Friday 29 April 2011

Scottish Election - only a week to go!

We are now into the final six days of the campaign and according to recent opinion polls the SNP have managed to overturn a substantial Labour lead to become the party most likely to win the election.  As Scotland has a modified form of PR, very similar to that used in Germany, winning an election rarely, if ever, means winning an overall majority of seats in the Parliament.  It looks like the SNP is on course to become the largest party, but nothing can be taken for granted.  Polls continue to show a large number of Don’t Knows and a lot can happen in the last few days.
So Labour might still pull it off and win most of the seats.  It does look unlikely and in truth they do not deserve to return to power.  They have a very weak and uninspiring leader in Ian Gray, who has twice been caught out running away scared.  Once from meeting members of the public and once from meeting up with Alex Salmond.  The Labour campaign has been pretty pathetic.   They have run a relentlessly negative campaign and with the exception of their discredited policy on carrying knives, have come up with nothing new or even interesting to offer the Scottish electorate.  They even started by trying to fight a rerun of the last UK election.  Belatedly they have now turned their ire on the SNP, but by pinching key SNP policies, such as no student fees and a council tax freeze, Labour has very little positive to say.  As Malc, one of the contributing bloggers on Better Nation, puts it, “I don’t know that much about what Labour are about - and I really don’t know what they’d do in government.”
All in all it has been a pretty uninteresting campaign.  Both the LibDems and the Tories have been hamstrung by the Coalition at Westminster.  Most Scots just don’t trust the Tories and the LibDems are suffering the consequences of their sell-out in London.  The Greens, as usual, have been pretty much ignored by the media, despite their regular presence at Holyrood and appear to be on course to increase their number of MSPs, if only slightly.  While the far left has never overcome its disastrous split.  Which has left the SNP and Labour to slog it out.  The SNP has run on its record as a minority government and offers a bit more of the same.  A competent, if unadventurous team.  It may be enough and should be enough, given the lack of thinking from the Labour party.  However there are a lot of serious issues facing Scotland in the near future, in particular the structure and delivery of public services.  It would have been nice to have seen them debated in seriousness during the election.
Not everything can be blamed on the parties as this has been a most unusual campaign.  While the parliamentary elections have been the main topic up here in Scotland, there have been two other matters of UK wide significance battling for media and popular coverage.  The AV referendum has taken up more of the airspace on UK wide media, while there has been the small matter of a royal wedding to distract everyone.  The wedding seems to have gone off successfully and as Alex Salmond was invited to attend, let’s hope that the SNP have an equally successful day on May 5th.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

This is a rather unusual novel from Mankell, in that it is not a crime story.  Rather it is about the personal re-awakening of Frederik Welin, who for the past 12 years has lived in seclusion on his own little island off the coast of Sweden.  He has lived there in isolation as his preferred way to escape from facing up to his responsibilities.  For Frederik hides a few dark secrets from his past.  They are however about to re-emerge with a vengeance.  The catalyst for this is the sudden, completely unexpected appearance on his island of Harriet, the woman he deserted 40 years ago.  Harriet is now near death and has decided to track Frederik down to try and make peace with him.  Thus Frederik has to finally confront his past and most important to face up to who he is himself.   Faced with Harriet he can no longer just run away, much though he would like to.  Harriet also has a major surprise in store for him, one that does shake him to the core.
The setting for the novel is the little isolated island he lives on and parts of northern Sweden.  Most of the story takes place over two winters.  And very bitter winters they are too.  This landscape and the atmosphere mirror the bleak, cold and at times bitter heart of Frederik.  Slowly Frederik himself thaws and changes and the novel is ultimately a tale of hope and redemption.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Hard Labour in the Garden

I finally got round to tidying up the front garden.  At least the parts that were supposed to be an alpine/rockery area.  The photo above shows one of the finished sections.  Over the past ten years I have done a bit of digging and replanting and for a couple of years the area has looked pretty good.  However it has never lasted.  In part because I never bothered to lay down a plastic membrane to keep the weeds out, and in large part because I was just too lazy to keep the garden in trim.  The rockery areas, we have two, one on either side of the path, were now overgrown with weeds and there was no alternative to digging the whole lot up and starting again.  This time I called for reinforcements in the form of Billy, a local handyman who we paid to help clear one  of the rockery areas.  He also put up the mini fencing and laid down the membrane.  Despite this much welcomed help, I still had loads of work to do myself.  I did some of the digging up and pulling out the deep roots on that side.  And backbreaking work it was too.  Here is what this area looked like cleared of weeds and the mini fencing in.
The other side I did all on my own.   This was even more strenuous.  First there was the digging, pulling up roots, and generally clearing the site of all visible weeds.  The debris, an amazing amount from such a small area, had then to be carted off to the recycling centre.  The membrane had then to be cut and laid.  Again, harder than I imagined.  Then of course the plants had to be planted.  An easy and pleasant task - not!  First you have to cut open the membrane, then dig out a hole for the plant, put in the plant, fill in the hole with soil and replace the membrane cover.  This involved constant bending and stretching.  At several stages I felt I would not manage to continue.  My back, knees and legs all hurt painfully.  I am just too old and much too unfit for this kind of exertion.  I will stick to stitching in future.  This of course was not all.  The final  covering of stones had to be bought and carried up to the garden.  We had three journeys for this and in all 14 bags of moonstone were used.  The actual laying down of the stones was not too hard and probably the most satisfying part of the exercise.  Still it was all worthwhile and the area now looks like this.
Kathleen added some ceramic balls and other sculptured bits and pieces.  At the moment of course there is not much in the way of colour as many of the plants have yet to bloom.  And everything is very small as yet.  Next year it should look a bit fuller and we can always add a few more plants each year.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Osborne's answer to government debt - more household debt

The economic prospects for the UK and most of the EU do not look good.  There have been little, if any, signs of growth in the economy.  At this stage in the life of the government it would be reassuring to know that our triumvirate of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg had some alternative ideas of how to get us out of this mess.  However there is little evidence of this either.  Everything is focussed on reducing the government’s deficit.  All our woes are down to the last Labour government’s mismanagement by allowing all this government debt to rise and rise.  This of course is nonsense.  Without the rise in government borrowing the major banks would have collapsed bringing down the whole economy with them.  So most of the borrowing was necessary.  At some stage it should and will come down.   But in four or five years?
Such a massive contraction can only come about by reducing government spending in an abrupt and drastic way.  And such a contraction will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the growth prospects for the economy as a whole.  There are really only two ways in which the economy can grow in these circumstances.  The first is through a massive revival of exports.  The large effective devaluation of the pound relative to other countries is supposed to help this process.  However it also crucially depends on the rest of the world wanting to buy our goods and services.  While some other countries are doing quite well and there has been a slight growth in exports, there has been nothing like enough to compensate for the reductions in government spending.  Add to this the fact that key export markets such as the EU are also in the doldrums, suffering the same austerity measures as us in the UK.  The woes of the Eurozone economies are beginning to make the pound less competitive viz a viz the Euro.  So far, and we are now three years into a large devaluation of the pound there is nothing to support the view that export growth will alone revive our ailing economy.
The other way to compensate for reduced government debt is to increase personal and household debt.  And believe it or not this seems to be the Coaltion’s latest great white hope.  This is Alice in Wonderland economics.  Though that may be a tad unfair to Alice.  To get us out of the current mess, created in the main by our nasty Coalition, we all have to start spending more and more.  And this has to happen in a situation in which wages for those still in work are being frozen, benefits are being cut, while unemployment is forecast to rise.  In these circumstances the only way that private spending can rise is through individuals and households taking on more debt.  As Paul Krugman puts it - “So we have the spectacle of a government that inveighs against the evils of debt pinning all its hopes on an assumption that over-indebted households will dig their hole even deeper.”  Not an attractive proposition.  And one that is most unlikely to happen.  All the recent indicators show that household spending is not rising.  
All of which makes the prospect of a double dip recession that bit more likely.  Do our three wise men at the helm have any other ideas?  Where is Alice when you need her?

Sunday 17 April 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls centres on the on-off relationship between Emma and Dexter.  They first meet up together on 15th July 1988, St Swithin’s Day, while celebrating their graduation from Edinburgh University.  Though they had both sort of fancied each other for most of their time at Uni, they never got together until they were about to leave.  They never quite managed to have sex on that night either, thought they did agree to keep in touch in the future.  And they did.  Each subsequent chapter is dated 15th July of the following year and relates what had happened to our two characters over the next 20 years.  To begin with they don’t actually meet, but we hear about their lives through their letters.  When they do meet up once again they somehow fail to make it together and drift apart again.  Eventually they do get it all right and end up living together.
Behind this bald outline there is a wonderful story of how two people try to meet the various challenges of life - finding satisfying work, getting rich, making and keeping friends, achieving something.  Part of the success of the book is that Emma and Dexter are completely different people.  In what may be an English thing, they come from very different class backgrounds.  He is from a rich middle class family who live in the south of England, while she is a northern girl from working class parents in Leeds.  Emma is also the bright and intelligent one who achieves a double first while Dexter scrapes a low second.  Despite this or perhaps because of Dexter’s connections, it is Dexter  who at first makes the most out of developing a successful career.  In fact he becomes a famous and rich TV celebrity.  Emma on the other hand drifts in and out of low paid and menial jobs before becoming a teacher.  However at some point their life trajectories change and it is Emma who becomes a successful writer and Dexter who loses the plot, including his job.  It is round about this point when they finally get together.
Along with the two main characters, the novel introduces us to some other wonderful characters, some good, some not so good, some sensible and some pretty weird.  All of them, apparently, part and parcel of modern life in London.  It is all written with style and verve.  It is also very funny at times, thought this is a pretty bittersweet novel.  Life is not all a bundle of laughs and prepare yourself for a most unexpected development towards the end of the novel.  At least it was most unexpected for me.  My only quibble with the novel is that I found it hard to see why Emma would want to remain so much in love with Dexter.  True, there is a decent person somewhere within and he does come good in the end.  But, most of the time he is a complete shit.  Arrogant, self-possessed, shallow and most of all very nasty to almost everyone he meets, including Emma.  She on the other hand is attractive, educated, cultured and kind hearted.  The only thing she lacks it seems is self-confidence.  Just not sure why she continues to find Dexter so worthwhile.  One Day has now been  made into a film, directed by Lone Scherfig, with Anne Hathaway as Emma and Jim Sturgess as Dexter.  It is not due out in cinemas until the autumn, but it will be fascinating to see how they portray Dexter.
This is David Nicholls’ second book.  The first, Starter for Ten, dates from 2004.  I haven’t read the book, but did see the film version which starred James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall.  It is also very good, thoughtful and funny.  One Day was first published in 2009.   I read the edition published for World Book NIght 2011.  This is a charity which once a year gives away thousands of books.  My copy of One Day was distributed to our Reading Group by Lorna.  So many thanks Lorna for such a great choice.  There will be another World Book Night next year and you can read about it here.

Thursday 14 April 2011

The AV Referendum

Whilst the main focus of debate and comment up here in Scotland just now is the forthcoming Parliamentary election, there is another vote taking place on the same day.  This is the UK wide referendum on the Alternative Vote - AV to one and all.   When you look at the reasons for having this referendum you have to say it is one of the most unusual referendums in the whole history of referendums, to put it mildly.  For this change in the voting system for UK elections from First Past the Post (FPTP) to AV is something that neither party in our nasty Coalition government actually wants.  The Tories don’t want any change at all and are actively campaigning for a No vote.  While the LibDems really want to change our electoral system to Proportional Representation (PR).  Their preferred system is the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  Yet the LibDems have ended up campaigning for a system that is not PR in any way whatsoever.  All to get into coalition with the Tories.  You couldn’t make it up.  The LibDems, one of the UK’s major parties with a decades old commitment to PR, gives up on this in order to get into government with the nasty old Tories.  And all for the measly promise of a referendum on a system the LibDems really abhor.  Just shows how corrupt and unprincipled the LidDems have become.
AV is only a minor change to the current system and most research has shown that it will lead to only minor changes in the overall result of UK elections.  Nevertheless it has generated a lot of fire and brimstone, though not much in the way of enlightenment.  Certainly, judging by the No campaign’s TV broadcast, their arguments are a mixture of the misleading and the downright lie.  Not very edifying!  I don’t suppose the Yes campaign will be much better.  Any electoral system based on single member constituencies is bound to be unfair and undemocratic.  A bit of tinkering here and there makes no real difference.  First Past the Post dates from the Middle Ages and should be returned there.
I find it very hard to drum up any enthusiasm for this referendum.  The only positive reason for voting Yes is that AV is at least a change, however minor.  As such it may make it slightly easier to win support for a change to a genuine PR system in the future.  Another very good reason for voting Yes is that anything that gets the mass support of the Tory party and the rightwing press has pretty much got to be bad.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

More Bargello Pieces

All my latest stitching work has been in Bargello.  I also managed to finish off a previous piece.  I went on a course on mounting and framing and used this to complete the project I call Broken Ribbons.  This features a couple of bits of painting done by my grandson Jamie.  Here is the completed work.
My first new project was another Free Form Bargello design.  This one is loosely based on a Zebra pattern from Brenda Day's A Fresh Approach to Florentine Embroidery.  There it is in black and white, while I used lots of white and instead of black, a mixture of fuchsia, purple and magenta shades.  This piece was stitched on white interlock canvas with Anchor tapestry wool.  I am slowly working my way through my existing stash of wool threads.  Here is the piece, as yet unfinished.
Next up was a couple of bookmarks.  I haven't made a bookmark for over a year now.  So it was quite pleasant to return to these little practical pieces.  Each bookmark is made up of three tulips. The tulip pattern comes from The Bargello Book by Frances Salter.  I use a 14 count edged Aida fabric in white for these bookmarks.  The threads for the tulips are cotton threads from Les Fils du Rhin.  I used three strands and the first tulip was stitched with bourrasque for the flower and mousson for the leaf, while the other tulip was stitched with 1001 nuits for the flower and brise marine for the leaf.  The borders were stitched with DMC cotton threads using a simple diagonal stitch.
My current project is another attempt to add a bit of creativity to my stitching.  One again I will insert some other material into a stitched piece.  The main pattern is a slight variation on Florentine Signets, a lovely design from Bargello Magic, by Pauline Fischer and Anabel Lasker.  Here is what it looks like so far.
The framework pattern is stitched in greens - medium yellow green, ultra dark pistachio and bright chartreuse.  This part has been stitched with two strands of DMC cotton threads.  Each signet will then be filled with silk threads in blue and purple.  The central section will then be cut out and a filled with a cut off from a screen print which I found lying around at the DCA.  It is also in blue and purple.  Once finished this piece will be mounted and framed.  Still quite a way to go before then.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Photo of the month - March 2011

At long last Spring and a touch of warmth has come to us in Scotland.  It is amazing what a bit of sunshine can do to one’s spirits.  I have even managed to get off my backside and do a bit of gardening.  Not much mind you, but the place is looking a lot brighter and cheerful now.  Below are some of the flowers that we had on display in March.
One of the highlights in March for me was attending a two day course in Mounting and Framing at the DCA.  I have already put up a post on this experience, but here are a couple of photos from the course.  They show some of my fellow participants at work with the mitre saw and the mount cutter respectively.

With the better weather we managed to get out a bit more and one of walks was along the Tay estuary from Tayport to the old lighthouse.  This is a favourite walk of ours which we do with Elena and her boys and Gerry, their dog.  Here is Elena with Liam and Jamie having a bit of a rest in the sunshine.
The way back can be made along the old railway line and here  someone has put up a rope from the branch of a tree which makes for an exhilarating, if a bit dangerous, adventure.  Jamie was quite excited by this and managed to swing back and forth very successfully.  The rest of us were not so competent.
By the end of the walk Liam was beginning to feel a bit cold in the breeze, so he donned my jacket for some warmth and protection.  Looks quite cute in the outfit.
The walk passes right up by the estuary at some points and here is a rather strange object which lies very close to the edge.  Somebody has clearly laid the bricks, but I have no idea what it is, or was.  The red brick stands out nicely though against the pebbles and rocks.
As it was such a lovely and breezy day, the yachting fraternity were tempted out onto the water.  Here is a fine dingy sailing close to the rocky shore.
If the good weather keeps up for April, I hope to get out and about a lot more, camera in hand.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Labour running scared of the SNP?

This seems to me the rather surprising impression from reading about Labour’s manifesto for the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections.  This was also confirmed by the Ian Gray personal political broadcast the same evening.  For what both have in common is that Labour in Scotland has decided to focus their fire on the Tories.  Which is rather strange given that the Tories have never been in power in Scotland since the start of devolution way back in 1999.  The big two parties in Scotland are Labour and the SNP and the SNP is the party currently in government.  So why the reluctance to take the fight to them?
This can only be because Labour know that in a straight Labour v SNP contest, the SNP would win quite handsomely.  Recent opinion polls have confirmed that the SNP is winning considerable electoral support against Labour.  However if the fight is between Labour and the Tories, then Labour win at a canter.  This is essentially what happened last year at the UK general election.  Scotland was the only part of the UK where the Labour vote held up or even increased.  Labour presented itself as the only party which could stop the Tories from winning power at Westminster.  However despite their success in Scotland, we still ended up with a Tory government, albeit in coalition with the LibDems.  
Voting Labour last year did not stop the Tories winning power and nothing that happens in May in Scotland will remove the Tories from power in London.  So why make opposing the Tories the central, almost the only plank of your campaign?  It can only be a sign of desperation on the part of Labour to think this tactic can work again.  Now that the Tories are in power in Westminster, who is more likely to stand up for Scotland - Labour or the SNP?  Only likely to be one winner here.  Perhaps the focus on the Tories is also further evidence that Labour in Scotland is still very much in thrall to its masters in London, where the Tories are the enemy.
As regards the commitments in the manifesto, there is nothing very radical or inspiring and a lot that seems impractical or very costly.  The emphasis on economic renewal and job creation and the promise to eradicate youth unemployment by the end of the next parliament is very ambitious and to be welcomed if it can be achieved.  However there is only a limited amount that any Scottish government can do in economic matters as these are almost wholly reserved powers for Westminster.  It seems odd for a Unionist party to make the central plank of their promises something that is almost wholly dependent on what the Tory led Westminster government does.  Labour can hardly start advocating for more and more economic and financial powers to be given to Scotland, can they?  The SNP can though and no doubt will.
The manifesto also seems to contain some very badly thought out, and badly costed commitments.  For example the policy to impose mandatory jail sentences for all those caught carrying knives in public.  Neither Ian Gray nor Andy Kerr seem to have any real idea of just how many more prisoners this policy will mean nor just how much extra money it will require.  Not to mention that senior police officers believe this policy could result in criminalising more people than it deters.  If this policy is anything to go by, then Labour’s whole manifesto is an accident waiting to happen.  For a more detailed analysis on this policy the ever informative Lallands Peat Worrier has some interesting facts and comments.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Reading Highlights - March 2011

March was another very good month reading wise.  I managed to read six books and listen to another four on audio.  It was a satisfying mix of new authors with some old and new favourites.  I succeeded in keeping up my East European Challenge and managed to read another book in Spanish.  This was Ojos de Agua, by Domingo Villar.  It is also available in an English language translation as Water-blue Eyes.  Ojos de Agua is the first novel by Villar, who is a Galician and wrote the novel originally in Galician.  He himself translated it into Spanish.  The novel is set in Galicia, in and around Vigo.   A young saxophonist is found brutally murdered and local inspector Leo Caldas and his new colleague from Zaragoza, Rafael Estevez are charged with solving the crime.  Which they do, but not before exposing some of the hidden and not so hidden traditions of Galicia.  A  very witty and well written book.  Caldas and Estevez make for an odd couple and their interplay is one of the strengths of the novel.  Very good first novel.
Another crime writer that was new to me is Louise Penny who has written a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Gamache from the Sureté de Québec.  Dead Cold is the second in the series and revolves around the murder of the rather appalling CC de Poitiers in the middle of a bitter winter in the otherwise charming village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships area of Québec.  There is an old fashioned air to this book, which though set in Canada is probably more olde worlde English than anything.  The village is set in the English speaking portion of Québec, though Gamache and his colleagues are French speaking Québecois.  This may be one of the attractions of the series, for Penny, who herself lives in Québec, is clearly sympathetic to the Francophone society in the province.  Gamache of course speaks fluent English, while many of the residents of Three Pines speak fluent French.  So, for a complete outsider like myself, the novel offers an interesting and more positive insight into life in present day Québec than is usually presented in the media.  Back to the book.  Gamache is a bit of an old time detective and likes to let things take their course and avoids rushing to erroneous conclusions.  This also of course allows Penny to let the main characters in the village to come to life in all their complexities.  A lovely book and I’m already looking forward to the rest in the series.
Two contrasting books set in the earlier part of last century were unexpected surprises.  The first was Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, a German writer who lived in Germany throughout the Nazi era and wrote this novel shortly before he died in 1947.  The novel is a fictional account of the true story of a middle aged couple who between 1940 and 1947 waged their own silent protest against Nazi rule.  They did this in response to the death of their only son, who was killed in France in 1940.  Though many people did make brave and noble resistance to the Nazis, this tale is not one of them.  The Quangels, the name given to the couple in the novel, are a not very attractive or likeable couple.  They make no effort to establish contact with any other resisters.  On the contrary they do everything possible to keep their protest secret.  Their chosen method of protest - to drop hand written postcards with anti-Nazi comments all over Berlin - was spectacularly unsuccessful.  Just about all the cards were immediately handed in to the police and they seem to have had no effect whatsoever on the wider public.  What makes the book such an interesting and fascinating read is that just about all the characters are in fact pretty ordinary.  There are no charismatic characters and very few trully noble people in the novel.  This is a tale about the ordinary working people of Berlin during the war years.  And what a bleak, fearful, poverty stricken place it was.  Everyone seemed to live in fear of someone else - anyone could be an informer, your neighbours, work colleagues, even family members.  As one of the characters puts it - “we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone.”  This is a very compelling novel which conveys in a simple, straightforward way what it was like to live and survive in a soul destroying regime such as Nazism.  Though the Quangels ultimately achieved nothing, they did resist.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Korean American author Eugenia Kim is also set in the first half of the last century.  In this case in Korea and the timespan is much longer, covering the period from 1915 - 1945.  This was the period in which Korea was occupied by Japan, and it is the disastrous effects of this occupation on all Koreans which forms the background to the novel.  The Calligrapher’s Daughters tells the personal story of Najin, born in 1910 as the first child of a privileged, aristocratic and cultured family.  Narrated alternately by Najin herself and by a third person to fill us in with events which Najin did not experience personally.  The novel is thus both a highly personal account of the trials, sufferings and tribulations that faced Koreans during this period and a broad history of the period.  Suffering and privation there is aplenty in this tale, more than enough to match the bleakness of Alone in Berlin.  Not only does the horrendous effects of the Japanese occupation get worse and worse but Korea also suffers the effects of the global crisis of the 20s and 30s.  In addition Najin has to face her own personal battles against the traditional, Confucian based customs of her father.  Though the family is Christian, part of the growing Methodist community in Korea, her father is very proudly and stubbornly attached to the centuries old traditions of Korea.  He wants to marry her off when she is just 14 years old.  With the help of her mother she manages to avoid this fate, and to get a good education.  But whenever things look like improving for Najin, something goes badly wrong.  However neither Najin nor the rest of her family ever despair, no matter how desperate life becomes.  With enormous resilience they somehow manage to survive with honour and greater respect for each other.  This is ultimately a life enhancing tale. It also offers the reader a fascinating introduction and insight into a little known society and a little known period of recent history. 
The other books I read during March were the following:
Fatherland, by Robert Harris
Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin
Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio
The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth
Absolution, by Caro Ramsay
A Small Weeping, by Alex Gray

I enjoyed all of them, with the possible exception of Involuntary Witness, which was a tad too rambling to be really good.  Absoluton, by Caro Ramsay was my first book by this writer, another of Scotland’s blooming and booming female crime writers.  For the future I have signed up for another reading challenge this time the Nordic Challenge.  There are five levels and you only need to read two books to make the first level - so no excuses.  You can include any book by any author born in a Nordic country or a book set in a Nordic country. The book can be from any genre.  Good reading to all, whatever you read.