Friday, 27 December 2013

Castles of the Rhine Gorge


The Rhine Gorge does not have to work hard for its appellation of 'romantic'.  It was at the heart of the nineteenth century movement towards sentimental revision of popular conceptions of the past.  For the romanticist, the castles built by robber barons or political prelates aiming to extort money from the travellers and traders who passed up and down the river can so easily be converted in the mind's eye into fairy tale residences of beautiful princesses or chivalric knights.  Many of us seem to prefer our history with a large top-dressing of imagination and as few grisly details of reality as possible. 

There are so many of these remarkable fortresses perched on the hills overlooking the waterway that tourists have probably forgotten their names within minutes of having first heard them. One castle even sits on an island in the river itself.  Did we really hear the guide pointing out Castle Cat and Castle Mouse?  Whatever happened to Castle Cheese?  (Burg Katz, right and Burg Maus, above left.)

Relatively few of the Rhine Gorge Castles seem to have been left in a ruinous condition.  Many are now hotels or tourist centres.  Bromserburg in Rudesheim is a wine museum.



Pfalzgrafenstein (left) cannot be a mere customs post and so has to be a dungeon designed to keep a beautiful maiden away from her unsuitable lover.  Needless to say, it failed in this capacity, since no castle is strong enough to stand against love.  At least that's they way it usually works out in the fairy tales.





Of course the most fairy tale of them all, at least in appearance, has to be Marksburg (right) not too far south of Koblenz.  If ever there was a fortress designed to feature in story books and epic films this must be it.  From a distance it is quite simply perfect.  I found it remarkably difficult to photograph without a rose tint invading even my camera lens. 

Mind you, the medieval baron who allowed the field of defensive fire to be quite so badly overgrown would probably not have held on to his castle for long.  Now would the present author have cared to be involved with the digging of the well to supply this eyrie with water.

As for the maiden who lived at the top of the tower, she probably froze to death.   There's never a handsome knight on a white charger around when you need one these days.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Conversation with a Squirrel



"It's no use complaining to me, mate," said the grey squirrel, drawing himself up to his full height of about ten inches or so.  "There's no sign here saying 'Birds only, squirrels keep off,'"

"Would you take any notice if I put up a sign?" I asked.

"Of course not," he replied. "Squirrels can't read, silly."

"And it doesn't seem to make any difference if I set up the bird feeder in a holly bush or some other really tricky location."


"You have to know the right way to approach a holly bush, but of course I do know it.  And as for tricky locations, I don't know what you mean. I am a squirrel.  There's no such thing as a tricky location.  Anyway, what have you got against squirrels eating these seeds?  Birds are messy and they drop half of the seeds on the ground.  Then you get weeds in your flower bed.  You should be thanking me for performing a public service."

"I don't mind so much about the seeds on the ground.  It's the climbing up the bird table that I'm objecting to."

"There's no notice here saying, 'No climbing.'"

"Now look, we've been through all that.  What about the poor red squirrels anyway.  You've driven them all off and they were here first."

"Personally I never saw a red squirrel mate.  In any case, what about the Picts?  You Scots have driven them all off and they were here first."

"Probably they forgot to put up any notices,"  I said.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

More Thoughts on Democracy

Hardly anyone in the West can be found to argue against democracy; indeed, it is considered a truism that democracy is the best form of government. Countries moving towards democracy are regarded as making political progress, whilst those with other systems are trapped in political backwardness. When applied to systems of government, the word ‘undemocratic’ has become almost a synonym for ‘bad’.
You would certainly be excused for thinking that we believe ourselves and most of our immediate neighbours to possess democratic systems. Yet can we even define the concept? One hears elected politicians, who presumably ought to know what they are doing, regularly make a simplistic equation between democracy and majority rule.
If democracy were indeed the same thing as majority rule then of course it would be far from the best possible system of government. It is not hard to show examples of what J S Mill called the tyranny of the majority. Suppose a society to be divided upon ethnic, religious or economic grounds, such that one section was always outvoted. Would it be democratic for the majority to rob, persecute, or enslave that minority? If not, then democracy must imply limits to what the majority may do. These limits are usually understood to be human and civil rights.
Even more crudely, the doctrine of the ‘mandate’ is nowadays widely taken to mean that an elected government is empowered to put into practice any element of the manifesto upon which it stood. The voters who supported a government are held to have endorsed everything that it proposed, despite the fact that, except for the occasional referendum, there exists no mechanism by which the electorate may disagree.
Democracy means rule by the people, not the dominion of the majority, not the dominion of the largest minority (which was the UK norm between 1945 and 2010), and certainly not the dominion of the professional political class.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Democratic Country?

John Wyndham asked “Why was I condemned to live in a democracy where every fool's vote is equal to a sensible man's?”
In the Platonic tradition everyone should stick to what they are good at and most people are no good at statecraft. The same may well be true for any specialist subject. If you were about to undergo brain surgery would you be inclined to rely on a brain surgeon or take a vote amongst all the patients in the hospital? Would you rather your airliner was flown by a pilot or elect someone from amongst the passengers?
If you agree that specialist tasks should be performed by specialists and yet consider yourself a democrat then perhaps you are either a person who believes that running the country requires no expertise, or else someone who conflates the idea of the most popular with the idea of the best.
Yet the alternative is even less attractive. Of late a whole class of politicians who know no trade but politics has grown up. These professional politicians are not in the service of democracy.
It cannot be democracy where most constituencies are safe seats for a particular party and where the choice of representative is effectively restricted to the person approved by a small number of that party's activists.  In practice we have even less of a democratic choice in politics than we do in electricity supply. The sooner we move to open primaries the better.
Moreover, although we have travelled a long road from the days when the leading citizens of each borough used to select two of their number to travel to the capital for short assemblies, decide basic issues of taxation and supply and thereafter return and explain matters to their fellow citizens, I see no good reason why we should not require  any prospective MP to live in a constituency for at least two years before being eligible to represent it.
 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Rudesheim




At the foot of the Niederwald hill and at the entrance to the Rhine
Gorge on the river, Rudesheim is a justifiably popular destination for tourists. This source of income is now added to its traditional livelihood which for a millennium has come from winemaking and shipping.  It is an ideal base from which to explore the many romantic castles that overlook the Gorge.




It is a good idea to reach the cable car up to the Germania monument at the top of the hill before the crowds in the morning. You can enjoy a beautiful view across the Rhine Valley and stroll along the floral walk. On the way up and down you have a close up of the vineyards on the slopes and can appreciate an aerial perspective of the Brömserburg. This, the oldest of the Rhine Gorge castles, is built on Roman foundations. It is now a wine museum.
 






The Drosselgasse is a lane famous for being so narrow that it is reputed that drunks had not the space to fall over. It is lined with taverns and restaurants and full of tourists trying to take photographs that do not include other tourists.
The annual wine festival is the third week in August, but if you miss it you can still sample the local wine in the main square or the various wine shops.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Free Society

The concept of a free society is not difficult to grasp. For me, it is nowhere more clearly spelled out than in John Stewart Mill's book 'On Liberty'. Although a nineteenth century work, its fundamental principle is still sound. It is this: everyone should be allowed to do what they want as long as it affects no-one but themselves; when one person's words or actions begin to impinge upon others, we should draw the line at significant harm.
That line is further away than one might think. We do not, for example, suffer significant harm when we are offended, not even if we become angry and start shouting. Indeed, by frightening others when we are angry we may do harm ourselves.  It also makes an important difference whether someone is trying to offend us or whether we are going out of our way to seek and take offence. Freedom of speech is more important than the feelings of any individual or any group, however deep those feelings may run. Neither we nor our views should be above criticism.
For Mill the line is crossed when the exercise of one person's freedom poses a direct threat to someone else. He has no concern when someone in a rational debate denounces profiteering by corn merchants. He would not allow the same words to be spoken by a rabble rouser whipping up a mob outside a corn merchant's house.
Today in Britain, freedom of speech is under threat from both reactionary and populist forces. Intolerance of dissent shows itself in unwillingness to listen to rational argument and the shouting down of contrary views. It shows itself in a determination to impose a viewpoint by compulsion upon those who cannot be persuaded by reason, or upon those with whom persuasion has not even been attempted. It shows itself in declarations that certain topics may not be discussed at all or that perceived dissenters must be punished unheard.
When we restrict freedom of speech we take a big step down the road to totalitarianism and its associated social stagnation and intellectual decay. We need to think more carefully before we permit steps in such a backward direction, however seemingly well motivated.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Die Lorelei

I was fortunate enough to sail down the Rhine Gorge, past the notorious Lorelei Rock, the scene of numerous wrecks. As we approached, the ship's loudspeakers began to play the lilting Lorelei Waltz, which is a folk song setting of the famous 1822 poem by Heinrich Heine.

When I got home, I looked for a translation of the poem, but could not find one that I really liked. I doubt in fact that a pure translation that retains the poetic beauty of the orginal is possible. Since my German hovers somewhere on the weak side of feeble I needed help from various sources, but I eventually produced my own version. I immediately confess that it is a paraphrase rather than a translation, and I certainly would not claim for it the artistic merit of Heine's poem, but maybe it makes a small contribution to an understanding of the work in English.

Since it is a waltz, the poem is in dactylic metre. All ballroom dancers know that the basic waltz goes ONE two three, ONE two three etc. So does this, and it also fits the tune.


DIE LORELEI

by Heinrich Heine (1822)
paraphrased in translation



I know neither rhyme nor yet reason
Why the sight of this rock frights me so,
Unless I'm caught up out of season,
In a tragedy here long ago.

The air murmurs soft in the gloaming,
As Old Father Rhine makes his way
Through this cavernous gorge, rapids foaming,
Whilst the high peaks catch sunshine's last rays.

But wait, does that glow hide a maiden
All artlessly combing her hair?
Oh see, clothed in fine golden raiment,
She glistens and glimmers up there.

And hark! As she combs out her tresses,
She's singing a sweet faerie song;
Its melody softly caresses
A doomed man that it draws along.

Lo! There in his ferry the boatman
Enthralled can do nothing but sigh;
His skill will not keep him afloat when
His gaze is directed on high.

Oh boatman, have care of the river
Lest it swallow both you and your boat!
Ah no! You are captured for ever
By the whisp'ring rock's magical note.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Mainz

Mainz would like us to award Johann Gutenberg the title of Man of the Millennium. They certainly have a case. Few can lay claim to so radical a transformation of society as the man who invented printing on movable type. Prior to this invention, books were laboriously copied by hand, with all the attendant mistakes and omissions which that involved.
The time that it took made books expensive and rare. Not many people learned to read and access to information was mainly restricted to the rich and powerful. The clergy told people what The Bible said and the nobles in their capacity as magistrates told people what the law said. They naturally interpreted the words that they read in their own favour.
Printing began an information revolution that led quite quickly to the beginnings of freedom of thought and speech. In Mainz they show you the sort of press on which Gutenberg worked. It still looks painfully slow and the characters that he used were an attempt to reproduce as accurately as possible the learned script of his day, which is extremely difficult for a modern reader to decipher. Nevertheless, here it was that it all began.
In other respects there is fragmentary evidence of Mainz's important history, since most of the medieval city that remained was destroyed by wartime bombing.   An exception is the fine half-timbered square (left) close to the cathedral.  The Romanesque cathedral itself was damaged, but has been restored. There are still traces of Roman rule, including a monument to the celebrated general Drusus.
By contrast Mainz has a great flowering of modern architecture and some interesting stainless steel statuary.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Scotland's Future

Imagine that you are a banker. (If you are not already a banker this may be hard, but please try.) On a certain day you have appointments with each of a newly divorced couple, both of whom require loans to help them on their separate ways. The divorce has been acrimonious and reported in the press. Partner A has repeatedly threatened to accept no responsibility for the debts incurred on their joint account, not even those incurred in making purchases on his own behalf. He has now changed his mind. Partner B has gone on settling all debts as usual. Bearing in mind that, as a banker, your first responsibility is the security of your own funds, to which of the couple will you be more inclined to lend?
Amongst all the sound and fury surrounding the launch of the White Paper 'Scotland's Future', one figure has received surprisingly little attention. It is projected that in the first year of independence the Scottish Government will require to borrow £4.4 billion.
This is the same Scottish Government that:
  1. has repeatedly threatened not to accept a share of the UK national debt,
  2. denies Scotland's responsibility for the actions of a Scottish Chancellor in raising the UK national debt in order to bail out failing Scottish banks,
  3. is already spending beyond its means,
  4. has promised yet more spending in pursuit of a fairer society,
  5. is about to destroy Trident-related jobs by the thousand,
  6. is committed to a currency union and thus will not be able to set its own monetary policy.
Are you still imagining that you are a banker? You are not of course a Scottish banker, since the major Scottish banks are no longer Scottish owned. You are a foreigner and this Scottish Government is asking you for £4.4 billion. This year.  Alternatively you could lend to the RUK government which also needs a loan.
Bearing in mind that, as a banker, your first responsibility is the security of your own funds, what will you do?

Monday, 25 November 2013

Publication Day!

'The Prophets of Baal' is published today on Smashwords and is also available from Apple GB, from Barnes and Noble (US) and from Nook GB.
Several other stores don't take shipments before the official publication date, so I am optimistic that copies will be available elsewhere soon.
In answer to a query, I have not yet arranged for the book to be available through a print on demand service, but I have not ruled out the idea. My inclination was to test the waters of the electronic market first.
I expect there to be a few nervous days, if not weeks. However as far as writing goes there is nothing else for me to do about it. My job is now to become my own marketing agent. At least I have confidence in the product that I'm trying to sell!
What's it about? Well, if you love that old detective genre classic the English country house murder, here's a new twist for you! Naïve young private investigator Toby Le Tocq is soon all at sea in more ways than one when he takes a casual interest in a two hundred year old case. Locals are strangely divided. Some want to drive him away, whilst two beautiful and aristocratic women compete for his affections. But is it really just blind luck? In the blood of the two rivals flows an ancient power of sorcery. When Toby falls for the younger witch he is enmeshed in a web of intrigue, crime and revenge. Behind it all is the battle for control of a vast demonic power. If the girl he loves is to be saved from death, Toby faces not just a struggle to understand the occult but an ancient battle for supremacy that somehow he cannot help believing he has fought before. And unknown to Toby, both sides have picked him to play a leading role in the latest round!
Buy from Smashwords
Buy from Apple
Buy from Barnes and Noble (US)
Buy from Nook GB

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Grey Herons

The Grey Heron (ardea cinerea) is present in small numbers in my part of Sliabh Mannan. I have never seen more than two together. However as consumers of fish and frogs they are reasonably well supplied by the waters of the Culloch Burn and other streams, as well as a number of ponds and areas of semi-permanent standing water.
These upland herons are warier of human contact than those that you may find around town rivers or in shallow areas of larger waterways. This means that they are commonly seen in flight, retracting their long necks into an s-shaped bend and beating their wings in a slow and relaxed rhythm. Their flight is surprisingly graceful for such a tall and gangling bird.


Herons are regarded as predators by the local rook population and correctly so, for they will take small birds if they can. It is less common to see rooks mobbing herons than mobbing buzzards, but I have seen it. I have also seen herons quite happily roosting in trees, a sight which for some reasons seems incongruous, though no-one seems to have told that to the herons.
It was not until a river cruise in central Europe that I was able to take good pictures of herons on the ground. I would need a very long lens to achieve such pictures around Sliabh Mannan. This one was happily standing on one leg and pretending to be a statue.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Heidelberg

The city of Heidelberg has relevance to British history because of the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of James VI and I, to Frederick V, The Elector Palatine. The gate he constructed (allegedly overnight) in her honour can still be seen at the castle.
Elizabeth's grandson George I was to be Britain's first Hanoverian king, but she herself became known as 'The Winter Queen' because her Protestant husband was removed from the throne of Bohemia after only a few months' reign by the Catholic Hapsburgs. This was the first major campaign of the Thirty Years' War, early in which the unfortunate couple also lost Heidelberg itself.
First blown up in 1537, Heidelberg Castle was repeatedly sacked during the Thirty Years War and used as a quarry for the building of houses in the town in the later 18th century. It is a strange mixture of architectural styles. Perhaps its most interesting curiosity is the wine cellar in which were kept giant barrels (above left) into which tenants of local vineyards were required to pour a tithe of their products. It is probably best not to enquire too closely into what the resulting blend tasted like.
The elongated old town is mostly baroque. There are beautiful views of the town and the Neckar River available from the Königstuhl Hill which overlooks the valley (right).  Germany's oldest university is in Heidelberg, which has a famous student culture, highlighted in 'The Student Prince'. Were we to believe the tourist guides, the city has scarcely yet emerged from 19th century Romanticism. It is however less romantic in the rain.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Scotland and The National Debt

Alex Salmond has once again (19 November) threatened that non-compliance by the rest of the UK with his demands to 'share' sterling and The Bank of England after Scottish independence could lead to Scotland refusing to accept its share of the UK national debt. I realise that this is campaign rhetoric. It is nevertheless misguided.
The markets are listening.  They want to know what to do if they have to deal with an independent Scotland in the future.  The more likely a ‘Yes’ vote becomes the more they will trawl through the backlog of such remarks for guidance on future Scottish financial policies.  They will not like what they find.
Let us be clear. There are three important reasons why this demand is misguided.
  1. Firstly, sterling is not an asset it is a national currency.  A currency is a claim on goods and services within an economy; it is not itself a good or a service. I have already explained in an earlier article the problems that are likely to face an independent Scotland that seeks to share a currency with its much larger neighbour.
  2. Secondly, The Bank of England is the official banker to the UK government and an instrument of UK monetary policy.   Although its terms of reference are laid down by UK law, its independence from direct UK government control has been guaranteed since 1997.   Scotland is seeking to leave the UK. SNP ministers claim to want control of the economic levers for themselves. In what way would this purpose be served by 'sharing' an institution that does not take orders from government?
  3. Thirdly, and most importantly, governments must never suggest defaulting on debt.  They must not imply it, or hint at it, or say anything that may be misinterpreted as an implication or a hint.  Everything that a First Minister or Finance Minister says is market sensitive.
The reason is that governments always need to borrow money.  Even governments running a surplus on the budget need to borrow money, because, just like you and me, the timing of their income does not coincide with the timing of their payments.  People who lend money to governments are sensitive to anything that makes them the tiniest bit afraid they might not get it back.  Every such unguarded remark could add half a per cent or so the Scottish Government's borrowing costs after independence.
We may end up with a Scottish currency whether we like it or not, for reasons outlined in my earlier article.  In any case, foreigners will have to hold Scottish paper with confidence.  The more suggestions there are that Scottish ministers don’t understand the markets and are careless or glib with financial pronouncements, the more reluctant foreigners will be to hold Scottish currency or bonds.  Scottish interest rates will have to rise to compensate for this perceived increase of risk.  In consequence, Scottish investment will become more expensive and therefore Scottish economic growth will fall. 
Is a point or two in the opinion polls today worth a point or two on the Scottish government's borrowing rate for years to come? 

Strasbourg

Like much of the region in which it is located, Strasbourg has been fought over for a couple of millennia, so that it is perhaps appropriate for it to be the site of the European Parliament. Nowadays the fighting is mostly done with words.
It is a remarkably easy city in which to get lost, despite the display of maps at many prominent intersections. I managed to get lost twice in the course of one walk. For some reason things look different at street level compared to the view that you get during the excellent canal boat tour.
The most picturesque part of the city is probably the medieval area called 'La Petite France' (left), where half-timbered buildings, floral displays and open air cafés are mirrored in the waterways and every turn brings a new curiosity.
The oddly unbalanced west front of the city's beautiful sandstone cathedral (right) was, if I recall correctly, the result of the whole thing taking so long to build that Gothic went out of fashion before the planned south tower could be built. The north tower, once the world's tallest building, was only completed in 1439. This tower itself survived proposed demolition at the hands of the egalitarianism of the French Revolution by the ingenious idea that the citizens came up with of placing a giant Phrygian cap on the spire and declaring it a revolutionary symbol.
Inside the cathedral the famous astronomical clock, dating from around 1842  is certainly worth a visit.




But on an entirely different scale is the tiny sculpture that at last informed me of the origin of the name Dominican (Domini canis.)  How often it is the little and easily overlooked features that convey real character and give delight.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Goal Celebrations

I can't remember quite when it became the done thing to engage in manic celebrations after scoring a goal in a football match. Today we see players performing dances (of sorts), slides that damage the groundsman's carefully preserved turf, group scrums, flinging themselves into the crowd or removing and waving their shirts amongst other symptoms of delirium. It all goes on for some time. I suppose they realise that their behaviour will be copied at lower levels of the game.
I don't think players behaved like that when I used to stand on the terraces, but there was nothing like such a culture of celebrity then and players were far less well paid.
I can understand being pleased about scoring. I never scored that many myself, but I was always very pleased when I did. Of course I was not playing for my living, or even for pin money. I was playing because I enjoyed playing and my team-mates and our opponents were the same. The love of the game, we called it in our naivety.
We all probably thought back then that scoring was enough. The opposition had already suffered a collective failure and did not need their noses rubbed in it, any more than we should have appreciated triumphalism on their part. There was still a fairly clear definition of 'unsportsmanlike conduct'. And then of course we rarely had more than one man and a dog in front of whom to show off.
Referees at our level would not have waited for us to perform lengthy celebrations. They would not have booked us; they would simply have restarted the game and left it to our team mates to express their own thoughts on the issue of our absence from the pitch.
I can't help thinking that would still be a good idea.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Breisach

The Franco-German border town of Breisach am Rhein has, like much of this area, been the subject of a tug of war between rival powers for much of its history.
The steep hill on which St Stephansmunster (left) is built was already a settlement in pre-Roman times, and the Romans built a fort there too, calling the place Mons Brisiacus, or Breakwater Mountain. Before the straightening of the Rhine in the 19th Century this hill could become an island when the river flooded.
The hill was a again important as the Germans tried to halt the Allied advance at the Rhine towards the close of the Second World War. Most of the town was destroyed and so today its history can only be discerned in small survivals and restored monuments.
The cobbled streets of the old town on the hill surround an attractive cathedral with both Romanesque and Gothic elements and more than a hint of fortification. Inside is a fine carved altarpiece and a golden, repoussé-decorated reliquary. On a simpler note, I also admired a beautiful carving of a yoked ox (right) above the door of a house in the town.
When you pass through the old town gate at the foot of the hill, you enter what is effectively an entirely modern town built more or less on the former flood plain. There is a nice market too.
Not far away, the formerly volcanic range of hills known as the Kaiserstuhl, believed to be named for a court held there by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto, dominates the plain as you travel towards the Black Forest.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Black Forest Museum

If you plan on visiting the Black Forest Museum at Vogtsbauernhof, try picking a day when it isn't going to rain. Like any open air site, this one is vulnerable to the weather, though you can shelter inside several of the buildings.

This museum is a reconstruction of a little Bavarian village. Houses of this type were still inhabited until the mid twentieth century, though most of them, together with the implements that have been brought here from all around the Black Forest are of much older construction. The Twentieth Century was slow to catch up with life in the forest. There is a mill and there are various workshops still in use. On the day of our visit two thatchers were working on one of the house roofs. At various times there are craft demonstrations.
To say that you can immerse yourself in the past would be a trifle misleading. The village is too neat and tidy and somehow one can always tell when houses are no longer lived in. Of course you would expect to see far more people about in a real village; somehow tourists don't seem to count as real people for these purposes. However there are descriptive notices about the place to inform your visit and the buildings are complete and not ruined. It must have been a major labour of love to preserve and transport them all.
To have a physical connection with the way of life of former generations is so valuable. Too often we have destroyed what they left us as old fashioned or unhygienic, leaving our heirs nothing but pictures and descriptions. A vote of thanks is needed to all those who have worked to preserve a more tangible link.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Robins

Of all garden birds, the robin (erithacus rubecula) is probably the best loved. A sight of a redbreast is particularly welcome in winter when cold, grey skies and drizzle make gardening more of a chore than it is in summer. They will come and sit on a convenient local perch and look as if they are taking an intelligent interest in your activities.
Of course they are doing just that, though the prospect of your exposing some hapless insect is more likely to be their motive than a desire to offer constructive criticism of your digging technique. But they look so cheerful in their smart red waistcoats that the gardener's heart is lifted anyway.
If you can tell male robins from females, you're doing better than I can. When I see aggressive territorial behaviour from these birds I'm never sure whether the victim is a rival male. I assume the robins themselves can tell the difference.
From the point of view of an aspiring photographer, robins are a great help. Not only are they usually ready and willing to adopt and hold a good Christmas-card pose, they also have a good colour contrast between the eye and its surrounding feathers, making it much easier to focus and more likely that you will catch the reflected light in the eye that makes a bird photograph come alive.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Prophets of Baal

Some readers may have noticed that my novel, The Prophets of Baal, is to be electronically published on 25th November. It will be available in formats suitable for all popular e-readers as well as for PC and home printing. It should be nicely in time for the Christmas market, but for me one of the main advantages of a long lead-in to the day itself is to ensure that I had as many bugs as possible out of the published version. My wife very kindly helped with proof reading.
Independent publishing does cut out the middle man, which means that authors no longer have to appeal to agents and print publishers in the hope that someone will choose to put their work before the public. We are familiar with the horror stories about how many times famous writers and famous books were rejected before becoming best-selling classics. This knowledge consoles us when we receive the same sort of rejections ourselves. Of course it was not only good writers and good books that used to be rejected. The modern e-market obliges readers to sort the wheat from the chaff themselves and some people reckon that there is an awful lot of chaff out there.
Even when you have written a good story and expressed it in good language, your responsibility as a writer who intends to publish independently is not finished. You will not have the services of a publisher's editor. Naturally you are attached to your own work and you do not like to feel that there is a surplus word in your manuscript.  Well, of course you can follow the plot; you know the plot already. What about the reader who may become lost in your digressions and sub-plots? I decided to do my own editing, in the process of which The Prophets of Baal was reduced from over 200,000 words to under 164,000. I couldn't find very much more to cut. I re-wrote some of what remained in the interests of clarity and I hope that what I have left for you is a good read.
I don't mean to say that what I cut was not interesting or even that it was not relevant. I did feel in retrospect that it was not necessary. It did not contribute substantially to the plot or the characters and therefore it slowed down the development of the story. Sometimes as a reader myself I feel that I lack some information and I am usually happy for an author to give relevant information at that point. At other times I feel that I am suffering from information overload and I want to know what is actually happening to the characters. That sort of passage is what I was looking for when I did my editing.
Another advantage of a long lead time was to allow prospective purchasers some time in which to download a free sample of the book. My free 20% should amount to over 30,000 words, which is beyond the half way mark of a standard 50,000 word novel, so I hope no-one feels they are buying a pig in a poke, even though this is my first published novel.
I do hope that you enjoy it!
Pre-order from B&N  or Apple

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

An Open Letter to Sir William Wallace

Dear William,
I may call you William, mayn't I? I have known you a long time after all. Please stop turning in your graves. This is a very unhealthy habit for someone who is over seven hundred years old and already divided into four quarters. Let me reassure you that no historically knowledgeable Scot ever took seriously your so-called biography by that Australian. (Australian, William, is a modern word meaning a descendant of criminal outcasts.)
We know that you did not wear a kilt, paint your face, shoot arrows, attack stockades or meet the Queen of England. (In fact William, it was Sitting Bull, a more modern person than you, who did all of these except wear a kilt.) We also know that you were not called Braveheart; that was a turncoat French contemporary of yours.
Your name was not really Wallace either. It was le Walys. You were descended from a travelling companion of the French knight Walter Fitzallan, later known as Stewart, who arrived in Scotland in 1136. Your home at Elderslie was a quite presentable manor house and not a peat-roofed shack. You were well educated and spoke Latin as well as French, though you probably did not quote from Tacitus before battle as the Australian did.
You see, William, the problem is that the truth is rarely politically correct. History needs to be viewed through a strongly coloured glass that makes it allegorically relevant to today's political agenda. Given that you encountered a fair bit of revisionism in your own struggles, I am sure that you understand that history, first written by the winners, is then re-written by the government of the day.
William, you may have noticed that our future is now to be decided by competitive telling of fairy tales. We are going to mark the seven hundredth anniversary of Bannockburn by organising a popular vote. You probably know about Bannockburn, don't you? It was when your successor as Guardian, Robert 'Braveheart' de Brus, the French usurper of the Scottish throne and the earldom of Carrick, defeated another bunch of French-speaking invaders in 1314 near Stirling.
You may find it ridiculous, William, but nowadays it is generally believed in Scotland that Bannockburn was fought between the Scots and the English rather than between rival gangs of Frenchmen. They call your era 'The Scottish Wars of Independence' when what was really going on was a struggle to decide which Frenchman should rule what. Honestly, most folk nowadays don't seem to know that invading Frenchmen took over England in 1066 and Scotland in 1072 and then spent the next four centuries trying hold on to both. French was still the language of the London court and administration for almost a century after Bannockburn..
William, they want us to believe that your enemy was called English Edward, not Édouard de Plantagenet. They want us to believe that his army was led by barons who spoke English nigh on two hundred years before the English language evolved into anything recognisable today. They want us to believe that you and de Brus were both Scottish patriots despite neither of you being from Scottish families. Most ridiculous of all, they want us to believe that these things have even the slightest relevance to how we should govern ourselves today.
William, we are celebrating the septcentennial of this quarrel between Frenchmen by having a plebiscite to decide whether Scotland and England should get a chance to fight each other again properly, this time without French interference.
Apparently Scotland has not chosen a Conservative government for ages but has repeatedly had one imposed on them by the English. This, according to the Scots, is a bad thing. (Conservative, William, is a modern word which means the same as feudal baron.)
As it happens, England does not choose Labour governments either but has repeatedly had one imposed on them by the Scots. This is a bad thing according to the English. (Labour, William, is another modern word for feudal baron. I know, it sometimes confuses me too.) Two of the last three prime ministers (the modern word for kings) of our United Kingdom have been Scots and the third one is called Cameron, which suggests he has a mite more Scottish ancestry than you did, William.
I still don't think it's a good idea for you to be turning in your graves, but if you did feel able able to jot down a few lines (in French will do fine,) setting straight some of this modern pseudo-historical hogwash, the person you should write to is nowadays called First Minister, not Guardian, of Scotland, and he stays in Edinburgh.
Yours,
Philip

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Pilgrimage to Loos

I was late getting to Loos. Ninety odd years late. I wore my kilt for the occasion; it seemed appropriate. In fact, more than just appropriate, necessary, almost a debt of honour. I had carried the kilt in my suitcase all over France just for this one day.
The war cemetery (left) is surrounded by a high stone wall; the massed ranks of well-tended graves within representing only a few of those who died on the field of battle all around. Many still lie where they fell, their bodies never recovered from the mud of no-man’s land, which nowadays is simply flat and featureless arable countryside; fields just like any other fields. There is nothing but the memorial to tell the visitor otherwise.
Around the inside of the perimeter wall are engraved in column after column, regiment by regiment, the names of the dead. I went looking for the Highland Light Infantry. Eventually my wife called me over to a section of the wall on the side nearest the village. “They’re over here,” she said, “and there’s a lot of them.” We tried to count, but the names went on for so long that in the end we were reduced to counting one column and multiplying by the number of columns.
On the morning of the 25th of September 1915, for all practical purposes three battalions of the Highland Light Infantry ceased to exist. Of approximately 2,000 HLI engaged on the Loos front, over 1,500 died. My grandfather, so proudly photographed in his kilt and Glengarry before he left home, went over the top with all the rest. This is his story as it was handed down to me. Other family members remember it somewhat differently, but the basic message is the same.
It was before the days of conscription, and even so as a steel worker with a reserved occupation my grandfather would not have been called up. Why was he there? Because he and a friend had just been walking down the street one day, minding their own business, when two young women called out contemptuously, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the front? Are you cowards or something?” In a fury of embarrassment the two of them turned round there and then and walked straight to the recruiting office.
Like so many of his comrades in arms, my grandfather’s advance towards the German trenches got no further than no-man’s land. Unlike most of them however, he was not killed outright by the bullet that struck him. Bleeding from a desperate leg wound, he dragged himself across the ruined field into the nearest shell hole and there collapsed, out of the immediate line of fire but also far from safety or medical attention.
I do not know how long he lay there. Sometime later, the shooting eased, and eventually stretcher bearers were able to make their way on to the battlefield. The first stretcher party to catch sight of my grandfather was British. Seeing the state of his wounds, they passed by and left him. It was always a family tradition to resent this, and it was not until a few years ago, when I read a book by William Sinclair of Kirkintilloch, one of the maligned stretcher bearers, that I finally understood their behaviour.
The mud at Loos was so deep that they could hardly make forward progress; if they fell off the duck boards they could drown; the struggling stretcher parties were under fire from the Germans for much of their tortuous route from the field hospital to no-man’s land. They knew they could only make a few trips under these conditions, and they had to make hard-headed decisions about which of the wounded were likely to live long enough to make it back to the hospital. There were so many corpses lying out on the field; there was no point in risking more lives to recover someone whose name would soon be just another to be added to the butcher’s bill.
Later another stretcher party passed by the shell hole in which my grandfather lay. These men were speaking German. Seeing my grandfather, a medical orderly climbed down into the shell hole and staunched further loss of blood with a tourniquet. In English he then explained, “We shall not take you prisoner. Your own side will come for you now.” From that day onwards my grandfather always said that he owed his life to the man he called “the German doctor.”
The third stretcher party to find my grandfather was another British one. They picked him up and bravely carried him back through the sea of mud along that awful route to the field hospital. He was to lose the leg, but he survived, and eventually he even returned to that back-breaking work in the steel mill.
All this took place a little more than five years before my mother was born. My life, for what it is worth, and what little good I may have been able to do for my fellow man, I owe to the humanity of an enemy; a man who looked through the fog of slaughter in that most terrible of conflicts and saw, lying in that shell hole, not an enemy soldier but a wounded man.
When I hear xenophobia expressed today, I want to take the speakers with me to Loos and show them the waste brought about by rival nationalisms. I want them to climb with me up the little tower that overlooks the cemetery, and show them my grandfather’s friends, still drawn up in the dressed ranks which they first formed a century ago. As I stood on top of that tower in my kilt, looking out over the now tranquil landscape and trying to see it with my grandfather’s eyes, a white van passed by on the road. The driver tooted his horn and waved a salute. In Loos they still remember.
My grandfather was heartbroken when war broke out again in 1939. “I thought,” he said, “we fought the last one to put an end to all this.” He died not long afterwards. He was less than fifty years old.
Grandad, I was late getting to Loos, but when I finally got there, I think that I understood.

Friday, 8 November 2013

St Petersburg

Our cruise schedule in St Petersburg meant that we had to settle for just two palaces. For those who are aware of the devastation wrought by the siege of the city then known as Leningrad, the quality of the restoration of both the Hermitage and the Catherine Palace is quite extraordinary. The craftsmanship employed, particularly in the gilded and marbled interiors, has been superb. One can only wonder at the bureaucracy that manages to combine such Herculean efforts to promote tourism with primitive and understaffed border controls. Why would you want visitors standing in long snaking lines on the quayside when they could be happily spending roubles in the souvenir shops? Do spies arrive on cruise ships? Seriously?
Queues seem part of the St Petersburg experience. Fortunately we shipboard tourists enjoyed priority access to The Hermitage or we might have been waiting yet. The guide did explain how many years a tour would take if you spent just ten seconds in front of every picture. But why would you concentrate so much fine art in one place that it cannot be appreciated?
As it was, rigid planning produced the absurd spectacle of fifty people trying simultaneously to inspect a single Raphael whilst an equally fine painting by the same master ten yards away was ignored. Briskly we passed through an entire room full of Cézannes – nothing worth looking at here – in order to stick to the timetable. Pause for a moment to admire a Tintoretto that happens to catch your eye and you are lost.
Did you happen to see a tour guide with a Russian flag?”
Sure, five in the last five minutes, which do you belong to?”
 Of course the building itself is a work of art and there are so many more impressive palaces in and around a city that sparkles like a jewel beside the river.
At least the queues to enter the Catherine Palace are enlivened by the antics of a comic opera band of uniformed buskers and the palace itself is worth the wait. The façade is bright with blue, white and gold, and inside sunlight streams through huge windows, illuminating baroque magnificence in the splendidly appointed apartments. To the rear one can stroll through spacious parkland and enjoy the view of an elevation no less magnificent than the frontage.
And so back to photographing the architectural marvels of St. Petersburg through the windows of the tour bus because we had no visas to wander around on our own and no chance to spend any roubles!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Scotland's Currency in a Customs Union

In an earlier article I suggested that a currency union does not make market forces go away, it simply diverts them into other channels. It so happens that a customs union is already diverting these market forces into other channels, so there is a shortage of alternative channels left available.
A customs union means that partner economies have no tariff barriers between themselves but have a common external tariff towards non-members, thus in principle creating a single domestic market. Let us assume that Scotland is admitted to (or remains a member of) the EU and that the rest of the UK remains in the EU after 2017. The EU is a customs union.
Whilst the EU single market is not perfect, the RUK and Scottish markets have long been one. Not only are goods and services traded freely between the countries of the UK but workers and capital also move freely.
A larger domestic market enables firms to produce on a larger scale and so make efficiency savings. The result is faster economic progress than the member economies could have achieved separately. However for poorer areas, membership of a customs union comes with a downside. If they can, most people will want to sell goods and labour in places where they receive more for them. This means that for trade between richer and poorer economies to continue in the long term, one or more of three possible adjustments must be made.
  1. The simplest adjustment is for the less developed economy to run a balance of payments deficit with the more developed. The more developed extends credit to the less developed, effectively transferring funds to finance the continued purchase of its own exports. But a customs union has a single market. Scotland currently has no more meaningful a balance of payments with RUK than Yorkshire has with Lancashire.
  2. The second possible adjustment is for the poorer country to devalue its currency relative to that of the richer. This makes the poorer country’s exports cheaper and more attractive in the richer country, whilst the latter’s exports become prohibitively expensive in the former. But within a currency union, Scotland’s pound could not be devalued against RUK’s, nor could Scotland's Euro be devalued against Germany's any more than Greece's Euro can be.
  3. The third possible adjustment is for employment and national income in the less developed economy to fall to a level consistent with its relative inefficiency. Because this depresses the internal economy rather than adjusting the economy's external relationships, it is far more painful and ideally should be a last resort, allowing the two external adjustments to take as much of the strain caused by the imbalance as possible. Unfortunately inside a combined customs and currency union this third adjustment is not the last resort, it is the only resort.
Taken as a whole, the Scottish economy is somewhat less developed than that of England. This is an observation, not a criticism. It is structurally less diverse and hence more vulnerable to swings in the markets for its major industries, a phenomenon exacerbated by a disproportionately large (and currently weak) financial sector and the temporary as well as highly volatile effects of North Sea oil.
The discrepancy between the Scottish and English economies is of course as nothing compared to that between the Greek and German economies. Yet Scotland still needs to take note of what has happened to Greece inside a customs and currency union.
Currently within the UK, the old industrial areas are poorer than the south-east of England, but economies of scale created by our currency and customs unions raise national income sufficiently for compensatory transfers from richer to poorer areas to be politically acceptable. It would be difficult to make such transfers to Scotland after independence.
In summary, I am not sanguine about any of the currency options facing an independent Scotland. Nevertheless, in the event of independence, one of the options must be selected. My judgement would be that a Scottish currency is the least of the evils, but that it requires preparation to start yesterday and much statesmanship from Scottish ministers.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Standard English


Growing up in the 1950's, I learned my dialect from my neighbours and standard English from the BBC. I can still recall the perfect pronunciation of every syllable in the line, “This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it.”
I did not and do not feel that my dialect was an inferior form of speech. I did however realise that, whilst I had great difficulty in understanding a Geordie from 150 miles north of my home, I had no problems with Mr Liddell who lived more than 150 miles south. Neither did the Geordies. There was such a thing as standard English and I knew that being able to speak it would help me communicate outside my own home area and thus get on in life.
If I were a young person growing up today, I should not be able to do as I did then. Probably in the interests of inclusiveness and audience ratings, the corporation seems to have dispensed with received pronunciation, preferring to hire continuity announcers with a variety of accents and / or imprecise diction, such as those who are for ever “drawring” conclusions about “lawranorder”, matters involving the "pleess" and so on.
They also hire celebrity presenters with poor delivery and more than a tendency towards youth slang as well as news reporters with bad grammar. Nowadays, for example, BBC reporters regularly “beg” questions when they mean to pose them. Compare this with NHS Scotland, an organisation that really does know how to beg a question; on a recent visit to my local health centre I was required to fill out a yes / no questionnaire including the unanswerable 'Have you ever considered stopping smoking?'
I understand that the BBC nowadays feels a need to compete, but I feel sorry for a new generation deprived of something that I found really useful.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Autumn

Long ago, when I lived for a time in Manhattan, I recall a group of us hiring a car and driving out into upper New York state to "look at the Fall". I still find Autumn scenery spectacular, and in a way the last riot of colour offers some compensation for the dark winter days that lie ahead. Hereabouts the horse chestnut changes colour in September and the beech and field maple in October. My local wood comprises mostly beech and chestnut, though laurel, cypress, yew, pine and rhododendron ensure that my view never entirely loses the green through the winter.
Beech (above) seems to shut down operations over quite a long period. A hedgerow beech will often hold a lot of brown leaves right through the winter until they drop in the spring. I wonder if this does not serve a similar purpose to the dead flowers that my hydrangeas hold over the same period, and which seem to catch the frost and keep it away from young shoots.
Larch (left), our deciduous conifer, is a tree that offers endless variety. At this time of year it is almost yellow before its needles fall; in the winter its brownness is bettered by the dark green of all its neighbouring spruce and firs, but in the new year its beautiful new lime green foliage is a true harbinger of spring.
When the weather is cloudy the light can remain murky all day; by contrast the low angled sunlight that sometimes breaks through, especially on a frosty day like today, is still capable of turning Sliabh Mannan into a beautiful sight. Moisture hanging in droplets from wayside shrubs, particularly the hawthorn, out-jewels a jeweller's, whilst the many hues still present in the woodland offer an intriguing palette to a painter or photographer.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Taiga Bean Geese


Probably the most famous inhabitants of Sliabh Mannan, considerably more famous than your present correspondent, are the overwintering Taiga Bean Geese (anser fabalis).
There are only two regular wintering grounds for this species in the UK, the other being in Norfolk. The Sliabh Mannan bean goose population consists of about 250 birds and has been carefully monitored since 1992. In 2008 the area was protected under the EU Birds Directive. This year a tracking study, in which local schools participated, found that the summer home of our geese is northern Sweden. For some reason I had been convinced that they came from Russia, which shows you how little of the bean goose language I really understand.
"Are we nearly there yet?"
"Honk!"
"You've been saying that since Spitzbergen!"
Honk!"
It is of course a very loud language, particularly when flights of well over a hundred birds pass overhead together in their characteristic V-formations. This autumn, if I interpret my records correctly, I saw my first bean goose flight on 27 September. For several days I was being confused by a smart rook who went around imitating goose calls and making me believe that they were early.
From time to time in my winter wanderings I come across hopeful twitchers equipped with binoculars and a great deal of optimism. Around my home we have never seen the birds on the ground, but overflight is common. I get the impression that training flights build up in the new year, prior to the spring departure. Well, it's a long way across the North Sea, you know!
"So, does that mean we're nearly there, then?"
"Honk!"

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Budapest

In tourist shops around the Hungarian capital they are fond of selling tee-shirts bearing the motto, "Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go to Budapest." I am far too old to understand what they mean, but they seem to be enjoying themselves. I did not go to Budapest to find bad girls. In fact I cannot recall with any certainty what I expected to find. The lack of expectation perhaps enhanced the very agreeable surprise when I got there. The city is imposing, picturesque and charming, as well as remarkably cosmopolitan in its cultural and architectural heritage. It has of course been disputed between rival cultures for much of its history.
Upon arrival, the captain of our riverboat obliged us by sailing downstream to the inner city limits before returning upstream to our berth. The Danube on a fine day affords glorious views of the twin cities, high Buda on one bank, low-lying Pest on the other, that were united in the late nineteenth century. The fine series of bridges connecting the two were all destroyed in the war but are now reconstructed and restored to their former glory. When the principal buildings on each bank are illuminated after dark on a warm, fine night, the entranced viewer might very well have been transported into a fairyland.
The remarkable parliament building, the centrepiece of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, is far too large for today's small Hungarian state. At the same time it must be one of the most picturesque legislatures in the world, and one of the most photographed. When once you recognise the building, you seem to see it everywhere in travel advertisements.
Almost equally stunning is the huge expanse of Heroes Square, which contains some of the most beautiful equestrian statuary that I have ever seen and which is flanked by two national museums. The ornate baroque Basilica of St Stephen's is another architectural highlight. In Buda, the magnificent views from the heights of the Castle district are not to be missed. Wandering around the hilly medieval streets of old Buda is demanding on the legs, but educational.
If your legs will still stand it, there is a fine covered market in Pest that offers an interesting range of local products and foodstuffs, but it's on more than one floor and takes a long time to get round. Why is it so often the case that markets tell you as much or more about the local culture than the guidebooks? I think perhaps that whilst buildings impress us, people fascinate us. Sharing a market used by local people helps us to feel that we belong.