking to dispense with some of her cabinet. Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox, Jeremy Hunt, Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss, Savid Javid, James Brokenshire and Justine Greening are all out of their depth. Amber Rudd and Michael Fallon have a steely gravitas that merely enhances their pomposity and Boris means Boris. Mrs May does not have a creative team about her, they are mainly defensively organised.

This was clear in question time as her cabinet laughed and clapped on order. The only occasion that Mrs May became agitated was when Yvette Cooper accused the PM of falsifying the truth in giving her reasons for having an election. Parliament and the House of Lords had voted by significant majorities for article 50, which was contrary to what Mrs May had claimed. It was a reminder that Labour do have some formidable parliamentarians even though they refuse to serve in the Corbyn cabal. Instead we have had to suffer the condescending intonations of Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott speaking for Labour on the news bulletins. They both display an irritating haughtiness that discourages any empathy with the Corbynistas.

Even a reduced number of Labour MPs working in harness would provide a re-elected Mrs May government with a far sterner test than she has had to cope with hitherto. If John Curtis is on the money, a 30 or 40 seat Tory majority would be far less effective against a Labour opposition front bench, whoever was their leader. Many MPs on the left of the party have refused to serve under Jeremy Corbyn over the last eight months. This self imposed exile has probably given them the energy and determination to work collectively to rescue the party from the train crash of recent years.

It is highly probable that a Labour front bench drawn from Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle, Meg Hillier, Rebecca Long- Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves, Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Ed Miliband, Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting, Chukka Umunna, and Jon Crudas would have the knowledge and communication skills to seriously challenge Mrs May. There is also real experience in the upper house with Lords Blunkett, Darling, Falconer, Hain, Reid and Baronesses Blackstone and Chakrabarti amongst others. The real coup would be to make Baroness Bakewell the shadow minister for Culture and Media. The other opposition parties would add substance to progressive ideas through Caroline Lucas, Sir Vince Cable and some of the SNP. The Commons would become a serious debating chamber with Mrs May's cabinet and her chubby back benchers suffering political Mayhem.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Andermatt

That Red or Black moment
First run
Gemstock Cable car
Top of the Gemstock Black run
Rive Ursern through Andermatt

Village main street
Apartment Buildings, Andermatt Swiss Alps
Moguls at middle station
Empty pistes
Looking south to Italy
Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn
Devil's bridge and its upgrade
The first skiing for nine years brought back fond memories and aching quads. We had been invited to join our eldest daughter in a ski apartment in Andermatt. It was a good choice, with a new purpose built village being built adjacent to the old ski resort of Andermatt. It is reached by a cog railway that climbs steeply to 1440 metres passing through tunnels and steep rock gorges that have protected the location through the centuries. It was the scene of battles in the Napoleonic wars with Russia and the enclosed mountain retreat now houses the bunkers for the Swiss government in the event of future wars. As well as the cog railway that connects to Goschenen and from there on to Zurich, Andermatt is on the route of the Matterhorn - Gotthard Mountain Express route that links Zermatt to St Moritz by tunnelling and snaking through the Alps. The railway station is almost as busy as Clapham junction but with mountains, reliable, clean and empty seats on the numerous trains.

The new village is part of a massive investment by an Egyptian mogul that will provide 500 apartments, 28 chalets and 6 hotels to take advantage of the under used ski facilities as well as the network of cycle routes, walking routes and a new golf course. The scale of development is too much and too intrusive  to my mind but the commune voted for it to proceed in one of their regular plebicites that are the touchstone of local democracy. The partially built complex is already bringing more visitors with the year round facilities and the range of outdoor activities. This is benefitting local businesses and transforming the village from its traditional past, hopefully the tranquillity of the alps will not be compromised.

The snow had largely disappeared in the village in what has been the poorest ski season for 58 years in the Alps. Nevertheless we bought passes to ski the Gemstock mountain and were surprised at the extensive snowfields that remained above 2000 metres. Even on a Saturday it was largely free of skiers and lift queues were non existent for the the chairlift and tows as well as the cable car that went to the summit at 2955 metres. My hire skis were only 163cm long, I felt cheated having being brought up in an era when sking on less than 200cm was regarded as wimpish. It made little difference, my turns are still too tight on steep runs and I still don't like moguls.

That considered I was persuaded to take a couple of trips to the top station and to ski down the scarily steep black run named after Bernhard Russi, the locally born olympic ski champion in the 1970's. The sharp winds at the summit meant that there was no temptation to linger there. It was a day when the clouds threatened but sun block was needed. I had forgotten so a red face was the outcome. The black run proved less difficult than the so called Sun Track, a red run that also started from the summit. It was blasted by strong winds and had retained an icy surface to test our edges.

We were down by 3:30pm to enjoy a drink in the village and to plan the next day. Cloud and snow were forecast so we walked down to the Devil's bridge in the Schollenen gorge. We returned to the village and then walked the 10 kilometres up to the village of Realp along snow covered trails that twisted through the new golf course, alongside the crystal clear river and railway as it climbed to the Gotthard pass. The valley was littered with farms and linked by trails that intertwined with the railway and road. Realp was a sleepy sort of village that nevertheless had the staple ingredients of a Swiss village: station, church, clock and hotel. The Shetland pony grazing on hay seemed a little incongruous but so did the pair of llamas and a tour bus queuing for the train through the Gotthard pass.

The following day the sun appeared in a clear blue sky, the winds had stopped as had the local bus to the cable car. After a long walk we ascended to the near perfect pistes that were empty of skiers. The cable car to the summit provides a 1000 metre descent. It proved possible to complete this three times in the hour. The red run was perfect, the winds and ice had gone and the steep sections were interspersed with long schusses. I was beginning to find my ski legs although the lack of queues meant there was no respite so I returned to the village at 3pm, delighted to have avoided any falls and without any undue aches or pains.

The journey home the next day confirmed that the Swiss really know how to run state railways. All trains were on time, spotlessly clean, and there was a fully integrated timetable. We had three changes on the return to Zurich but all within minutes of each other and there is a simple and consistent ticket price that applies to all trains with connections to every part of the country. No need to book online in advance to get a fair price. Swiss railways had all the things that the privatised UK train operators fail completely to provide or achieve.

We had a couple of hours in Zurich, a clean and well ordered city that lacked the vibrancy of many European cities. The link to the airport is just 12 minutes on the frequent trains and the airport had no queues for check in, security, or boarding. The Swiss Air plane was new, spotless and served a good snack with a small bar of chocolate thrown in. Sadly we had to change at Brussels where we were brought back to the reality of budget airlines with Brussels Air giving a good impersonation of Ryanair. Edinburgh airport was, as always, disorganised with the shuttle bus travelling from one end of the airport to the other and then passengers having to walk back to the bus bays after the charge through customs and baggage. In Switzerland we would have been in the centre of Zurich by the time our shuttle bus was reached at Edinburgh airport.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Garbh Bheinn, Loch Leven

Black Mount over Rannoch Moor
Stob Coire Sgoilte
Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven from Torran nan Crann
Aonach Eagach to the south
Looking down on Stob Coire Sgoilte from the summit
The Mamores and Ben Nevis from summit
Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven from summit
Aonach Eagach from Garbh Bheinn summit
Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ascent:      861 metres
Distance:   6 kilometres
Time:        4 hours 52 minutes

Garbh Bheinn      867m     2hrs 58mins

The winter has been mainly wet, windy and the mountains clothed in cloud; conditions that are not conducive to hillwalking. But nor has a lingering hamstring tear that has restricted my activities for the past 6 weeks. For the first time I was subjected to kinesiology tape and ultra sound. I was told to give running a break with the result that fitness deteriorated steadily.

At last there was promise of a clear day and there had been a big fall of snow at the start of the week. A day in the hills called. Garbh  Bheinn and Mam nan Gualainn at the opposite side of Loch Leven were the two nearest unclimbed corbetts and I had intended to climb them together in a day. Given my lack of activity this year and the dump of snow I had doubts about whether they would be both doable.

It was cloudy as I left home at 7:30am and the A84 up to Crianlarich was infested with trunk road works with waits of over 10 minutes before trundling along behind a lead vehicle. I missed the 8:35am bus from Crianlarich so had to drive to Loch Leven. It was worth it for the views and the chance to take photos on Rannoch Moor and in Glencoe. I found the parking spot by the bridge on the B863 by Caolasnacon. I had camped here on a family holiday in 1965 and had ambitions to climb Garbh Bheinn, which looked magnificent from Torr a' Phloda, the small hill at the lochside. Unfortunately family camping holidays were mainly spent setting up camp, breaking camp and travelling as far as we could between breakdowns in the 15 year old Bedford van. There was no time for walks.

The skies were blue and the overnight frost was evaporating, there was a cool breeze but it felt warmer than I had expected. The path from the bridge climbs quite steeply and soon became a boggy track with the overnight ice breaking under my footfall. This was going to be a hard slog. After 500 metres of walking I came to a path that climbed steeply to the ridge of Torran nan Crann above. From here the path follows the ridge line, there were sections of solid ice that were beginning to melt and therefore doubly slippy. Eventually the ridge drops slightly to a gap before the massive peak ahead.

It is Stob Coire Sgoilte, a symmetrical conical peak that hides the summit of Garbh Bheinn. It ascends from 375 metres to 800 metres, a climb that is unrelenting. There were footsteps from the day before and I followed these to the bottom of the climb. The walker had veered to the right, making a rising traverse, the footprints gave a clear trail in the soft snow that was 18 inches deep. I foolishly followed until at about 600 metres the trail finished, the footsteps went down again. Whoever had attempted the route must have felt as I did and decided to give the hill a miss. I was resting after every 20 metres or so of height gain, not something I normally entertain but exhaustion dictated frequent halts. I decided to continue on the rising traverse until reaching the rock and scree slopes that the snow had not settled on. The scree was loose and the rock was fractured. There was nothing for it but to persevere, the steepness requiring me to use my hands to balance on the scree and to pull up the shattered metamorphosed Eilde quartzite.

I have never ascended a hill so slowly and, by the time I reached 750 metres just below the bealach leading to the final slope to Garbh Bheinn, a rest break was required to take some food and drink to replenish my energy levels. The blue skies had given way to high white cloud but it was not cold and the breeze had remained just that despite the forecast for stronger winds. The final push to the summit was easier apart form a 2 metre drop  down a vertical rock face onto a tricky icy gulley that I avoided by climbing upwards over more loose quartzite. The flattish summit was a bit disappointing and the weather had become colder with the views less spectacular than earlier in the day. It was almost 1pm and I had expected to be on my way down by noon. There was time for a few photos and more food before departing.

The route down was so much easier I simply followed a good path down the apex of the ridge from Stob Coire Sgoilte. It zig zagged through the occasional rock outcrops and the heather. Why had I not followed my instincts and ascended by this route instead of following the aborted route up the snow. The sky was brightening so I stopped for 10 minutes to soak in the views across to the Mamores and down to Loch Leven with the Pap of Glencoe looking splendid in its white raiment. I was down just before 3pm too tired to contemplate climbing Mam nan Gualainn so I drove home for an early bath as Eddie Waring used to say.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

British media write off Labour

The number of journalists and political commentators writing off the Labour Party for a generation, if not forever, following the Copeland by election result is a facile but typical groupthink. The electorate are totally fed up with all political parties at the national level as is evidenced from the low turn outs in Copeland 51%, and Stoke Central 38%. It is true that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn look unelectable in any general election but none of the parties look to be capturing the mood of the electorate in these troubled and uncertain times. The Tory voters are more loyal than Labour voters at present but a dozen years ago the Tories had been written off forever following the barren years under the dreadful leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

What no one has reported is that the ten largest cities in the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Bristol are all Labour controlled apart from Edinburgh where Labour is the largest party under a proportional representation electoral system. They are for the most part running administrations that are valued by their citizens who discern the difference between local and national politics. Apart from Scotland, where there is an alternative left of centre party, the SNP, there does not seem to be a collapse of Labour at the local level that is assumed by the media.

This presumption reflects the fact the national press gave up reporting on local government at the turn of the millenium when they greatly reduced the number of seasoned reporters of local and regional government. Politics is ignored outside the bubble of Westminster and the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. Yet as Simon Jenkins wrote last year "Labour has some outstanding leaders" but that "it is a shame that they are all in the regions." It reflects my experience working with politicians both councillors and MPs at the local level. Thirty years ago I was present when a rumbustious councillor, ambitious for an increase in his allowances, pleaded with the principled leader of the Council to be given the chair of a committee. He was told in no uncertain language that he would never be made a chair; local government services are far too important and that if he wanted more remuneration he should stand for parliament.

He did and was elected in a job lot of Jimmies and Tommies that were elected at the next general election. The moral of the story is that there is a sense of public duty that pervades local politicians (of all parties) who are drawn from a wider cross section of society and have real responsibility for delivering services. Qualities that are often absent amongst national politicians, many of whom have limited working experience outside politics, and are over represented by academics, educationalists, lawyers and journalists. The majority of MPs are not involved in decision making and are prone to focusing on politically correct or salient issues that exercise the media and chattering classes but are a lot less vital for the majority of the electorate.

It would appear that politics are being redefined, not on class lines but in accordance with the electorate's values and perspectives on wider issues. These include the role of the state in delivering education, health, housing, care and infrastructure. They embrace the protection of the environment, climate change, social justice, community control, the unregulated power of global capitalism, and international issues that include aid and migration as well as trade and defence. The way that political parties provide clear direction on these issues will determine their future survival. They will have to convince an increasingly savvy electorate who are far more fickle than previous generations when it comes to party loyalties. Mrs May has adopted an approach that appears to be unambiguous on the wicked issues from nuclear power, defence, tax, schools, austerity and Brexit. This plays well with a certain demographic - the older, financially secure and more nationalistic. It contrasts with the Corbyn led Labour Party that embraces ambiguity on many of these national issues and leaves the younger. less financially secure and more globally aware uncertain of what the Labour Party stands for apart from equality and human rights.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Rob Roy Way: Callander to Aberfoyle

Ben Ledi from Callander
Friday, 24 February 2017
15 kilometres
3 hours 10 minutes

A dry morning after storm Doris persuaded me to walk another section of the Rob Roy Way from Callander to Aberfoyle. I ran this route regularly in the 1980's when we lived in Glasgow and came out to see my in laws on Sunday. I had also walked the route in the 1990s with two 11 year olds who were raising money for a Leukaemia charity. The route has become more difficult since then with the growth of newly planted trees and today it was covered in deep wet snow over a path that was part bog.

The walk began at the bridge over the river Teith in Callander and took me to the mini roundabout where the back road runs towards Loch Venachar. The old moss covered stone walls and native woodland make it an attractive amble despite the flooding on the road and the row of caravans at Callander Holiday Park overlooking the road. I stopped at Gartchonzie bridge to watch the gushing Eas Gobhain below the weirs at the exit of the loch. At the outflow of Loch Venachar there are benches that provide a fine view down the loch to the mountains, which were blasted with snow.

The early brightness of the day was turning grey before the rains arrived. A party of volunteers were litter picking and a massive sign had been erected to by the national park to proclaim the newly introduced 'no camping zone'. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park has refused to allow new housing, introduced measures that restrict the right to roam and seem to be in hock to hotel owners and tourism chiefs, who are more focused on making money than giving folk the opportunity to enjoy and explore the splendours of the natural environment. John Muir would not have approved, he saw national parks as places for people to engage with the natural environment as well as protecting it from exploitation for profit.

At the east lodge a car park has been constructed and a forestry track climbs steadily through the conifer plantations for about 3 kilometres. By the time I had reached 200 metres in height, the tracks were covered in a wet snow. Passing the small lochan is the high point of the walk, thereafter the Rob Roy Way turns off the track and becomes a boggy narrow path through the forest with burns to cross, tree roots to negotiate. Quite a few trees had blown down in recent high winds and required some tricky diversions. Rain was threatening so I pushed on eventually leaving the forest for a 2 kilometre passage over open moorland with a path that had disappeared into the snow. I was the first walker coming across the Way since the snowfall on Wednesday evening, 36 hours ago.

My aim was the gate into the forest below the Menteirth hills, the snow was less deep here and it was the bogs that slowed me until I alighted onto the forestry track that leads down to Braeval. The path continues along the top of the Aberfoyle golf course, a place with superb views but not today. I dropped down through the golf course and arrived at the village below Dounans camp. I arrived home as the rain began and dosed in the afternoon.

Eas Gobhain below the weirs
Loch Venachar with Ben Venue

Looking north over Loch Venachar to Ben Ledi

The loch an at the top of the route

Slow going in the snow along the boggy path

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Post-optimism

It has been a dreary start to the year and trips to Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Stirling, Falkirk, York, Wakefield, Carlisle and Brampton have made me realise how our urban centres are in serious decline with empty shops, commercial buildings and the urban realm all looking in need of extensive repair. Only York has had a sense of vibrancy with the tourism attractions generating lots of visitor expenditure from home and abroad on a bitterly cold February day.

Presumably there are more towns in the south that are thriving. Certainly during visits over the past couple of years to Oxford, Hemel Hempstead, Sevenoaks, Brighton and surrogate southern towns like Chester and Harrogate, I have been pleasantly surprised to find them exempt from the dilapidation that has afflicted northern towns and cities.

Towns in the midlands and north already look like they are broken in the way the remain camp are predicting for after Brexit. The urban fabric is a mess with street furniture and signage cluttered, broken and dirty, pavements and roads a tribute to the failure of the power, telecoms and water providers to restore the public realm, and business premises showing an ever increasing number of vacant properties. Pubs, banks, independent shops and restaurants have closed; it is only charity shops, poundshops, fast food outlets and betting shops that seem to be surviving, if not thriving. There are notices for the reduction of bus services, future shop closures and travel agents suggesting that we escape the depressing UK winter. They serve to confirm the sense of urban decline and pending recession. People are looking sad.

The rundown  of our towns and villages is not surprising given the wage stagnation and benefits reductions of recent years. These have been exacerbated by the most severe cuts in public expenditure since the war, an ever accelerating switch to online shopping and a failure to regulate the street works effectively.

I have spoken to several local businesses in recent weeks and they have all made the same comment. They need to know what is going to happen post Brexit and they all say that orders have slowed down. The uncertainty is beginning to strain their resources and plans are being put on hold or abandoned. The 14 directors that I have mentored this year are almost all dealing with reducing or closing services, disposing of premises and laying off staff. Only two or three are looking at developing new or improved services and even then there is uncertainty about funding for making the changes. Experienced managers in their 50s are being retired with little evidence that their knowledge and experience will be replaced. Austerity is the mother of a fake economy.

I watched I, Daniel Blake and it reinforced the scale of social injustices that are being perpetrated by 6 years of austerity. Even in 2015, 29% of children were living in poverty and 14% of pensioners were living on less than 60% of median incomes. These figures are increasing year on year. The post-truth announcements from government focus on the record number of people employed and the FTSE 100 increases. But these fail to acknowledge that many jobs are part time, non permanent or self employed and they often lack pensions and sick pay, there are a lot of false jobs in the count. The FTSE is soaring on the back of a £ that has depreciated by 20% or so. The UK has become a takeover target for global corporate companies and other businesses are being sucked into mainland Europe in anticipation of Brexit.

As a lifelong optimist, I am struggling to find the upside in all of this. Housebuilding is in further decline and unaffordable; the NHS is in meltdown; education expenditure in England is following the free schools not targeting the shortage of pupil places or much needed investment in existing schools; and sustainable energy initiatives have been sacrificed on the alter of fracking and nuclear deals. The government are still 12% ahead in the opinion polls. It makes you wonder what other damage they can get away without denting this lead.

But even some Tories are now beginning to worry that 2018 could be the year when the public says enough is enough. The convergence of 10 years of austerity, heartless benefit reforms, the ever rapid dismantling of the NHS, the lack of decent affordable housing and the pension deficit have conspired to create an "inequality of wealth that is grosser than any European country", This is what George Orwell had said in 1941 in his essay, the Lion and the Unicorn'. It is probably even more apposite today. The fruits of three decades of neo liberal policies coupled with the dystopian policies emerging in the United States and the loss of trade links following Brexit, there could be a perfect storm that sparks a groundswell of despair arising from the skewed affluence within the UK. There could be a show down with the government.

And 2018 is the Chinese year of the dog.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

National Railway Museum

Rocket replica

A weekend near York for an extended family reunion provided the opportunity to visit the National Rail museum at York. It is a fine facility and does much to generate tourism traffic for a city that is already well endowed with attractions from York Minster to the Viking centre, city walls and the shambles. York may lack scenery, located on the flat and frequently flooded Ouse, but it is well positioned on road and rail networks to attract visitors from most parts of the UK. It is a pity that the national museum was not located in Crewe, Doncaster, or Darlington all of which were formerly railway towns that would be more deserving and benefit more from rail tourism.

Nevertheless it was chance to touch base with the steam locomotives and railway infrastructure that I spent three or four years inhaling between the age of 9 and 13. I spent most Saturdays watching trains on the West Coast mainline and, during school holidays, I raided many engine sheds to cab locomotives and made visits to locomotive works in Horwich, Crewe, Gorton, Doncaster. My geography of the UK was largely gained by knowing travel times to towns on the rail network and my map reading skills honed by locating engine sheds. The names of the locomotives also provided most of my knowledge of countries, cities, greek gods, kings and queens, castles and regiments along in each case with a 5 digit number.

There were lots of memories as I took my 3 year old granddaughter onto the footplate of my favourite locomotive, a coronation class pacific- the Duchess of Hamilton (46229). She seemed interested and asked me how it worked; my impromptu description of being like a giant kettle on wheels was accepted but she knows how to humour me. It was the same locomotive that my grandad had lifted me onto the footplate to be shown the controls by the friendly engine driver as it stopped at Preston whilst pulling a Glasgow bound express.

I was also 3 years old at the time and on the Saturday mornings when my grandad was not working he would ask what I wanted to do, the answer was obvious. The museum had on display the nameplate of another coronation class pacific, Queen Mary(46222), which was my final 'cop' of this class of locomotive. The target for all train spotters was to complete all the 'semis', the name given to this most powerful of all the British locomotives. Happy days indeed.

Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive
The cab of a Coronation class pacific locomotive
Evening Star, the last steam locomotive built for British Railways
46222, my final Coronation class locomotive (semi)

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Is democracy trumped?

The last couple of weeks have seen some of the most bizarre gyrations in political posturing. Channel 4's Washington correspondent, Kylie Morris, confirms through her regular reporting that President Trump is just as bonkers as we had suspected from gasping at the indiscretions that he uttered and tweeted throughout the presidential campaign. Footage from the innards of American states like Indiana and Tennessee suggest that his supporters among the working classes are loving the way he is treating the Washington insiders with the same contempt as his apprentices. It will be interesting to see what they think in a year when their financial plight has been put on hold whilst taxes for the wealthy and corporation tax for companies are reduced. The Sioux tribe have already witnessed his contempt for struggling communities by his approval for the Dakota oil pipeline to be routed across their homelands with army engineers ordered to execute his decision.

His supporters are delighted with his daily brag that things are happening. Terrorists are being locked out; trade agreements are being torn up; companies, journalists, and world leaders are being insulted, ignored or demonised. He is using all the bullying tactics that have made him a gold plated dickhead and it seems to be working with the greedy, the weak and unprincipled companies and governments gushing their support. Witness the way that the republicans, car manufacturers and dependent states, including the UK, are happy to play his games.

China, the European Union and Mexico have called him out and after this morning's rant on the phone to the Australians PM, the equally intemperate Aussies could declare a 'fuck you mate' diplomacy. It is Russia, Israel and the UK that seem the most enamoured with the new President. They are all hanging their hat on him blessing some of their more risky ploys, as in the Ukraine, switching the US embassy to Jerusalem and leaving the EU. There will be deals to be struck in these and many more international agreements but, as he said twice, yes twice folk, it is America first.

Mrs May's ill timed rush to be the first world leader to hold his hand had seemed rash even to begin with. After the President's announcement of the exclusion of citizens from war torn countries and the PMs refusal to challenge this policy, the homage proved to be a diplomatic own goal. Meanwhile the more principled world leaders and demonstrators across many nations have been blowing the whistle on his conduct over immigration, climate change and his name calling of regimes and organisations that are multilateral. As his frenzied playlist of prejudices is further activated with little attempt to discover their wider impact, more countries, corporations and groups will challenge the legality and morality of his infringements of the constitution and international agreements.

In the midst of this there were some strange bedfellows joining the protests. Starbucks, never knowingly oversold, offered to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide and 2 million UK citizens have signed a parliamentary petition calling for the Queen to be absolved from hosting a state visit for President Trump. Senators are considering a fillibuster against some of his nominations for key posts; California is talking about leaving the union; and the National Park service has a twitter campaign objecting to the damage of national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton by oil pipelines approved by the President.

Contrary to what we are being told by some of the media, that populism is usurping liberal democracy, I wonder if it is unwittingly releasing a far more positive worldwide movement. The reaction to Trump's early examples of executive populism could be a powerful and inclusive networked democratic movement. One that sheds the elitism of representative democracy and encourages more collaboration between diverse local and global movements.  It may be that this cloud democracy will be able to overwhelm the narrow, selfish, tax evading, individualistic and nationalistic tendencies that trumpism exemplifies. Hopefully this will happen before the wannabe populists secure more footholds in other parts of the world.

I'm just looking forward to the smile on Kylie Morris's face on the day that Trump is vanquished.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Choose Life

I watched the original Trainspotting film last night and heard the revamped monologue from T2 Trainspotting in the trailer for the new film.

Choose life
Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares
Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently
And choose watching history repeat itself
Choose your future
Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn
Choose a zero hour contract, a two hour journey to work
And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen
And then… take a deep breath
You’re an addict, so be addicted
Just be addicted to something else
Choose the ones you love
Choose your future
Choose life”



I chose life this morning and it was stunning, really stunning!

Loch Ard trails




Saturday, 21 January 2017

Obama: epoch, period or comma?

Will ye no come back again

I watched the whole of the Presidential inauguration ceremony and like many others, I was struck by the contrast between the magnanimity and graciousness of the Obamas as they slipped away and the insolitous barbed comments and barely concealed arrogance of President Trump. The way they respectively greeted the assembled guests: the great, the good and the bad could not have provided a sharper contrast in style.

The Obamas even had an infectious friendship with George and Laura Bush as well as the Clintons that looked genuine. Barack Obama spoke to the guests as he entered and left the proceedings, meanwhile Donald Trump patted them on the back whilst turning away. Melanie Trump wore Ralph Lauren, Michelle Obama wore her emotions. The half empty streets down Pennsylvanian Avenue were not just because of the rain. They showed the hard core of Trump supporters and according to best estimates, not the facts claimed by Trump's Press secretary, Sean Spicer, there were far fewer present than at any recent inauguration.

As he bade farewell to his staff before leaving by helicopter, Obama told them: "Our democracy is not the buildings." "It's you, being willing to listen to each other and argue with each other and come together and knock on doors and make phone calls and treat people with respect. And that doesn't end, this is just a little pit stop." “This is not a period,” he said. “This is a comma in the continuing story of building America.”

I just hope that he is right, the prospect of Humpty Trumpty sitting on his wall before his great fall has the sort of resonance that is appealing. I doubt that all of GOPs men would rush to put him together again.