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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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There's a lot a talk of talk about systemic racism these days. It means different things to different people. And for many it means whatever they want it mean, depending on which axe they want to grind. I heard a Canadian lawyer blame the lack of non-white senior judges on systemic racism. When asked to he explain, he said few non-white kids came from families which had been in the legal profession for three generations. I'd venture that few working class kids of any skin colour get the  kind of hand up in the profession that three generations makes possible. Some well intentioned boob may decide to accelerate the promotion to the Bench  of non-white lawyers, failing to see the root of the problem is class rather than  based. In turn white working class kids might feel resentful at the career preference being shown to contemporaries based purely on skin tone. A person only has to look at the modern USA to see what what white working class resentment can lead to. Bosses  encouraging racism  has long been a way to split the working class.

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Thanks to all who let me know that most of the reviews in Book Briefing had vanished. The technical issue responsible has, I hope, been resolved. The plan now is to restore the more than 500 reviews which were lost. I still have all the draft versions. The challenge is to edit them all again. That might take a while, so I have to ask for your patience. I think it's worth reposting the reviews as many of the books were published long before the Internet became popular. At worst, some of the reviews may save you wasting money. 

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I heard a woman presenter on Canada's state funded radio talking about how proud she was of a relative who fought in the First World War as part of some Remembrance Day programming. According to her he served with the 114th Division. What that says to me is that she was so interested and proud of the guy that she could not be bothered to even find out which unit he served with. There was no Canadian 114th Division. There was a 114 th Battalion. Slip of the tongue? This woman is supposed to be a professional. Though I suspect she was hired by an organization in which skin tone is far more important than competence. And a slip of the tongue is easily corrected in a programme that is recorded, that is if the presenter really cares about the subject matter.

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The Soviet Red Army seldom gets the credit in the West it deserves for its part in winning the Second World War. The Soviets took on the vast bulk of the Germany Army and defeated it. Part of the reason for the lack of credit was down to Western historians having little access to Soviet records. But another factor was self- serving German Generals who succeeded in convincing their new American masters that they had consistently outfought and outthought the Red Army throughout the war but had been overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. And even then, they would still have won but for Hitler's interference. The Americans quickly realised that the next major war after 1945 was likely to be against the Soviet Union and were keen to pick brains of men who had fought against the Red Army. The German Generals were hardly going to admit they were ever out- foxed by the Soviets; they loved being feted by the Yanks and wooed too much. And in some cases their supposed usefulness was all that stood between them and the hangman's noose for war crimes. This led to a dangerous under-estimation of the Soviet Generals which could have costed NATO dearly if there had actually been war.

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Recently I was listening to Germany's English- language international service and was informed that people were "protesting the efficiency" of the railway service. So, were they complaining that the local railway was too efficient? Or perhaps they were angry about inefficiency? But why should I have to scratch my head? A big part of the problem  is North American usage. People do not protest in favour or against something. They simply protest and you have to guess whether they are for or against whatever they are protesting about. Sadly, it's not just the Germans who employ Americans or people who learned their English from Americans. I've heard some BBC people in their monkey-see monkey-do way talking about people protesting something. Using the word "demonstrate" without a for or against doesn't help much either. Something should be done.

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I recently came across a pile of letters. It would appear that I used to ask newspaper editors for feedback after an unsuccessful job interview with them. A surprising number gave it. Some of what the editors said was valid and in a number of cases there was something I could do to remedy the shortcoming they highlighted. In other cases the criticism was unjustified but the fault lay with me because I had failed to dispel whatever reservation the editor had. And in a couple of cases the editor was obviously barking mad and I could comfort myself with the realisation that I'd just had a close escape. 

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I spent a morning down at the local park last weekend. It has two football fields and there seemed to be some kind of schoolgirl training session going on. Here in Canada, football, or "soccer" as they call it, is more of a girls' game. Anyway, what struck me was how many repetitive drills the girls had to do. At least two thirds of the training session was taken up by these drills. Now, Canadian sports teams love their drills. But I couldn't help wondering if actually playing the game might not be a better vehicle for skills development. And there is little point being able to chest the ball directly onto your boot if you have no sense of player positioning. I would also suggest that playing is more fun than repetitive drills.

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Years ago I walked along the Scottish-English border with a pal from school. Years later that pal 's only son was kidnapped and murdered by a known sex offender, but that's another story. I know our border walk began at Coldstream and we finished up at Jedburgh but I can't remember much about our route. What I do remember were the accents of the farmers we met. Right on the border line we were left in no doubt which country the farmer identified with. Further back from the border the accents were less pronounced though still identifiably Scottish or Northumbrian. There must be a PhD waiting for whoever can explain why the accents were so broad along the boundary. 

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When I was about 10 years old my grandad offered to teach me to play cards. I wasn't much interested. Most card games were boring. An older person now, I realise what he was really offering was to teach me how to cheat at cards. I suspect that the reason he made the offer when I was ten was that he knew he was already losing the dexterity in his fingers necessary to manipulate the cards. He certainly knew his way his way around a pack of cards. He'd spent more than decade in the British Army between the world wars and soldiers played a lot of cards in those years. What he wanted me to learn would have set me up for life, providing I didn't get caught. 

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Apparently, at the close of the First World War of the British officers demobilised something like 40% of them were judged to be working or lower middle class. I wonder if in our supposedly more meritocratic age whether the present officer corps shows the same level of job opportunity. I doubt if it even comes close. In 1918 there was a war on. There was a real job to do and not getting it done could have proved very costly. So, merit rather than parental wealth became an a very important criteria. But the British Army breathed a sigh of relief in  1918 and got back to "proper soldiering". It believed it had nothing at all to learn from the conflict. It therefore took until late 1942, and many would argue even later, before the army was fit for purpose. The Germans on the other hand not only learned from their experience during the First World War but from the victorious British Empire forces. The result was a very close run thing in 1940. 

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