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I have to sympathise with a Dutch academic who found it difficult to discover first-hand accounts of the First World War from rank-and-file Scots on the internet. The way Britain was, and to a large extent still is, organised very few working class Scots find their words in print. And that sorry situation was, and is, even worse for those from other parts of the United Kingdom. We have a radio program here in Canada which interviews authors from around the world. Almost all the English writers on it seem to have attended private school. The recent Afghan and Iraq wars led a flood of accounts from rank-and-file soldiers but too many bear the heavy imprint of a tabloid journalist ghost-writing in "soldier-speak". But back to Scots rank-and-file memoirs of the First and Second World Wars. Even if a our Dutch friend had been able to find many examples, how useful would they have been? The most interesting surely have been written at the time; and that would mean letters home. The more distant in the past an event was, the more memory plays tricks to concoct a coherent, not to say sympathetic, narrative. But letters home may be just as misleading as memoirs or accounts written in later years. With letters the main concern was not to worry the folks back home. War zones are inherently dangerous places, there's a lot of heavy machinery around and little fingers are easily trapped if someone is careless in cocking their weapon.  That means seldom telling everything that's happening in a war zone. Even during the recent fighting in Afghanistan a lot of people were falsely assuring loved ones back home in emails and phone-calls that they never left the base. Once, when I was there, I claimed to be on a remote base in the Canadian Arctic with limited access to a phone to explain why I would be hard to reach. And once the whole thing is over, it does not take long after you get back home to realise that the only people who really understand what happened are the people who were there. It's often a real "you have to have been there" thing. Eventually you give up: it's easier. So, even if a working class Scot from either war did find a publisher, how much could they tell? Put it all in a book and loved ones will find out how much you misled them. And lot of what braver souls might have wanted to say in 1920 or 1950 just wouldn't have found a market, even in the unlikely event of them finding a publisher. And now, as the last of the Second World War veterans fade away the surge of books they are writing in retirement are based on time-adjusted memories. The truth may be out there, but it's very hard to find.  

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I have a theory. Actually I have a lot of theories. But I fear a lot of them would lead to this website being vandalised by web-fascists. But this one is relatively tame. It seems to me that these days there are far more kids around with allergies. Have people just become more aware of allergies? Or is this a symptom of the kind of parenting that means kids are never allowed to play unsupervised and an allergy is perhaps some kind of status symbol? Or are allergies more common than they used to be? I suspect it may be the third option. For a couple of generations now women and girls in the Developed World have lived on a diet of processed food packed with unnatural additives. Is it possible than some of these chemical food additives have resulted in kids being born more susceptible to allergies? Just a thought.

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The Germans during the Second World War noted that the Americans were far quicker to learn battlefield lessons than their British counter-parts. The same may still be true. But while the Americans' learning curve may be far steeper than the British one, the Americans tend to pay a very high price for it. The problem is what is known as American Exceptionalism. American kids are taught from an early age that they live in the greatest country in the world. No other country comes close. That's why the rest of the world is so keen to live there. And that's why Americans have nothing to learn from anyone else. Therefore it is pointless anyone else trying to share the benefit of their experience with the Americans. The First World War is a classic example of this. Both the British and French tried to prepare their newly arrived allies from across the Atlantic the realities of war on the Western Front. But the Americans had their own ideas. They were wrong and the Americans suffered casualties out of all proportion to what they managed to achieve. The Americans, sadly, insist on learning from their own experience. A more recent but thankfully less costly example of this trait was at a shipboard fire fighting course one of my friends took part in. The American participants ignored what their British instructors told them, they knew better. The result was that a couple of them were almost killed during what should have been a simple routine lesson and their instructors had to risk death or serious injury to rescue them from their own stupidity.

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Well, I've finally given up on running onto the rugby pitch at Murrayfield as a Scotland International. It's not that I'm way too old, or that I was never that good a player. I hope my ex-team mates won't take this badly but the Highland 4th XV was made up of has-beens and never-will-bees; I was one of the never-wills. No, the final nail in the coffin of my hopes of an international cap is that you don't have to be Scottish to play for Scotland any more. I think there have always been folk playing rugby for countries they had no real connection with; was not a Polish nobleman played for England before the Second World War? And even in my day I think there were some fellahs from the Antipodes turning out for Scotland on the strength of a Scottish great grandmother, or was it a granny? Anyway, nowadays which country a man plays rugby for has very little to do with any real connection with it. I guess it's part of the professionalisation and commercialisation of the game. The international fixtures attract big TV audiences and that means every country wants to field the best team possible. That seems to mean these days that the audience can't foisted off with a load of haddies selected simply because they were born in Old Scotia. But I don't really feel comfortable being represented by a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis who can't get a game in their own country and may be only temporary residents of Scotland. The only commonality we might share is drinking in the same pubs decades apart. Perhaps the time has come to drop the sham "national" teams and just have a worldwide super-league featuring teams with names like the Pumas, the Walleroos or the Warriors.

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One of my least favourite parts of high school was being forced to look like a clown when PE Class meant doing the High Jump. The apparatus was set up in the middle of the gym and then one by one we all charged at it from what seemed like way too far away in front of the entire class. Being a short fellah, I seldom lasted long and was quickly humiliated. I wasn’t exactly the Mighty Atom or the Amazing Human Jumping Flea. All this came back me recently when I saw a photo of a paralympic swimmer. He had what seemed from the photo to be a mildly clubbed foot. That might have been enough to rule him out when it came to a real Olympic Gold Medal. But I bet he would leave me way behind in his wake if we got in the pool together. I was left wondering who he competed against; other men with one mildly clubbed foot? Or other swimmers who had entire limbs missing? What about swimmers without a foot? Do they get to strap on a flipper?  Should the real Olympics not only divide High Jumpers by gender but also by height? After all, boxers have weight classes. Or how short would a short guy have to be to qualify for the Paralymics? Does being below average height constitute a physical handicap? I sometimes wonder if the day is coming when everyone on the planet will be the proud owner of an Olympic or Paralymic medal thanks to highly selective competition categories. 

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Durham University managed to garner a lot of publicity for its identification of remains taken from partially excavated mass graves in the grounds of Durham Cathedral as being those of 29 of the approximately 1,600 Scots prisoners who died there after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. What most, if not all, of the media coverage failed to pick up on was that the enamel on the teeth of three of the victims, of what would nowadays be considered a war crime, showed they had been raised in mainland Europe, most probably the Netherlands or Germany. The researchers speculated that the three may have been mercenaries. That might be, but there is another possibility. That is that they were the sons of Scots mercenaries who served in the Scotch Brigade of the Dutch army during the late-to-mid 1600s. They may have returned to Scotland with their parents in due course or even come back to what they looked on as their native land to help defend it in its hour of need. The researchers were able to examine the teeth of 13 individuals. For those who haven't read Scottish Military Disasters yet, it might be interesting to go over the fate of those involved in what might be called The Durham Death March. Though the numbers involved are very much open to debate the death toll was far higher than simply those who died at Durham.  English commander Oliver Cromwell claimed to have taken 10,000 Scots prisoners at Dunbar and released half of them almost immediately as of no further threat to him. It looks as though the remaining 5,000 were herded towards Newcastle upon Tyne. Countless stragglers were murdered and any who made unsuccessful escape attempts were executed. Around 500 men who were too weak to continue were imprisoned in St. Nicholas's Church in Newcastle. About 3,000 prisoners made it to Durham. Within less than a month, they were dying at a rate of 100 men a day. They died from disease, starvation, mistreatment or were murdered by their fellow prisoners desperate for food, warm clothing or valuables they could sell to their English guards for food. The English had to wait until an outbreak of dysentery had run its course before selling the surviving Scots into slavery. Around 100 were sold to mine owners in County Durham or Northumberland or forced into equally dangerous servitude, a further 500 were sold to the French Army and 900 were shipped across the Atlantic to Massachusetts, Virginia and Barbados as virtual slave labour. Very few of those herded south from Dunbar saw Scotland again. It has long been known that Scots who died at Durham had been thrown into mass graves, one was supposedly found in 1946 during work on a central heating system, so the publicists at Durham University are to be congratulated on generating so much coverage.

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I take the BBC's decision to appoint a "Scotland Editor" as an admission that the corporation's coverage of the Scottish Independence Referendum was a mess. I only heard what passed for the BBC World Service coverage and it was a disgrace. I suspect it was pride that induced the decision to use "national" correspondents to explain to the rest of the world what was going on and why the population of Scotland might vote to leave the United Kingdom. While many of these "national" reporters might know Westminster and the Home Counties like the back of their hands, their grasp of Scottish affairs was dismal. Much of the coverage was ill-informed. Or patronizing. Or, most often, both. Their degree of ignorance and lack of grip when it came to the issues involved was both appalling and embarrassing. It was worse that the World Service was involved, because it regularly subjects its listeners to correspondents who can barely speak English and whose impartiality is highly suspect. Many are either related to the families who run the Third World countries they report from or, at the other end of the spectrum, to exiled opposition factions. On many days it is hard not to conclude that the only qualification to be a BBC World Service reporter is membership of the most privileged section of society in the country being covered. Most appear to have been brought up in privileged Western-lifestyle compounds and to be privately educated. They seem to have little idea of how the majority of their fellow citizens live. The same, sadly, appears to be true of the sad crew the BBC sent to Scotland for the referendum. It is just a shame so many of them lacked the courage to say they did not feel qualified. I know I would urge anyone who wanted to assign me to cover Welsh politics to seek someone with a better knowledge and grip instead. I can remember only one Scottish voice - Colin Blane. He was also almost alone on the World Service in actually knowing what he was talking about. I nominate Colin for the post of Scotland Editor.

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I was interested to learn that the Scottish Government has decided not to recommend the Queen  pardon a man hung after being found guilty of being part of a conspiracy to murder 236 years ago. Jacobite Alan Stewart was executed for his alleged role in the killing of Colin Campbell of Glenure as he led a party harrying the Stewarts of Appin in 1752 near the site of the present-day Ballahulish Bridge. Stewart was tried by a jury mainly made up of Campbells in that clan's heartland of Inverary and not surprisingly he was found guilty. A less partisan jury may have given him the benefit of the doubt. Two things struck me. One; if Stewart didn't do the killing, how can he be pardoned for a crime he didn't commit? Secondly, this is ancient history and if the Scottish Government has time to look into such matters, it might be better to consider more recent events. Scotland's name is blackened to this day by the 1948 massacre of 24 ethnic Chinese rubber plantation workers in Malaya by a patrol from the Scots Guards. The claim made at the time, and which is maintained by the British Government to this day, that the men were shot while trying to escape has been shown to be bogus. But the exact truth of what happened and why it happened is still very murky. This doubt makes it easy for those who wish to portray the Scots Guards as a Scottish Waffen SS. And by association, that in some minds makes all Scottish soldiers as akin to evil Nazi stormtroopers. And it's not much of a leap to tar the whole Scottish nation with the same brush too. The facts of the Batang Kali Massacre need to come out. Some of the participants claim they were sent to the settlement with orders to murder the male workers there as a warning to ethnic Chinese not to mix it with the British Army. The Scottish Government will no doubt argue it has no jurisdiction in this matter. Jurisdiction is a highly flexible concept and where's there's a will, there's a way. A call from the Scottish Government, after due consideration of the matter, to the British Government demanding a proper inquiry would certainly up the pressure on Whitehall to do the right thing.

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One of the reasons I used to read the Rebus books by Ian Rankin was for the junk food. Rankin's fictional members of the Edinburgh CID crammed all sorts of far from healthy junk food down their throats in the course of each book. I moved to Canada in the late 1990s and the Rebus books were a way of keeping up to date with the latest Scottish junk food trends. I'm fairly sure I remember one detective eating pakora flavoured crisps. Certainly, it was some exotic flavouring. I miss a lot of the Scottish junk food. We have junk food of our own here in Canada, or should I say North America, as very little of it is peculiar to Canada. You may have heard of poutine, chips smothered in gravy and cheese curd. That might be Canada's only major contribution to international junk cuisine. When I go to see my mum and dad I seek out Scottish junk food. They want to feed me good food. But I can eat good food here in Canada. When I'm in Scotland, I want bridies with weird fillings, crisps which claim to be baked bean flavoured or prawn and lemon or something like that, or stuff from the chip shop, maybe a plastic tray of cold pakora with strange spicy sauce, and all washed down with some oddly coloured soft drink. It's not a diet I'd like to live on for ever, but the way I look on it, I'm on holiday. And I do cave in and agree to eat some "good" food too when I'm in Scotland. 

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I was a little disappointed to hear some English balloon with a double-barrelled surname chuntering on the BBC World Service about whether the Americans were justified in dropping  atom bombs on Japan.  Actually, that is a question worthy of discussion. I think what pissed me off was he seemed to be buying into the whole Japanese as somehow especially victimized by the war scenario. Certainly, the Japanese see themselves as victims and need little encouragement from the BBC when it comes to that feeling.  They remain woefully ignorant to this day about how their compatriots and ancestors behaved during the Second World War. The Japanese narrative is that the United States forced them into war and then committed the greatest of all war crimes by dropping the atom bomb on them. No mention is made of mass rape, murder of prisoners, torture, massacres of civilians, cruel medical experimentation or working slaves to death that took place in between. Yes, atomic weapons were and remain terrible things. But so were the fire storms created by conventional bombing raids on Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden, to name only a couple of the targets for Allied attack. Yes, the Japanese had put out peace feelers before the atom bombs were dropped. But the Germans put out peace feelers in 1916 which involved them getting to keep all the bits of France and Belgium they occupied. There are peace proposals and "peace proposals". But the disgusting behaviour of the Japanese obviously does not justify two atomic attacks. Maybe saving lives in the long run does.  Perhaps our little chum from the BBC would like to tour cities in Britain, India, the USA, China and Japan and point out several hundred thousand people for execution.  I think he should condemn to death the same number of people who would have died, including Japanese, if the war had not been brought to such a sudden and unexpected conclusion by Little Boy and Fat Man.

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I can't believe that anyone is making a fuss about an English actor being cast to play Charles Edward Stuart in a film about his escape from Scotland after his disastrous defeat at Culloden in 1746. It is just a shame that casting director could not find a part-Polish, part-Italian, part-French, part-Danish, part-English, part-Scottish actor for the role. After all, that would reflect the bloodline of the real Young Pretender. I'm guessing the implication of the media fuss is that it should have been a Scottish actor. The Great Getaway production team that chose Jamie Bacon for the lead role would appear to have a better grasp of Scottish historic reality than some in the media. And talking of pretenders, English actor David Niven was the last big star to have a go at the Bonnie Prince Charlie role back in 1948 - with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders cast as his ill-fated army. Niven, the Great Pretender, claimed to have been born in Kirriemuir but was in fact born in England. Niven was a raconteur par excellence and as an entertainer never let the facts get in the way of a great tale. His story of being at the hospital bedside of legendary Highland Light Infantry Company Sergeant Major Sixty Smith when the regimental pipe band marches as he lies dying could not have happened the way Niven describes it. Smith died three years after Niven quit the army and not, as the actor claimed, in Malta but in Egypt. But back to the Young Pretender. At least Niven did not become the drunken wife beater that the real Bonnie Prince Charlie turned out to be. 

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One of the most common complaints from authors in North America trying to publicise their new release is that most of the television and radio shows they manage to get on are hosted by people who have never read the book. But British author Stephen Grey seems to have encountered another hazard. It's not clear if he, or his North American publicist, knew he was being thrown to the cranks. One of the local radio stations here takes an overnight feed from America, I'm guessing because it is a cheap way to fill airtime when few of the people its advertising to will be listening. The show, I can't dignify it with the term "programme", mixes interviews with a call-in. It seems that most of the people calling in believe they have been abducted by aliens. The interviews are with people who, for instance, write about battles in the Irish Channel between the British armed forces and flying saucers. Those callers who have not been abducted are nearly all hard-core conspiracy theorists. I have to wonder if Mr Grey was aware of this when he agreed to appear on the show to discuss his new book about espionage and counter-terrorism. I only caught the last few minutes of the show but it seemed obvious that Mr Grey was somewhat surprised by the questions posed by the callers. The first caller did not have a question. He wanted help because the US government is holding his daughter hostage to force him to take part in its "war on terror". The second caller wanted Grey to agree that the internet is a government conspiracy. The third wanted to discuss using telepathy to spy on people. Grey's discomfort was palpable.

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When I was a lot younger there seemed to be an attitude amongst the general public that if someone was daft enough to join the Army, they shouldn't whine when things went pear-shaped.  To coin a phrase - "You shouldn't have joined if you can't take a joke".  Soldiering is inherently dangerous and training which 100% guarantees no-one gets hurt is not worth doing. But although the Great British Public appears more compassionate these days when it comes to its soldiers, especially after Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm not sure that the Army and the Ministry of Defence are not still locked in the old mindset. Reading reports of the inquest into the deaths of special forces hopefuls Lance Corporal Craig Roberts, Corporal James Dunsby and Trooper Edward Maher during a selection test in July 2013 it is hard not to conclude that their lives were squandered through carelessness. Health and Safety regulations obviously cannot be stringently applied to military operations or exercises but common sense and fore-thought can. There was a distinct lack of common sense that terrible day in 2013. And afterwards the Ministry of Defence showed a disgraceful lack of compassion. Encouraging young determined men, especially military reservists, to push themselves further than they think they can go on a remote Welsh mountainside is an accident waiting to happen. It is clear from the inquest that the people in charge did not take their responsibilities, not to say duty, seriously enough. Responsibility for the three men's deaths goes a long way up the military chain of command because many of the things that went wrong that day were the result of systematic failures. Lessons that should have been learned from previous incidents, including a similar 2008 death, were pretty much ignored. Officers are supposed to put the welfare and wellbeing of their men first. Sadly, promotion prospects and pensions still come first for far too many of the British Army's supposed leaders. Will we see anyone carry the can for this one or will the usual slight of hand make it impossible to work out where the buck should stop?

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I don't think Scots MPs at Westminster should be voting on legislation that only applies to England. It's a matter of courtesy. But this English Voting on English Legislation has me worried. I just don't trust Westminster not to pull a fast one. The flaws in the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland mean that it's not always easy to determine what legislation applies only to England. The, say, New Sewerage Pipes Act (England) seems pretty clear cut but there is other legislation that isn't so straight forward. The proper place to debate and vote on England-only legislation is perhaps an English legislature and not the British House of Commons. There are many successful democracies with federal constitutions and I am baffled as to why Westminister so staunchly opposes this system of government. By the way, I can't help feeling many of  jurisdictional conundrums we now face date back to when Labour's Tony Blair started back-pedalling on his devolution promises in 1997 when he realised he didn't need his Scottish MPs after all to ensure a majority. Another thing that bugs me about the whole EVEL debate is the hypocrisy. There are still some English Tory MPs around who flooded into the House of Commons in 1988 to impose the Poll Tax on the Scots a year before it was implemented for their own constituents. Why is this ill-considered major  constitutional change being rushed through? The fundamental issue at stake has existed since the creation of the Government of Northern Ireland in 1920 - that's almost a century ago. This issue is too important to all residents of the United Kingdom to be dealt with by pandering partisan political posturing. An all-party approach is needed if disaster is to be avoided. In the meantime, it might be nice if Scottish MPs could bring themselves to refrain from voting at Westminister on Bills that are indisputably English-only matters.

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Once, long long ago, I worked in the upper reaches of Glen Garry in Inverness-shire. The boss insisted the folk music was for the people, by the people, and truly something termed "authentic". So, at night when we got bored seeing who could hang by their arms from the rafters of the house- converted to a dog kennel- converted back into a bunkhouse for the longest time, we'd cook ourselves up some genuine folk songs. One was a song about the boss. Another was about a glue sniffer who joined a woodwork class to get his fix and at the end of the song everything he'd made fell apart because all the adhesive had gone up his nose. It was hilarious. You'll have to take my word for that because no-one can now remember a single word of the song. Now, neither I nor any of my workmates, as far as I know, was actually a glue sniffer. But then Ewan McColl was never a fisherman or a miner and he produced some pretty memorable songs about life and work as seen through the eyes of both. We have a woman here in Edmonton who regularly knocks out songs about doing jobs she's never done during time periods she never lived in. Some of her songs are OK but it is shame that the people who actually had done these jobs never put together a song about them. My old boss would have approved of that as "authentic". The problem with folk songs penned by people who weren't there is that they can slip into cliche and put thoughts into the supposed participants' heads and mouths that were quite possibly never there. I might be a little more impressed if modern song writers did a little more research into the periods and people they are writing about. "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" by Ozzie-Scot Eric Bogle is classic anti-war song. But how many Anzacs felt the way the narrator of the song does? One thing I know for certain is that none were given a tin hat in early 1915. And I seriously doubt that anyone straight out of school would have found themselves taking part in the 1914 Christmas Truce as John McCutcheon would have us believe in his haunting "Christmas in the Trenches". It's just a shame that few, if any, of the genuine participants in the events being chronicled had the same way with words as these modern song writers.

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I recently came across what purports to be an 18th Century recruiting poster associated with the raising of what became known as the Cameron Highlanders. Most histories of the regiment proclaim that it was originally known as the 79th Regiment or Cameronian Volunteers. But the poster names the regiment as the Cameron Volunteers. Certainly, the letter officially authorising the raising of the regiment in 1793 refers to it as the Cameronian Volunteers. If the poster is genuine, and I have no reason to think it's not, then some clerk in Whitehall got the name wrong. Not all the clerical errors committed by the military administration were so minor. Historians are still scratching their heads over the pronouncement in 1809 that the 94th Regiment was one of the regiments being stripped of its Highland status and kilts. The 94th Scotch Brigade was raised in the Scottish Lowlands by officers connected with the Scots regiments that had been part of the Dutch Army until the American War of Independence. It seems more likely that the government intended to deprive the 93rd Highlanders of their kilts in 1809. So, the decree that the 94th were being stripped of their Highland status made no difference to the regiment because it did not consider itself Highland and probably the 93rd decided not to draw Whitehall's attention to error and risk losing their kilts after all.

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This coming Sunday, June 28th, marks an important centenary - at least an import one as far as my family is concerned. On June 28th 1915 my great-grandfather was killed at Gallipoli while serving with the 8th Scottish Rifles. It was his first battle. Who knows if he even managed to fire a shot. I doubt it. He died fighting the Turks. He joined up to fight the Germans. It's quite possible he never met a Turk before he took the King's Shilling. Perhaps the only ones he ever saw were prisoners of war herded on the beach at Gallipoli. The nature of war is such that you don't always get to choose your "enemy". If you take the Queen's Shilling, you do the Queen's business; no questions, no choice. Of course, it's not the Queen who personally decides who you try to kill. That decision is down to Her Majesty's Government. And these days few, if any, of the Queen's ministers have ever been at the sharp end of a war. Too often these men, and it's nearly always men, are not even figuratively in the same room when the Pandora's Box we call War is cracked open. War is a necessary evil and should never be undertaken lightly. The attack my great-grandfather died in, at Gully Ravine, was a mess from the British point of view. It is hard not to conclude that his life was squandered by men who had yet to learn how to do their jobs properly.  I wonder how many of those back in London who were responsible for sending him into the bullet-whipped hell of Gully Ravine lost any sleep either before or afterward.

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All the British veterans of the First World War are gone, and Brits who saw frontline service in the Second become scarcer with every passing day. What is a TV documentary producer to do without all that eye-witness footage? But the fact is that perhaps that first-person testimony is not as valuable as we'd like to think. Memory is fickle. People constantly re-write their past to creative a more comfortable and comprehensible narrative. Old men come to genuinely believe that things happened in a way that they didn't. They are not lying, they are just mis-remembering with the best of intentions. Though sometimes there may be a bit of cynicism from both the TV people and the veterans. I remember when I was a reporter that the colleagues who decided what the story was before they'd spoken to a single person involved and who never let the facts get in the way of their preconceived narrative seemed to be great favourites with the bosses. Truth is stranger than fiction and the unexpected can disconcert gentle readers. Most people want their prejudices confirmed rather than challenged by messy truth. TV documentary makers have a good idea of what they want their talking-head veterans to say. Queue veteran talking about the horror of the trenches.  Blah, blah, rats as big a dogs, blah blah, the generals were butchers, blah blah, mud, blah blah, mud, blah blah blown to pieces. And there were some old veterans were wise enough to know that if they deviated from the expected script then they won't get their couple of minutes of fame. These guys, some of them badly damaged in one way or another during the First World War, were thrown to the wolves by their betters in The Depression and then saw their own sons marched off for Round Two in 1939. They had a tough life and it's hard to grudge them their 15 minutes of fame in their twilight years. Perhaps the veterans could be forgiven, but the TV people can't.

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So, what should the well-dressed reporter in a war zone wear? I remember at least one of the American reporters at Kandahar airport in 2002  kitted out from head-to-toe in US Army gear. "There are no neutrals in a war zone," he told me when I asked him why. But I found that many soldiers think that wearing nothing but military issue clothing is taking the piss. Another type of reporter shows up with a dark blue flack jacket and military helmet with a dark blue cover. Some of the this gear even carries the word PRESS. I sometimes wonder if they wouldn't be better painting the word TARGET on the gear and always carrying a bunch of brightly coloured balloons on  a string. Why stand out from the crowd on a battlefield, particularly when only the very stupid don't realise that today's insurgent actually targets members of the press. It all seems a bit like waving a press identification card in the air while under rocket or mortar attack and expecting it to do any good. There did seem to be another off-duty media uniform: some kind of casual shirt, a pair of khakis and suede boots. Though I suspect many of these media warriors didn't venture much further than the lobby of their hotel or the bedrooms of groupies. But the one thing I'll say for the dark-blue get-up is that the protective gear is usually up to code; ballistic plates and all that good stuff. What about me? Well, to paraphrase the Norwegian playwright Ibsen; one does not wear one's best trousers to a war. I opted for mute greens and browns from the local charity shop. The flak jacket and helmet colours didn't make me stand out too much at shooting distance from the crowd of soldiers around me but didn't take the piss out of them either. You can't file your story back to head office if you're dead.

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How old does a human body part have to be before its display is distasteful? Is it ever right to keep human body parts as souvenirs. The historians say it's quite probable that the people of Scotland were once head-hunters. But that was a long time ago. I recently came across a 1908 photo of a shrivelled claw that purported to be the hand and forearm of Scottish Cavalier James Graham, better known to history buffs as Montrose. A reasonably strong case was made for it being one of the limbs hacked off Montrose's body after he was hanged as a traitor in 1650 and sent off for public display in either Perth or Dundee. Certainly, the two nail holes suggest that it was pinned to something somewhere at some point. The aforementioned appendage had shown up in Yorkshire and I understand that as recently as 2001 someone there was trying to sell it. As a kid, I saw plenty of jaw bones, skulls, and other body parts in museums and never gave them a second thought. I remember being a little uneasy about a mummy in one of Glasgow museums but I was just a kid and there wasn't a lot I could do about it. Maybe it was the fact that the Montrose Claw still had flesh on it that made it so distasteful. Or maybe it was because it may have belonged to an identifiable, not to say sympathetic, human being. But I suppose all those skulls, jaw bones, hands, etc, were all parts of living and loved human beings at one time. Perhaps the time has come to clear all the museum cabinets of human remains. Let's show some respect to all people's dead ancestors. There can't really be much scientific value these days in keeping the heads of Africans, Pacific islanders and Aborigines in over-sized pickle jars. 

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