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When the Canadian media wants to have a go at the Canadian military there are a couple of dial-a-quotes who will usually feature in the story. No matter the issue, these characters will have something critical to say. It doesn't matter how much or how little they actually know about the matter being discussed, they will be disgusted and/or outraged. Most are former members of the Canadian armed forces. Some are very former, in that they haven't worn a uniform for decades. But journalists are guaranteed a quote for their story which is highly critical of the Canadian forces. My guess is that British journalists have a similar call list. But sometimes there are reasons, very good reasons, why these pundits are former members of the military. Privacy rules, particularly when it comes to medical records, mean that the public cannot properly judge their credibility and impartiality. I suspect many of the "journalists" are just as ignorant about these characters' backgrounds as the public are; though whether that's down to a lack of professionalism or something more sinister I would hate to speculate. I have worked with, and for, some people who decide what the story is before they've spoken to a single person involved and know exactly what quotes they need for it. Those who fail to deliver the required quote just don't get quoted. And some of them are real publicity hounds.

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I was listening to a radio documentary about former British soldiers and the problems they have suffered since they left the army after serving in Afghanistan. The programme billed itself as being about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But listening to what the ex-soldiers had to say, I was left unsure how many of them actually had PTSD. PTSD is a very specific diagnosis with definite symptoms and treatment. The media as a whole has only recently discovered PTSD, though it is as old as warfare, and tends to bit a cavalier when it comes to the use of the term. Some may even be rather cynical in its use as a headline grabber. While anything that highlights this debilitating condition is welcome, I am not sure this kind of mislabelling is entirely helpful. The ex-soldiers appeared to have a wide variety of problems, ranging from psychological trauma to simply having trouble adjusting to civilian life after several years of a highly structured lifestyle which happened to include several unforgettable adrenalin highs. Dealing with, and preventing, the wide variety of problems this collection of ex-servicemen suffer from will require a number of different approaches. Sticking them all in a box labelled "PTSD" could mean that a number of easily rectified problems end up not getting the attention they deserve.

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In what I believe to be his latest book, the American-English writer Bill Bryson has some very harsh things to say about the Scots after he found out that many of them subscribe to the ABE attitude to football - Anyone But England. His ill-wishes result from a visit to a pub Aberfeldy when he found himself the only patron shouting for England and the Scots clientele applauding goals from whoever they were playing. The English only recently discovered ABE and have been very hurt to find out about it because most of them support the other British national teams if England does not make it into an international competition. However, I suspect that Bryson did not ask any of his fellow patrons in that Aberfeldy bar why they behaved the way they did. I don't know what answer he would have been given but here is one: The English Football Association killed off the oldest international football fixture in the world in 1989 because they said Scotland were so crap that they just were not worth playing on an annual basis. I would say that is reason enough for Scots to take a delight when the Football Association's team gets hammered. There was also the BBC's coverage of the old international when it did take place. The so-called national broadcaster served up a recipe of chauvinism, bias, English nationalism and arrogance in the guise of unbiased coverage of the game. The far more fair and balanced coverage of the Rugby Union Triple Crown suggests that the football commentators' approach was not inevitable. And this was from an organisation that claimed that its commitment impartiality meant it could not describe the Argentinians during the Falklands War in 1982 as "The Enemy". It is not great leap to transfer anger and frustration at the Home Counties Broadcasting Corporation to the football team it so lauds. ABE has deep roots and while it is unfortunate, unpleasant even, it is understandable amongst people who live north of the border.

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Halloween is a big deal for adults here in Canada. Halloween costume parties are very popular and I suspect a lot of money gets spent. I was never that excited about Adult Halloween. To me, Halloween is kids' thing and all about guising. Here in Canada the kids go out Trick or Treating - which doesn't seem to involve doing anything like singing a song, telling a joke or anything like the things we used to have to do when I was young. By the way, did you know that it seems the first written reference to Trick or Treating was in a Canadian newspaper, an Albertan one in fact, in the 1927?  I had imagined that the concept of Trick or Treat was an Irish-American innovation. That it was an American perversion of a Celtic tradition.  But it could be that Trick or Trick is truer to Tradition. I remembered that many years ago I read a book by the son of a Strathpeffer crofter which mentioned Halloween mischief in, I think, the 1890s. The book wasEchoes of the Glen by Colin MacDonald. In his tale MacDonald recounted how when one crofter who incurred the displeasure of the local youths a bucket was placed over her chimney to smoke her out. Acts of mischief, if not outright cruelty, involving less popular members of the community seem to have been the order of the day.  There were no mentions of joke telling, singing or dancing to earn a reward from householders. That got me wondering if the Presbyterian Church had perhaps subverted what had once been a childhood once-a-year extortion racket into a life lesson about not getting something for nothing, hence the guisers' need to sing, dance or tell a joke before they could be rewarded. As very few ordinary working people were encouraged to writer about their lives, beliefs and traditions before the 1960s we may never really know the origins of the Trick or Treat approach to Halloween. Many of the folk "traditions" we know of were in fact captured through the lens of affluent outsiders who did not always ask the right questions and who sadly even when they did were not always given honest answers.  

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I really wish so-called journalists on the radio who are paid by the public would not wish people well with their campaigns at the end of the interview. Those employed by private broadcasters can pretty much do and say what they want. But when I'm paying the journalist's wages, I don't want them endorsing any campaigns. There are often two sides, if not more, to any story and quite frankly many of the so-called journalists today will obviously believe anything they are told without question or further investigation. Some of the people I have heard endorsed and encouraged on programmes on state-financed broadcasting systems are pretty obviously cranks and sometimes even dangerous cranks. The last thing they should be is endorsed by an organisation I am forced to pay to support. Last week I heard a film maker interviewed and, as far as I could make out, what made the movie interesting was that it was produced by an all-female crew. This was because the women felt more comfortable working that way and the "journalist" doing the interview seemed to think this was a praiseworthy way to operate. Would she have applauded a film maker who refused to employ Chinese or African staff because she was not entirely "comfortable" with them on the set? I think not. But I'm sure the journalist wished the film maker the best of luck with her project at the end of the interview. Coverage of an issue; yes. Endorsement and implied support; a definite Big No. 

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The English language is wonderfully vigorous and alive. It is constantly changing. The rules and usages I was taught at school were regarded as major blunders and indications of ignorance only twenty to thirty years earlier. In the time it takes you to read this, several nouns will have become the basis of new verbs. But a complete free-for-all leads to a proliferation of gibberish. I wrote following example down, heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, because it makes so little sense that it would be impossible to remember: "Little or no negligible impact". I don't expect to understand everything I hear on the BBC World Service these days and that's OK. For example, I take it when a presenter says he or she will be "across" something it means they are monitoring the situation. But the English language needs some kind of agreed framework to within which to continue to evolve. In the 1960s educators in Scotland decided that children should be encouraged to express themselves without feeling straight-jacketed by the full application of correct spelling and the rules of grammar. A good idea, perhaps; especially if the spelling and grammar tools were eventually supplied by a future teacher. But it turned out to be a slippery slope. How can teachers teach what they were never, or inadequately, been taught themselves? There needs to be some push-back, some rearguard action to keep the barbarian horde from splintering the English language into umpteen mutually incomprehensible factions. As one American writer put it, we still need "a gentle foot on the brake and a guiding hand on the steering wheel".

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Most British military histories heap praise on the supposed skillful final evacuation from the Dardanelles in January 1916. There are tales of successful ingenious devices and ploys which fooled the Turks into failing to realise that the British and their allies were departing. There's nothing the British like better than a successful evacuation and apparently we like to believe that we are very good at them. But the truth is that it is highly probable that the Turks knew exactly what was going on and decided that interfering with the withdrawal was not worth the blood of a single Anatolian peasant. After all, the British were doing exactly what the Turks wanted. 

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I was disappointed to see a book by a well known military historian claim that the Australians suffered "the bulk" of the casualties at Gallipoli. The Australian and New Zealand casualties were indeed heavy, particularly when the population of the two countries is taken into account. But by a wide margin the bulk of the casualties were British troops. The British commanders were no more careless with Antipodean lives than they were with those born in the British Isles. In fact there are a couple of arguments which point to the Anzacs being regarded as far from cannon fodder. The British Government had to be careful not to be accused by the home governments in Australia, New Zealand and Canada of sacrificing their military contingents unnecessarily. British generals were not allowed to order the execution of Australians as a result of accusations that Aussie soldiers had been scapegoated and shot during the 1899-1902 conflict in South Africa. Secondly, the "colonials" proved to be the crack troops of the Empire during the First World War. Casualties are always high in such formations but commanders are reluctant to unnecessarily squander the lives of such valuable troops. The colonials also proved far less prone to kow-towing to their supposed betters than British-born troops and British commanders often found themselves bending over backwards to avoid upsetting them. Dominion troops, as they were known at the time, were more likely to be treated with kid gloves than their British-born counterparts.  

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I hope that former top ranking British soldier Sir Richard Dannatt was misquoted when he said Afghanistan was not a malarial zone. Dannatt was quoted in the media as saying he would not take the anti-malarial drug mefloquine after seeing the psychological damage it had done to his son Bertie in the late 1990s. But British soldiers headed for Afghanistan were being prescribed the drug while Dannatt was head of the Army between 2006 and 2009. Dannatt was quoted as saying that looking into the possible side-effects, which can include depression and suicidal thoughts, had not been a priority at headquarters because neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are malarial areas. I know before I went to Afghanistan in 2002 I was advised by medical experts in Canada to take anti-malarial medication. Medical experts in Scotland also advise that Afghanistan carries a high malarial risk. I'm fairly sure I opted for mefloquine as an alternative to malaria. I'm not sure how much choice the British military personnel had when it came to anti-malarial medication. As I say, I hope Dannatt was misquoted. I would hate to think that lives were being trusted to someone ignorant of the realities of life in a country to which he was sending them.

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The Gordon Highlanders are now a thing of the past, rolled firstly with the Queen's Own Highlanders into a regiment unimaginatively dubbed "The Highlanders" in 1994 and then absorbed into the Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2006. But I wonder what the soldiers of that proud Highland regiment would have made of  civil servant Miss A Adams at the Foreign Office referring to them in a memo as the "Gay Gordons" and noting to their "prancing" at public events. Adams raised no objection to a request for the Gordons to take part in a 1984 ceremony to mark Nelson Mandela being given the Freedom of Aberdeen. But a Foreign Office superior did object. Margaret Thatcher and her cronies were worried about offending the racist thugs who ran South Africa. Westminster could not stop Aberdeen giving a man they regarded as a Communist terrorist the honour but the London Government could stop the Gordons being part of the celebrations. It's hard to know what is the most disgusting facet of this tale: - a civil servant who suggests a British Army battalion was prone to prancing around and who links homosexuality to mincing behaviour, the thinly disguised pro-Apartheid stance of the British Government or how badly informed that government was about Nelson Mandela. At least the Adams was, one presumes, trying to be funny. But I wonder if she had met a couple of members of the regiment in a pub whether she would have referred to it as the Gay Gordons and discussed their supposed predilection for prancing. Although the regiment's officers before the First World War may well have delighted to be known by the debutantes as the "Gay Gordons", I suspect by the 1980s there was less pride shown in the appellation. 

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Many many years ago I went to party in Billericay in deepest Essex. It may have been a Christmas party. I was working in Inverness at the time. I think this was the time that my boss told me that if I failed to show up at the office at the usual time on following Monday morning I would be fired. And of course, several trains failed to show up at Billericay Station that evening and I only managed to get on the late night London to Inverness train by the skin of my teeth before it pulled out of the station. I'd spotted a panicky-looking guy on the tube ride from the London  railway station where the Essex train came in to whichever station my train north left from. It turned out he was also running late thanks to the cancellation of so many of the trains from Essex but he knew a short-cut from the tube station across the rail yards to the platform the Inverness train was still, luckily for me, sitting at. Anyway, long diversionary story short; I got to work on Monday morning in time to save my job. Back to Billericay. The thing I noticed about the Essex residents at the party was the divide between those whose families had lived in the county for generations and those who were the children of recent arrivals. The long-established Essex folk were charming and seemed genuinely interested in Scotland; though I cringed when they called it "Bonnie Scotland" in the same way they probably would have if I'd kept referring to "Merrie Englande". The loud-mouthed and frankly obnoxious "No Civilised Life North of Watford Brigade" all turned out to be the children of people from North of Watford. Interesting, 'least I thought so.

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The time has come, I think, to remind folk that there are no authorised free downloads of any of my books on the internet. If you come across one, something very fishy is going on. If the people behind the site offering the "free download" are nasty enough to steal from me, do you really think they are not going to do something pretty unpleasant to you too? The chances that you are downloading more than a pirated book are more than excellent. In much the same way as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as free pirated book download.  Book pirates are not noted for their generosity of spirit.  I cannot credit  that any sane or sensible person could believe that someone would let them download a book for free, even if that book is pirated, without taking something in return.   

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Most of you have already realised that authors are also commercial brands. If you read one good book by a certain author, then you will probably buy another carrying the his or her name on the front cover. I don't know about you, but sometimes this has been a disappointing experience for me. The book just hasn't been of the same standard as the previous one, the one I enjoyed. Now, no book is a single-handed effort. At the very least there is an editor involved. And sometimes that editor is a better writer than the author and the combination of the two talents serves the reader well. That's one explanation for why one book carrying an author's name may be far superior to another. But there are two other possibilities. The poorer efforts often come in the author's twilight years and maybe they've just lost their touch. The other possibility is more sinister: the supposed author actually had very little to do with the book. A publisher has decided to exploit the author brand-name but most of the work on the book is done by a lesser-known writer. The supposed author receives a wad of cash for lending their name, or brand, to the project. I've come across a couple of examples of books bearing the names of highly respected British or Canadian military historians that were so far below their usual standard that I was left wondering how much they had had to do with writing them. A very careful reading of the acknowledgements often gives a clue to who really wrote the book. But without definite and legally watertight proof I will have to refrain from naming names. I suspect many of you know who the prime suspects are and maybe even the books involved.

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I gather the appearance of four pistol toting cops in a Dingwall eatery recently caused some comment. When I first came to Canada I found it odd to see cops wandering around with guns on their hips.  I would have been more than a little worried about the armed cops in Edmonton if I had known what bad shots some of them are. Confronted several years ago outside a block of flats by a man wielding a knife, officers felt they had no alternative but to open fire. I can't remember how many bullets were fired, but I think maybe around 20. Only one or two hit the man with the knife. I always thought the people living in the block of flats were lucky not be killed or crippled for life by a stray police bullet. So, my advice to the people of Dingwall is to ask questions about how well trained and practised the cops are when it comes to using their guns. Pistols and revolvers in the vast majority of hands are only accurate at pretty much point-blank range. Deliberately shooting someone in the arm or leg to disable them is a myth. Even aiming at the centre of the body, most people shooting at someone more than a handful of yards away would be lucky to get a hit.  The other myth is that stun-guns are used as an alternative to firearms. In a life or death situation, the only one that really justifies cops pulling out a pistol, a stun-gun is just not reliable enough to guarantee incapacitation. For all intents and purposes a stun-gun can only be trusted as an alternative to wading in with a truncheon/baton.

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There have been several newspaper and magazine articles recently telling us that contrary to popular conception, the Battle of Culloden in 1746 was not a Scottish Vs English affair after all. My guess is that "journalists" have suddenly become aware of the battle and the 1745 Rising thanks to the TV series Outlander. Like most Scottish history, the truth is complicated. Smart Alecs have long impressed themselves by revealing that there were at least three "Scottish" regiments in Hanoverian lines at Culloden. It's also quite likely that there were more clansmen on the Government side during the rebellion than were "out" with Charles Edward Stuart's rebels. But there is something to popular perception of the issues at stake. While Scots might have been divided when it came to the Jacobite Rising, but the English Establishment was not. And it did not make much effort to distinguish between Scottish factions. No Scot could be trusted when it came to dealing with the rebels after their defeat. Ignoring the provisions of the  1707 Treaty of Union which guaranteed the integrity of the Scottish legal system, captured rebels were shipped to England to be dealt with. The punitive laws outlawing Highland dress did not distinguish between loyal and rebel clans. Nor were Government troops bent on burning, raping and murdering their way through the Highlands after Culloden fussy about the loyalties of their victims during the rising. And Highlanders represented a far larger proportion of the Scottish population in those days than they do now. The English Establishment set out to break the pesky Scots once and for all. The English Establishment knew what the war was about.

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I was reading about the defeat of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan by the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The verdict has to be that there were too many political generals and not enough professional and capable military commanders on the Arab side. Those in the know say that one-third of the British casualties in Afghanistan were avoidable or unnecessary. British generals are political with a small "p". The upper echelons of the British Army are filled by club-able chaps of the right sort and background. Competence takes second place to having no interest whatsoever in changing the status quo. There can be no more Cromwells, or his Major Generals. This means that the talent pool the British Army chooses to draw from is by necessity pathetically shallow and includes far too many real-life Giles Wemmbley-Hoggs and Tim Nisebutdeems. There is a very good reason why in the real wars fought during the past 150 years have always started out for the British Army with a couple of disasters. Perhaps the time has come to trust the working people of Britain a little more and stop sacrificing their kids on the altar of politically safe-handed mediocrity at the helm of the British Army. 

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Fortunately for governments and businesses, whistle-blowers are often deeply troubled people. I am hard put to think of a single whistle-blower who has prospered after exposing wrong-doing by their employer. To blow the whistle usually means sacrificing your job, jeopardising future employment prospects and, almost certainly, eventually, a serious loss of income. As Scots kids of my generation used to be told "no-one likes a clype". To that maxim might be added "and no-one trusts a clype either". At the end of day, most whistle-blowers were already fragile, unhappy or deeply troubled people before they went public. One of the first things an employer does after the balloon goes up is to attempt to discredit the whistle-blower. Whatever made the whistle-blower unhappy, odd or difficult to work with in the first place often makes this easier than it should be. Society's, our, lack of support for whistle-blowers makes it even easier to destroy those brave, or possibly foolhardy, enough to speak up. 

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Revisionist history usually involves making some controversial accusation against an national icon no longer around to defend him or herself. Sometimes it is based on new information but more usually it is a deliberately provocative re-interpretation of the known facts. So it is fascinating with the centenary of the First Day of the Somme to see some commentators attempt to present it as a British victory - actually trying to restore the reputation of an icon, namely Field Marshal Douglas Haig, no longer around to defend himself. Some victory; 22,000 dead on the first day - about the same number of frontline infantrymen as we have in the present-day British Army. And let's not get into the numbers of men crippled for life, countless psychiatric cases and the lives ended prematurely in the years after the conflict. The cream of the British working class, the brightest and best who volunteered in 1914, was slaughtered on the Somme and Britain has still not recovered from the loss. The "victory" claim is based on the substantial damage done to the German Army. But the price paid was too high. The British artillery, on which the whole battle plan depended, was just not good enough at the time. When that became obvious on July 1st there should never have been a Day Two on the Somme. It is true that Haig was not the callous blimp that he has usually been portrayed as since the 1960s. But he was, sadly, probably the best of a bad bunch. The British Army's officer corps in 1916 and 1917 just was not up to fighting a modern war. It is notable that the "storm troops" of the British Empire in 1918, the Canadians and Australians, were commanded by a failed real estate agent and a former civil engineer respectively. Both the Canucks and the Ozzies suffered heavy casualties during the war but the losses would almost certainly have been even worse with a club-able chap of the right sort on loan from the British Army in charge. The Germans may have paid a heavy price to stop the British on the Somme but they were still able to come within an ace of smashing their way through the Allied lines in Spring 1918.

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I was more than somewhat appalled by the gleeful reaction from Americans, or at least some Americans, to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox last week. The online comment section accompanying the story was filled by Americans saying "So much for gun control; see, it doesn't work". How twisted are these people? How stupid? No wonder Big Money in the United States is so successful in persuading citizens that universal heath care, such as folk in the United Kingdom, Canada and most sensible countries to a large extent enjoy, is Evil. Even Americans were shocked when 49 people were basically machine-gunned in a Florida club. But nothing will change.  It is a sad comment on the USA today that so many of its citizens believe it is necessary to own an automatic rifle. It's also sad that so many would use the stupid and futile murder of a British MP on the steps of a Yorkshire library to make such a stupid point.  Many other countries where guns are freely available have nothing like the rate of shootings or indiscriminate mass murders seen in the USA. But I didn't see any gleeful postings from those countries regarding the death of a mother of two.

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I was pretty appalled; nay disgusted, by the coverage here in North America of the deaths of US journalist David Gilkey and the man usually described only as his “Afghan translator”.  This unidentified Afghan was in fact Zabinulla Tamanna, a well respected journalist in his own right. Zabinulla was more than translator. Western media often depend on local “fixers” to expedite matters and basically make sure things go as smoothly as possible. Sometimes these fixers even act as the eyes and ears of journalists who refuse to leave the confines of their hotel. The work they do often goes unrecognised and uncredited – especially if the reporter in question is only really interested in getting their “worked in a combat zone” ticket to help move them up the corporate media career ladder. Now, I’m not suggesting that Gilkey was like that, from what I can gather he was far from that, but it does make my blood boil to hear Zabinulla dismissed in so many reports as a nameless translator.

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