Thursday 31 December 2009

Champions League - Some Reflections

Now that the current Champions League has reached its mid-winter break, it seems like a good time to reflect on the season so far and cast an eye over potential winners. As regards the group stages, the main novelty has been the changes to the qualification process which new UEFA President Michel Platini managed to introduce for this season.

These changes came in two parts. Firstly the number of teams who qualified directly for the group stage was increased from 16 to 22. The additional six teams come via two routes. The champions of countries ranked 11 - 13 now gain direct access to the League stage, as do the teams that finished third in the countries ranked 1 - 3. As a result of the these changes of course, only ten places are now available via the qualifying rounds. This is where the other key change came in. Instead of one qualifying route, there are now two - one for the champions of countries ranked 14-48 or lower, and another qualifying route for the non-champions of countries ranked 1-15.

Now the rationale for these changes was to challenge the dominance of the competition by teams from the bigger and richer leagues, specifically Spain, England and Italy. However laudable this is as an aim, the results of the changes, at least for this season, has been the opposite. In the first place, in order to get three more lower ranked champions into the group stage, Platini had to allow the third placed teams from Spain, England and Italy direct access as a kind of quid pro quo. The biggest losers though are the non champions from countries ranked 6-15. With the introduction of a new qualifying route specifically for non champions these teams now have to compete agains the non champions from countries ranked 1-5. As these tend to be the richest teams in the qualifying process, this makes it very hard for them. As can be seen from the following , which shows the pairings for the final qualifying round for non-champions.

Final Qualifying Round for Non-Champions

Lyon (France) v Anderlecht (Belgium)

Arsenal (England) v Celtic (Scotland)

Stuttgart (Germany) v Timisoara (Romania)

Fiorentina (Italy v Sporting Lisboa (Portugal)

Atletico Madrid (Spain) v Panathinaikos (Greece)

Guess which teams won through to the group stages! Now compare the above with this table which shows the final pairings for champions.

Final Qualifying Round for Champions

Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece) v Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova)

Maccabi Haifa (Israel) v Salzburg (Austria)

Zürich (Switzerland) v Ventspils (Latvia)

APOEL Nicosia (Cyprus) v København (Denmark)

Debrećen (Hungary) v Levski Sofia (Bulgaria)

Apart from Olympiakos, there were no obvious favourites in these matches. Not only were the other teams relative unknowns, none was likely to challenge the existing order in the group stages. As proved to be the case. As the following table shows, only Olympiakos progressed to the knock out phase. All the other teams finished bottom of their group and Maccabi Haifa managed the distinction of not scoring one goal in the whole group stage.



Final Position

Olympiakos Piraeus



FC Zürich



APOEL Nicosia



Maccabi Haifa






On the other hand, of the five non-champions, only Atletico Madrid failed to progress further, finishing third. Indeed, two of this group managed to win their group, as can be seen from this table.



Final Position













Atletico Madrid



Summing up then, the new changes rewarded teams such as APOEL, Maccabi and Debrećen, who achieved nothing of any note, at the expense of teams such as Anderlecht, Celtic, Sporting Lisboa and Panathinaikos. While none of these teams were likely to win the competition, most would have provided sterner opposition and generated greater interest in the group stages.

Moving on to the knockout stage, we discover that 13 of the 16 teams come from the top five ranked countries, exactly the same number as last season. Whatever Platini’s reforms have achieved they have not altered in one iota the continuing dominance of the big five countries.

When it comes to picking potential winners it is hard to see beyond the usual suspects. Once again it looks like the eventual winner will come from either England or Spain. Outside possibilities include Inter Milan and Bordeaux. Both are doing very well in their domestic leagues and Bordeaux stormed through their group stage. However neither team seems to have the depth of squad nor that very special player who can take them all the way. Which leaves us with the six teams from Spain and England. While both Arsenal and Sevilla on their day can match the best, once again neither team has the depth of squad necessary to challenge both domestically and in Europe.

This leaves us with four serious challengers for the title - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United. Very difficult to separate them. Real Madrid is the real surprise packet this season. A very, very expensive new squad and a new coach have been bought in to win back Champions League success. While the new squad has not yet gelled together as a team there is talent in abundance. And the big plus factor for them is that the final will be played in their own stadium. The other three teams have much the same squads as last year with only minor changes. Recent history is not on Barcelona’s side as no team has yet won back to back Champions Leagues. Still no team had ever won all six available cups in the one season either. At this stage it is impossible to pick out a clear favourite. However, unless the draw for the latter stages throws these clubs together, I firmly expect the winner and the two finalists to come from these four teams.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Remembering Gaza

It was a year ago to this day that Israel launched its murderous assault on Gaza. The Israelis managed to kill around 1,400 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians and many of whom were women and children. The initial attacks were timed to coincide with the end of the school morning, thus ensuring the maximum number of casualties among women and children. These first attacks also struck at public ceremony celebrating the graduation of new policemen. Truly a modern day slaughter of the innocents. There are many accounts of this massacre and one of the best can be found here on Lenin’s Tomb.

As usual most western governments - from the self-styled democratic west - decided to either ignore the slaughter or procrastinate or even offer support to Israel. However this time the civilian population of the west rose up in revolt against this continuing complicity in yet another Israeli war of aggression. The Gaza slaughter may turn out to be the tipping point when the rest of the world finally woke up to the 60 plus years of ongoing Israeli terror against the Palestinians.

For the key point about the Gaza massacres was that this was not a one off, but part of the continuing attempt by Israel to ethnically cleanse most of Palestine of Palestinians. Over the past year Israel has intensified its efforts to build yet more colonies on Palestinian land and to intensify its policy of using violence against peaceful Palestinian and Israeli protesters. For example just in the last six months, 31 residents of Bil'in have been arrested, mostly during nighttime raids, and 89 have been arrested in Ni'ilin in the last 18 months. These two villages are two of the main hubs of unarmed protest against the Wall. A more detailed account of the struggle against the Wall can be found in this article from Jewish Peace News.

Another article which appeared in the Guardian’s Comment if Free section by Neve Gordon also looks at Israel’s long, long history of using violence to break up peaceful Palestinian opposition. This goes right back to the first few months after the six day war in 1967, when teachers in the West Bank went on strike against the imposition of Israeli textbooks. Israel's response to that first strike was immediate and severe: it issued military orders categorising all forms of resistance as insurgency – including protests and political meetings, raising flags or other national symbols, publishing or distributing articles or pictures with political connotations, and even singing or listening to nationalist songs. The message Israel wanted to convey was clear: any act of resistance would result in a disproportionate response, which would make the population suffer to such a degree that resistance would appear pointless. Gordon’s article can be found here.

The above are just a few of the many examples of where it has been Israel that “has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” For Israel has never shown the slightest evidence that it has ever been interested in a genuine peace settlement, one that is based on justice. This time however it looks like Israel may have gone too far. The call to Boycott, Divest and introduce Sanctions against Israel has grown tremendously over the past year. And many senior Israelis are unable to leave Israel for fear of arrest on charges of war crimes. The UN sponsored Goldstone Report into the Gaza slaughter has provided anti Zionist groups with clear documented evidence to increase support of the Boycott campaign. The purpose of the Boycott campaign is to put pressure on Israel to:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

To ensure that there are no more slaughtered civilians, we should do all we can to support this Boycott call.

Monday 21 December 2009

Top Bankers really do destroy our society

A fascinating new study from the New Economics Foundation has examined in detail just what top bankers contribute to the UK economy and society. Their conclusion - City bankers destroy £7 of social value for every pound they earn. Wow!

The basis for this claim comes from using a different way of thinking about the value generated by different types of work. This looks beyond the narrow definition of economic productivity to calculate the broader social and environmental value of the work we do.

In their recent report, “A Bit Rich”, the New Economics Foundation attempts to put a value on what different types of employment are worth to our society. By drawing on the principles of Social Return on Investment analysis, they were able to quantify the social, environmental and economic value that people’s work produces – or in some cases the value that is undermined or destroyed.

In particular they looked at a sample of six professions - three highly paid and three low paid. The sample included City bankers and childcare workers. In the case of highly paid City bankers - people who took home salaries of between £500,000 and £10 million - the analysis found that ‘for every £1 in value created, £7 worth of value is destroyed by a highly paid City banker. In summary, our calculation is derived from the following:

Factors in value created:

  1. Average annual contribution of the City to UK economic activity, as measured by gross value added
  2. Tax contributions to the Exchequer
  3. Jobs provided in the wholesale finance sector.

Factors in value destroyed:

  1. The cost of the current financial crisis in terms of loss to UK gross domestic product and economic capacity
  2. The cost of that crisis in terms of the negative impact on the public finances.

We might also have thrown the net wider and included other impacts, not least the negative impact on the global economy of the activities of highly paid investment bankers and traders. Far from being ‘wealth creators’, City bankers are being handsomely rewarded for socially damaging activity. They are not just overpaid; they are overpaid at the expense of others.”

As regards childcare workers, most of whom will earn less than £15,000 per year, the report found that, “Both for families and for society as a whole, looking after children could not be more important. As well as providing a valuable service for families, childcare workers release earnings potential by allowing parents to continue working. They also unlock social benefits in the shape of the learning opportunities that children gain outside the home. For every £1 they are paid, childcare workers generate between £7 and £9.50 worth of benefits to society.”

These are two of the finding, but you get the drift. We have somehow managed to create a society and economy in which those who do most damage to the economy and society get paid the most, and outrageously so, while those who contribute most to life get paid the least.

This is potentially a very important report, and the more people who read it the better. It provides very convincing evidence to back up demands for a restructuring of our economy to one that rewards adequately those who contribute most to our well-being and to protecting our precious environment.

The report includes a section on 10 myths about pay and value and concludes with some specific policy recommendations. You can download the whole report from the New Economic Foundation’s website here.

Thursday 17 December 2009


Séraphine is a new film by French director Martin Provost. The film is a tender and moving tribute to the rather sad life of French naïve painter Séraphine de Senlis. This is another slow moving film with little in the way of dialogue. The film begins in the summer of 1914 and the opening scenes show us the everyday life of Séraphine, who is by then in her 40s, as she goes about her business as a cleaning maid to various rich households in the small town of Senlis. This long opening sequence also shows Séraphine almost haphazardly collecting a strange mix of items. She picks bunches of plants and flowers, steals some blood from the local butcher and pockets molten candle wax from the church. We are well into the film before we see Séraphine actually painting. For she is an untutored artist who paints in silence and in private in her own tiny garret of a room.

The scenes of her painting are among the most intense in the whole film. She can only paint at night and consequently is only shown in semi-darkness, the room barely lit by oil lamps. Most of her painting is done either on all fours, crouching above the canvass, or lying on her side beside the canvass, as if caressing a child.

Her work is only discovered by accident when the German art critic and collector, Wilhelm Uhde, sees one of her small paintings lying around a neighbour’s house. The local families do not value Séraphine’s work - she is just a maid. But Uhde is most definitely impressed. However this is summer 1914 and war is about to break out and Uhde, as a German has to flee France. Séraphine is left undiscovered as it were and spends the following 13 years in much the same way - working as a cleaning maid and painting whenever she can.

The real breakthrough does not happen until 1927 when Uhde, back living in France, once again by chance rediscovers Séraphine’s work at an exhibition of local artists. This time he is in a position to buy some of her works and sponors her to paint more. However her new found riches do not bring her any peace of mind, and she gradually descends into mental illness. This is compounded by the effects of the great depression which force Uhde to stop paying for her work. Soon after she is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and she stops painting.

The film does not really explain her mental collapse, though it does hint at some possibilities. Séraphine is a deeply religious person and her painting clearly stems from some kind of religious inspiration. She was brought up by nuns and does not appear to have any close friends. Indeed apart from Uhde and another maid, just about everyone treats her very badly and either bully or mock her. Her paintings seems to serve a personal need and are in some sense not really for sale. Her brief exposure to the world of commerce only seems to destroy whatever equilibrium she had. In the film her growing mental breakdown is captured by her preparations for her own wedding - to whom is unknown, Christ himself?

The final scenes are of Séraphine in the psychiatric ward. She now has her own room, and this time though the room is bright and clean and Séraphine wanders freely out into the sunny countryside to find peace with the trees and plants. It is an amazing contrast to the semi-obscure conditions in which she brought her paintings to life.

The film is beautifully shot with exquisite performances from Yolande Moreau as Séraphine and Ulrich Tuker as Uhde. Excellent though the actors are, the film is mainly a triumph of cinematrography. Few films bring out so clearly that cinema is a visual medium. A great film.

You can see some her works here.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Yet Another Afghan Surge

So Obama finally made up his mind. The Commander in Chief has decided and lo! the whole world trembles. Or not. Not much trembling in Afghanistan apparently. As usual the UK is right onside with our very own mini surge of troops. And despite all the talk and briefings nobody seems to be much wiser as to what all these surges are supposed to achieve, let alone why we in the UK should be in Afghanistan anyway.

For there is a contradiction at the heart of the newly announced strategy. On the one hand we are assured that we need to be in Afghanistan in order to protect us in the UK from terrorist actions. Yet at the same time we are assured that we are only going to stay there for a short time and that our surge depends on the good behaviour of the current Afghan government. Now somebody is clearly lying here. If there is a real threat to our safety in the UK that requires us to occupy the country, then we stay there for as long as it takes to get rid of the threat. You don’t state that you’re going to start the pull out in a year’s time. And you most definitely do not make our presence conditional on what the Afghan government does. After all it is supposed to be our security that is at risk. What if the threat has not been eradicated in a year’s time? Do our troops stay on - for ever?

At this moment it is not at all clear just what the end game from the UK/USA perspective is. One thing for sure is that all this concern about the Afghan government is a mere smokescreen. Either we are in Afghanistan for a long, long time or we are already preparing the ground for our withdrawal. In which case the stuff about holding Hamid Karzai and his corrupt government to account becomes the perfect excuse for our pull-out. Look, we did everything we could, but these son-of-a-bitches out there just couldn’t get their act together, so we’re offski.

When you take into account the various crises facing the world - the continuing effects of the financial meltdown, global warming, the rise of Israeli fundamentalism, to name a few - the justification for wasting billions of pounds and dollars supporting a war in Afghanistan is exposed as threadbare. While there seems to be growing instability in Pakistan and many terrorist attacks in the UK seem to have a Pakistani connection, we are stuck militarily in Afghanistan. As the USA National Security Advisor Jim Jones was quoted as saying there may be only less than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in the whole of Afghanistan. What we have in Afghanistan is a civil war and it escapes me completely why I should be funding one side of a civil war and why UK soldiers should be getting killed to support one side of a civil war. It is only arrogance of the worst kind that allows some people in the West to think they have the right to violently decide the future of other peoples half way round the globe. The Taleban are probably not a very nice bunch of people, but that is not a reason for us to go around killing and maiming tens if not hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taleban leader, has already issued a long message to the world, pre-empting Mr. Obama’s speech. It includes the following section which makes clear that the root cause of the violence is the occupation:

Afghanistan is our home and nobody negotiates with anyone about the ownership of their home and about how to share sovereignty and management responsibilities of their home. Nobody will give up their right to be the owner of their home and nobody will wilfully lose their authority in their own home. The foreigners have taken over the home of the Afghans by force and cruelty. If they want a solution to the problem, they should first end their occupation of Afghanistan.

Nick Mills, Associate professor of journalism at Boston University, in an article in the Huffington Post, neatly summarizes the key problem facing our troops:

... the great conundrum of our efforts in Afghanistan is, the more we try to fight for the Afghans, the more we seem to fight against them. There are ways to help the Afghans, but occupying their country with an army isn’t one of them.

Let’s hope we do begin to withdraw soon.

For a fascinating comparison of the rhetoric used by Bush and Obama to justify the surge - basically the same - see this article by the great Glenn Greenwald.

Tom Engelhart has a fine exposė of the figures behind Obama’s surge - there are in fact nine surges in all. You can find this report here.

Wednesday 9 December 2009


With the arrival of December I always feel that winter has begun. This is the month of the winter solstice and this year the shortest day will be on the 21st. The weather has definitely become colder, though so far there has been no hard frost, let alone any snow. Still there is time yet for a white Christmas. Not that snow at Christmas is a regular occurrence over here. Quite the opposite, at least over the last few decades. Snow or not, December is one of my favourite months. The main reason for this of course is that December is the month for Christmas, Hogmany and holidays.

The Christmas holidays was always a much looked forward-to time for me. Any time off school was good, but these were special. Not just Christmas itself, but all the trappings associated with this period. Christmas lights would go up in the main streets in the town. All the shop windows would be brightly lit up with Christmas themes. At home we would decorate the living room with ribbons, and all kinds of paper decorations. A real tree would emerge by the window, ready to be covered in lights and decorative hangings. My mum was very skilled at making her own decorations, especially to put on the table. Moss, cones, holly leaves, cotton wool and ribbon would be quickly assembled into colourful settings. Here is window display from this year in Broughty Ferry.

However the most excitement came from playing outside. During the 1950s children were left pretty much alone to play in the local parks and even on the streets. As winters were definitely much colder then, snow was a common occurrence. We would have snowball fights and build snowmen here, there and everywhere. Sledging was another grand sport. Everyone had their own sledge. Mine was a home made effort, constructed by my Dad. We would tow the thing up the nearest hill or slope and push off from the top. With any luck you were still on the sledge when it reached the bottom. As St. Andrews had not then embarked upon its later housing expansion, little hills were easy to get to. Another favourite was ice skating. One of the local parks was commonly known as the Skate park. The main grass area was formed by a slight hollow and every winter this was flooded with water, which would soon turn to ice in the cold weather. Our seasonal outdoor ice rink was tremendously popular with all ages. I loved skating, though I was never particularly good. I usually managed to stay upright, probably because I never tried anything too ambitious or dangerous. I don’t think I’ve ever been skating since those days. Another local pond, known as the Duck pond would also freeze over. This pond was located just outside the town by the Lade Braes, and was originally a reservoir for the nearby water powered mill. As this was a year round pond and quite deep, it was more difficult to freeze over, and was always regarded as a bit of a dangerous place. If it did fully freeze over, it was used for curling.

Christmas Day was naturally the highlight of the season, and I was always very excited by the prospect of lots of toys and other goodies appearing as if by magic on Christmas morning. We followed the traditional custom of hanging socks on the mantelpiece for our gifts. They could only take a few sweets and oranges, the main presents were laid about the room, over chairs and by the Christmas tree. It was like waking up to a magic wonderland. Once I had calmed down a bit the next highlight was the Christmas lunch. In our family the tradition was that we entertained all our relatives on Christmas Day, while my Dad’s brother, uncle Sydney and his family did the honours on New Year’s Day. This meant there was always a bit of an edge to the meals as neither my mother nor aunt Rosie wanted to be outdone by the other. Both meals were in fact very, very good. My mother was an excellent cook, who apparently effortlessly conjured up mouth watering feasts of turkey with all the trimmings and accompaniments, followed by seemingly countless desserts. The piėce de résistance was the Christmas pudding. This was a traditional steamed fruit pudding with several silver sixpenny pieces hidden inside. The pudding was gobbled down as much to find the much prized sliver sixpence as for its nutritional goodness. Drink was not something that our family indulged in. Both my parents were in effect tee-total. Though at festive occasions they were know to sip a little glass of sherry or in Dad’s case a little port. With this we would have some Christmas cake, another of my mother’s specialities. This was a very rich fruit cake, usually soaked in sherry or brandy, which mother had started to prepare in October. The richness of the ingredients meant that this long time was need for the cake to fully mature. After all this indulgence various games would be played - card games, snakes and ladders or monopoly. In later years of course the television came to provide the main source of entertainment. Here are the Rutherfords at one of these long ago Christmasses.

Though this post is about December I feel it has to include the New Year celebrations, as in Scotland the main activities occurred or at least started on the 31st December. Traditionally Hogmanay was the main winter celebration in Scotland. Though our family always made a great thing of Christmas Day, the 25th did not become an official public holiday in Scotland it seems until 1958. Partly due to the religious sensitivities of the dominant protestant churches in Scotland, Christmas Day was regarded as both not a significant Christian day of worship and too much associated with Roman Catholics. Well into the 1970s and 1980s you could still hear or read about some small protestant sect raging against the perfidy of Christmas.

Anyway, after this brief historical digression, to return to Hogmanay. Nobody really knows the origin of the word - old French, Flemish and Norse have been suggested as possibilities - but who cares. Hogmanay is the time for a right good party and is usually associated with dancing, much noise and even more booze. A good traditional Scottish mix. Winter festivals are as old as mankind and the Scottish Hogmanay does seem to have much in common with the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia which was apparently a period of unrestrained licence and revelry. Plus ça change and all that. I don’t have many early recollections of Hogmanay. But later on into the 1960s Hogmanay became a big event for our family. Or at least for my parents. One of our neighbours, the Clarke’s, would organise a veritable feast for early in the evening. All their friends and neighbours would come. Though television was now common, the party would still be entertained by impromptu songs by fellow guests. After the bells had brought in the New Year, the party could expect the regular arrival of new guests as one of the main traditions was first footing. It was considered lucky to be the first person to visit a house after the midnight bells. The guest traditionally would bring a lump of coal or cake or salt. A bottle of whisky was an almost obligatory addition. Drinks and good wishes would be exchanged and after a decent while, the first footers would move on to celebrate/raise havoc somewhere else.

These traditions, especially the first footing were very much alive well into the 1970s at least. Kathleen and I would regularly be out and about visiting friends and acquaintances. Nowadays there seems to be much less of this aspect to Hogmanay. Parties are still very common, and most people who go out will go to a party in the house of a friend. The other innovation is the big communal street parties. Most towns have one, but the biggest and most famous is Edinburgh’s. I’m too old and frail to indulge in such riotous enjoyment. In fact Hogmanay is probably the part of winter that I least enjoy. We have rarely found a satisfactory way of celebrating the New Year. Some of our friends go away for this time and bring in the New Year in a hotel either in Scotland or in some warm country. Must say that celebrating Hogmanay in the Bahamas does have its attractions.

For the Rutherford family December is a particularly happy month. One of my great grandmothers, Catherine Rodger was born on Christmas Day in the parish of Carnbee in 1847. She would go on to marry James Rutherford. December is also the month in which my sister, Pat, was married. Her wedding was on Boxing Day, and I can still remember the reception afterwards. Two birthdays in particular make December a special month. My wife, Kathleen was born on 30th December and will soon celebrate her sixtieth birthday. And of course, our first daughter, Emma, was born on 29th December. At that time we were living in Johnstone, a small town outside Glasgow and Emma came into the world in the Maternity Hospital in Paisley. She can therefore claim to be a Paisley Buddie, though I am not sure if she wants this particular accolade. Anyway when she was but six months old we moved to St. Andrews and she grew up there. So she is really a St. Andrean after all. Our first year there was spent in a basement flat right beside the 18th hole of the famous Old Course, and this was where she learned to walk, which she managed to do on her own by the time she was just nine months old. Always on the go is our Emma - right from an early age always keen to be out and about. Some things never change!

Having a birthday so close to Christmas can be a bit of a downer for some. Kathleen has always felt that she missed out on her birthday. Emma on the other hand I think quite liked the idea of two parties and two lots of presents one after the other. You can never get too much of a good thing. Anyway here she is about to plunge into a birthday cake.

If you want a gemstone for December you are spoiled for choice. If you want something bright and warm, then the ruby can be yours. This is favoured by the Ayurvedic tradition among others and symbolises everlasting love. Most traditions however favour something cooler, either turquoise or the blue topaz. Turquoise is meant to represent prosperity, success, happiness and good fortune, so would seem a good choice. However if you want something which symbolises love and fidelity, then blue topaz is for you.

Less of a choice when it comes to December’s flower. By common consent this is the Narcissus. Any colour may do, but the most usual seems to be the paperwhite narcissus which stands for respect, modesty and faithfulness. A gift of narcissus means that the sender wants you to remain as sweet as you are. How romantic, and as good a way as any to end this post. A happy December to one and all.

Saturday 5 December 2009

The Rose of Sebastopol

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon was the reading group’s book of the month for December. The Rose of the title is Rosa Barr a young woman who is determined to make a career in medicine and somehow manages to get herself to the Crimea to work as a nurse during the infamous Crimean War. However, though a crucial person in the novel, Rose is not the main character and the novel is not primarily about the war. Rather the novel is centred on another young woman - Mariella Lingwood, Rosa’s cousin. For the novel is almost a coming of age tale. We see Mariella grow from a sheltered and innocent young girl to a woman who has painfully and stumblingly become aware of the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life and love.

The starting point for the novel is the discovery by Mariella that Rosa is lost somewhere in the Crimea during the war. Mariella is pressed upon to go in seach of her cousin and the novel is Mariella’s first person account of this adventure. From her account we learn not only about Mariella and Rosa and their families, but also about the controversies and developments in medicine and nursing in the 1840s and 1850s. This of course covers the period in which women began to strive with some success, to break out of their corsets, so to speak, and to break into the make dominated world of the professions. The novel has much to say about these changes and how they were perceived by polite society. Mariella herself is somewhat ambivalent about these changes and only becomes reluctantly involved through the incessant prodding of Rosa. Mariella is content to pass her life within the traditional confines open to women in 19th century Britain. She is desperate to marry her beloved Henry and have lots of children. Rosa on the other hand is made of much sterner stuff and is equally desperate to enter the world of work and independence.

Though the novel is not primarily about the war, once Mariella reaches the Crimea, then the war does become the backdrop to everything that happens. And Mariella does not spare us any of the horrors and suffering of that war. Though not herself on the front line, she, and we, learn much about the brutality and the stupidity of the war from her encounters with wounded soldiers. Though there is much bravery, this picture of the war painted here is not a pretty one.

The worlds of medicine and the war provide the background to the novel, but the heart of the story is Mariella’s own growing self-awareness. And this part of the novel reads as a love story. Or perhaps more accurately at least three love stories. We begin with Mariella and Henry. This is a very formal and traditional love affair, with much affection, not a lot of love and zero passion. Once in the Crimea Mariella slowly and gradually begins to fall in love with Max Stukely, Rosa’s half brother and an officer in the Crimea. This affair is full of passion and is a stark contrast to the insipid affair between Mariella and Henry. The other love story is the least developed and that is Rosa’s love for Mariella. That Rosa has a not so secret passion for Mariella is obvious to all, except Mariella herself. It is one of the weaknesses of the novel that this relationship is not fully developed and abruptly terminated with the death of Rosa at the end of the novel.

This is a well written novel and successfully deals with some very interesting aspects of our past - the changes in medicine, the changing role of women and the Crimean War. However in telling this tale, the novel goes back and forth both in time and in place. Thus we start in Italy in 1855, then in the next chapter we are in London in 1840. Subsequently we switch back and forth to Derbyshire in 1844, back to London then to Italy, back to London and on to the Crimea in 1856. Not at all sure what all this to-ing and fro-ing adds to the novel. A bit of mystery and confusion. I kept expecting that something revelatory would emerge, but alas nothing did. I also feel that the whole does not really hang together that well. It is almost as if the author started writing one novel which has Henry as one of the key characters and then half way through changed to one in which Henry barely features and Max suddenly becomes the male hero. Mariella herself is not the most likable or attractive of heroines. Most of the time she is very conventional, narrow-minded and blind to feelings of others. As a result she misjudges just about everyone. Still, on the whole an enjoyable read.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

What is the point of local government?

I ask this in light of the recent reshuffle of the Scottish government. Fiona Hyslop, the Education Minister was effectively forced from office by the combined threats from the opposition parties. Her crime? It is claimed that she has failed to deliver on key SNP manifesto pledges. The SNP had made a commitment to reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less and to maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls to cut class sizes. Now this is a laudable aim, but the responsibility for delivering this commitment rests not directly with the government, but with local councils. It is the local councils that have full responsibility for nursery, primary and secondary schools. We have 32 of them each with their own Director of Education. Each council can of course set its own priorities and reducing class sizes may not be one of them.

But do we want 32 mini school systems in Scotland? It would seem not. After all most of the key policy decisions are already taken at the national level by the government and parliament. The starting and finishing ages for schooling is set by the government, as is the exam system. Guidance on the curriculum and class sizes is issued at the national level and the qualifications and pay for teachers is negotiated on a Scotland wide basis. So what does each local council actually do? They run the system, but have little or no say in the key decisions. The money to pay for all this comes primarily from the government. Local councils only raise about 20% of their budget, the rest comes from the government in Edinburgh. Yet the government does not have direct control over how this money is spent. However the government is still held responsible when things go wrong.

The same applies not just to education, but to Social Work and the Health Service. In all cases the key decisions regarding policy and conditions of service are taken at the national level. Hence the question posed at the beginning - What is the purpose of local government? To get an answer it seems to me that we need to ask another question. This would be to ask what the people of Scotland want to be the same wherever they live in the country and what they would be happy and willing to see different. I suspect that in relation to education, social work and the health service the overwhelming majority of Scots would want the same standards and level of provision to apply everywhere throughout Scotland. Specifically in relation to education, how many people actively want to see children start school at age five in Glasgow, but age six in Aberdeen and age seven in Orkney? Or how many would welcome councils having the right to go back to class sizes of 40+? Or to deciding that teachers need not have a teaching qualification in order to teach?

To a large extent most people already feel that it is the case that we have a national education system with the same standards and level of provision everywhere. That is why there is such a media and political storm whenever there is a failure to meet these standards or levels in any one part of the country. And it is this demand that the government take responsibility that lay behind the demand for Fiona Hyslop to resign or be sacked.

However most of our national politicians do not want to recognise the obvious - that if they want government ministers to be fully responsible and accountable then we need to take these services away from local councils and set up nationally run bodies to run them. Only this way can government be sure that the money it allocates to education is actually spent on education and not on some local council’s pet project of the day.

I myself have always felt that national politicians by and large like the present set up as they can always blame local councils when things go wrong. And everyone needs to have someone else to blame. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read that the government is to look again at the need for local councils to run education and care for the elderly. Some leading members of the other political parties are known to be in favour of this move. So I can only hope that this idea is seriously considered and does not become a political football.