Saturday, 9 December 2017

Polyshambles, the Brexit negotiations

Unwitting Saviours of the Customs Union?
Brexit, don't you just hate it and all the confusion it causes as well as the all encompassing damage it is imposing on so many aspects of life from inflation, failure to tackle real issues, political hatred, and the mood of despair. This week has been both the worst of worst weeks and, just possibly, the best of worst weeks.

One of the frequent phrases thrown about by Mrs May during her ill thought out General Election campaign was that "we have a plan for Brexit", unlike the Labour Party who were dismissed as being all over the place. Six months on, she is still claiming she has a plan. No one has seen it and, sadly for her sake, it is not shared by many of her cabinet, or the age advantaged ranks of the Tory party, or the DUP, or the civil service.

This week started with yet another collapse of negotiations as the DUP called foul on Mrs May in her attempt to obfuscate the proposals to have no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and to remain outside the custom union. The chief negotiator, David Davis, made another bored cheery chappie appearance at the 'Exiting the European Union Parliamentary Committee' and showed no remorse for having misled the Committee into believing he had impact assessments for 58 industrial sectors. Nor did he have a contingency plan if there was no deal or know what day of the week it was tomorrow. Four days later Mrs May returned to Brussels in a pre dawn sortie armed with words trawled from a thesaurus by her team of advisers that were designed to confuse the DUP, amuse the EU and create a temporary truce in the cabinet, who then hailed her as the new Boadicea.

I have really struggled to understand the implications of the agreement after watching several news programmes and reading numerous articles. Then a friend sent me an article from the Irish Times, Ireland has just saved the UK from the madness of a hardbrexit, by the excellent Fintan O' Toole. It seemed to shed some light and also gave some sense of hope that the hard brexiteers may have been wrong footed. This was confirmed when the serial duplicitous brexiteer, Michael Gove, claimed that we could change the proposals agreed by voting to change them at the next general election.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Meall Buiridh, Glen Ogle

Radio Mast below Meall Buidhe, Ben More behind
Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Ascent:    475 metres
Distance  8 kilometres
Time:      2 hours 35minutes

Beinn Leabhainn    709m   1hr 10mins
Meall Buidhe          719m   1hr 29mins

The cold spell had continued for  a whole week and today promised to be sunny albeit with cold northerly winds. With no munros or corbetts within 3 hours of home and still suffering from a heavy cold and a bark of a cough, I looked out a reasonably close and easy Graham to climb. Meall Buidhe seemed to meet the criteria, a 40 minute drive away and only 3 hours including the adjacent hill Beinn Leabhainn. The start of the walk at the top of Glen Ogle is where a RAF Tornado jet had crashed in 1994, an event that led to a new manual on Emergency Planning procedures that was not much use for the next emergency. There is 320 metres of ascent by a good track to a massive radio aerial. From here the going gets tough but today the boggy ground had been frozen hard and there was a good sprinkling of fresh snow.

I decided to climb Beinn Leabhainn first so that the wind would be behind me for the walk over to the higher twin summit of Meall Buidhe. The going was not easy with wind, snow, icy patches and heather conspiring to make each step a bit of a lottery. Still it was probably preferable to the bog at other times of the year. The views opened up as I clambered upwards.  The Ben Lawers range was partly in cloud, Ben More and Stob Binnein were shimmering in the west and the long ridge of Breadalbane hills looked tempting in the snow. There were a few grey clouds about to give the day a feel of deep winter. I reached the summit and for the first time all year celebrated with a flask of coffee. It was too cold to sit for long and the summit of Meall Buidhe looked very distant. I had to check the map on my phone to make sure of the route across. It involved a walk across a frozen lochan, a steep drop and then another 50 metre climb. The views towards Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin at the summit were good although the late morning sun was directly above them.

The descent to the track was more tricky with some rock bands to negotiate and the snow lying deep between the heathers. I decided to head back to the radio mast rather than take a more direct route and enjoyed another 10 minute break for coffee once I was protected by the hillside and regaled by the sun. I was back at the car just after noon. The A85 was clogged with lorries driving slowly so I listened to PMs questions that were thankfully Brexit free. I have never known such a pathetic palaver as the government's attempt to deliver its divorce papers to the EU but today the depute prime minister, Damian Green, came close in attempting to defend their management of the NHS.

Breadalbane Hills from Beinn Leabhainn
The Lawers range across Loch Tay
Ben Vorlich and Stuc A' Chroin across Loch Earn
Looking north to Beinn Leabhainn
Cold feet guaranteed
Tarmachan in winter
Sgiath Chuil across Glen Dochart

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Rob Roy Way: Strathyre to Callander

The start of the section at Strathyre
Thursday, 23 November 2017
16 kilometres, 3 hours 10 minutes

My attempt to walk the Rob Roy Way has been abysmal. I started about 4 years ago and completed the fifth section today(Two more to go). I treat it as something to do on the odd half day when I do not have the inclination to go hill walking. I had a dreadful winter cold and cough and had been struggling to summon the energy to even walk to the shops. I had spent a few days moping about the house and sorting out accounts and watching the budget. The early morning fog had cleared to reveal  a good dump of snow down to about 400 metres on Ben Lomond. I needed a walk so drove to Callander and caught a bus to Strathyre so that I could walk back the 16 kilometres to Callander along the west side of Loch Lubnaig. It was 12:15pm before I started the walk by the newly refurbished Munro Hotel.

The low angle of the sun meant that most of the walk would be in shadow but the compensation would be the scintillating views across the loch. The primary school at Strathyre was undergoing a major refurbishment. It had been one of the better primary schools with about 40 pupils and excellent staff. It had taken a lot of effort to close the nearby Lochearnhead Primary School that had only 7 pupils, most had already elected to go the Strathyre. What should have been a logical and straightforward decision was delayed unnecessaily by the new Scottish Government in 2007. They believed that all schools should stay open and that decisions like this could be centralised with little understanding of the local issues such as the inclination of the hedteacher to retire.

The narrow road leaving Strathyre passes a lot of former Forestry Commission houses, some of which had been extensively modernised, others lay empty. Eventually the cycle and footpath leave the road and by a series of zig zags descend to the old railway track. Most of the going from here is relatively flat as you pass Laggan House, where a lot of construction is taking place. A micro hydro scheme has been installed and the generator was buzzing. I had estimated about 3 hours for the walk and was halfway through before passing the first person, a teenager who was pedalling his mountain bike at speed from the south. The sun had diappeared for a while but reappeared to spotlight the opposite shore of the loch where Ardchullarie House stood proud. This was where Jim Kerr of Simple Minds and Patsy Kensit had lived in the late 1980's.

I was halfway along and the path on the former railway line that cuts through the conifer plantations with a dogged monotony. As I approached the Forest Holiday chalets, 44 of them, the pedestrian traffic increased with dog walkers taking their afternoon stroll in the sharp winter sunshine. A couple of profesional dog walkers from Glasgow told me that they came every year, loved the location but felt it was becoming too corporate with prices to match. The cafeteria welcomed passing visitors and the offerings were tempting but I didn't need any refreshments.

It was still a couple of kilometres to the Stank from where the path to Ben Ledi starts. I scanned the snowline above and decided not today. I continued along the footpath to Kilmahog realising that I would pass the Lenny Falls. Although I have lived, walked, cycled and run in the area for 30 years I had never been to see them. The river was in full flow and the falls impressive as they gouged their way through the rock bands. Approaching Kilmahog I was feeling the effects of the walk but I managed to keep a decent pace across the meadows to Callander. I had organised a charity run along this section many years ago but like all of the path from the Forest chalets south it was now a tarmac trail, easier to maintain but less forgiving on the feet.

It was just after 3pm as I entered Callander. Two Police Scotland vehicles with four officers were patrolling the car park for what reason I could not fathom, it was fairly empty apart from a mother and her children feeding the ducks. When policing was local it would have been a foot patrol but nowadays Police Scotland are for most of the time a absent concept and when on a rare visit they are hermetically sealed from the local population by their vehicles. I have seen few if any benefits from the creation of a national police force. The police have lost their former close relationship with communities that was the essence of effective policing. Instead the closure of local offices, putting officers in cars, driving with sirens blazing, arming an increasing numbers of officers and getting rid of civilians from back offices has not endeared them to the public, local or national politicians. All of which was predicted when the changes were mooted. The Police Board have not exactly distinguished themselves and they seem to be trapped between the extensive operational powers of the Chief Constable(s) who rotate as quickly as their local superindendents at the Council level and the interference from the Scottish Government.

I strolled down Callander main street aware that it has lost much of its former charm since it was absorbed into the National Park. The woollen mills and charity shops in the main street, the loss of many local shops and the Royal Bank and the decrepid state of many commercial buildings have damaged the viability and vitality of the town. The steady stream of commercial and tourist traffic on the A84 heading north to places that have exploited their attractions with more finesse is a warning that has not been heeded by either businesses or the National Park. The investments by the NHS in a new Health Centre, together with the Council's refurbishment of primary and high schools, a new sports centre and a new cemetery are the only signs of progress in the town.

Forgotten logs

Loch Lubnaig from north

Across Loch Lubnaig to Stuc a' Chroin

Ardchullarie House

Looking back up Loch Lubnaig frpm south

Beinn Each and Ardchullarie More

First snow

Forestry Chalets

Lenny Falls

Kilmahog crossing

Callanader Meadows

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The budget

Brexit mutineer captured
They just don't get it. Phillip Hammond gave an upbeat performance for someone with a reputation of  having less charisma than a spreadsheet. Not that it made a lot of difference. Like all Chancellors he threw out a lot of positive sounding figures, most of which were repeats of existing spending plans but were being reduced (although this was not mentioned) because of falling productivity and income streams.

Whilst some effort was made to make a case for housing investment and extra money for the NHS, the proposals were soon exposed by the political analysts as political hype. Even the right wing commentator and bruiser, Andrew Neil, skewered the lamentable Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, by showing that on any measure things had just got progressively worse since 2010. For example social housing had fallen from 36,000 houses a year in 2010 to just 5600 a year in 2016. Even the extra money for social housing would  only support an extra 3000 houses per annum and her claim that they were building more houses was simply preposterous.

Great play was made by Hammond of the investment in HS2 and Crossrail, the two biggets infrastructure projects in Europe but both further concentrating investment in the south east. Meanwhile the Trans Pennine route may get some cash for broadband on the trains. That's the extent of government priority for the northern powerhouse for you.

The main omission of the budget, as in every year since 2007, is that local government and public services have been sacrificed on the alter of treasury ignorance and ministerial incompetence. Ten years of austerity has resulted in many services barely functioning. 25% of staff have been lost through retirement, redundancy and non replacement of leavers. Buildings and land have been sold off, supplies and services cut back and important regulatory functions are failing to meet the schedules required to maintain standards. The remaining staff having had 7 years of pay cuts in real terms. Many developments and local initiatives that were dependent upon Councils have been abandoned or simply not emerged from the tunnel of despondency that the goverment has pushed local government into over the past seven years.

It needn't have been like this, I remember several meetings with Alistair Darling in 2008/2009, he was determined to invest in local developments to bring us out of the recession. Looking back at the economic performance since the recession, his strategy had started to work before his successor,George Osborne, stamped on the brakes of austerity. It is worth noting that the total national debt has grown from £1010bn to £1729bn (88% of the GDP) at a time when the principal objective was to pay off the debt. As the graph below shows the experiment in austerity has not been the answer that Cameron and Osborne promised and not unexpectedly Keynes was right.

If we add the centralisation of functions by both Westminster and Holyrood governments over the same period and their innate ability to micro manage (witness Police Scotland or school funding) we are watching a nation in freefall. All the evidence suggests that this is now being exacerbated as the uncertainty about Brexit deters future investment. What was remarkable this afternoon was the similarity of criticism of the budget from the TUC, the Institute of Directors, small businesses and public services. The Chancellor was trying to do too little too late and the consequences are dire.

Monday, 13 November 2017


Plaza Mayor
Madrid is a city that I have struggled with. Spain's Royal City with its strong connotations with Franco and the Spanish Civil War ruled it out of any visits before his death in 1975 and the establishment of a constitution in 1978. However the lack of vitamin D as the autumn months served a monotonous regime of dull days made me search for some respite. Everyone else had the same idea the Canaries were booked up. Madrid was cheap, probably because of the Catalan conflict and the arrest of the Catalan government by the Madrid based government.  I booked and we arrived at a good hotel in Justicia, a mile or so north of the centre.

The flight to Madrid brought us over the Sierra de Guadarrama, north of Madrid where a massive monument had been erected to the fallen in the civil war. The monument in the Valley of the Fallen includes a basilica, an abbey, a 150 metre high cross on a granite tor and Franco's tomb. The flight passed above it and in the perfectly clear Spanish skies we observed the empty landscapes that surround it and are avoided by the large majority of the Spanish population as they seek to eliminate the memory of Franco and the devastation of the civil war. I was rereading The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, a book that chronicles the reconcilliation of Spain in the years after Franco.

Valley of the Fallen
For five days we languished in the museums, parks, plazas, streets and even managed a day trip to Toledo. It was a great success, cool sunny days, friendly people, good food and drink and a place that rewards just walking the streets from morning until dusk at 5:30pm. We covered miles without ever having to think hard about what to do next. Stop, have a drink and some tapas, move on to the next attraction, repeat.

It was helpful having our European Health Insurance cards with our dates of birth, I'm not sure if these will exist post Brexit, but as older European citizens it gave us either free or reduced entrance fees to the three great museums of Art. We began on the first evening in the Prado, exploring the Velasquez and Goya's. The next day took us to the Musee Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia with its modern art collection including Picasso's Guernica that was attracting crowds of students throughout our visit but we returned to it on three occasions to be mesmerised by Picasso's imagination.

In many ways the most enjoyable museum was the Musee Thyssen Bornemisza. It had an exhibition of Picasso and Lautrec showing the close relationship of the work of the two artists who had captured bohemian life in Paris at the turn of the century. But the whole gallery flowed with its eclectic mix of twentieth century artists. Particularly striking was Lucien Freud's Last Portrait as we spent a couple of hours in the relaxed ambience of this excellent museum.

Last Portrait by Lucien Freud
As always in large cities, I was captivated by the Plazas. In Madrid they seemed to follow the design principles recognised by Camillo Sitte's in his book The Art of Building Cities, a book that still resonates in my memory forty odd years since it was part of the core syllabus of a post graduate course. The height and shape of the buildings, the closure of the space by buildings, the human scale and the diversity of the buildings in both function and design are all components of a successful plaza. The Plazas in Madrid seem to function well with pedestrians milling about at all hours, there are places to sit or stand and observe, civic art, and a palatte of materials that traduces the visitor.

Only on a Sunday did things break down when it seemed the whole of Madrid congregated at El Rastro, the flea market. The highlight was the numerous street bands playing with a verve that lifted spirits. None more so than Jingle Django, a street band who gave a rendition of 'I am a Walrus' that brought folk flocking from the crowded street market.

Parque del Buen Restiro, the main civic park, became a regular haunt that we visited on three or four occasions. Superbly designed and maintained it contained all the attractions that a park should have in a major city; it heaved with locals engaging in every activity. Runners, cyclists, skate boarders, wheelchairs and pushchairs, musicians, artists, dog walkers, rowers, scullers, book huts, cafeterias and botanic gardens; it had them all and a joyous atmosphere. We were deeply moved by an installation by Doris Salcedo in the Palacio de Cristal that was in memory of all those who had lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to a new life in Europe. Their names were displayed in palimsets on the floor.

I managed a run in the park on the Sunday morning and returning to the hotel I had to cross the ring road that had been closed for a major road race between the two great football stadiums: the Bernabeu and the newly opened Estadio Metropolitano. There were 12,000 runners mostly attired in Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid tops. I joined in as a means of crossing the road but enjoyed the bands playing along the route and the camaraderie so much that I ran with them for a mile or so before stepping off at the other side of the road and returning to the hotel. It epitomised Madrid, a city that raises your engagement. It had provided sunshine, friendly locals, wonderful museums, a built environment to enjoy and a history that should be an antidote to oligarchical tendencies everywhere.

San Francisco El Grande
Dome of San Francisco El Grande
Residential buildings in Chueca
Young and Old playing in Bueno Retiro Park
And the band began to play

From the Crystal Palace, Park Buen Retiro
Crystal Palace in Buen Retiro

Palimset, the names of those drowned making their way to Europe
Skyscape in Park Buen Retiro

Fun and Sun in November - Buen Retiro

Jeronimos Apartments by the Prado
Plaza de la Armeria
Plaza de Santa Ana
One of the many excellent street bands

El Rastro Sunday flea market

Jingle Django singing I am a Walrus, 

Street Art

Time to leave

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Rapscallion cabinet: two down, eight to go

I was asked by a friend who shares my despair with the present government which of the present cabinet I would like to see go. I got to ten without pausing for breath. I added Ian Duncan Smith as my bonus ball even though he was no longer in the cabinet after he had screwed up the introduction of Universal Credit. I excluded Mrs May but the fact that she had appointed the worst cabinet in my lifetime merely confirmed her as unsuitable for office. This together with her inability to answer any questions ever put to her in PM questions or by journalists. Her constant tendency to repeat a few ill chosen phrases such "to ensure that the UK" or "let me make it absolutely clear" usually results in the opposite outcome as she trundles out her vacuous repetitive riddles.

Back to her cabinet, the common characteristics amongst the ten true blue rapscallions are a mixture of arrogance, pompous manner, inability to analyse facts, doctrinaire views and incompetence. Their lack of ability or inclination to deliver fairness, sustainable or coherent policies, empathy for the "just about managing" together with their involvement with dubious corporate interests, the mega rich and alt right luminaries makes them a dangerous as well as deranged bunch.

They are in roughly descending order from beginning with the worst:

Liam Fox
Michael Gove
Priti Patel
Boris Johnson
Michael Fallon
Jeremy Hunt
Andrea Leadsom
Chris Grayling
Liz Truss
Brandon Lewis
with Duncan Smith as a bonus ball

I was pleased to see that two of them, Michael Fallon and Priti Patel have been vanquished this week, not for their inept performance as ministers, but inappropriate behaviour. Both of them have already made lamentable excuses for their eviction, which merely confirms their unsuitability for any public office.

As the Brexit debacle continues to rumble on, backwards ever backwards, the NHS continues to crumble and parliament is denied access to information by the leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, the chances are that there will be more departures in the months ahead. Sadly the forces of common sense on the government benches like Sarah Woollaston, Heidi Allan, Dominic Grieve, Nicki Morgan and the indefatigable Anna Soubrey have been exiled by the whips and castigated by the pro Brexit media from ever holding office under this putrid government. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Eclipse of Monochrome Days

Path through the oak woods
After months of grey days and rain we were treated to blue skies and a glimpse of autumn without the monochrome colours of a dreary October. I had spent yesterday on a rain infected day marking out the route for a night trail race and then marshalling the event, walking about 15 kilometres in the process. The pleasure was in seeing 137 folk enjoying the event with the male/female split just about even.

I grabbed a camera and walked through the oakwood behind the house followed the trails through the Duke's pass until reaching the steep path that climbs the flanks of Craig Mhor and continued to the summit where the views of the mountains and surrounding landscapes inspired me. The normal path down had become overgrown in the summer and I had to wade through the bracken before discovering a new path on the lower slopes. I arrived home as the sun disappeared and the first clear night of the winter promised frost.

Autumn shades

Tree funghi
Ben Ledi
Looking down on the village
Loch Ard and Ben Lomond from Craig Mhor