Monday, 5 October 2015

Headshots in Glasgow

To Glasgow for a weekend with friends and today we took a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city. We've never visited the city before and we were very pleasantly surprised by what we saw on our way around. The highlight of the day? That's got to be the Kelvingrove Art Museum. Housed in a Victorian sandstone building, it was jam-packed with interesting things to see, of which we had only time to scratch the surface. Reviewing the photographs I took, a definite theme emerged. I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about this? Heads, I win?

Friday, 2 October 2015

Dressing for the job

I forgot to mention when I was talking about composting in my last post that I always try to dress for the job in hand. Not everyone shows such sartorial elegance, I know, but I do have a boiler suit for every task.
My green one for all the jobs I do in the garden. It blends in with the vegetation and allows me to hide from the grandchildren easily. It also gives Mrs P and myself hours of fun as we play hide and seek amongst the runner beans and potatoes. It can take ages for her to track me down, either that or she runs away and leaves me to it.
My blue one for jobs indoors. To avoid any confusion, we don't paint anything indoors blue. We did once and Mrs P didn't find me for a week. 
My 'senior moments' one for when I don't know what I should be doing or where I am.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Time to revisit the Regal Compost Bin

Regular readers will realise that I'm a closet Royalist (yeah, right) and may recall that I celebrated her maj's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 by constructing a commemorative compost bin. Today saw me taking out my latest batch of the brown stuff. It's as good a batch as I've ever made and I'm putting it down to the royal association of this particular bin. Maybe it's my imagination but what comes out of my other two bins just isn't the same. It doesn't have such a regal aroma or break down into such an imperial crumb. Rule Britannia - ruler of the bins. 
The above mentioned bin, looking good after three years of dutiful service. But will it last as long as her maj has reigned over us? I think not.
Compost fit for a queen - and my veg plot. I think I'll be growing some King Edward's in this lot next year.
Her maj always uses a silver spade when she digs. Me? I use my great grandfather's shovel. Dating from the 1930s, Henry Charles Bowyer used it when he was working as a roadman for Bedwas and Machen Urban District Council in South Wales - in fact, the discerning eye can just make out a very worn BMUDC on the handle. I like using this shovel as it links me directly, through my father and grandfather, to a man I can clearly remember. He died when I was about 5 and when I think about him I recall a fob watch in his waistcoat, a funny accent (he came from Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire), a white moustache that smelt of pipe tobacco, chickens, digging and picking things from his garden and, my very last mental image of him, him laid out for his burial in my nan's front room. The room was heady with the scent of Lily of the Valley and I've associated it with death ever since. Never, ever buy me a bunch - I won't be impressed.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A weekend in Cornwall

We've had some good friends to stay for the weekend and we took the opportunity to do a little local sight-seeing. Day 1 took in the Bude Canal and Crackington Haven and Day 2, Padstow, Wadebridge and Daymer Bay. Here are a few photographs as a record of a couple of very enjoyable days.
Bude Canal: Grey Heron
Bude Canal: a gaggle of Canada Geese.
Bude Canal: something we'd never seen before - a Grass Snake in the water
Bude Canal: something else we've never seen before - a Kingfisher. This one was extremely accommodating and stayed in a bush for many minutes as we all enjoyed seeing it. It proved to be quite an attraction and there was a crowd of us peering at it for a long time.
Bude Canal: we haven't seen one of these before either
Bude Canal: just one more of the one hundred shots I took of the Kingfisher
Crackington Haven: a welcome swim at the end of a hot day. Mrs P beat me into the waves
Padstow: harbour view
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): twelfth century. At one time it was buried by the neighbouring sand dunes and the priest had to climb in through the roof to give services to maintain its consecration
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): flowers from a wedding adorned the entrance
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): a slate plaque from the wall of a side chapel. The captain of the brig was found guilty of manslaughter at a trial after the tragic event. He had taken a route into Padstow harbour which was known to be dangerous and certainly not recommended by the Admiralty
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): In keeping with my usual skulking around graveyards for WW1 graves, here's one with an intriguing story. Hooray for the internet.
The SS Armenian (originally SS India but renamed SS Armenian in commemoration of the genocidal actions of the Ottoman Empire) began her final and fateful voyage in early June 1915 with 175 men onboard. She was chartered to carry a cargo of 1,422 mules from the United States to Bristol in England. The animals, offspring of male donkeys and female horses, were intended as replacements for the horses that had been lost in fighting in France. At around 6:30pm on the 28th of June, while heading northeast off Trevose Head, Cornwall, a watchman on the Armenian sighted a German submarine. In what proved to be a hugely erroneous decision, Captain James Trickey ordered full steam in an attempt to outrun
the U-boat, which turned out to be the U-24. He was signaled to stop and surrender after two shots were fired across his bow, but he refused. The U-boat's commander, Rudolf Schneider, then opened fire with the deck gun, scoring several hits on the Armenian, one shot taking out the Marconi room.
After more than a dozen men lay dead or injured on the deck, Trickey finally agreed to surrender. Much to his surprise, he and the crew were treated well by the Germans from that point on. With several lifeboats damaged from the shelling, they were allowed to take the remaining boats and make for the Cornish coast. The Armenian was then sunk by two torpedoes fired into her stern. She went down in a matter of minutes.

The survivors were picked up the following day by the Belgian steam trawler President Stevens. Four of the injured died before they could be rescued. Twenty-nine men in total lost their lives, including nineteen Americans. The Armenian needed hands to tend to the mules, so many of the 175 men on board were muleteers who had been hired at Newport News, Virginia, before sailing. Of the twenty-nine fatalities, twelve were muleteers who refused to abandon
the animals for which they had developed sincere affection and respect, and preferred to go down with the ship. Most of them were African-Americans.
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): Another intriguing memorial, this one to Christopher Runnalls of the 10th Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. A little rooting around reveals that he was 34 when he died 'of wounds at home'. His medal roll suggests that he did not serve abroad and I assume that he was killed in some sort of military accident.
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): an interior view of the church. It had a nice friendly feel.
St Enedoc's church (Daymer Bay): a vignette from an earlier time. A grant for extra seating with the proviso that they are all free. But subject to assignment by the Church Wardens.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

First thoughts on Jezza's win

Martin Rowson for the Guardian
It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it.
(Eugene V. Debs: US Politician)

Well, the deed is done and Jeremy Corbyn has been elected as leader of the Labour party. A friend said that I must be excited that he has and I am. But any excitement is moderated by a realistic expectation of a very rough ride from here on in and, I'll admit it, some trepidation about how Jezza will adapt to his new role. Being a long standing rebellious back bencher might not be the best training for being a responsible Party Leader.  

Jezza's elevation has given encouragement to those of us on the left who want to see Labour end its miserable cohabitation with neo-conservatism and privatisation. Since the ascent of Blair, Labour has sought power by adopting the rhetoric and politics of the right. Consequently, when it gained power it disappointed many because there was little or nothing to distinguish it from the bogeymen it claimed to be protecting us from. And it got worse. As the party’s rightward drift continued, it turned into the very bogeymen that Labour was founded to fight against. For the Blairites, the party’s socialist past is precisely that - passed and in the past.

But as many have pointed out, winning the leadership was the easy bit. The really difficult task has only just begun. And it’s starting with a party whose foundations are becoming increasingly unstable. The Parliamentary Party has received the news of Corbyn’s victory with as much joy as a papal blessing in an Orange lodge. Already significant numbers of the previous shadow cabinet and Labour’s front bench have refused to serve in Jezza's line-up. They’re the sort of politicians who believe that it’s not them who are wrong, it’s the voters and if they had their way they’d elect a new electorate. But they are a powerful force set against any possibility of serious change within Labour. Can the party survive with such divisions?

The divisions within Labour contrast with a media which is almost universally hostile. The UK press has absolutely no intention of giving Corbyn a fair hearing. He’s going to be monstered and misrepresented by mealy mouthed mendacious mediocrities, who’ll claim that their columns represent balanced reporting. Because, as we all know, the media are scrupulously fair and only an anti-democratic wannabe dictator would think of criticising the spawn of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay twins. Jeremy’s voice will be drowned out whilst those of his critics will be given free rein. Faced with all this, it's going to be incredibly difficult for Labour to make substantial inroads into a voting population which will find itself subject to a vigorous fear campaign. It’s going to be relentless and unforgiving. The mildest of proposals will be hysterically blown out of proportion and stripped of context. And it won’t stop. The stakes are too high.

The British establishment could survive the loss of Scotland. Losing Scotland would be a massive blow to their prestige, to their entitlement, to their pockets, but the establishment would still reign over all except the rebellious Scots who refused to be crushed. But the British establishment can’t survive the success of the Corbyn project: he threatens the end to their privilege and preference. That’s precisely why they will conspire to ensure that he fails. Renationalising key industries threatens the bank balances of the rich, scrapping Trident threatens the power hungry dreams of the establishment. 

Already the Tories are talking in the language of threats to national security. Because in their world, national security is the same as the security of the very rich and the very powerful. The security of the poor and the marginalised is of no account. When the government refers to the main opposition party in such terms, when it describes the opposition in apocalyptic terms as an enemy of the state, we should all be concerned. Interesting times ahead, eh? Just think how boring it would have been if one of the others had won!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Droning on....

On August 21st two jihadists, both British citizens, were killed by a drone attack in Syria. Many aspects of this trouble me.

Let me make it clear from the outset that I have absolutely no sympathy for Reyaad Khan or Ruhul Amin who were fighting for ISIS at the time. I’m sad for their families, who never asked for any of this. But Khan and Amin were stupid, misguided and arrogant young men who signed up to an organisation which thinks it just fine to oppress and rape women, to enslave and/or brutalise non-believers, to throw gay people from high buildings and to destroy the cultural heritage of the lands they occupy. They went off to a foreign land where they had no business being in order to kill those who don’t share their narrow misinterpretation of a holy book. 

But, and it is a huge but, that doesn’t mean that the British state which ordered their deaths should escape close scrutiny. By killing these two young men Britain has become a state which practises summary justice. Summary justice is quick and easy but the great problem with summary justice is that it’s very difficult to distinguish it from summary injustice. Summary justice is no justice at all.

Whichever way you look at it, the British state has now sanctioned the assassination of British citizens, without trial, without public disclosure of the evidence against them and without accountability. I think that's a dark and dangerous road to go down. The fact that a drone strike is carried out remotely and in a foreign land doesn’t make it any less of a death squad hit. Whether we like it or not, we now live in a country which has a hit list of its citizens whose deaths can be ordered by politicians behind closed doors for reasons that are not disclosed and on evidence that is not revealed. 
We condemn ISIS at so many levels: we condemn it because it practises a perversion of justice that is manifestly anything but just; we condemn it because it turns to mindless violence as a first option; we condemn it because we like to think that we occupy the moral high ground, that we have fair laws, that we have just rules, that we have impartial courts, that we have compassion and understanding as well as justice and punishment, that violence is never, never our first option. Sadly ordering drone strikes drags us down to the same level as Khan and Amin. I know it's easy to say but very difficult to bring about but they should have been captured and put on trial. Am I being stupid expecting that a democratic state should adhere to higher standards? I want our government to be better than the likes of Khan and Amin, not to adopt their tactics and methods and then demand that we trust blindly in its judgement and dare not challenge its word.

David Cameron told the House of Commons that “we are dealing with people who are producing such a tempo of terrorist attacks – attacks on police and members of the armed services, attempted attacks on commemorations in our country”. So when and where did these attacks or attempted attacks take place? Who tried to carry them out and how? How were they stopped and by whom? Have any arrests been made? Will anybody be tried in court? What role did the three dead Britons in Syria play? Cameron sidesteps all such questions by citing “issues of national security”.  Even the details of the Attorney General’s advice are unavailable. We just have to accept his good faith and that of the PM, the intelligence chiefs and the military. Mmm, now where have I heard that before?

Friday, 11 September 2015

Politics and Migrants

Warning, continuing might take you into an immoderate rant zone.

Increasingly I'm finding that I wake up in the morning, read my Guardian, turn on the Today programme on Radio 4, then hold my head in my hands and cringe,  saying to myself and to no one in particular but the world in general – “Oh, good grief" (or words to that effect). That’s if I'm not already hurling abuse and invective in all directions, which is  not a good way to start the day when you have to keep your blood pressure low. 

There's no getting away from the fact that the role of Cameron's Britain in the EU is embarassing: GB is seen as the dickhead of Europe; the one who never offers to buy a round; the precious little boy who thinks he is special and the standards by which the rest of the world is judged do not apply to him. The rules by which everyone else is judged just do not apply to Britain, because Britain is special. Britain is so special that British nationalism isn’t nationalist at all. We can refuse to help the rest of the world because we need to look after our own people first, and it’s not nationalist to make your compassion and care contingent on a person’s passport as long as their passport is British. 
Britain is the one who is asked to help in a humanitarian crisis but pleads that it might affect its car insurance payments (thank you for that, Daily Mail). Britain is the country where the first response of the press to a humanitarian crisis washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean is to complain that British holiday makers had their holidays in Greece ruined because they were reminded that there is suffering in the world (thank you, Daily Express, for that compassionate headline).
We’re surrounded by water and that makes us special: a barrier which means that we’re exempt from giving a toss about the refugees trekking across the continent as a result of the havoc that the West has helped to bring about. You can walk along a Hungarian highway but Britain has no place for you, unless you’re a global finance company, a multimillionaire, an oligarch, a deposed dictator, an arms dealer or a banker. Britain only has a place for the rich and the powerful, the people who don’t need refuge. You don’t get to be rich and powerful by being a nice person. Sometimes it seems as if Britain only has a place for the utter bastards of this world. Utter bastardy is what the Tories expect us to aspire to. These are the new British values and they’re cringeworthy and loathsome.

People are dying, fleeing death, escaping from oppression and slavery, risking everything and being left with nothing, and the British government refers to them as migrants who are seeking a better life – as if they were contestants on Wish You Were Here who are viewing properties in Majorca and comparing the sizes of swimming pools. Back in the real world that the refugees are in, the swimming pool contains a dead body, face down.

After a very luke-warm start our government is now trying to fudge the numbers, hinting that they may allow a few dozen more here, a couple of hundred more there to seek shelter in the UK. At the same time they seem intent on adding to the bombs that are already falling on Syrian cities. Kobani and Aleppo stand in ruins, flattened and destroyed.  Yes, what they really need are more bombs. Not any old bombs but British bombs. Because British bombs are virtuous and problem solving bombs. British bombs blow things up in constructive and helpful ways, unlike Syrian bombs. Will they never learn? Military intervention does not work.

Julien Salingue's photo.
Turning now to the numbers. Sweden, which has a population of just 8 million, has given refuge to over 40,000. Tiny Lebanon has received 1.2 million across its border with Syria. There are 1.8 million in Turkey. Germany has said that it will receive 800,000. Yet the maximum figure being bandied about by Cameron is 15,000, and even that figure is only being aired after the immense pressure of an outraged populace disgusted by how the UK is showing itself to be the Ebenezer Scrooge of international relief.

It’s not like there is nowhere for the refugees to go. Britain could house them in the grace and favour spare bedrooms of the Royal Family, in the thousands of empty flats and houses owned by offshore tax dodgers, in the empty office space built by speculators. The British establishment tells us that it doesn’t want an EU wide settlement to ensure that every European country has to take its fair share of refugees because they want the EU to be a commercial organisation. The EU should only benefit big business and capital, not people. And that’s the sentiment that also lies behind government in this country. The UK exists to service capital, and so does its people. That’s why there’s so much focus on forcing the disabled into work, because unless you’re making money for someone else you have no value or worth in Britain. At least I can say it wasn't my vote that helped Cameron and his cronies back into power. None of this is in my name. Is it in yours?

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Jezza's the one.

Make your mind up time is rapidly approaching and my ballot paper for the Labour Party Leadership Election has to be completed and returned by next Thursday. Me? I'm going with my heart and putting my X against Jezza.

Many say that a vote for the man is a vote for the Tories in the next election. That may be true, but in the meantime, I think it could mean a number of things.

1. It means that for the first time since they were elected there will be a truly robust opposition to the Conservative party in power. It means that at the PM's Question Time, Cameron will have to answer to someone who can actually challenge the underlying logic of his policies, not just waffle about the details or degrees of his austerity plans.
2. It means that the press cannot ignore and will have to deal with those clashes, and an alternative way of thinking about the economy and social policy will have to be reported and discussed in the public sphere.
3. It means that five years from now, and I may be being very optimistic here, the electorate will have a wider perspective with which to discuss their options. It will no longer be confined to a debate about how much we allow the upper 10% to dominate the landscape but whether we allow them to continue to do so.
4. It means that discussing what’s best for society as a whole – what is in the common good – will no longer be a quaint, faintly embarrassing eccentricity. It could become mainstream.

For the record, I’m not in agreement with all of Corbyn’s ideas. A lot of them, yes, but not all of them. Many I feel are valid, but some ignore the realities of a global economy. Further, I’m not sure that he is the right person to head a Labour government in power.  But that is not what we are facing for the next five years. What I know for sure is that none of the other candidates, to my mind, are up to the task of offering the kind of challenging opposition to the present government I think we need or have shown the ideological capacity to broaden a debate about what kind of society we want. Corbyn is, in my view, the perfect person to do just that. He has enough distance from the entrenched sites of power and a robust enough ideological education to be familiar with the structure of alternative possibilities. Right now, we don’t need someone who knows how to be a slightly less greedy, vaguely kinder capitalist; we need someone who knows that capitalism isn’t the only way of ordering the universe. Not because we’re going to do away with it, but because having the two poles there in the public sphere for discussion, we can see a wider set of choices along the spectrum.

This is what I want for the next generations: more possibilities and greater opportunities than the present one and, what I know for a certainty, is that won’t be possible unless we overturn the broadly held myths of trickle-down economics and the efficacy of the kind of selective  ‘austerity’ to which many supposedly ‘liberal’ governments now adhere. Neoliberalism doesn't work and we need someone standing up in Parliament pointing that out.

And that's why I’m voting for Jezza.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Orkney August 2015: Part the Ninth and Last

Our last day on Orkney. What to do before we have to get to the airport for our flight? Head across the barriers to South Ronaldsay, that's what. Mid morning refreshments at the Tea Room in Hoxha (recommended), a visit to the Neolithic site called 'The Tomb of the Eagles' (also recommended), a leisurely late lunch at the Skerries Bistro (to complete the trio of recommendations) and that's it from Orkney this time around. If you can visit, do. You won't regret it.
Mrs P crawling into a Neolithic tomb.
Mrs P crawling around a Neolithic tomb.
Mrs P crawling out of a Neolithic tomb.
A seascape looking towards mainland Scotland, obscured by the mist, of course.
And for those unlucky enough to be blown off the cliffs and into the sea, help is on hand with the world's smallest life belt. At least the thought is there, if not the delivery.
The windy weather made it difficult for the adult fulmars to land on their roosting places on the cliffs. The updraughts meant many unsuccessful attempts before they finally made it.
We drove passed a flock of Golden Plovers in a field and they suddenly all took off at speed.
And the reason for this became quickly obvious when a large Hen Harrier swooped down. It alighted at the top of a field and was then bombarded by shrieking plovers. He/she doesn't look in the slightest bit worried by all this activity going on over its head.

A couple of videos to finish off with. As a finale to the Ness of Brodgar 2015 season, the site is covered up once more. The covers come off next July, funding permitting.

And here's what it is like landing at Papa Westray in a small plane.

And to complete the cycle, this is our takeoff from Papa Westray.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Orkney August 2015: Part the Eighth.

Our penultimate day on Orkney and we spent it on another island - Papa Westray (known colloquially as Papay). We've been going down in size with the islands we've visited: Mainland with a population of 17,000, Westray with 590, Shapinsay with 300 and Papa Westray, by far the smallest, with just 90. As we did on Westray we are taking a tour organised by the island 'council', the advantages of which are making the best use of our time, seeing all of the sights and sites, having a local guide who knows the island well and, finally, putting some money back into the local economy.
Our Dash Islander plane, with room for eight people, on the runway at Kirkwall. Our scheduled route was Westray and then Papa Westray, the last leg, at two minutes, being the shortest commercial flight in the world. In the event, as we were the only two people booked on the flight, they asked us if we minded going straight to Papa Westray. We didn't (not much) and had a 13 minute flight instead, with great views from our own private plane.
The fact that this garden shed is strongly tethered to the ground gives a good indication of the prevailing weather - windy!
The fact that this stone wall is completely covered in lichen gives a good indication of the air quality - pure!
Now restored but still in occasional use, St Boniface Kirk is set in an important ecclesiastic site dating back to the 8th century. It stands above the rocky shore towards the north west of Papa Westray. It has Iron Age, Pictish and later remains nearby, dating from the 6th century BC to 12th century AD.  A Norse hog-back gravestone and two Early Christian cross-slabs found in the Kirkyard all combine to suggest a site of great significance. The island name Papa refers to the early Christians, who would have been Catholics and adherents of the Pope.
A multi-layered midden on the seashore close to the kirk. Exposed and gradually being lost to erosion. And this is a good example of a problem the smaller islands have - unique archaeology and few resources for excavation and conservation.
The island service station - make a note of what you take in an exercise book and settle up at the end of the month.
The Knap of Howar is Papa Westray's most famous monument. It comprises two oblong stone built houses which are the earliest standing dwellings known in Northern Europe. Dating back to around 3800 years BC, they are older than those at Skara Brae and very similar - the furniture and fittings include hearths, pits, built-in cupboards and stone benches.
They were occupied by neolithic farmers for at least 500 years. From midden remains the mode of subsistence was primarily pastoral, rearing cattle, sheep and pigs. There is some evidence of cereal cultivation and harvesting of fish and shell fish. Entrance to the houses is by low, narrow passages giving shelter from the Orkney weather and they are linked by a low internal passageway. It is unlikely that these were isolated and there must be other houses around just waiting to be uncovered.
A rather handsome cockerel - he really fancied himself this one and enjoyed strutting around for all to admire his fine plumage. A bit like me.

One of the things I was hoping to see on this visit to Orkney was the Scottish Primrose (Primula scotica). This small, delightful flower grows on moist but well-drained, grazed grasslands. It is often found near the coast and is endemic to a small area in the very north of Scotland and some of the islands. We came across it when we walked around the RSPB reserve at the north end of the island. Although nationally rare, there were plenty to be seen.

Another rare plant we came across was the Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarelle). It hadn't quite come into bloom but it was worth taking a photograph of for its rarity.

Continuing my series of slightly out-of-focus bird photographs, here's one of a Black Guillemot with a butterfish lunch. Not many of these cliff nesters around at this time of year so it was a treat to see one. 
Here's a strange thing. You know what it's like when you suddenly notice something odd and then keep looking to see if you are right? Well, I did this with washing lines and, when I pointed the oddness out, so did Mrs P.  And she'll attest to the fact that we saw no bras on washing lines in Orkney. I pass this fact on with no further comment other than to ask, if you ever visit Orkney, that you check it out.
Rush hour at Terminal 1 at Papa Westray airport. All staff have two or three other jobs and turn up for their aviation duties about 2 minutes before the plane lands. Security checks? Never heard of them! Identity checks? What are those? Ticket checks? Why would they want to do that?
All that and just 10 minutes for check-in - and even this is not really necessary.