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So, the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. It’s a big deal here in Canada. The D-Day Landings and the subsequent fighting in Normandy was Canada’s highest profile operation during the Second World War. So, it’s understandable that the anniversary has attracted more interest in matters military than we usually see in Canada. But I can’t help feeling that those few survivors of the Canadian 1st Division and 5th Armoured Division who fought in Italy with the 8th Army between 1943 and early 1945 must be a bit peeved that their 75th anniversary last year was pretty much ignored. The same must go for the rest of the 8th Army men who fought in Italy and those of British troops who at many times formed around a third of the US 5th Army in Italy during the war. The two US commanded 5th Army beach landings in Italy, at Salerno and Anzio, came close to disaster. It is shame that the fighting in Italy, and the how-not-to lessons it taught when it came to coalition warfare, is so generally ignored. In June 1944 the odious American general Mark Clark decided a photo opportunity on the outskirts of Rome took priority over destroying   the retreating German 10th Army.  Thanks to Clark there are far fewer veterans of the Italian Campaign alive today to complain about all this attention being given to Normandy when their war is forgotten. 

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As a teenager I shared most people's distrust of British journalists. But then I took part in a BBC Scotland radio programme called Sunday Club in which school kids interviewed the newsmakers of the day. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot more fun than a lot of the other participants because I was invited back way more times than them. This wasn't because I was brilliant. It was because nearly all the others had been chosen by their schools. And they were the kind of people whom schools would choose to represent them. The senior staff at my high school would never in a million years picked me to represent the place on national radio. But I think my reluctance to kow-tow and generally sook-up gave me an edge when it came to quizzing the Great and the Good on a Sunday lunchtime. I had been incredibly lucky to side-step the usual selection process for the programme. But I have no doubt that the school's leadership believed there were other pupils who better deserved to have Sunday Club on their CV and would they happily have done everything it could to make that happen for their little favourites. 

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OK, I guess credit where credit's due. People know that I have never, ever, been an admirer of the odious Aung San Suu Ky. Why anyone is surprised at the way she has behaved in Myanmar baffles me. All the clues were there that she was never an advocate of democracy but only of power for Aung San Suu Ky. But she has had the sense to free, via a presidential pardon, two Burmese journalists fitted up by her military allies for breaching the Official Secrets Act. The journalists' real crime was writing about the murder of Muslims by soldiers in Rakhine Province. So, Aung is to be congratulated. In the same way as a man who stops beating his wife should be congratulated. Now all she has to do is end the genocide and make it safe for Burmese Muslims to return home to Rakhine. Somehow, I don't see that happening. 

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I recently heard an Oxford academic say on the BBC World Service, unchallenged, that 90% of Venezuelans are opposed to the Nicolas Maduro government. I'm not sure where she got that figure from and quite frankly I can't imagine a whole 90% of a country's population being either for or against any one thing. But it would not surprise me if a large majority of the citizens of that South American republic are indeed very unhappy with their president. Maduro does not appear to be doing such a good job, especially when it comes to his handling of the massive drop in the price of oil. The Americans, as they did in Cuba, are unintentionally giving him a get-out-jail-free card by imposing crippling sanctions on the country which Maduro can then tell Venezuelans are the real cause of the country's problems. But the US attempts to overthrow Maduro come to grief because  the mob the Americans and their proxies are trying to force on the country are as bad, if not worse, than the present regime. And Venezuelans know it. They don't need very long memories to recall these self-same elitist families and their previous undemocratic attempts to overthrow first Hugo Chavez and now Maduro.  What this small highly exclusive group wants is a return to the bad old Pre-Chavez days when they got to call all the shots and the poor knew their place. And that's why Maduro is still in power.

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In American films about expeditions to the moon, the control room is usually packed with white American guys. When Apollo 13 runs into trouble it is an All-American brains-trust that works out how the fix the problem with pipe cleaners and sticky-back plastic. But the Space Program in reality was heavily dependent on overseas talent. Most folk know the part played by Nazi rocket experts in the early days. But not so many are aware of the Canadian and British aviation engineers imported in 1959. That was after the Americans succeeded in persuading the Canadian government of the time to abandon its advanced interceptor plane, the Avro Arrow and the design team lost their jobs. The Americans won twice-over with that one. NASA gained the talent that took it to the Moon and a few years later the Canadians had to buy a very inferior interceptor from the Americans. Hollywood is very bad at acknowledging contributions to American life that did not come from white guys born and bred in the good old USofA. In all those films when the US cavalry charges across the American Southwest to save folk from the Apaches, in real life they could well have been Negros of the 10th or 9th Cavalry. And most of the white cavalry troopers of the time were Italian or German immigrants who could barely speak English. The best Hollywood would do was have the odd tough nut Irish sergeant. 

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The local library here stocks something, often in both CD and DVD format, called The Great Courses. It's a bit like the old Open University, with an academic giving a lecture, but there's no degree at the end of it. On the one I was watching last week a linguistics professor was discussing the English language; it's use and misuse. He was lamenting that the second person plural and first person plural are now exactly the same - "you". It wasn't always so. The singular used to be "thou". One of the things the guy was keen to point out is that often what is regarded as slang or dialect is often more "fit for purpose", to use his phrase, than modern standard English. He seemed to applaud the use of "Y'all" in the southern United States and pointed out that many west coast Lowland Scots use "youze" in a similar way. As do many people in New York. Interesting. 'Least I thought so. 

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With Anzac Day just around the corner it might be worth thinking about how the Gallipoli campaign is still such a subject of fascination. Although the British suffered far higher casualties than the Aussies and Kiwis, it is the latter who make the fighting in Turkey a big deal. Perhaps this is because Gallipoli was one of only a series of slaughters of British troops during the First World War. Though the Anzacs served on the Western Front after Gallipoli and saw more than their fair share of death there, perhaps they were luckier than the majority of the British because they had better generals, who managed to limit the casualty lists. Many historians now reckon the Dardenelles Campaign, to give it yet another name, had not the slightest chance of success. The vast majority of Empire troops were inexperienced, poorly trained and appallingly let down by their generals. The Turks were better led and, thanks to the Balkan Wars in the lead up to 1914, had a lot of combat experience to fall back on. Those historians who still argue Gallipoli was a close run thing seem to also believe that the repeated attacks on the Germans on the Western Front was a strategic error.  The two sides have been arguing since 1915, Easterners Vs Westerners. 

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I used to love Ian Rankin's Rebus books. Not so much for the plots but for the junk food the detectives used to cram down their throats between the action. Irn Bru and Pakora flavoured crisps, etc. Rankin's descriptions of Edinburgh were also spot on and reminded me of my days at Napier. The books were a real trip down memory lane. But Rankin's such a good writer that book by book, year by year, the Edinburgh in the books changed. And when I when I visited Edinburgh I found his descriptions of the city were still spot on. Edinburgh had changed. And so had the cops. They were no longer stuffing themselves with Scottish junk food, almost impossible to get here in Canada, but were eating all this healthy stuff. When I visit Scotland people can't believe that I prefer the chip shop to a nice restaurant. I can eat good food any time I like here in Canada- Pakora flavoured crisps, scampi fries and Vimto are a different story; a treat. Once, on an overnight stop while flying back to Canada from the Persian Gulf, my employer put me up in a swanky hotel near Heathrow Airport. A rather nice steak dinner would have been allowed on expenses. But instead I walked down to the nearest petrol station and bought pasties, scampi fries, Rowntree's fruit  pastilles, and who knows what other British junk food.

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We have a provincial election going on here in Alberta, Canada. Think Holyrood but with a lot more powers. Yesterday I got a phone call. I was busy, but I picked the phone up, just in case it was something important. It was a guy supposedly carrying out a survey on behalf of one of the candidates. I didn't have time, even if I'd wanted to help. But this arrogant arrogant idiot seemed to know better than me what I had time for and was even talking over me as I tried to excuse myself. I became decidedly less cordial and vowed to myself there was one party that would never get my vote. But what if the balloon wasn't who he claimed to be and had set out to deliberately tick people off so that people would decide never to vote the party he said he calling on behalf of. Paranoid? One of the parties here takes its orders from American Big Oil and we all know know what a mass of dirty tricks go on south of the border.

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Ewan MacColl is alive and a film star! Actually, contrary to what the BBC World Service says, the Salford folk song writer and singer, real name James Miller, has been dead for almost 30 years. The film actor that Dan Damon was referring to on World Update was Ewan McGregor. At first I passed the error off as yet another example of Damon’s surprising inability to read a script or listen to what the people he is interviewing say to him. But then I remembered Dan “Barr-Ass” Damon’s contempt and ignorance for anyone and anything outside the Home Counties. That reminded me of one of the dirty mind games the Imperialists used to work on their subject peoples. Basically, you don’t matter enough for me to bother getting your name right. I suppose McGregor was lucky not to be dismissed on air as “Some Jock actor”. Or maybe even “Some Sweaty Sock actor”. The time has long past when Matt Damon [see what I tried to do there?] should be sent back to LBC.

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I’ve been impressed by what appears to have been an outpouring of public grief in New Zealand for the 50 victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings and shows of support for their families and communities. Here in Canada there was a 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City which took the lives of eight innocent worshippers. I cannot recall anything like the same level of support for the local Islamic community in Alberta as has been seen in New Zealand. In fact the only recent demonstration of similar widescale public sympathy and support I can recall here in Canada came after sixteen ice hockey players were killed in Saskatchewan last year when an articulated lorry hit the bus they were travelling on.  And certainly, any attempt to ban semi-automatic weapons in Alberta, as is being done in New Zealand,would be guaranteed to fail. Perhaps the problem is that here in Alberta we live too close to the toxic cauldron of hate that is the United States. When President Trump talks about making America great again, he is thinking of a time when black people, and other minorities, were kept firmly in what was regarded as their place.  In the meantime Well Done New Zealand. I'm not usually big on lavish displays of public grief. But public support as in the New Zealand case, a big "Yes". 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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