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My book royalty statements for the last six months of 2020 have just arrived. Oddly, last week I did a search for pirated free downloads of my books. It's pretty easy to spot them, because with very rare exceptions free downloads of my books are pirated. The only legitimate free downloads are part of very occasional and clearly identified promotions by reputable, well known, commercial  ebook retailers. Every other free download is theft from me. Those who are tempted by the offer of an iffy free download should think twice. The same people who take the bread from my mouth are almost certainly not above using the bait of a free book  download to put malicious software on folk's computers. Personally, I wouldn't risk it.

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A long long time ago in a land far away there was a council office. Late one evening police surrounded the office building.  They took away two senior council officials,  who both claimed to be working late. But one of them was actually making obscene phone calls to a call box in The Big City. One of the council guys was a more than a little creepy and odd. The other was very much the life and soul of the party. You can guess which was the obscene caller. He had been caught as a teenager doing much the same thing. But as he came from a nice middle class family, the matter was not pursued and he didn't get the help it turns out he needed. It was never revealed what the guy said but it was so worrying and such a concern that the Big City police went to all the trouble of tracing all incoming calls to the phone box. By the way, you got that it wasn't the creepy guy who was arrested? 

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It worries me when the politicians seriously consider allowing criminal conviction in some cases on a reduced standard of evidence. In Scotland, there has to be some corroboration, two fingers of guilt pointing at the accused. That can be a combination of eyewitness, forensic evidence or even a confession. That's why there used to be fewer wrongful convictions in Scotland than in England and Wales where forced,or even fake, confessions or one lying, or perhaps foolish, eyewitness could send someone to the gallows. Of course, some crimes are notorious for lack of sources of corroboration. But accusation alone should never result in conviction. That's harsh, I know, but if someone tells you Life is fair, they are lying. Everyday people get away with terrible things because of a lack of corrobated evidence or even witnesses who refuse to testify.

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One of the notable aspects of the mid 2000s was the spate of books from British soldiers who fought in the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a brief period the great  reading public was interested in what working class blokes had to say. I'm thinking of course about the accounts from rank and file members of members of the British Army. Though that said, some officer memoirs were very worth reading. And many of the ghost written "squaddie-speak" accounts can also safely be consigned to the rubbish bin. But there was a core of books that truly spoke to how ordinary working class chaps saw things. From  all the books published annually in the United Kingdom, very few come from a working class point of view. One of the best glimpses of how normal people lived in the 1950s and early 1960s appeared in a book of interviews with National Servicemen which included what they did in the hours before they left civilian life. Most of those half-decent breakfast for two  years accounts made for grim reading.

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Cannabis use has been legal now for a couple of years in Canada. The world did not collapse and life for most hardly changed at all. The one good thing about the legalisation was that people could no longer drone on about the need for pot to be legalised. They were so boring that they actually made the case against legalisation due to the evidence their verbal diarrhorea  provided that cannabis use did in fact cause mental impairment.

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Most people don't think newspaper reports reflect the reality of events they have first hand knowledge of. I used to say that if seven people see a road accident they will all give different accounts of what they saw to the police, but none of them is deliberately lying. But that said, sometimes you have to wonder about how much reliance to put on eyewitnesses. Years ago one of my pals' big brothers drove into the back of another car on at some traffic lights on a cobbled stretch of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The brother was clean cut and well spoken. An prim old lady, possibly from Morningside, who saw the crash told the police that the brother had been rear ended himself and that was why he hit the car stopped at the lights. The car which she alleged was responsible was an old banger driven by a grungy looking hippy type. Luckily for the hippy, the  brother readily admitted to the police that he was blame.

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I heard the German Goverment's English Language radio station Deutsche Weller telling the world that the British invented concentration camps. Couple of problems with that. Firstly, the British did not invent concentration camps: they stole the idea during the 1899-1902 South African War from the Spanish who were using them in Cuba as part of an counter insurgency campaign. And what else were the Indian reservations in the United States if not concentration camps, which the numerous Americans at Deutsche Welle should have known. Secondly, the Germans should be very careful when they mention  Concentration Camps point to ensure they point out that they are not the same thing as the deliberate murder facilities they created during the Second World War. The British Empire was responsible for many terrible deeds but inventing concentration camps is not one of them. Maybe that's why I wasn't surprised when minutes later in the same broadcast to hear that Glasgow is in the Scottish Highlands. Was this something Hitler planned to arrange following a successful invasion of the UK? 

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A couple of years ago I got the television version of Denise Mina's Field of Blood out of the local library. It turned out to be a bit spooky. It was set in the early 1980s, the lead character was a young "copy boy"on a Glasgow newspaper who walked to work every day. The lead character wanted to be a journalist. OK, the lead character was a girl who lived at home and I was guy who spent half his weekly wage on rent in Glasgow. But the parallels were striking. Mina's fictional character got to become a reporter on the paper. In real life, my immediate bosses wanted to promote me from copy boy to reporter. But then a new National Union of Journalists chapel guy arrived on the scene and the whole thing fell through. I think there was fear that as a trainee/probationary journalist I wouldn't be paid as much as the Glasgow Herald's real journalists and management would somehow use me as a Trojan Horse; the thin end of the wedge in some cunning scheme to reduce the editorial wage bill.

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Just after I quit the Edmonton Sun a former colleague who lived a couple of streets away from my place asked me to keep an eye on his house while the family went on a two week holiday in Nova Scotia. This included feeding the cat. He also told me to treat the house as my own and watch any of his DVDs that I fancied seeing. He had a box set called the Ealing Comedies. They were all classics - Whisky Galore, the Titfield Thunderbolt, Run for Your Money, Passport to Pimlico, and The Maggie. Every one pretty much a gem. I would have loved my own copy of the box set. But with just quitting my job, I was in a period of financial readjustment. It would have to wait. The thing is I have never seen five films packaged in a single box set again. Oh, you get them all in box sets. But they are sprinkled across several box sets containing less gem- like offerings. No DVD compiler has never made the mistake again of putting nearly all the Ealing keepers in one affordable box set.

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Ten years ago the Egyptian Government was driven from power by mass protest. Radio coverage of those events a decade ago seemed to consist of trying a random series of cellphone numbers until they got someone at the protests and then interviewing them. The "protestors" they got through to we're basically the Cairo version of California's Valley Girls. Hardly the Voice of a Nation. But as so many of the journalists come from their own nation's privileged classes, this approach kept them within their own Comfort Zone. That's why they were so surprised by the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent, by Egyptian standards, democratic election. And why they failed to forsee the US-backed military coup that overthrew the Brotherhood. And yet much of the 10th anniversary radio  coverage of the revolution seemed to consist of reinterviewing the Valley Girls and their privileged English speaking ilk. 

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I remember at primary school bring mortified by an accusation of plagiarism. I think it would have been in Primary Four or Five or Six. We were asked to come up with a slogan for British Rail. Obvious; Let the Train Take the Strain. Apparently, a little too obvious. British Rail had already used it. The teacher accused me in front of the whole class of plagiarism. The thing is, I wouldn't be stupid enough to try to deliberately pass off such a well known slogan as my own work. To me it was obvious. Now whether I'd heard the phrase and it had lodged in my subconscious is another question. But to humiliate me in front of my classmates was not Scottish Teaching's finest moment. 

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When I first came to Canada just over 20 years ago people would ask how Scotland was governed. One of the reasons I came to Canada was that its  federal system meant I had more say in how I was ruled than I did back in Scotland. Basically, a lot of the powers exercised by the Scottish Office, in matters such as health, education and policing, were provincial government responsibilities in Canada. And the provincial government was democratically elected. In Scotland the Scottish Office was a colonial administration, taking its orders directly from Westminster. I would say, imagine Alberta had no Legislature, just a bunch of guys appointed by the Feds in Ottawa and you've pretty much got how Scotland is run.  Of course, I left before Devolution but I had a pretty good idea that thon Tony Blair would not deliver what we thought he'd promised. Time will tell how that story ends. 

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I came across a description of Scottish troops in the First World War as representing "The Forth Dominion". The context was a discussion of how by 1918 the shock forces of the British Empire on the Western Front came mainly from the then dominions of Canada and Australia. I can't remember which was Third Dominion, either New Zealand or South Africa. The Scots produced four infantry divisions during the war. Three, the 9th, 15th, and the 51st, served entirely on the Western Front while the fourth, the 52nd fought at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and ended the war on the Western Front. The most famous, now, was the 51st, but it wasn't long referred to as Harper's Duds for no reason. Its fighting record was spotty, though poor performances at Arras and Cambrai were down to poor leadership rather than the quality of the rank and file. And there were probably enough Scottish battalions dotted around the British Army's other divisions to form a fifth of their own. Of course Scotland was not a dominion. It had a colonial administration in the form of the Scottish Office. The fact that the dominion governments in Canada and Australia were keen to have all their soldiers serve together gave their troops a stability and cohesion which the Scottish divisions lacked as they were frequently switched from Corps to Corps. Fewer Scottish lives may have been squandered if Scotland had indeed been The Fourth Dominion.

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Years ago, it seems like a million years ago but that can't be right, I won a couple of pub prize draws. I think both were from the Haugh Bar in Inverness; some whisky tumblers and two free Return trips to anywhere in the UK on British Rail. I have a bizarre belief that things happen in threes. Actually, I have a lot of bizarre beliefs and superstitions. Anyway, things happen in threes. So, I decided to be very very selective when it came to entering prize draws. And, yes, you guessed it; I'm still waiting for that third draw with the perfect prize. There's may be a lesson there for somebody. 

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I was looking recently at some old British Army recruiting posters dating back to around the First World war. What struck me was how many featured footballers or guys playing football. Yesterday I spotted one that looked like it dated from the between the World Wars for the Highland Light Infantry which stressed its proud record on both the battlefield and sports field. I would be very surprised if soldiers really spent as much time kicking a ball around as the recruiting posters suggested. Right up until at least the late 1950s football players appear to have featured a lot in recruitment posters. The Royal Regiment of Scotland seems to have opted for a variation on the theme in one reasonably recent poster by featuring shinty players. 

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Well, drumroll time. And not just to mark the first entry of 2021. No, it's time to announce the 2020 Book of the Year. You know,  I'm beginning to wonder if the final winner in any given year isn't often the last book to make it onto the short list. A bit like the person whose final decision or opinion is always what the last person they spoke to said. I hope not. I'd like to think that the main criteria remains "Wow,  I wish I was good enough to have written that one". I like to think you are getting a better deal out of Book Briefing than you get from most reviews. I'm not sucking up to publishers in the hope of a constant supply of free books or the chance of some publicity for myself with a pithy endorsement that they can use on the back cover of their latest paperback. Nor do I know enough writers to be worried about losing friends or contacts by expressing an honest appreciation or to get caught up in a "You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours" scenario. Nope, I tell you what I really think. Trust me, that's more than most book reviewers do. Oh, hit this link if you want to know the winner of the  2020 Book of the Year 

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It's Christmas. Years go when I worked in Newcastle I bought an old window display short wave radio from a shop on an alley just off the Groat Market. It was slightly sun damaged, so I got it for a good price. Shortwave was great fun; reception depended heavily on weather and atmospheric conditions. Location was also important, the grassy bank at Jesmond Dene was the best spot to pick up weird stuff from all over the world. Then several  years ago I blew my Christmas bonus on a substantial looking new shortwave radio. There were two things I didn't see coming. The Internet killed off many of the shortwave broadcasters altogether or they shut down their transmitters in favour of an online presence. So, far fewer stations out there. Then some, let's say eccentric, builders put up a massive block of flats next door which seems to block or absorb most shortwave transmissions; All except, strangely, the American bible punchers. But basically Condo Killed the (Shortwave) Radio Star. 

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I was sad to hear that the members of the  Australian Special Air Service Regiment are believed to have murdered Afghan civilians and Taliban prisoners as part of an insane initiation process. When I was in Afghanistan I travelled with members of the Ozzie special forces and found them to be very good blokes. At Kandahar Airport they lived next door. Their selection process does not put an emphasis on head down tramping for hours across the Ozzie version of the Brecon Beacons during the selection process. But somehow it would appear the SASR has also managed to lose its way. Obviously a special watch needs to kept on special forces. By the way it was only when I saw the Maori troopers that I worked out who the folk in the British cammo with Austrian Steyr rifles at Kandahar were. 

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I was reading a book by an American university professor. He quoted a letter or memoir written by an Oxford graduate. I found it very hard to believe that in the early 20th Century a British university man would use American spellings. But there they were, between the quotation marks. Surely the quote marks mean that's what the guy actually wrote? Only it wasn't. This is like giving a Briton a North American accent. By the way,  the Americans are notorious for rewriting history to include themselves when the reality is far different. Take the film The Great Escape. In fact not a single American escaped. I can't remember what nationality the Charles Bronson character was supposed to be but the real Tunnel King was a Canadian mining engineer called Wally Floody. Or what about U571 in which Americans capture a German enigma code machine? Nope, the closest real life event involved the Royal Navy. There was supposed to a film about Colditz in which ingenious Americans come up with an amazing wartime escape plan. I have a feeling no Americans were held by the Germans at Colditz.

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 Governments sometimes have an uneasy relationship with their publicly financed broadcaster. This is especially true in countries where the owners of the private broadcasters already toe the governing party line. The answer is to appoint an idiot to run the state broadcaster. The appointee need not been be a political fellow traveller, only the degree of stupidity is important.  It seems to be a given that an idiot will appoint other idiots and eventually the state broadcaster will be a bad joke. So, no- one will make too much of a fuss, because so few are still listening or watching, when the death of a thousand budget cuts really gets underway. And the further the cuts lead to even worse service, which means even fewer folk will shed a tear when the state broadcaster is eventually shut down, or as good as. As the Chinese say, A Fish Rots From the Head.

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