Whispers in the Void


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The day after

On the morning of Friday June 24th we shall wake up to news of the result of the UK’s EU referendum.  A frankly infantile campaign, that has become pretty dark in the last week or so, will mercifully be over and we can move on with our lives.  An unscientific survey of my social circle was unable to unearth anyone willing to admit to voting for the UK to leave the EU; either everyone I know wishes to remain in the union or my relentless campaigning for Scottish independence in 2014 made some people wary of raising their heads above the parapet.  Either way, I will assume that the majority of those reading this will be pro-EU and I address this post to you.

On June 24th 2016 we shall awake to a new reality.  Either the UK will be dusting itself off and trying to move back to business as usual or the government will be beginning the process of withdrawing from the EU.  With both scenarios presenting significant challenges what should the pro-European half of the population do?

Scenario 1: The UK leaves the EU

It has been suggested that the pro-EU majority of MPs will drag out the withdrawal process to allow the public to see what “Brexit” actually entails anBorisd allow for the possibility of a second referendum.  While possible I would suggest that for many MPs this course of action would be thought indefensible in the face of a clear popular mandate to leave the EU.  Therefore, Friday 24th June would likely see David Cameron resign and a formal request from the UK to enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin negotiations to leave the EU.  (The possibility that the government may hold off on this to maximise the negotiation period is unlikely as a snubbed EU would rather force the issue than allow the UK to have its cake and eat it).

In this scenario the pro-EU of us must first of all accept the new reality; bleating and moaning will serve no useful purpose.  Instead we must encourage our sympathetic elected representatives to formulate a united position on future engagement with the EU.  In Scotland this is already taking shape with the Scottish Government planning to explore options with the EU for close co-operation beyond a Brexit.  Precedent exists for multi-level membership within member-states but only thanks to the co-operation of the state government; however, it is extremely doubtful that a heavily centralised jingoistic UK government would ever permit such a scenario.  This tactic would, though, aid any future Scottish state in fast-tracking EU membership negotiations should such an eventuality come to pass.

Ultimately the likely difficult transition out of the EU could lead to a change of mood within the population.  Pro-Europeans must shun the pathetic insult to the intelligence that the irredeemably negative Remain campaign has been and immediately begin a positive, inclusive debate about the UK’s place in the world.  Immigration must be rebranded from the grass roots up and the agenda wrestled from the right-wing press; the true reasons for working-class alienation and impoverishment must be highlighted and addressed.  Not until the political debate in the UK is reframed can long-term solutions be found and the only way that will happen is for people to take the mantle on for themselves.  The Scottish referendum campaign showed that people can make a difference if they take control and demand change.  Should Leave win on Thursday the time for everyone to examine what more they can do individually will have come.

Scenario 2: The UK stays in the EU

A vote to remain will result in a huge sigh of relief; however, it would be a mistake to just relish the moment and carry on as if nothing had happened.  This campaign, like the EU-referendum-smallScottish independence campaign, will change the UK forever.  Any victory will be narrow and the losing side will not be going anywhere.  While the likes of Johnson, Gove and Duncan-Smith will be side-lined by the Cameron regime they won’t disappear quietly into the background.  Nigel Farage has become even more emboldened, despite recent missteps, and will set himself up as the true leader of the opposition, even from outwith parliament (probably from his ubiquitous appearances on the BBC’s Question Time).  Indeed, should the police investigations into Conservative Party electoral fraud result in overturned results and by-elections, UKIP could well become a very vocal voice in parliament, likely bolstered by further defections from the Conservative Party.  The astute amongst you will note that this scenario would result in the loss of a Tory majority in Westminster, what price a Tory-UKIP coalition?  The irony of a re-affirmation of the UK’s EU future could result in the most anti-European government since the days of Great Power politics.

Whatever the parliamentary arithmetic, a large, newly emboldened, battle-hardened and organised anti-EU coalition will become a permanent fixture in UK politics.  It therefore falls on those of us who support the EU project to continue the argument for tolerance, enlightened co-operation and the principle of freedom of movement.  No longer should we allow our politicians and media to misrepresent the EU at every turn; we should call out UK governments who blame UK problems on some nebulous concept of unelected Eurocrats when the blame lies at home.  The age-old tactic of “othering” the poor, down-trodden and dispossessed, wherever they hail from, should be exposed as the diversion that it is.  The sickening hypocrisy of multi-millionaire cabinet ministers and billionaire media barons blaming the world’s ills on the most powerless in society must be trumpeted from the roof-tops.

Come Friday June 24th the referendum will be over but the argument will be just beginning.


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Turn it down!

A friend recently posted a short video of a languidly calm summer evening on the west coast of Scotland.  As he panned round from his position on the quayside it wasn’t the stunning natural beauty that resonated, impressive though it was, but the peace and tranquillity that really struck me.  As a city dweller true peace and quiet can come as a shock to the system.

Shortly after viewing the video I left my flat to walk across town for an appointment.  As is my wont I popped my earphones in to listen to a podcast as I walked, setting the volume to a comfortable level before setting out.  Within 100 metres of home I could no longer hear a word that was being said, such was the roar of the traffic.32_17_b4busnoise3_z  Keeping pace with a diesel powered bus for the best part of half a mile, the self-defeating madness of road congestion and pollution levels aside, I found myself upping the volume of my phone and manually pressing the earphones further into my ears, merely to try and make out what had 2 minutes earlier been perfectly audible.  Not a healthy course of action.

Traffic noise has long been a pet peeve of mine but on this occasion what struck me was that we, as a society, blindly accept it as part of life.  Why, when we are readily critical of so many things, do some areas become acceptable irritants?  Perhaps, like smoking in public places or allowing your dog’s effluent to decorate children’s play parks, society will one day turn against this particular pollutant and action will be taken.  The excellent Lost Edinburgh page on facebook shares photographs of the city in days gone by and one of the most striking things for me is quite how recently the streets seem to be relatively devoid of traffic.  We are talking about a civic menace that has emerged in the space of a mere few decades, a couple of generations at most.  Perhaps we are akin to the proverbial frog luxuriating in a saucepan, if so we need to snap out of it as I’m starting to smell something that is making me hungry.

Hyperbole perhaps, but this issue is emblematic of a largely somnolent society who question little about the environment in which they live.  I heard a wonderful quote on the radio yesterday where someone, I’m afraid I don’t know who, said of the UK that it “is in a race to be second” – other countries get there first then we pile in.  Heaven forfend that we should actually innovate or be the first to try something in our depressingly risk-averse culture.  The recent announcement from Norway about phasing out vehicles powered by fossil fuels shows their self-confidence and innovative nature.  Why has UK society become so timid?  I’m sure anyone reading this will have experienced the prevailing can’t do attitude in this country whenever someone comes up with a new idea.  Scepticism and derision are not uncommon as people are eyed suspiciously for getting above themselves for merely suggesting experimenting with ideas sometimes commonplace in other countries.

We, then, must rise above this.  Let’s re-join the race to be first, be bold and try things.  If they don’t work then we can try again.  Edinburgh is dotted with statues of people who thought big and acted on these thoughts – the world’s first fire brigade, scientific breakthroughs by the dozen, philosophers who inspired the founding fathers of the United States, writers, poets, the list goes on – but how many from the last century or so?  Okay, statue building may have gone out of fashion to some extent but there was a reason that a period of time became known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  People questioned the very foundations of their understanding of the world and changed it.  Looking at the state of flux the world finds itself in at the start of the 21st century, I would argue that never has there been a more apposite time to look around and challenge why things are done the way they are.

So let’s start thinking differently about the unnecessary noise we must endure on our city streets.

Karl Jiig

Drawn by Karl Jiig

Electric buses are commonplace abroad, as are pedestrianised city centres with bus and tram corridors.  Cycling is still very much an afterthought in city planning, a bit of coloured tarmac where parking is tolerated is a box ticking exercise for lazy city administrations.  Ban cars and urban environments become more pleasant places to be overnight.  Once space is reclaimed from motor vehicles people want to spend more time in them and will feel safe enough to get around on foot or by bike.  This more active a population the healthier they become and a virtuous cycle can be initiated, and that’s not even factoring in the benefits of cleaner air and reduced journey times.  It just takes political will and that will only happen when the people demand it.  Demand it.

The alternative is the vicious circle of the safety of group think.  When electric cars first started to prick the public’s conscience I remember reading of a campaign to have all such vehicles fitted with a loud speaker to emit sufficient noise so as to alert pedestrians, primarily those who are blind, to their approach.  While society should make every effort to take into consideration those with a disability the notion that one day our roads will be free from the cacophonous combustion engine but instead be filled by Toyota’s equivalent of the Nokia ring-tone, or the outpourings of strangers’ god-awful music collections, fills me with despair.  Imagine the very last thing you hear as you step off a kerb is 2030’s version of the Crazy Frog or your local primary school choir’s rendition of The Wheels of the bus go round and round as the number 23 decorates the highway with your entrails?


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An evening of tedium

Last Thursday I attended a hustings for the UK parliamentary constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith, which was fortunate as that is where I happen to live. With exactly three weeks to go before the UK General Election I was quite excited to attend my first ever hustings, and to re-engage in politics after my self-imposed hiatus following the Scottish independence referendum.

I arrived at Broughton St Mary’s Parish Church on Bellevue Crescent and took my place amongst a hearteningly sizeable crowd of about 100 interested constituents. Looking around I observed the expected grey-haired tweed-clad gentility of the surrounding well-to-do New Town streets but also an encouraging amount of young people in normal clothes (and by that I mean under 45 and wearing jeans… I still view myself as young, no matter how deluded that sounds).

On the stage in front of the pulpit were seven austere Presbyterian wooden chairs awaiting those presumptuous enough to think they could represent us in parliament. As the clock ticked round to 7:30 the final candidate, the incumbent MP, sauntered over from the back of the hall to take up the remaining empty post. An “esteemed” local, the Financial Times Scotland Correspondent, was introduced as moderator, hushing the expectant crowd.

Each candidate, arranged in alphabetical order, was allowed two minutes to introduce themselves and say something about why they should have the dubious pleasure of attending the House of Commons on our behalf. So far, so straightforwardly pedestrian.

Unfortunately, that proved to be the high point. The first inquisitor seemed to have little grasp of the concept of the question and rambled on about herself and her feminist manifesto before being interrupted and the panel asked about their views on why it has taken so long for an Equal Pay Act, passed decades ago, to have any discernible impact on pay levels for women. Each candidate spouted platitudes for 90 seconds, a hotel receptionist’s bell having been acquired to cut short the verbose, before, bizarrely, a new question was taken without further ado.

It became clear that our esteemed moderator could have been a six-year-old child, such was the requirement for him to merely point at people with their hands up to ask a question. Candidates could spout any old unsubstantiated nonsense, and they did, with no proper challenge (apart from candidates who were speaking after them, in strict alphabetical order of course). The questioner was not allowed to put their view or say whether the candidates had suitably answered their question.

During a question surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) my heart soared as an eccentrically dressed gentleman with quite magnificent facial hair started heckling… politics had broken out at last! Unfortunately a wave of tweed-clad tutting washed across the hall, throwing the starched disapproval of Edinburgh’s self-important tweederati upon our free-spirited pebble as it broke over his individuality.

I found myself thrown back to my childhood Sunday mornings, press-ganged as I had been to attend similar gatherings of outwardly pious neighbours dressed to show their status in the community. The ostensible reason for communing with god in reality only an opportunity to confirm their superiority in society through mutual disapproval of outsiders. Here again I found myself repelled by my cosy, smug “betters” showering disdain on anyone who dared to think differently, as clearly society was working just fine for them so why change it.

The admirable attempt by some to challenge this comfortable orthodoxy by asking pertinent questions were dulled by the stultifying format to such an extent that the boredom you are probably feeling right now propelled me from my seat and out into the crisp spring evening. On completing the short walk home I tweeted my exasperation at the crushingly dull nature of the event to the organisers and was invited to share my thoughts on how to improve future meetings; an invitation I have taken up although I’m not sure I can bring myself to find out if they ever take my advice.

One lost evening is probably enough.

*For a report of the event from the organisers, the local paper The Broughton Spurtle, click here.


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L’affaire Telegraph

For those of you with staying power you will discover as this blog progresses that I’m quite a political animal.  I know this can be a turn off for many so I shall be exercising restraint and provide you with posts on a variety of topics but I would urge you to give me a chance when you notice the indentations on the page are a little deeper than usual, my indignation or enthusiasm being expressed with force on my long-suffering keyboard.  My intention will be to inform and pose some questions for you to think about, not rant or lecture, and hopefully I will succeed in making it interesting and occasionally entertaining.  I will tentatively dip my toe into the political pool with some thoughts on a recent stushie* in the UK election campaign.  Please bear with me as I try and set the scene on what is a rather convoluted story.

On Friday 3 April The Telegraph newspaper lead with a story claiming that nationalist First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, had expressed an opinion that she would prefer the Conservative David Cameron to remain Prime Minister of the UK after the general election on 7 May.  This was newsworthy because Ms Sturgeon has consistently said she would never support a Conservative government and, if true, would seriously undermine her position, and that of her party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), in the eyes of many Scots voters who, for a variety of historical reasons, deem the Conservative Party beyond the pale.  The revelation was gleaned from a leaked memorandum from a UK government department currently in a pre-election period known as <em>purdah</em> which strictly bans the distribution of any material deemed political in nature.  This memorandum contains an account of a conversation between Ms Sturgeon and the French Ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann.  The account was written by a civil servant relaying a report by a Foreign Office official of an account of what the French Consul General heard about a meeting that he did not attend (I told you it was convoluted).

All very explosive in terms of the election but, within 60 minutes of the story appearing online the night before, bizarrely in the Daily Mail and not The Telegraph, both Ms Sturgeon and Ms Bermann had issued categorical denials.  The following morning the French Consul General also denied ever reporting that such a pronouncement had been made.  It also emerged that the Foreign Office official also expressed doubts that such a thing could be true in his report.

Aaand, take a deep breath…

Essentially we have a story that isn’t true appearing on the front page of two major UK newspapers based on a leak from a UK government department that is expressly forbidden from engaging in anything remotely political.  Despite this all major broadcasters ran with the story, unchallenged, until mid-morning on Friday and it wasn’t until that afternoon that any of the UK media, specifically BBC Scotland’s James Cook, actually bothered to ask Ms Sturgeon directly for a quote (including, incredibly, The Telegraph itself).  During this time, the denials were given equal billing to the original story, giving it some level of legitimacy, and Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour Party, continued to treat the story as true in his pronouncements, ultimately undermining his credibility in the eyes of many.

Add into this mix that senior figures in the Scottish Labour Party, possible electoral beneficiaries should support for the SNP suffer, were tweeting links to the Daily Mail story a mere couple of minutes after it went live (with suspiciously similar wording) and you begin to wonder if there was some element of co-ordination.

To put this in context, the SNP has for several months been showing a 20% lead in opinion polls in Scotland such that it is likely that they will be the third largest party in the UK parliament following the election.  With neither the Conservatives or Labour expected to achieve an overall majority this eventuality would leave the SNP as kingmakers.  The prospect of this has resulted in several months of demonisation of the SNP, and more worryingly of Scots in general, in sections of the English-based UK media.  With Ms Sturgeon largely being seen as the winner in the  leader’s debate on Tuesday 31 March, the timing of the Telegraph story has raised eyebrows.  The anti-establishment “threat” (and I use that word advisedly) posed by the SNP to the cosy world of Westminster politics is leading to some quite startling levels of hysteria amongst bastions of the UK establishment.

Clearly this is just paranoia, all one big whacky conspiracy theory, the UK is a crucible of democracy surely?  Unfortunately those of us living in Scotland are acutely aware of what happens when the British state is threatened.  The Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 was won by those wishing to remain part of the UK but the tactics deployed during that campaign by the unionists, and subsequent public gloating admissions of underhand and illegal activity, serve to show this latest incident in more sinister light.  Senior UK civil servants declared their legally bound duty of impartiality did not apply to them when they felt the UK was under threat, indeed prizes were handed out for junior staff for their, explicitly illegal, “campaigning” activities.

In this environment, a government leak of an official document written by a civil servant to an establishment newspaper, whose story was previewed to politicians of both major parties, which was a complete fabrication, appears far more worrying.  Add into the mix that a friendly foreign power has been dragged into this sorry mess and you wonder at the lengths the British state will go to shore up its power.  Bear in mind that Scottish independence isn’t on the cards at the moment.  Scotland merely has an opportunity to positively influence the UK politically, perhaps for the first time ever, and apparent panic has ensued.  What does that say about the nature of the United Kingdom?

On a wider point, what does it say about the establishment view of the outsider, the other?  Speak to those involved in the miner’s strike in 1984 and the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and you hear similar tales of media manipulation and collusion at the highest level.  We all know that people in power would quite like to keep that power, in many ways that’s human nature, but the point of a pluralistic democratic society is to provide checks and balances to protect the population from abuses of that power.

Today it is Scotland that is feeling the full force of this self-preservation, tomorrow it could be some other element of our society.  For those looking in from outside you may well accuse me of exaggeration but it’s the complacency of the masses that has allowed this to go on for so long.  The democratisation of the media provided by the internet and social media has loosened the control of the message and, from a Scottish perspective, the independence campaign politically educated the population to a degree probably never seen in our history.  The Telegraph affair of the last few days has backfired massively as Scots have seen right through it, if anything support for the SNP will rise as a result of it.  People see that they need a bulwark against such nonsense and voting for the same-as-usual parties will not provide that.  We are lucky to have such an option and, should opinion polls be vindicated, Scotland may well have over 80% of their representatives in the UK parliament from the SNP to challenge the vested interests of power and privilege.  Should this come to pass it is our duty to then shine that light of scepticism and vigilance onto the SNP as well because, at the risk of ending this on a cliché, with great power comes great responsibility.

*Stushie is a Scottish word that, for me, is vastly superior to any English translation, namely a fuss or commotion.  I have no idea if I have spelled it correctly.


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The re-emergence of self

Having set out such lofty aims for myself in this blog I have spent some time wondering what topic should have the honour of first proper post. Dare I risk scaring off early adopters with something political, alienate half of you with something sporty or destroy the whole project before it starts with a cringe worthy attempt at a short story? Pitfalls abound so I have decided to go for something more personal that I hope you find interesting and possibly even tugs a note of familiarity from somewhere in your own experience.

I have only recently emerged from my own personal form of hibernation. Every year, round about the time that the clocks go forward, millions of people living in the temperate latitudes of the world feel the dead weight of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) fall from their brains. For those who do not suffer from this it is quite a difficult affliction to describe but I will try to explain why, after years of living with the condition, I accept that, during the winter months, I’m just not going to achieve much. I know I will be operating, at best, at about 60% capacity so will not even contemplate taking on anything significant (like starting a blog for example).

For some people, the shorter days and decreased intensity of sunlight during winter scrambles their brain chemistry. The results of this are symptoms akin to depression, namely low mood, lethargy, poor sleep, a craving for sweet fatty foods and a lack of enthusiasm for being sociable, among others. Put simply, the early morning sunlight resets the brain’s daily clock which ensures that the correct chemicals are released at the correct time to influence waking up, falling asleep, appetite and so on. For SAD sufferers the winter sun, even on a beautifully clear day, is insufficient to reset this daily brain clock. The result on the release of brain chemicals is akin to the track of a seismograph when an earthquake hits, from a long smooth regular pattern it just goes a bit haywire. Therefore your body doesn’t know when it should be going to sleep, when it should be waking up, how deep a sleep it should have, when and what it should eat etc.

SAD is a spectrum with some people very seriously affected (there are reports of it being linked to suicides) and others only feeling a bit flat, commonly referred to as the winter blues. As with most things I find myself somewhere in the middle but sufficiently affected to have invested in a SAD lamp which acts as a surrogate sun each morning during the winter months. For thirty minutes while I eat my cereal and peruse the latest news online intense blue light shines into the backs of my eyes, resetting my brain for the day. Unfortunately this does not completely compensate for the sun so instead of curing me completely it serves to flatten out the troughs so they are not as pronounced as they would otherwise be. I can function, just not at full capacity.

So, here I am in early April, physically, viscerally, aware of the earth’s axis bringing the northern hemisphere back towards the sun. I am sleeping better, I am more energised and I am enthused with the possibilities of what life may bring. In February I was just existing, constantly tired and struggling to really be bothered about much at all.

My contention is that almost everybody is on the SAD spectrum to some degree or another. I count myself lucky that I am at a stage where I recognise my limitations during winter and do not push myself too hard, or be too hard on myself for not achieving things. I know when April comes around each year I will be renewed and invigorated so will more than make up for the slough of the dark months. One day I may be fortunate enough to be in a position to make an annual trip south where the sun is strong and I imagine the possibilities of a brain on full power for a full calendar year.

If you take anything from this beyond perhaps a dawning realisation as to why you, or someone close to you, becomes somewhat less during winter I hope it is that sometimes you have to accept that you won’t always be at your best and to just accept it. Don’t be hard on yourself, just relax, listen to what your body is telling you and know that brighter days are, quite literally for SAD sufferers, not far away.

*Without sounding like the end of a TV chat show or soap opera, if any of the above does ring true then the following web sites will be of interest:

The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (UK) http://www.sada.org.uk/

The NHS (UK) http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Seasonal-affective-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx

Wikipedia (for everyone) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder


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Why I am here

A few years ago I read an article describing an innovative method of propulsion for space travel.  A large canopy, much like a sail but shaped more like a parachute, would be opened by a craft once it had been thrust into orbit using the traditional rocket-propelled method.  This enormous canopy was to be made of an ultra-light reflective material that would, for want of a better word, capture individual photons of light from the sun.  As anyone who attended a high school physics lesson will remember, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Therefore, the impact of each photon would propel the space craft an infinitesimally small amount away from the sun. Space being a vacuum there would be no resistance to slow the craft down so as each of billions of photons strike the solar-sail the craft would gradually accelerate.  Over time (and I must confess to being unsure as to how long, days, months, decades?) the craft would reach such speeds that interstellar travel may be possible.

I’m hoping that this blog may be my solar sail, and you, my reader, an individual photon of the solar wind.  For many years I have wondered if I could possibly pay one or two bills by idly tapping away at a keyboard for a few hours a day; some others have even suggested I may actually have the wherewithal to do just that.  Until now, however, I have done absolutely nothing to test this idea so have set up this blog to see if the pipe dream may actually have more earthly possibilities.

I will therefore be posting musings, rants, observations and tortured space-travel based analogies on a variety of topics to see how you, my reader, react.  You will be my barometer so please comment one way or another.  Criticism, both positive and negative, will be the only means by which I can choose my path.  Perhaps my witterings about football won’t cut the mustard but an impassioned rant about the council’s inability to replace a kerbstone sets your heart aflame.  Either way I implore you to let me know so that I can focus where any glimmer of talent may lie, or otherwise… if it’s all rubbish I’d rather know, honestly. If you do like something I will then endeavour to keep practicing and, hopefully, get better.  Maybe one day, with your help and guidance, I will bash out something that is deemed worthy of some small monetary token.  That would be nice.

Until that day I beg your forbearance and input as I try my hand at reportage, opinion, analysis, review and possibly even some storytelling, if I ever uncover the merest spark of imagination.

I hope you find something you enjoy but, whatever your opinions, please share them with me and if you like what you read please share with others.

I’m a big boy, I can take it.