Friday 27 November 2009

The White Ribbon - Das Weisse Band

The White Ribbon is the latest film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. It is set somewhere in rural northern Germany in the year before the outbreak of the First World War. Ostensibly the film is about the strange and malicious happenings that occur during that year - the local doctor is thrown from his horse, a woman worker dies in the sawmill, the Baron’s son is abducted and beaten, a boy with Down’s syndrome is attacked and almost blinded. Are these and other happenings just accidents or there is something more disturbing afoot? The film starts as if it might be a who done it mystery. And towards the end it almost builds up to a mystery solving exposé. But nothing is really revealed, for these happenings are merely the fixed points in what is essentially a study of an inward-looking and repressed community.

Our view of this rural community comes from the local teacher, who, now an old man, looks back at the events of that year. He does this in part by a voiceover narration and in part by his presence in the film as the young teacher. As the teacher much of his contact is with the children of the village. And it is the children who are the stars of the film. Both in terms of the outstanding performances by the young actors and in terms of their pivotal role in the film. Most of the unusual happenings involve children in one way or other. They are either the protagonists or they are the ones who suffer the consequences.

And the consequences tend to be pretty brutal. This is a portrait of a repressed and fearful community in which both physical and psychological punishment is inflicted on those who transgress. In this village sex is shown as something brutal or abusive or as something to be repressed. The white ribbon of the title refers to a ribbon used by the local Pastor. Ostensibly a symbol of purity and innocence, in the film it becomes a symbol of oppression and shame when he forces his teenage son and daughter to wear a white ribbon as a form of punishment.

It is also a deeply conservative and hierarchical society, which is dominated by the Baron and to a lesser extent by the local Lutheran Pastor. Everyone else lives in awe of them. Anyone who challenges their authority is likely to suffer.

The film is shot throughout in black and white which both gives the film an old fashioned look and emphasizes the threatening and foreboding atmosphere which suffuses every scene. Most of the scenes are indoors or in some constrained setting and the film does have a claustrophobic feel about it. There is a sense of not being able to escape, either physically or psychologically. None of the characters are particularly attractive neither in character nor in appearance. Just about everyone has a dour, almost hateful expression. The only two characters who are at all attractive are the young teacher and his fiancee. Significantly, both are from other villages and they are in contrast to the villagers they are mainly seen outdoors.

The cast is pretty much perfect. All unknown to me and probably to most non German audiences. The Pastor is particularly good and one can easily imagine being terrified by his mere presence. The children as already mentioned are excellent and they all have a sort of dull, haunting and slightly frightening look about them. The direction and camera work is a wonder in itself. Haneke likes to hold on to a scene for a long time. For example we see a corridor and the doors at its end. The camera holds this view for what seems like forever and hardly anything happens. Someone enters or leaves or somebody just passes by. We are left wondering, not quite sure what to expect. Just this sense of claustrophobia and surreptitiously eavesdropping and slightly fearful for what we might see.

At the very beginning of the film we hear the voice of the old teacher setting the scene and he suggests that these painful events "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country". Knowing what did come next in the 1920s and 30s not just in Germany, but in many, if not most parts of Europe, encourages us to view the film as something more than just a German children’s story - the film’s subtitle in German. For it would be the children of this pre First World War world who would come to full maturity in the 20s and 30s. According to Haneke, the film is about the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature. This is certainly a very powerful film and without a doubt one of the best films I have seen this year. It is a simply riveting and majestic film - a true masterpiece.

Monday 23 November 2009

St. Andrew's Day

This coming weekend will be one of the highlights of the year in Scotland. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and his feast day is celebrated on 30 November. St. Andrew’s Day has over the last two or three decades become an ever more popular day of celebration. When I was a young boy there was not much in the way of official recognition. Everyone knew that St. Andrew was our patron saint, but no great fuss was made and 30 November was just like any other day. It was not a public holiday.

That has all changed and the growing recognition of St. Andrew’s Day as Scotland’s Day has in many ways mirrored the growing self- awareness of Scots. This has led of course to the re-establishment of our own Parliament. And in 2006 the Scottish Parliament designated St. Andrew’s Day as an official bank holiday.

But what has Saint Andrew to do with Scotland? Andrew of course was the brother of Peter and one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. According to writer Michael T R B Turnbull, “Andrew was an agile and hardy Galilean fisherman whose name means ‘Strong’ and who also had good social skills. He brought the first foreigners to meet Jesus and shamed a large crowd of people into sharing their food with the people beside them. Today we might describe him as the Patron Saint of Social Networking!” Good guy to have as your patron saint! How did he get to Scotland though? Well, he didn’t actually get to Scotland, but his relics, or at least some of them, are supposed to have ended up, sometime in the 8th century, at what is now the town of St. Andrews, so named in honour of the saint. There on 5 July 1318 Scotland’s largest cathedral was consecrated in a ceremony before King Robert the Bruce. Alas the cathedral is now a picturesque ruin.

The other legend that associates the saint with Scotland is more military and political in origin. In 832 before one of the many battles between the Scots and their Pictish allies and the invading Saxons, King Angus McFergus had a dream in which Saint Andrew appeared promising victory. On the morning of the battle a great white X shaped cross appeared in the sky and the Scots and Picts took this as a sign of divine support. They went on to win a bloody victory and from that time Saint Andrew and his Saltire Cross were adopted as the national symbols for an emerging Scotland.

Enough of history - what about the celebrations? This year St. Andrew’s Day falls on a Monday and this means that many places have decided to devote the whole weekend to activities and events. There are the usual ceilidhs, family fun activities, concerts of traditional and not so traditional music, street theatre and much else. This weekend will also be the start of the pre-Christmas celebrations and in many places this will be combined with celebrating St. Andrew’s Day. In Dundee for example there is to be a Winter Lights Night. This is advertised as “a visual feast set to mix stunning audiovisual displays and music against a backdrop of street art, performances and storytelling, culminating in a fireworks display.” If you want to get an idea of what is on offer throughout Scotland you can access the official St. Andrew’s Day online guide here.

The town of St. Andrews is one of the places to put on a weekend long programme of events and activities. This includes lighting up the medieval walls of the town with installations themed to reflect different aspects of Scotland’s heritage. There will even be a power kiting festival on the West Sands. On the Monday many famous buildings will be open for free, including the R&A clubhouse. We will certainly be there. For more info about events in St. Andrews their festival brochure can be found here.

What about Scots in the rest of the world? Scots of course have long been a migrant people and have settled in most parts of the world. With them they took their traditions and customs. In places where there was a significant Scottish presence Scottish societies were often started in order to maintain these traditions and to provide help for their fellow countrymen. The world’s first Society of Saint Andrew was formed in Charleston, South Carolina on 30 November 1729. Twenty years later, the Saint Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia was started by 25 Scottish residents to give relief to the poor and the distressed. Two signatories of the Declaration of Independence — James Wilson (a graduate of St Andrews University) and John Witherspoon DD, a native of Paisley and president of Princeton College — were founder members. St. Andrew societies or Caledonian societies can be found all over the world. Some of them will mark the day. For example there is to be a St. Andrew’s Day Banquet and Ball on 28 November, held by the Saint Andrew’s Society of San Francisco. While the New York Caledonian Club is to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day on the 30th. Their website doesn’t give any clue as to what they will actually do. There will also be St. Andrew's Day Balls in Toronto and Paris. Most societies, however, do not seem to celebrate St. Andrews Day in any way. In this they are a bit like we were in Scotland 30 or so years ago. Perhaps in the decades to come Scots and the descendants of Scots throughout the world will use St. Andrew’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s culture and traditions.

Saint Andrew of course is not just the patron saint of Scotland. We are happy that many other countries honour Saint Andrew. He is it seems the patron saint of the Ukraine, Russia, Romania and Greece. He is also the patron saint of the town of Amalfi in Italy, where there is a beautiful cathedral dedicated to the saint. We have been fortunate enough to have visited this lovely town and its cathedral. Andrew was also apparently the patron saint of the former kingdom of Prussia. Not sure to what extent St. Andrew’s Day is celebrated in any of these countries or places.

Anyway, to all Scots or would be Scots all over the world and to all people who share Saint Andrew as their patron saint a happy St. Andrew’s Day to one and all.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Who's Afraid of the EU?

Lots of people judging by the reaction to the recent developments in the EU, in particular the appointment of the new President of the European Council and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Not only are some people and some media outlets hostile to the whole European Union set up, they seem quite happy to tell lies about it. The Daily Mail for example nearly always refers to one of the new posts as President of the EU. Friday’s editorial in the Mail talks about “EU stitch-up” and goes on to describe the decision as “the final act of the squalidly anti-democratic Brussels farce.” Nearer to home a fellow Dundee blogger has a post about our “New Masters” and again refers to Van Rompuy as the President of Europe.

Now these are just two examples, but they accurately reflect the way many people think about the EU. In particular many people accuse the EU of being undemocratic or even anti-democratic. This is a pretty absurd accusation. Now if the newly appointed President was to be the President of the EU as a whole then the charge might have some validity. But of course this is not the case. M. Van Rompuy will be the President only of the European Council. This is but one of the five main bodies that make up the EU. It is not even one of the key decision making bodies. These are the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Neither of these two bodies are significantly affected by the Lisbon Treaty. Not only does the European Council not have any formal executive or legislative competencies, the new President of this Council doesn’t even have a vote. Nevertheless we are supposed to be frightened about M. Van Rompuy and what he might do to us all.

What does the European Council do? The Council is where the heads of government of the 27 member states meet together. It usually meets about four times a year and its main role is to define the EU's policy agenda and to settle issues outstanding from discussions at a lower level. And what about the new President - M. Herman Van Romuy - what is his role in all this. The President's work will largely be administrative, responsible for coordinating the work of the European Council, hosting its meetings and reporting its activities to the European Parliament after each meeting and at the beginning and end of his term. Additionally, the President will provide external representation to the Union.

So the European Council which is the body which represents the national governments within the EU has decided to appoint someone as their non-executive, non-voting President for the next two and a half years and we are told by some people that this is an affront to democracy! The European Council has always had a President. This post just happens to change every six months and there was never any election. Just buggins turn. The national governments think that by creating this new post they can be more effective and we are to believe that this threatens democracy! What do the opponents of this want? An EU wide popular election? How would that go down with the various national governments? I can just imagine how outraged the likes of the Daily Mail would be at this. A democratically elected President with all the additional legitimacy that he or she would have through a popular election would pose a much greater threat to the sovereignty of national governments. Now the Daily Mail and others who oppose the current set up know this or else they are complete fools.

Much the same applies to the other post, that of the HIgh Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This post has been created in order to ensure greater coordination and consistency in EU foreign policy. Though a new post it replaces two previous posts, that of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and that of the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy. As most critics of the EU complain about its bloated bureaucracy, one would have thought that this measure by reducing the number of officials would be welcomed by all. Not so. Once again we are told that this new post threatens the independence of our own foreign policy. This is again not so, as the Lisbon Treaty does not change the key elements of the EU’s foreign policy procedures. Namely that the High Representative can only represent the Union in matters where there is an agreed policy between all member states. And such agreement in nearly all cases relating to foreign policy has to by by unanimity. So where all 27 member states have the same position on a particular issue, and only then, they have agreed that Baroness Ashton can represent them. Big deal!

Now it is true that the two people appointed to these posts, the Belgian-British duo, Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, are hardly household names, even in their respective countries, let alone the EU as a whole. At least Van Rompuy is an active politician - he is currently Prime Minister of Belgium. I would have thought that this is a good thing and much better than some of the retired former political leaders that have been promoted by some. There may well be some questions about the suitability of Baroness Ashton for her post, as she has very limited diplomatic experience. Time will tell how effective she is in her new role.

However all political appointments are to some extent controversial. And in this case most critics are just using this as yet another opportunity to vent their hostility to the whole European Union project. And to show of their ignorance.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Learning Turkish

Merhaba. I have recently started learning Turkish. Dundee University offered a beginner’s class as part of their evening programme. Unfortunately not enough people signed up. However the tutor contacted those of us who were interested and we have now formed our own small class. There are only four of us, so it is quite intensive. The tutor is Turkish, but has lived in Dundee for years and now speaks English with a definite Dundonian accent.

Why learn Turkish? No particular reason as such. I have always been interested in other languages, but to date have only attempted to learn the main west European languages. We did French at school and since then I have tried to learn Spanish, Italian and German. Spanish is OK as we lived there for a few years and I try to keep up with the language by reading online articles about FC Barcelona and the odd book in Spanish. The others I can just about get by in. Speaking is the most difficult as there are virtually no chances to speak another language in Dundee. So I try to keep up by reading the odd online piece. German is the most difficult - so many cases and endings. With the help of a dictionary I can get by with reading and have just finished a rather good krimi novel - Alpenrauschen - set in Switzerland, by the Swiss writer Sabina Altermatt. Carrying on a conversation is just so difficult. Luckily I don’t need to try much when in Switzerland. Thank goodness for the spread of English!

Back to Turkish. I fancied trying to learn Turkish for a mixture of three reasons. The first is that it is a completely different language from the main European languages. It does share some characteristics with Hungarian and Finnish which are also outwith the main European language blocs. So I like the idea of trying something new which might help keep the old grey cells ticking over. The second reason is that Turkish is the language of one of our oldest and most interesting civilizations. And one that I know very little about. From history lessons at school I know about the advance of the Turkish peoples into what was then known as the Byzantian Empire. Later on under the Ottomans the Turks conquered about half of Europe and created one of the most powerful Empires in the world. Turkey is also a Muslim country and I have never visited a Muslim country and am pretty unfamiliar with modern Islam. The final reason for deciding to learn Turkish is that we hope to visit the country for a holiday next year. While I am sure most Turks, at least in the tourist areas of the country, will speak English, it will be good if I can say a few words in Turkish.

So far I have only been learning for a couple of weeks or so and already it is proving to be quite a challenge. Turkish really is different. Here for example are the numbers 1 - 5: bir; iki, üc, dört, beş. Nothing like anything I know! Still progress is being made, if slowly. I can now introduce myself, ask how are you and most important of all, I can order a glass or even a bottle of wine. Will probably need a few if I am to keep up with this challenge as this will certainly be a test of my determination as well as my linguistic skills.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Pursue Justice not Peace

Yet again there is much talk about peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. The USA has a special envoy - former Senator George Mitchell - dedicated to securing a peace settlement. There have been and no doubt still are various “road maps” signposting the road to peace. Alas none of them has made the slightest progress towards a lasting peace in Palestine. I would contend that this is deliberate, at least on the part of the Israelis. The focus on peace suits the Israelis fine. For peace has come to mean security for Israelis. The rights of Palestinians are simply excluded. So, any time any Palestinian tries to resist the occupation with violent means - as they are perfectly entitled to do - the Isrealis can say there is no partner for peace. So we have the story of the last thirty years or so - an apparently never ending peace process that has never achieved anything. At least not for the Palestinians. The occupation continues and they are still subjected to intrusive and often violent aggression on the part of Israeli settlers, not to mention the regular outbursts of violence by the Israeli army. The Israelis on the other hand, by paying lip service to peace, have won the rest of the world’s acquiescence in their ongoing colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Perhaps the focus on peace is not the way forward.

An alternative would be to put the spotlight on Justice. Without justice there is little prospect of any lasting peace. So what is involved in securing Justice in Palestine? The starting point has to be a close look at what has actually happened in Palestine over the past 100 years or so. The following maps show clearly how much the Palestinians have lost over this period.

In addition to this massive loss of their land there is also the catastrophic displacement of Palestinians. This began with the planned forced expulsion of Palestinians as part of the creation of the state of Israel in 1947/48. Ever since, the Israelis have never missed an opportunity to the continue this policy of ethnic cleansing. Even now Israel is continuing to build new colonies in the West Bank and to pursue the forced Judaization of East Jerusalem.

No Israeli government has as yet made any acknowledgement of its responsibility for this ongoing and illegal annexation of Palestinian land and the resulting expulsion and suffering of Palestinians. Any attempt to secure a just settlement must begin with Israel recognizing its role in causing the current situation. It is unlikely that any Israeli government will do so willingly. Only outside pressure could persuade Israel to own up to its role. While the USA remains the key player in all this, the UK along with the other EU member states could still exert a significant role. We can all do whatever we can to influence our government raise the issue of justice as the basis for any lasting peace settlement.

If the present peace process continues then more and more violence is the only outcome. Already the current pro Western Palestinian leadership - Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are fast losing credibility with Palestinians everywhere. If the most pro-Western leadership fails to achieve anything, and so far Israel has made no concessions whatsoever, then a much more radical leadership will emerge. Without hope for a just settlement more and more Palestinians are likely to resort to violent means to achieve their aims, however fruitless this appears. If you live in a hopeless and worsening situation what else can you do.

Things are relatively quiet in Palestine just now, but I reckon this is just the lull before the storm. If further violence is to be prevented then we must focus more in securing justice than in meaningless peace processes.

Friday 13 November 2009


This is the first in what I hope will be a series of reflections on each month of the year. I have always thought of November as a kind of in-between month. Is it the end of autumn or the beginning of winter? A bit of both in reality. The clocks have gone back and darkness begins to prevail and it is getting colder. However we do not normally get the bitter cold that you associate with winter proper. In fact we still have some summer bedding plants in flower.

There isn’t much in the way of snow either. Though we did have a snowfall towards the end of the month last year. However this was unusual as in recent years there has been no snowfalls in Dundee during November. Perhaps in the more distant past it did snow more often in November. Certainly that is what my memory tells me. But my memory is not what it used to be - if it ever was that good anytime.

November is of course a month for celebrations and commemorations. The 11th is Remembrance Day and the two minutes silence is acknowledged a bit more now than a few decades ago. I can still remember parading through the streets of St. Andrews with the Scouts on Remembrance Sundays. These were usually bitter cold days. I can’t say that I much enjoyed or appreciated the event. Nowadays I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. It is fine to honour the dead, but it is too often wrapped up in support for “our boys” who when not getting killed themselves, manage to kill very large numbers of Afghan civilians. I will feel more willing to honour our dead when we as a country have given up invading and killing others.

On a happier note this is also the month of Thanksgiving for our American cousins and friends. I have just discovered that this is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. This is by American standards a very ancient feast and dates back to at least the 17th century. I hadn’t realized that Thanksgiving Day was also celebrated in Canada. Though there it is held on the second Monday in October - apparently because autumn comes earlier in Canada. Anyway Happy Thanksgiving to all our American friends and a belated greeting to our Canadian friends.

We have nothing similar over here in the UK. Harvest festivals do take place though even when I was a child they never amounted to much. We do of course have Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night as it is probably more commonly known. Held on the 5th of November to commemorate the failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, this was a very popular event. When I was young nearly everyone had their own bonfire in their garden. The highlight was the setting off of fireworks - the more and the louder the better. It could also be quite frightening as some children liked nothing better than throwing loud bangers at other children. It could also be dangerous for those who liked to experiment with their own fireworks. A boy who was at school with me lost a hand while trying to make his own gunpowder. Nowadays thankfully most firework displays are well organized by the local council or some other local group.

In Scotland we have our own festive day at the end of November when we celebrate St. Andrews Day. I intend to devote a post to this event later in the month.

November is also a pretty significant month in the history of the Rutherfords, or at least my particular branch of the Rutherfords. Unfortunately this includes the anniversary of deaths. My maternal grandmother, Jessie Henderson died on 25th November 1975. I remember her well as a small and wiry old woman Her husband died in 1939 and she lived on her own for many years in a one room flat at the top of a tenement in Dundee. We used to visit her there. It had an outside stairwell and an outside loo. The bed was sort of built into the wall. She had all kinds of old utensils for spinning and washing. It was always a great adventure visiting her. She died in her nineties. My paternal great-great grandmother, Mary Cunningham died on 29th November 1914, 79 years old. I think she died in St. Andrews.

More happily, November is also the month when many of my ancestors got married. Including my own parents, who were married in Dundee on 2nd November, 1931. This is a photo of them probably taken shortly before they were married.

They managed to celebrate their 60th anniversary together with a grand family reunion in the Golf Hotel in St.Andrews. At least four other marriages took place in the month of November. The earliest was on 12th November 1815 between James Rutherford and a Janet Mair in Dunbog in North East Fife. They are my great-great-great grandparents. Then on 25th November 1853 John Rae and Catherine MacFarlane were married in Perth. They are my great-great grandparents and the great grandparents of my mother. Their daughter, Agnes Rae was married on 28th November 1873 in Perth to John Melville. They were the parents of Jessie and my mother’s grandparents. Finally on 16th November 1877, my great grandparents James Rutherford and Catherine Rodgers were married.

It seems that each month is associated with a particular gemstone. Sometimes called the birthstone, there are at least four different traditions for naming a birthstone, including a Tibetan, Ayurvedic and a modern American one. Luckily in the case of November they mostly agree that yellow topaz is the birthstone for this month.

There is also apparently a tradition of associating each month with a flower. The flower for November is the chrysanthemum which symbolizes compassion, friendship, and secret love. Hence the photo of chrysanthemums at the beginning of this post

November has also unfortunately become the month for starting Christmas preparations. Just about every shop is already full of Christmas decorations. TV and newspapers are full of adverts for Christmas gifts and calls to book now your Christmas lunch/dinner or outing. This is one of the worst things about November. Christmas is fine, we should not be bombarded with Christmas stuff before the beginning of December at the earliest.

Anyway I hope you all enjoy the rest of this November.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Is the SNP an obstacle to independence?

This may seem a rather strange and perhaps impertinent question. Especially to any SNP supporter reading this. However it is a serious question. Never more so now that we have the experience of an SNP government in action and the prospect of a referendum on independence, if not next year, within the next few years.

The first question that needs to be answered is has the SNP as a government significantly furthered the likelihood of independence? The answer seems to be a very clear no. Recent opinion polling has shown no significant or growing support for independence. If anything support for independence has at best stalled. This is at first sight surprising as the SNP remains enormously popular as a party and as a government. The latest poll from TNS-BMRB in the Herald shows the following breakdown of voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament:


SNP - 40%

Labour - 32%


SNP - 37%

Labour - 29%

This is quite a remarkable lead for a governing party. However when it comes to voting intentions for the UK Parliament, a completely different picture emerges. The Westminster voting intentions are:

Labour - 39%

SNP - 25%

Tories - 18%

Lib Dems - 12%

So what might explain this substantial difference between the support for the SNP for Scottish and UK elections? To some extent the very success of the SNP in government may well work against them in a UK election. After all the majority of Scots still support the Union and with their own Parliament and an SNP run government may not see the need for a bigger SNP contingent at Westminster. Clearly an SNP government in Edinburgh is much more powerful than a few extra MPs at Westminster. This pattern of voting is quite common in other parts of the world. In Catalunya for example, the nationalist parties do much much better in Catalan elections than in Spanish elections. It is a similar story in the Basque country. So at one level we should not be surprised by these poll findings. The SNP may be transforming itself into a mainstream party which dominates in its own territory and may win additional powers every so often, but does not threaten the constitutional status-quo.

However for the SNP this is a bit of a double edged sword. While governing in Edinburgh is a very attractive proposition the purpose of the SNP is bring about an independent Scotland. What if becoming the party of government in Scotland threatens the achievement of independence? The better the SNP performs in government the more it demonstrates the validity of the current devolution settlement. And if the SNP can win the odd additional powers for the Parliament the more it consolidates itself as the party best placed to govern and represent Scotland - but within the UK. What the SNP seems to be unable to do is to convince enough Scots that independence is an even better way forward. This of course is very different from Spain, where the nationalist parties in Catalunya and the Basque country do not advocate independence. In Catalunya for example only one small party campaigns for independence. The main nationalist parties there are quite content with running the Regional governments. Is this the future that awaits the SNP?

The answer in part depends on just how strong the potential support for independence may be. If the current polling is an accurate reflection of the deep seated views of Scots then the prospect of independence is most unlikely to ever happen. Most Scots do seem to be content to remain within the UK. There is no obvious oppression and now that we have our own Parliament and government many if not most of the key decisions are taken in Scotland anyway. Independence will not suddenly transform Scotland into some fabulous wealthy paradise. If a majority of Scots are to be persuaded of the more subtle benefits of independence then this will need a very broad based campaign. Independence is not a narrow party political issue. People from all and no political background can be in favour of independence. It is a constitutional issue and not dependent on party specific policies for running the economy, the health service, education etc.

However in Scotland independence has become a party political issue. For most Scots independence is seen as synonymous with the SNP. While this is quite good for the SNP in electoral terms in Scottish elections, it doesn’t seem to be such a good deal for achieving independence. All political parties carry some baggage and all political parties generate hostility from other political parties. And this is what it seems to me is damaging to the cause of independence. For it is very clear that for many Scots the SNP is persona non grata. There is an enormous hostility shown to the SNP by many sections of Scottish society. The other political parties resent the SNP in a way they do not resent other parties. All their venom is directed against the very idea of independence. And as long as independence is primarily associated with the SNP this venom does great damage.

To move forward the campaign for independence needs to move away from the SNP. We need to see groups in favour of independence within all political parties - why is there no Labour for an Independent Scotland group? Or a Tories for a fiscally responsible and independent Scotland? And so on. Part of the reason of course is that many of those in the other political parties who do favour independence have already left and either joined the SNP or just opted out of political activity. However the end result has been a short term gain for the SNP as a political party, but a major blow to the cause of independence. The other political parties, shorn of their pro-independence activists have become ever more hostile to both the SNP and independence. With the result that anyone remaining in the Labour, Tory or LibDem parties who are in favour of independence are most likely to keep it very quiet. They could of course join the SNP, but this is unlikely. Some people will never join the SNP - for a variety of reasons. It’s not left wing enough, it’s not right wing enough etc or they just don’t like nationalist parties - I fall into this group. So in my view the SNP will never become a large enough party to bring about independence on its own. And its existence as a successful party will engender greater and greater hostility from all its opponents.

Things are not looking too great from the perspective of achieving independence. In Scotland we seem to be living in a kind of political impasse. The hostility that now exists means that the other parties are most unlikely to tolerate any pro-independence group while the SNP as a political party will not want to compromise its electoral prospects by encouraging other pro-independence parties. The one thing that might change the current impasse is the arrival of a Tory government at Westminster with little or no MPs from Scotland. The prospect of another decade or so out of power in London might just persuade some Labour politicians and Trade Unionists that an independent Scotland might not be such a bad idea after all.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Stitching Update

I have been quite busy over the summer with various stitching projects. I completed all three nameplates for the grandchildren and then embarked on the second of what I hope will become a series of pieces based on Palestinian designs. This one features a harp in the centre surrounded by lilies and moons of Bethlehem. The outer edge is made up of Damask Roses and Scottish Thistles. These patterns are much more complicated to follow than appears at first. Still it was great fun doing the piece, which I still like a lot. The colour scheme is of course mine and has probably no link with Palestine whatsoever. The piece uses two strands of DMC stranded cotton on an 18 count cotton Aida canvass.

This was followed by another Bargello design. This one I adapted from a pattern for a glass case which appears in Brenda Day’s book on Bargello - a fresh approach to Florentine embroidery. This is full of lovely ideas for Bargello designs. Anyway I reduced the proportions to fit a frame I had picked up for next to nothing. This uses Anchor tapisserie wool threads on an 11 count canvass.

I came back from our holiday in Swtizerland with some new ideas for stitching projects. The first is this piece which is also done with Anchor tapisserie wool on canvass. The design is based on the tiled steeple of the church in Turckheim in Alsace. I have tried to get as close as possible to the original colour scheme. I hope to somehow make this into a wall hanging using thin wooden strips. If I can get the right kind of wood.

My next project was another piece using my collection of Palestinian designs I found on the net from palestinianembroider. This time I wanted to make a feature of two swans. I also had to work out a design to fit into another one of my second hand frames. Above and below the swans I have used the Moon of Bethlehem pattern. The vertical design on either side of the swans does not appear to have a name. At least my copy doesn’t give it a name. Which is a pity as most of the Palestinian designs do have a name. The inner border around the swans for example is known as the Bachelor’s cushion. This piece uses two strands of DMC cotton threads on 18 count Aida fabric.

My most recent piece is one of the largest projects I have done so far. It measures 21cm by 21cm, which is pretty big for me. I again used two strands of DMC cotton on 18 count Aida. This project is another in my Bargello series. I have given this one a title - Five Easy Pieces. This is the title of a great movie featuring Jack Nicholson in one of his early roles. The piece also has five sections, so the title is not exactly original. Anyway the central section is perhaps not strictly speaking a Bargello pattern. For a start it uses a diagonal stitch. But it is basically a very simple stitch which is one of the characteristics of Bargello. This central section is by the way a variation of a Jacquard stitch. The other four outer sections are all traditional Bargello patterns. Three of them come from Frances Slater’s The Bargello Book. She gives each of the patterns a name and the three I uses are called: Ripples, Elliptical Diamonds and Circles and Diamonds. The fourth section uses an untitled pattern from Brenda Day’s book. I choose this particular combination of patterns as I wanted to experiment with using a restricted colour scheme using just shades of one colour for each section. Apart from the central piece which of course has two core colours. As usual I am not at all sure what I will do with this piece. I like it a lot, but have as yet no ideas of how to finish it off.

Currently I am working on a new project. This is to create a biscornu. The word biscornu apparently comes from a French adjective meaning crooked or quirky. And a biscornu is a quirky, crooked shaped pouch like object which can be used as a potpourri or as a pincushion or just as an ornament. From a stitchers point of view you need to make two squares. I have chosen a pattern which I found by chance on a blog by Romy in Austria. She offered the free pattern as her contribution to promoting breast cancer awareness.

I have completed one side. The other will be the same, but on a grey fabric. The stitching is pretty straightforward, though God knows how I’m going to manage to sew the two pieces into a biscornu!

For the future I want to try and make up a design based on one of the photos I took in Switzerland. I will also keep on with the occasional Bargello and Palestinian pattern. And I will probably fit in the odd bookmark or two. Good stitching to anyone out there.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Drugs, Politics and Science

Once again the UK government indulges in a very British outbreak of moral outrage over drugs. In this case there is the added excitement of an outraged scientist. It is so very clear and very sad that there seems to be zero chance of a serious debate about the use of drugs in the UK today. Just about all politicians are frightened to talk about the issues openly. There appears to be an unwritten agreement that any discussion about drugs starts from the premise that drugs are very, very bad and that people who take drugs or deal in drugs are very, very bad people and that the use of drugs will inevitably result in misery. Misery not just for those who consume the drugs, but also for their families and indeed whole communities. This line is most strongly peddled by most of the mainstream media, including TV and radio. There appears to be a never ending succession of stories about the dangers and damages caused by drugs. It is amazing how passionately concerned our politicians and right wing journalists become about communities when drugs is the topic. When it comes to the damage caused to communities by neo-liberal economics these same politicians and journalists remain very, very silent.

Drugs may or may not be a bad thing - I’ll leave that one for the moral philosophers out there. What is clear is that lots of us, almost certainly the majority of us, consume drugs on a more or less regular basis. And are no worse, or at least not significantly worse for the experience. Of course for the vast majority of us our preferred drugs are of the legal variety - tobacco or alcohol. Those of us who limit ourselves to one or other of these legal drugs are somehow immune from all the dreadful downsides to drug taking. What moral superiority it confers on us! And when some upstart scientist - otherwise known as the Government’s chief scientific advisor - comes along and points out that, erm, some of the illegal drugs, cannabis and ecstasy for example, are actually less addictive and less harmful than alcohol, well then all hell breaks loose.

How dare he challenge our cosy little world and in the name of science! Since it is a bit risky to challenge him on the science the moral outrage comes in very handy. Hence all this talk about wasted lives and damaged communities etc. It is not just the top politicians who seem to live in a different planet from the rest of us. Just last week we had some lesser known politicians on radio talking about this very issue. And what a confused and muddled lot they were. One justified the ban on cannabis by using the analogy of a packet of biscuits. It would be alright if we could trust people to just take one biscuit from the pack, but of course we know that some people will just scoff the lot at one sitting. What moral depravity! I was a tad surprised that she wasn’t asked if she was therefore in favour of banning biscuits on the grounds that some poor souls could not resist the temptation to misuse them. This appears to be the general tenor of the debate around drugs, or at least the illegal drugs. We cannot reclassify them, never mind decriminalize them, for fear that some people might misuse them. It is a pretty stupid argument as it could just as easily be applied to most things in life. Some people deliberately misuse food and end up obese or anorexic, causing great harm to themselves and to their nearest and dearest. Do we ban food? Some people, in fact quite a lot of people, misuse cars and cause great injuries and sometimes death to other people. Do we ban cars?

Banning something because of what some people might end up doing with it is not a serious policy. It is a knee-jerk reaction and in the case of drugs based on delusions of moral superiority and it seems, bad science. What then to do? At the very least we should decriminalize drug taking. Then as is the case with tobacco and alcohol addiction we try to minimize misuse and if possible prevent misuse by offering clear simple information on drugs and the provision of rehabilitation centres for those who wish to change.

This of course is most unlikely to happen anytime soon. Why? Why are nearly all of our politicians and media so trapped in this moral crusade approach to illegal drugs while at the same time are happy to promote the consumption of alcohol? There must be something behind all this. Most likely money and lots of it. The War on Drugs, like the War on Terror, has become big business for some very rich people. In the case of Afghanistan the two have become intimately entwined. Perhaps there is too much for too many rich people to lose if we were to change our drugs policy?

Sunday 1 November 2009

Enduring Love

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan was the Reading Group’s choice for November. This is now the fourth book by Ian McEwan that I have read and I have enjoyed them all. The previous ones were Atonement, Saturday and On Chesil Beach, his three most recent novels as it happens. Enduring Love is an earlier novel, published in 1997.

In some ways enjoy is not the right word to use about a McEwan book. Perhaps appreciate is a more appropriate word. You appreciate and at times marvel at the quality of his writing. This is certainly the case with Enduring Love. It is a beautifully written book. The story is both strange and banal. After witnessing a fatal accident, Joe Rose is obsessively stalked by one of the other witnesses to the fatality, Jed Parry. The novel, written in the first person, is Joe’s account of what happened and how he tries to deal with the consequences of this obsession.

This obsession is caused by a real medical condition - de Clerambault’s syndrome. This is form of paranoid delusion with an amorous quality. For no apparent reason a person comes to believe that a particular person is deeply in love with them. A lack of response is rationalized and pursuit and harassment may occur.

What gives the novel a pronounced eery feel to it is how Joe does retell and react to the events. Joe is a scientist who failed to make it as a scientist and is now a successful journalist. And his account both of the accident and the stalking are written almost as a scientific case study. There is a coldness and over emphasis on precision in his account of what happened. Here is an example from early in the novel, when Joe is going over with painstaking deliberation what he remembers happened.

A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows. The cool touch of glass on skin and James Gadd’s cry - these synchronous moments fix a transition, a divergence from the expected: from the wine we didn’t taste (we drank it that night to numb ourselves) to the summons, from the delightful existence we shared and expected to continue, to the ordeal we were to endure in the time ahead.

This little extract is a very good illustration of the strength of McEwan’s writing. It is not just beginnings that are artifices. The whole writing itself is an artifice, and in McEwan’s hands he uses the beautify of the language to write about some pretty horrible and terrifying things. This short piece also brings in a neat reference to the title. In this tale, enduring love is an ordeal that one has to endure.

Joe’s response to this ordeal goes from the dismissive to the obsessional and in the process he almost wrecks his own happy relationship with his wife Clarissa. It is one of the ironies of the novel that it is a real loving relationship that suffers most while the delusional one endures, unaffected by reality. In a sense the whole novel is a fictional reflection on what is reality. It is a recurrent theme as Joe in particular painstakingly tries to recall what really happened and discovers that it is impossible to know what really happened.

As the novel develops, Joe’ s relationship with Clarissa breaks down and one or two side plots develop. These also are about discovering the truth or what passes for the truth. The novel builds to an unexpected and violent climax. In keeping with the detached tone of the writing the novel ends with two appendices. One is a fictional article from the British Review of Psychiatry on de Clerambault’s syndrome. This article includes as a case study the very story we have just read. And it is through these medical-scientific notes that we learn that Joe and Clarissa were reconciled. Perhaps real love can endure too.

As hinted at above, Enduring Love is not really an enjoyable book, though it is well worth reading for the quality of the writing.