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When I was an office boy at the Glasgow Herald I was sent to the Mitchell Library to find out what the paper said about historic events during its 200 year history. One of the things that struck me was how before the First World War the paper took a paternalistic attitude to the poor and disadvantaged. After 1917 the poor and working class were the enemy. At the time I put this down as a reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. But recently I've become aware that this attitude probably had its roots in events in the years leading up to The War. I hadn't realised what a basket case Britain was then. The upper-class sufferagette movement was mounting a terrorist campaign to get votes for women that only by a series of miracles did not result in loss of victims' lives. The British officer corps, a major employer of Irish protestants, was threatening mutiny if sent in to enforce Irish Home Rule. The years leading up to the war also saw British troops on British streets, particularly in 1913 in London, Sheffield and Liverpool, to help quell labour and working class unrest. There's a photo of the Gordon Highlanders marching into Sheffield in khaki jackets, kilts, and their ceremonial feather bonnets. In much the same way as the so-called Battle of George Square in 1919 Glasgow was never properly taught in school history, neither were the times the British Army were deployed on British streets in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War One in 1914. I wonder why. 

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Back to nostalgia. When I was at Napier College doing pre-entry journalism we had a couple of class trips. One was to the Strathclyde Police museum in Glasgow's Pitt Street. Most of stuff on display had at some point been evidence at the Sheriff or High Court. Included in the exhibits was the tip of someone's nose. There was also a bicycle chain with metal screws cleverly bound into it with wire to create a pretty fearsome weapon. The metal wire would have held the screws in place even if  the chain had been used to whack a tank. Our guide to the museum was full of helpful hints. Did you know that if you vividly decorate a ski-mask around the eye-holes, many witnesses will be so distracted that they will be unable to say what colour the robber's eyes are? Or what you should squirt in the eyes of victim to temporarily blind them but not risk a serious assault charge by causing permanent injury? I asked the guide what other groups visited the museum. Most of the groups came from local List-D schools, effectively jails for kids. I wondered if she was so free with her handy tips when showing them around. Mind you, even if she was, she probably wasn't telling them anything they hadn't already learned from their mater and pater. 

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Years back while stopping off with a friend here in Canada, Dave, on my way to Scotland he played me a catching little song he'd written. Somehow I volunteered to help film a video to go with it. The song was basically about going to the pub. How hard could it be to film a walk to the pub in a typical Central Belt town? Not as easy as you might think. Have you ever noticed in real films that that the camera is sometimes mounted on a trolley pushed along rails? That's to keep the film framing smooth. So, myself and my dad came up with the idea of securing the camera to an invalid walker. Judge for yourself how well it worked -Dave’s Pub Song

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Sometimes you hear a piece of music that is forever afterwards associated with something. For me it's Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" and a raging North Sea gale. It was when I was a reporter on the Shetland Times and was writing a feature about one of the ferries which ran between Lerwick and Aberdeen, a sort of St. Sunniva Below Decks thing. As part of research I was on the bridge of the ship as it ploughed through a heavy sea with literally tons of water crashing rhythmically  down over the bow onto the foredeck. Stranger the Shore was playing on the darkened bridge and seemed somehow to be synchronised with the bow of the Son-of-Bieech dipping under the waves. The contrast between the laid-back clarinet and the violence and power of the crashing sea was truly memorable. The fact that a similar sea a few days earlier had smashed the armoured glass of bridge and embedded shards in the wall behind the helmsman only added to the piquancy. The other thing I remember about that voyage was the discovery that while the bar open to the public only sold tinned beer, the off-duty crew had access to draught.

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A couple of years back I heard a guy interviewed on Canadian radio about the Mars Bar Standard. This involved measuring the cost of things in Mars Bars. For example how many Mars Bars could a person buy for the same price they would pay for a Rolls Royce. This was supposed to indicate any true rise in prices beyond inflation. The thing is that as school kids me and my mates had abandoned the Mars Bar Standard. This was because we believed that to keep the price down, Mars has shrunk the size of their gooey treats. Any look at some of the strange weights listed on a number of food packages suggests that manufacturers still use this dodge. Why would something be packaged in 53 gram packets? Unless they used to come in 60g bags for the same price. The other thing that puzzles me is why would a radio programme interview a guy about such a flawed idea - one that a gang of Scottish school kids had rejected years earlier? It should worry someone that a bunch of kids is smarter than a radio production team, presumably composed of highly educated adults. 

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I wonder who was taking a leaf out of whose book when it comes to setting people up for arrest - the Russians or the Burmese. The Burmese military set up two local journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were asking questions about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by getting a stooge to hand over classified documents and then swooping on them to make an arrest. The Russians may just have done the same thing to a former American Marine Paul Whelan with a bewildering number of nationalities. In addition to collecting passports, including British, Canadian and Irish, this guy also likes photos of churches. It is claimed what Russian counter-intelligence found to be classified documents on a memory stick handed to the former soldier were, he thought and was told, pictures of Russian churches. You have to admire the cheek of the Russians using a church connection in view of the excuse its assassins used for being in Salisbury. No humour from the Burmese and no human decency from the Military's front-person Aung San Suu Kyii when it comes to the two journalists in Myanmar. 

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If there is one phrase that has me reaching for the off-switch on the radio (television is so awful now that I've completely given up on it) it's "unpack". I don't know when this word took on the meaning, and I'm only guessing here at what is meant, of "examine", or perhaps, "discuss" on both sides of the Atlantic. But what I do know is that what is about to follow will be self-worshipping and ill-informed twaddle. I don't think I've ever heard anything interesting, thought-provoking or worthwhile which followed the use of the word "unpack". It can't be the word itself. It must be about the pretentious people who decide to use the very latest catchword when there are already numerous less ambiguous words in the English language. As I say, am I about to hear an examination of the facts or just a windbag discussion? Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other and sometimes it's both. It is always nonsense. 

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Some of the older British readers of this blog may remember the old TV adverts featuring TV detector vans. For the uninitiated it was claimed in these adverts that these vans with their revolving detector dishes could not only determine which houses had television sets switched on but even which channel was being watched. Those who did not have a current TV licence, required to be be allowed the privilege of watching television and used to fund the BBC,  had better beware. The thing is I suspect TV detector vans were a massive confidence trick played on the public. In all the time I spent covering the courts in Scotland and England, I never came across anyone caught by one of these vans. Enforcing TV licensing was the responsibility of the Post Office. What they seemed to to was simply target homes which had no TV licence listed. The presumption was that every household had a television and the addresses without a licence were obviously occupied by evaders. When I lived in a bungalow in Inverness I came home to find a letter from the Post Office demanding to know why I didn't have a TV licence. The answer was simple: I didn't have a television. But I had more sense than to ignore the letter. In my work as a journalist I had recently interviewed one of the local licensing enforcement officers and he seemed to regard evasion as somewhere on the scale of criminality between murder and armed robbery. I also believed that the enforcement officers had the power to smash down my front door to search the premises for an unlicensed television set. I didn't fancy the hassle involved in seeking compensation to pay for a new front door. So, I went down to the main Post Office in Inverness to explain myself. Even though I had done nothing wrong. The satirical writer Richard Stilgoe did a song on the old BBC Nationwide programme listing the surprising number of people who could smash down a person's front door while exercising their Statutory Right of Entry To Your Home. The Gas Board was one. The cops seemed to be about the only folks who needed a warrant.

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Once in a while, not very often, journalists receive death threats. Some, particularly middle class ones brought up in comfy suburbs and educated at a "better type" of school, don't treat them seriously and are taken by surprise when they gunned down on their front door step one evening. Life was cheaper where I came from, and I could easily believe that some of the people issuing the threats, the drug dealers for instance, might be serious. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time was enough to get a person killed there, never mind actually making life more difficult for the criminal by putting them in the paper.  So, when I was threatened I would say to the guy making the threat, it was always a guy, that he'd better kill me now. That was because the very next thing I planned to do was make a phone call and get their name put on the list of people who would have a very short life expectancy should anything happen to me. As a journalist, the chances were, I knew a lot more about them than they knew about me. This was not the response the thugs expected and was said with such confidence that, well, if I'm writing this then none of them followed through on the threat. I heard a story a while back about a gangster here in Edmonton, Canada, who was making threats against a Scottish guy. He woke in the early hours of one morning to find three or four visitors from the United Kingdom in his bedroom. One was pushing the barrel of a pistol between the thug's teeth. That was probably what woke him up. They suggested he moderate his behaviour and stop threatening people. He took the hint. 'Least that's how the story goes. As it was told to me. I've always wondered where the gun came from. 

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OK, I admit it, I'm going for the low hanging fruit again: namely the incredible ignorance of presenters on the BBC World Service. The BBC says Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union. As the "C" in BBC stands for Corporation, one must presume that corporate responsibility is taken for statements made in its broadcasts. Surprisingly, this week's gaffe came from the usually competent James Menendez in an item on World Update about the former Eastern Bloc country assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.  The blunder is all the more inexcusable because the fall of the Communist regime in Romania was unusually violent and included the murder of the former dictator. The kind of thing anyone with pretensions to journalism would be expected to remember. Is there any quality control at the BBC? In recent months listeners have been told that Korea was divided north and south after the Korean War, when in fact it was partitioned at the end of the Second World War, and that the Anglo Saxons once ruled the whole of Britain. How can an organisation so ignorant be trusted to get anything right? Those who do not know the background to present-day events cannot be relied on to interpret them correctly. So, James, I say again that Romania was never part of the Soviet Union. Nor were Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungry or East Germany. There, I've done my bit to help the BBC get its facts right. 

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A friend of mine was almost mugged a couple of weeks ago. If he had been more observant, he would have been. He failed to notice a very aggressive beggar he encountered near his home had a knife in her hand. It was only after he made it clear that he had nothing to give that he noticed the knife. Had he seen it earlier on, things could only have ended badly - at best he would have ended up minus his wallet.  The worst may not be what you may think. What if there had been a scuffle, or worse? That time of the morning, it was early, and there aren’t many witnesses around to contradict the mugger’s version that my friend attacked her and knife had been pulled in self-defence. Of course, someone might actually have been hurt. And if it was the mugger and the police were involved, as I’ve pointed out the real truth behind the turn of events might be hard to prove.  There are plenty of people out there who believe in a physical confrontation between a man and a woman that the guy must always have been the aggressor.  My friend could easily have been victimized twice, at least twice. 

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Well, the short list for the 2018 Book of the Year Award was very short - three books only. Dan Collins did a nice, not say sensitive job, of interviewing 25 winners of gallantry awards from Iraq and Afghanistan in his book In Foreign Fields. The former sports journalist obviously had a knack for getting soldiers to open up to him and tell their stories. The second runner-up also featured a gallantry medal winner. This time it was Australian SAS signaller Martin "Jock" Wallace in a story told by fellow Aussie journalist Sandra Lee. Lee succeeds in bringing Wallace to life and also the wintry Afghan mountainside where the SAS man and a company from the US 10th Mountain Division battled a determined and skillful Taliban force for 18 desperate hours in 2002. But the winner is In the Service of the Sultan by Ian Gardiner. The Sultan is the Sultan of Oman, a former Cameronians/Scottish Rifles officer, the time is the mid-1970s, and Gardiner is a young Royal Marine officer on attachment. He proves to be a born raconteur with a knack for putting his patter into very readable prose. He is also a skilled soldier, who would go to command a company of Royal Marines in the Falklands War, and the book is an excellent primer on small unit actions and counter-insurgency operations; in this case against communist-backed rebel tribesmen in the province of Dhofar. He also incorporates the experiences of many of his fellow officers serving the Sultan and has an obvious affection and respect for his Muslim soldiers. This book took an early lead in the search for the 2018 Book of the Year and never really lost it. The full review of In the Service of the Sultan and all the other books reviewed on this website can be seen at Book Briefing.

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I recently saw a second-hand DVD of an old British television programme called The Bill on a shelf of a local charity shop. For those who don't remember it, The Bill was a sort of cop show cum soap opera based in London during the 1980s. I think it had been inspired by the American programme Hill Street Blues. It was OK. But at one point, as I recall it, in episode after episode the bad guys were always Scots. If The Bill was to believed, native Londoners were as honest as the day was long and no group of incomers, with the exception of the Scots, was causing anyone any trouble. The city's only anti-social elements were Scots. I noticed that each episode nearly always had a different writer and speculated that perhaps each thought they were being original and clever when they made the bad guys Scottish. But then a guy I knew, who had enjoyed some success writing for television, wrote an episode for The Bill. He eventually baled out. His reason for getting out of the project was that he found the production team complete and total control freaks. That made me wonder if the whole always making the bad guys Scottish thing had been a result of poor continuity control. There was a Scottish detective but I always thought he was a bit of drip and did little to counter-balance the constant flow of Jock Scum on the small screen. Looking back, it all seems a bit sinister. 

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Years ago, when I was journalist, I interviewed then Liberal Party leader David Steel on his cell phone, or maybe it was his carphone. It doesn’t really matter. The subject was the Liberals’ policy on nuclear weapons. What it was didn’t really matter to many people even then. But at the time it was at the centre of a fierce row within the party. That was why someone gave me the phone number. Mr Steel was not happy to talk to me. He proved evasive when I tried to pin him down as to what exactly party policy was on nuclear weapons. But eventually I thought I’d nailed him. It was only when I looked very very carefully at my notes after the phonecall ended that I realised he’d sold me a body swerve. And of course when I phoned the number again to seek clarification, no-one picked up. I was torn between admiration for his skill in talking but saying nothing and my frustration, not to say disappointment, at being out-foxed.  Steel went up considerably in my estimation but I would never trust him as far as I could throw him. It was a masterful performance. 

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Newspaper columnists are a big deal in Canada. I remember when I worked for a newspaper, people used to ask me what column did I write.  To me, most columnists are a waste of time. I wanted the facts, not someone’s opinion.  Opinions are like feet, nearly everyone’s got one or two.  But I was perhaps a little too harsh. Some columnists actually were journalists who did a lot of research and stuck closer to analysis than opinion. That was why it was so interesting to be the first one into the office in the morning and unjam the printer. Once that was done, a lot of stuff from the previous night’s print-queue would spew out. This was usually gay porn or columns from obscure publications in the United States on subjects that with a couple of slight changes could have some local relevance. Suffice to say, I usually knew what at least two of our columnists would have to say in the days that followed. If only they had taken to trouble to find out how to unjam the office printer, I might have even thought they’d come up with the idea themselves. 

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Later this month the 70th anniversary of one of the most discreditable  incidents in the history of the British Army will occur. On the 12th of December 1948 men of the Scots Guards murdered 23 rubber plantation workers in Malaya. On the previous night they had shot another of the workers at the Batang Kali camp. I should qualify my opening statement: one of the worst incidents that we know of. Until December 1969 very few people knew of the Batang Kali Massacre. That was when some former Scots Guards who had been there spoke to the People newspaper. The Labour government of the time asked Scotland Yard to investigate but the inquiry was shut down by the Tory government which took power shortly afterwards.  Until recently former senior Scots Guards officers vehemently denied there had been a massacre and many journalists and writers took them at their word. In 2012 the Royal Courts of Justice  put an end to that nonsense by ruling that there was a massacre but it refused to order a fresh inquiry. Further attempts through the courts, all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, to force the British authorities to tell the truth have all foundered for one technical reason or another. What makes me so angry is that the army and government seems to have got away with making sure the truth about what happened 70 years ago never comes out. The official version remains that the men were shot while trying to escape, the unofficial version is that it was a work of a rogue patrol. We know there was a massacre, we will probably never know who ordered it.  See Batang Kali Revisited  

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I've always thought that before a couple gets married, or shacks up together, or whatever people do, co-habit (?), they should go on a camping trip together. There's nothing like putting up a tent or camp cookery for testing a relationship. Many folk get on fine as long as they are in their element. But take that fish out of its usual pond and turn up the heat with some unfamiliar activities and tempers can quickly fray. Putting up a tent can be a challenging experience, or least it used to be but maybe the makers have simplified things, that even requires working together and co-ordination. Maybe throw in some map reading and mountain navigation just to test things further. Any fools can go to the pub, the disco, a film or a restaurant and not be challenged. But putting up a cramped tent on a rain and wind lashed Scottish mountainside and then trying to heat up some kind of food to keep body and soul together will almost certainly test any relationship to the full. If it can survive An Teallach, it should be sound as pound for many years. 

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Newspapers seem to be in rough shape these days - just ask the folk at The Scotsman. It used to be that reports that newspapers were dead ducks proved premature, both radio and television failed to drive them out of business. This was mainly because both mediums are more than somewhat superficial. The word count on a story for either is so small that only very basic, and all too often inadequate, detail can be given. The shorter the better I've always found when it comes to newspaper stories, but always use enough to tell the full story - usually a greater number than a TV or radio format can accommodate. What did for newspapers was a left-right combination from the internet. People could just steal the news, which costs money to gather, and peddle it themselves. Readers found they could get the news on their computer without having to pay for it. Of course, the news thieves had their own motives for stealing other people's work. There is no copyright on events and a quick re-write of a real journalist's work avoids trouble and expense. As newspaper advertising revenues dropped, so did the number of journalists on the payroll and the standard of work they produced. I worked a place that laid off a lot of people. The thing is they laid off the wrong people. It was the reporters covering the local news who all too often got the axe. They were usually the youngest reporters and had been at the paper the shortest time. Therefore they cost less than the long tenured to make redundant. A lot of older guys and gals simply continued with the various taskless thanks bestowed on them purely for payroll longevity. But it's the local news people buy the paper for; cynics said it was small ads but look at the mess the free-sheets turned out to be . OK, maybe let the young reporters go but re-assign the old hacks back to covering local news. When the paper did do that, one guy tried to sue for constructive dismissal. No surprise that the paper eventually went belly up and became shadow of its old self. Or that it is now owned by what used to be it's main competitor which could well have had to motto "Last Week's News Next Week". And which is by the way is owned by American hedge funds. Who says the quality will out and it's the poor product that goes to wall. Deep pockets speak loud. 

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I'm coming to the conclusion that war films made either during the Second World War or just after it may be better than many made in the decades that followed. I've just finished watching "The Way Ahead", with its strong cast, and an American film "Go for Broke" about ethnic Japanese men who served in Europe with the American Army. Both very good films. And Battleground about the US 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge is also a surprisingly strong film. Of course there's an element of propaganda in all of them. But I think the makers realised that a lot of men who had seen frontline service were going to see the films and they didn't want the cinemas filled with sounds of disbelief or mockery. So, a lot of the nonsense was toned down.  However, as time went on the war films became perhaps sillier. The British were nearly always brave, honourable, clever and the Germans, or sometimes Japanese, were brutal and stupid. The Colditz Story, about prisoners of war, mainly British, is one I find very hard to stomach these days. The British are so brave and clever, the Germans are so stupid. It is only in recent years that war films have improved again. The scripts of all too many films from the late 1960s and 1970s were written by people with an agenda but no first hand experience of war. Mind you, by then there wasn't really much of a British film industry left by then. Lead rolls went to US actors who either pretended to be Canadian for the purposes of the story or were Americans awkwardly thrust into battle alongside British troops. Though generally a terrible war film, Saving Private Ryan, which may well have been pitched in a Hollywood lift as "Gang of Americans defeats German panzers with sweaty old socks", however showed there was still money to be made from war films and we've had some half-decent ones in recent years. It's just a shame that in the case of the Second World War the time when the writers could have benefited from talking to the men who were there are almost gone.  

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As the centenary version of Remembrance Day approaches another military-related story seems to have passed by pretty much unremarked. The European Court of Human Rights ruled early last month that it lacked the powers to force the British Government look into a 1948 massacre carried out in Malaya by the Scots Guards. The court said it lacked the jurisdiction to order an inquiry because the cold-blooded execution of 24 ethnic Chinese men on a rubber plantation occurred a decade before British private citizens were allowed to appeal to it and, secondly, that the 1969 admissions of massacre from squaddies involved were made too long ago. So, that's the Law. But what about the moral obligation to give the families of all involved the truth? The "shot while attempting to escape" official version of events at Batang Kali was shredded in 2015 at the High Court hearing in London. The court accepted that the massacre had taken place. But the Government's long-disseminated deep background version that the killings were done by a rogue patrol has still to be independently and thoroughly examined. The whole incident stinks of cover-up. And the British Government and British Army's silence and stone-walling continues to hurt the United Kingdom's reputation worldwide. Just do an internet search with the key words "Scots guards, massacre, 1948, Malaya" and you'll quickly see what a gift this cover-up is to Britain's enemies. Also see Batang Kali Revisited 

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