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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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More than 10% of soldiers in nominally Scottish regiments are not even British, according to recent media reports. Overseas recruits are becoming are bigger factor every year. Some continue to blame the amalgamation of the "traditional" Scottish regiments in the multi-battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland a decade ago. The critics argue that the loss of such names as the Royal Scots and King's Own Scottish Borderers has eroded the local links and backing that the old regiments enjoyed and a price is being paid in poor recruitment. But the truth is that several of the regiments folded into the Royal Regiment of Scotland never did draw a sizeable number of recruits from their supposed home territories. There were few real Argyll lads in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the majority of the Queen's Own Highlanders were not from north of the Highland Line. Scotland has seldom provided enough men to fill all the supposedly Scottish regiments of the British Army. For most of their histories the Scottish regiments always had a substantial number of non-Scots. Even the Highland regiments, which tended to attract more Scots than their Lowland cousins, often had large numbers of Irish and English men serving in their ranks. At the end of the Crimean War there were 734 non-Scots serving alongside 6,164 Scots in the Highland regiments. Nowadays in the Royal Regiment of Scotland the 10% shortfall is filled by Fijians, men from the Caribbean, and South Africa.  The Scots Guards has always had a large contingent of Englishmen in its ranks. But back to my main point; even the decision to cut the number of regular battalions in the RRoS from five to four, basically a 20% reduction, has failed to bring the quota of Scots serving in the ranks of the remaining nominally Scottish units up to even the old, surprisingly low, levels they once enjoyed.  The creation of the RRoS only acknowledged that the "traditional" Scottish regiments could, at most, only add a tinge of regional identity to units which were actually composed mainly of men from the post-industrial West of Scotland and often officered by Englishmen. But even that recruiting ground is slipping away. Perhaps the time has come to look at why the British Army is not an attractive career proposition for young Scots. Scotland has changed.  Maybe the Army should change a little to reflect modern Scottish values and aspirations. Otherwise it is probably doomed to be continually scouring faraway islands to fill its ranks with "Jocks" brought up to prefer kava to whisky: good soldiers though most of them are.  The real question is why equally promising young Scotsmen people don't want to take the Queen's Shilling these days. 

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I was listening to a BBC World Service programme called Outside Source recently. It had an item about, Aleksei Navalny, an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, being accused in a television documentary of conspiring with the CIA and MI6. But Outside Source said the poor English in the documentation which supposedly supported the allegation suggested it was a clumsy forgery. This seemed a little ironic as Outside Source itself usually includes several red flags which suggest it is produced by people with little knowledge of Britain or of the correct use of English. Do Britons really "arrive to" destinations these days? Would someone from the British Isles really refer to the last letter of the alphabet as "Zee"? When someone broadcasting from London refers to the "East Coast" would they really mean the Atlantic seaboard of the United States and not Ipswich? By Outside Source's own journalistic criteria it would be easy for a listener to believe it is produced by some latter-day version of Radio Moscow and not the BBC at all. Alternatively, as the same sort of people who work at MI6 also work on Outside Source, the catalogue of errors in that spy allegation documentation perhaps prove nothing.

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I've got to say that I've been impressed by how sober and sensible most of the Irish coverage of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising has been. At last the notion that it was an undisputedly Good Thing is being challenged. Questions were asked about whether Ireland would have got home rule anyway, without all the killing and chaos sparked by the extreme nationalists. After all, the Irish Home Rule Bill had already been passed by the British Government and its enactment only put on hold until the hostilities which broke out in 1914 had been ended. Another question raised was whether the north east of the island, where most of the industry was based, might have been included in an independent Ireland if the nationalist killing campaign had not appeared to justify all the fears of the Unionists when it came to rule from Dublin. And the protectionist economic policies espoused by the men and women behind the Easter Rising would have spelt disaster for north eastern counties of the island. People also wonder now if the Rising did not spawn a cancer in the Irish body politic which has still not quite been expunged to this day. Many wonder now if the legacy of bitterness was really worth it. The Easter Rising was staged by a revolutionary movement. The problem with violent revolutions is the scum quite often come to the top. Violence is the enemy of justice. It is not only those who live by the sword who die by the sword in a revolution - quite often the exact opposite is true and the scum who murder their way into power are the most likely to survive.  The glorification of those who murder and intimidate to get their own way cannot be good for democracy.  I don't think there are many in Britain who will be celebrating the centenary of the formation of the Black and Tans come 2019. As the French found in Algeria after the Second World War, fighting fire with fire when it comes to terrorism is often counterproductive.

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When I was a lot younger, I used to look on The Union at work as a something akin to a nuclear warhead - its very existence stopped a lot of nonsense even getting started. There were things the bosses would like to have done but the presence of a union acted as an effective deterrent to their muddle-headed nonsense. I think what had set me thinking this way was an incident which happened a few weeks after I started as an office boy at the Glasgow Herald. One of my duties was to file a bunch of newspapers on some hangers dangling at waist-height. This involved working on my knees. When one of my knees started to hurt badly, I didn't immediately make the connection. But eventually, I had to see a doctor. I had a case of prepatellar bursitus: better known as housemaid's knee, though at the time Glasgow Herald copyboys and coal miners were the most likely workers in Scotland to go down with it, there being very few housemaids around. Anyway, I had to take a few days off work. A week or two later, those days were docked from my pay. It was explained to me that as a new employee, I was not entitled to sick pay. I decided to keep my mouth shut. Any employer that could inflict an industrial injury and then dock someone's pay for taking time off to recover from it was capable of anything. I wanted to keep my job. Now, decades later, it can be told. But I cannot help feeling that if I had been in the union, the management wouldn't have dreamed of docking my pay. 

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These days people move around more. A couple of generations ago there were people who had never strayed more than 20 miles from where they were born. And before television, all people had were the songs and stories of their families and neighbours to keep them entertained. Though, how much time and energy they had left for entertainment at the end of the soul-destroying, back-breaking, drudgery that many had to endure during their working day is debatable. Anyway, the point is many of the stories and songs helped people to know the history of their neighbourhood. And that history helped engender a sense of community. The people who organised the Scottish new towns in the 1950s and 60s seem to have been aware of this. East Kilbride, for instance, had a lot of people from Glasgow settled there and very few residents whose families had lived there for generations. And a lot of the incomers were Catholic. One of the few times folk from East Kilbride featured in Scottish history was when a strong contingent of men from the village showed up at the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679.  They fought against the forces of the Crown under a Covenanter banner. That banner used to be on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, and may still be there for all I know. The little Catholic children in 1960s East Kilbride were encouraged to take pride in those Covenanters who stood up, like all good Scots should, for what they believe in.  What the little Catholic children were not told was that if they had ever met one of those Covenanters, things might not have turned out well for them. Those Covenanters may well have run them through with a 14 foot pike and waved their little bodies in the air behind that battle flag hanging at the Kelvingrove. But in the minds of those 1960s social pioneers creating community spirit through history was more important. Indeed, sometimes it is better to forget bits of the story and be happy than remember the whole thing and be sad. History is flexible that way.

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OK, yet another whinge. I'm getting fed up with so-called journalists who automatically assume if they don't know something; then it will be news to everyone. A couple of years ago some stupid radio presenter spent five minutes telling listeners what Diego Garcia was not. She assumed that no-one knew it was an island in the Indian Ocean which the British lease to the Americans for an airbase. She told us that it was not a brand of exotic liqueur and several other things it was not: blah, blah, blah, blah. Boring and time wasting for anyone who knew it was an island. Even worse, in the programme teaser before the hourly news the presenter had told listeners that the eviction of the population of the island of Diego Garcia would be discussed. Not only did she believe her audience was ignorant but it was also composed of people with no short-term memory.  Can we not go back to the days when it was assumed that the listener/viewer/reader had some intelligence and did not appreciate being patronized?

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I can't help feeling that the Scots don't pay enough attention to what happens in Ireland, the Republic of Ireland that is. Sadly, too many Scots are convinced they know a lot about Northern Ireland. Anyway, back to the Republic, or as is sometimes confusingly referred to "The South": Ballyhillin in County Donegal is further north than anywhere in Northern Ireland. Anyway, again, when the Scots consider breaking away from the United Kingdom they don't seem to think it worthwhile looking hard at how things have turned out in the Republic of Ireland, formerly and briefly the Irish Free State, in the past just under 100 years. The two countries have a lot in common, some parts more than others, and probably the same kind of people who run Ireland would end up running an independent Scotland. Just a thought. Something to think about. Would that, could that, be worse than what we have now?

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Apparently, according to the BBC World Service, the shortage of marriageable men at the end of the First World War meant that women turned to the arts and politics to fulfil themselves. What women were these? Certainly, the arts or politics were hardly an option for working class girls and women. But this is the BBC. History is nearly always focused on what the bourgeois and upper-middle classes were up to. In a 10 minute item, there was one mention of working class women. There as also one mention of lesbians, another supposed outcome of the shortage of men to marry. The item was also flawed because it suggested that the war had deprived something like three-quarters of a million women of men to marry. The problem with that many of the dead were already married and left widows and tiny children behind. It is doubtful if those widows had time to dabble in the arts or politics. Survival in the rural and urban slums of Britain used up most of their energy. The widow's pension was pitiable, unless the dead man had been an officer. There was no doubt some surge in the number of women who could devote themselves to politics and the arts in the 1920s and 30s. But they were a tiny minority drawn from the already privileged; not the widespread social phenomenon suggested by the BBC. The BBC every day becomes more and more of a live broadcast of Chelsea dinner party.

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It must be tough being a spokesperson for one of these pressure groups which relies on donations from the public. The kind of folk who donate often do it because they feel very strongly about an issue or a cause. This can mean that the spokespeople for these pressure groups often feel they have to take an uncompromising and at times even extreme standpoint. Commonsense and moderation often seems to take back-seat to hardline criticism of attempts to accommodate the campaign's aims. Moderates seldom dig deep into their pockets to support causes. Spokespeople prepared to welcome moderate progress seldom satisfy the demands of the small group who contribute the bulk of their pay packet. The same spokespeople also face the all common breed of journalists who have written the story in their heads before they make a single phone call. This type of journalist wants an outraged condemnation from the campaign group of any move by the "other side". Conflict, not compromise is what makes the story for them. And any spokesman who wants to get the name of their organisation into the media better provide it. Publicity is the lifeblood of most of the campaign groups which rely on donations. The prized quote in the media, supposed to balance the story, is often awarded to the spokesperson who makes the most extreme and uncompromising pronouncement. It is a brave spokesperson who urges a commonsense and moderate standpoint in response to a media request for a comment.   

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I recently finished reading a book which had something like five pages of author's acknowlegements. Getting a book into print is seldom a solo effort. There are certainly some people who go above and beyond, and possibly deserve some extra recognition. But five pages would seem to be taking it too far. This author stopped just short of thanking his primary school dinner lady. Nearly everyone the author went to university with got a mention. I wasn't clear how they had contributed to the book in question. But I could see how they might contribute to his future career. In fact, a lot of people named in the acknowledgements might come in useful at some future date. And that was surely what this exercise in excessive gratitude was all about. Most people like to see a favourable mention of themselves in print. Author acknowlegements are becoming more and more like Hollywood Oscar acceptance speeches. Such cynical careerism must erode the value of the thanks supposedly being expressed.

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I hate it when this happens. Most of you will not have read what I am apologising for. And very few will care. But when I get something wrong, I like to put the record straight. In my blog Second Flodden I said that General Ian Hamilton had sneered at the 8th Battalion of the Scottish Rifles as being from "the lowest slums of Glasgow" shortly before it was almost wiped out at the Battle of Gully Ravine on 28th June 1915. It was in fact Major General Granville Egerton, commander of the 52d Lowland Division, who denigrated the battalion before adding that it was "well officered and will fight well". I say "denigrated" because the inference is that those from the bottom of the economic scale cannot be expected or trusted to fight well. We can't all be born with silver spoons in our mouths. I've said before that I get really annoyed when it turns out that many people, particularly Americans, when they refer to the Lost Generation from the First World War are talking about the officers. The rush to volunteer to fight the Kaiser in 1914 attracted many of Britain's brightest and best from all sectors of society. That was why we had conscription in World War Two.  It realised too late during the First that most of the talented and skilled men in the country had volunteered for military service and there were very few good men left behind to work in crucial war industries. Anyway, so, apologies to Sir Ian Hamilton, of the Gordon Highlanders, and a big "boo" to Granville Egerton of the Seaforth Highlanders. 

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I first encountered war journalists en-masse in 1999 and I was not impressed. Along with Brendan Dlouhy, a photographer colleague from the Edmonton Sun, I'd just arrived in Macedonia, where Canadian troops were mustering as part of a NATO force planning to go into Kosovo. No sooner had we arrived at the Canadian base than we were told the move into Kosovo was happening next morning and we had turn around and return to Skopje to get some NATO press accreditation. We arrived at the hotel which served as the NATO media centre to find a long long line of mainly men waiting to be issued with NATO press IDs. Not only was the line-up mainly male but in my memory a lot of them seemed to wearing sleeveless multi-pocketed vests and the latest boutique suede Australian ankle boots. Looking back, I think my memory has exaggerated the uniformity of the costume. But what I'm certain of is that many of them seemed to know each other. And that was why the line was hardly advancing. Guys kept joining "friends" in amongst the gaggles of journalists lined up ahead of us. I was a newcomer and jet-lagged. What I really wanted to do was grab some of these ignorant bastards and get them to join the queue properly - at the back. But, I didn't. After a couple of hours Brendan and I had moved about seven feet forward in a line that stretched, seemingly, to the far horizon. Then a saviour appeared in British camouflage. A solidly built and moustached British Warrant Officer climbed onto a table. He announced in a thick Brummie accent that he would personally break the legs of the next person to cut into the line. After hours the apparently stagnant line finally began to move forward at a fair clip. Twenty minutes later we had our ID cards. All it took was one decent bloke, a British Sergeant Major.

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Is it just sloppiness or something more sinister that the Scots contribution to Britain is being air-brushed out on the wireless? I recently heard a BBC programme about the ground-breaking Somersett court case in which Lord Mansfield ruled in 1772 that slavery could not be enforced in England. The Lord Mansfield on the radio spoke like a stereotypical English judge. But I happen to know Mansfield was born and educated in Perthshire. Of course, we have no recording of Lord Mansfield speaking. But it turns out his Scottish accent was so thick when he enrolled to study law in England that the clerk recorded his place of birth as Bath rather than Perth. I somehow doubt that he sounded like your typical English Law Lord. We do have recordings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking. I was surprised to find that even in the 1930s he still retained a distinct Scottish accent. And yet television and radio almost always have him speaking like Nigel Bruce playing Doctor Watson in the old Sherlock Holmes movies. As I say, sloppy research? Here in Canada I heard a dramatised version of the Seven Oaks Massacre in 1817, on the site of present-day Winnipeg. Most of the main characters involved in the real life event were Scots. But the Canadian actors thought "Brits" and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. I did some checking. Lord Selkirk, who had sent the Highland settlers to what is now Manitoba, was educated in England, so he probably did have an English accent. Ironically, the only Scots accent was a attributed to a character who though of Highland descent was born and raised in the United States. As I say, it is hard to know how someone who lived before technology was capable of recording the human voice actually spoke. But a little research might give some good pointers and avoid the impression that the man who effectively outlawed slavery in England was an English toff. 

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