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Good Grief, has it really been two decades since Lady Di died? With days to go before I left Staffordshire to start a new job in Canada I got a call from my about-to-be employer asking me to gauge local reaction to the death of the former consort to the heir to the throne in a Paris car crash. To be frank, no-one was rending their clothes and tearing their hair out. The mass media had still not managed to guilt the population into feeling that they must be monsters if they did not weep publicly at the death of a woman who it was busy elevating to latter day English sainthood. I sort of regretted that I'd thrown away an old photo of Lady Di and I. It was taken during a royal visit to Shetland. This was in the days when the media were not allowed to speak to royalty and coverage consisted of asking people what the royals had said them during walk-abouts. The exchanges seldom even reached the heights of banality; though Prince Phillip might say something crass under the impression he was being funny. So, I never spoke to Lady Di or her husband. But, I was photographed trailing the obligatory 12 feet behind the couple. A trick of the camera lens made it look as though I was standing at Lady Di's shoulder and she was sharing a joke or a comment with me. A year or so later, when I was leaving Shetland to return to Inverness, I found the photo while clearing my desk. It went into the chuck-it-out pile rather than the "keep" folder. How was I to know she would become famous again almost a decade later? 

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I was recently reading an account by a senior British commander of his time in either Iraq and Afghanistan. One of things he said was that he and his colleagues had failed to properly take tribal dynamics into account. Earlier this week I was reading the text of some British lectures written on the subject on Frontier warfare. There was no date on them but the campaign most referred to took place in 1897. As there is no mention of aircraft, my guess is that the lectures written sometime before the First World War. One of the things stressed in the very first lecture was the need to study and get a firm grip on tribal dynamics. So, it's a little bit of a puzzle as to why more than 100 years later that British commanders failed to properly take them into account. Did no-one from the British Army go to the Ministry of Defence archives, the National Archives or onto the internet to see what previous campaigners had found out through bitter, and bloody, experience? A careful reading of what recent senior British officers had to say about their time in Iraq or Afghanistan strongly suggests that they hadn't even digested the lessons of Northern Ireland. Of course there are many differences between Armagh and Helmand, but there were also common threads running through the conflicts in both.

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It used to be that public libraries were places of quiet. That is certainly no longer true when it comes to my local branch. In an effort to be more "family friendly" young children are now allowed to rampage around screaming their little heads off. Now, I'm all for children being encouraged to visit libraries and have no wish to see them cowed into total silence- I'm not a fan of "children should be seen but not heard". But I seem to remember that when I was a child, under the older quieter no-screaming regime, that we were actually learning something useful. That was that there were other people than ourselves and our families in this world and they were entitled to some consideration. Nowadays, children behave the same way no matter where they are and who they are with. It's apparently all part of the everyone-gets-a-sweetie, there's-no-such-thing-as-wrong, approach to child-rearing. More than 20 years ago I was surprised at the selfish inconsiderate way a horde of young kids on a Canadian ferry across Halifax Harbour ran amok. But I thought, hey, they get out of their system and turn into decent human beings. But I was wrong. That age group rioted a couple of years back in Edmonton on the annual celebrations to mark the foundation of modern Canada. It turned out that little self-obsessed inconsiderate brats turn into big self-obsessed inconsiderate brats. And as they are now the parents, which chance do the little children have of growing into decent considerate members of society? 

 

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Even I was surprised to learn that something like around half of the BBC's top paid journalists and presenters are privately educated. The arrogance and incompetence of the organisation, fully demonstrated by its dismal coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, suggested that the privileged but barely even competent are indeed over-represented in its ranks - but I had no idea how over-represented. I think something like seven percent of the British population is privately educated. So, something is obviously very wrong. And whatever is wrong is not confined to the BBC but a cancer eating away the heart, what's left of it, of British prosperity. Two reasons for this sad state of affairs spring to mind. One is that parents are buying their children into job-network, the Old School Tie. Or it might be that these children of privilege are actually better educated. I have my doubts about this second explanation, there are many state comprehensives that are pretty good but whose former pupils do not dominate the senior ranks of the BBC or the British Army in the same way that those from private schools seem to. But let's say it is true. Could this be because the people who control the purse-strings and levers of power have no real interest in decent education for all - or should I say equal opportunity in life - because their kids are not affected by the shortcomings of state education: That they do not have a dog in the fight. Perhaps the answer is to encourage them to enter the arena. Now, I'm for freedom of choice. If people want to spend extra money on educating their kids they should be allowed to do it. But what if we turned around and said: "If the state isn't good enough to educate your kids, then it's not good enough to give them a job either". Make it that private school pupils are excluded from sitting the exams that eventually lead to public sector jobs. Basically, no tax-funded jobs for those who did not go to state schools. I would hope that this would mean that the British Army would no longer be the largest single employer of pupils from Eton. Of course, the privileged would soon find away to circumvent the policy, but perhaps in the process educational opportunities for the masses might be improved for a short while at least. 

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The recently released film Dunkirk appears to have ignited some interest in the ones who didn't get away and that interest, in Scotland at least, has focused on the 51st Highland Division. The division had been hived off from the main British Expeditionary Force and lent to the French. The bulk of the division was eventually cornered at the French seaside town of St Valery en Caux by a German force under the command of Erwin Rommel. Attempts by the Royal Navy to evacuate the trapped troops came to naught and around 10,000 soldiers went into the bag. Not all were Highlanders or even Scots. The 1st Middlesex and the 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, as well as numerous English artillery men, engineers and support troops, also went into the Prisoner of War camps. Back in the 1980s it was proposed to twin Inverness with St Valery. It seemed a good idea to local politicians, perhaps with an eye on some exchange visits with their French counterparts. The Invernessians who spent more than five years as guests of the Germans, many as basically slave labourers down Polish coalmines, were less keen. They remembered that some of the citizens of St Valery had gone out of their way to betray escaping or hiding of British soldiers to the Germans. Now, I don't know why they did that but I can sympathise with my informants', former members of the 4th Camerons, feeling of betrayal. Disappointingly, although the new film has reawakened some interest in the fate of the 51st Division, the same is nowhere near as true for another group of British soldiers who did not get away, the brave defenders of Calais - three battalions of regulars, a Territorial battalion and one-sixth of the British Army's tank force. And as the film apparently barely features the Germans, my guess is that there will be no hint that the Scots of the 52nd Lowland Division and troops of the 1st Canadian Division were landed in France after the Dunkirk evacuation but quickly brought home again when it was realised that the French wanted to thrown in the towel.  

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