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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 strait-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, 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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It seems nearly every week that a new British spy heroine appears in the media. Then it turns out that the old trout had been a clerk at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. I blame Dominick Cumberbatch. The film he starred in about the code breakers at Bletchley Park drew the attention of a new wave of self-obsessed and pitifully ignorant journalists to the fact that the British could read top secret German radio messages for much of the Second World War. Some of these stories in which the "spy heroines" finally speak about the "vital" work they did even include a photo of Cumberbatch alongside a photo of the now very wrinkled old trout. For goodness sake; these women were clerical workers who hardly risked arrest by the Gestapo at any moment. These stories trivialise the genuine courage of the women who really did risk their lives in Occupied Europe. But any excuse to print a photo of Cumberbatch, I suppose.

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I haven't lived in Scotland for years. One thing I've always been conscious of when I have made visits back home is not to show off by slipping North American words and phrases into conversations. "Pants" for trousers and "sidewalk" for pavement immediately spring to mind. When I worked on Tyneside, there were words and phrases that I used without thinking that were meaningless to Geordies, though oddly I found Canadians understood them after I crossed the Atlantic. On another side note, it used to be I had to translate words in my head when I spoke to Canadians, or as they would say "spoke with" Canadians. Now on visits to Scotland I have to translate Canadian English into English English. I have obviously gone past some kind of tipping point. Anyway, back to my point that using North American phrases in Scotland is considered showing off. Imagine my disappointment when I heard a BBC "journalist", Nuala McGovern, talking about people running out of gas as they fled the fires in Fort McMurray. Surely folk in Britain still fuel their vehicles with "petrol". Well, isn't Nuala "special": She has lived in America. She obviously lived there long enough to become a devoted agent of US cultural imperialism.  Good for her not being afraid to show off, something Americans are often accused of but British people used to be shy of doing. But's it's kind of scary that after seven years back in the British Isles that she still hasn't regained the use of her native tongue. Perhaps she suffered some kind of catastrophic brain fart while living in the United States and had to re-learn English. But then if that were the case, it's odd that she kept her Irish accent.

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I think it was the American wit and comedian Groucho Marx who said he was disinclined to join any club that would have him as a member. I think I would be equally disinclined to join any club that did not want me as a member. What is the point of demanding entrance to somewhere you are not welcome on grounds of creed, colour or background? Why would anyone want to mingle with narrow minded blinkered bigots? Someone also said something about not agreeing with what someone said, but being prepared fight for their right to say it. So, I have to respect the Muirfield Golf Club's decision not to admit women members. I feel sorry for the people who voted against women members. But it is a private club with the right to write its own rules. What got my goat was the BBC quoting a number of people condemning the golf club's decision and none speaking in favour; though it might be hard to find anyone who would defend such stupidity. I felt the BBC should have added a rider that it endorses sexual discrimination. What else can "The Conversation", which bills itself as produced for women by women about women, be but sexual discrimination? Perhaps its producer could have gone on air to defend the Muirfield Golf Club's decision. Or, come to think of it, if the BBC had any real journalists left, they could have interviewed a spokeswoman for one of the women-only golf clubs in Scotland. I understand there are more women-only clubs in Britain than men-only. 

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Here's something that has long puzzled me: When I was in Afghanistan, long long ago. a high ranking Canadian general came to visit. No, that's not it. His machine-gun toting bodyguards stood out like sore thumbs in their baseball caps, designer khakis and wrap-around sunglasses amongst the gaggle of uniformed aides surrounding him. Now, I'm no expert in bodyguarding but I would thought a protection squad would not want to draw attention to itself - or the guy it is supposedly protecting. I thought they might be better advised to blend in with the crowd and wear uniforms that day. I had a nagging feeling that they wanted to advertise how "special" they were. I remember when the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to visit the Gateshead Garden Festival that there were several Special Branch officers and other cops whom I recognized, mingling with the crowd in casual street clothing. But all were also wearing same apparently innocuous and non-descript item. I guess that was so that if something happened and guns had to be drawn that Thatcher's London Boys wouldn't shoot them dead in the confusion. I can't help feeling that the British approach was better.

 

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A study of hospital admission figures by Glasgow University researchers raises some interesting questions about combat related mental health problems. A lot of modern journalists seem to believe that the higher than normal admission rates for soldiers and veterans can be firmly attributed to combat stress. These keen young scribblers strongly believe killing bad guys must inevitably result in stress conditions such as PTSD. The Glasgow study shows that soldiers who quit the army before completing their training are most likely to suffer mental health problems. After four years of service soldiers and ex-soldiers are no more likely to have problems that civvies. Long service members of the military, possibly the most likely to have been through multiple combat deployments, are half as likely to have mental health problems than those on civvie street. The question is why those who do not complete their training are so much more likely to suffer from depression, stress disorders or psychotic illness. Could this be because they enter the military with existing mental health problems or vulnerabilities? Or perhaps there is something about the military life that makes people crack. Sadly, bullying and ritualistic humiliation have not yet been entirely erased from our military bases. Either way, the military, and the Army in particular, have questions to answer. Is the selection process selective enough? Money spent training someone who drops out is money wasted. Or should the officer corps and the senior N.C.O.s be doing more to clamp down on those sad-sods who get their kicks from bullying and humiliating new recruits?  

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