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Scotsman Columns

Various columns from The Scotsman. Copyright belongs to The Scotsman Publications. Click the blue links where applicable to read the original web version of the articles

A Sign of the Times … from The Scotsman

A SENSE of place is an ineffable thing, a compass whose needle pulls you in different directions. Whenever I return to my hometown, what I see is a matter of perspective. From afar, Inverclyde’s panorama makes for an enchanting composition as the rolling hills of Argyll cusp the Clyde estuary. At this time of year, when winter sifts her icing sugar over the summits of Tom na h-Airidh and Ben Bowie, you could wish to be nowhere else.

As the rural collides with the urban, the foreground gives up its scarred beauty grudgingly. The domed towers and Doric porticos of grand Neoclassical architecture stand sentinel over a waterfront pocked with office space and broad smears of brownfield. The water is where everything flows. Its quays and harboursides once bustled with shipments of lace, tobacco, rum and raw cane sugar. Come the age of industry, they rang to the din of shipyards where men forged ironclad colossuses and something else; something intangible.

Nowadays, there is a steady tide of freight and ocean liners, but the riverbanks thrum to a perfunctory rhythm, synchronised by call centres, budget hotels, mail-order warehouses and drive-thru fast food chains. Such occupants bring much-needed employment, but they feel transient, interlopers in a world of workmanship. In years to come, no man will sing their elegies.

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Finding permanence is not easy, but Chris Jewell, the director of Discover Inverclyde, the region’s tourism body, believes he has an answer. The organisation is proposing a new feature that is as resourceful as it is improbable. The gist: to emulate the most enduring symbol of the American film industry by erecting their own version of the Hollywood sign, spelling out the name of
G-R-E-E-N-O-C-K for all to see on dun-coloured moorland.

Until now, the only vague commonality between the two places has been Deborah Kerr, that graceful daughter of Helensburgh who was a stalwart of cinema’s golden age. Presumably Mr Jewell hopes for further fillips by “putting Inverclyde on the map”. Perhaps, having grown tired of the vista over Lake Como, George Clooney will snap up a wee pied-à-terre in Port Glasgow; wide-eyed starlets will flock from Largs on the McGills 906 in search of fame and fortune; Agnes, the Horseshoe Bar’s stern custodian, will host Oscar parties with egg sandwich platters.

Discover Inverclyde’s dreams of renown are already bearing fruit. Its proposal has been roundly and rightly mocked among Greenock’s townsfolk, who see it as the kind of rough-hewn and eccentric notion that might have been brainstormed by the elected representatives of Absolutely’s Stoneybridge Town Council. Yet amid the peals of laughter, there is a part of me that empathises with what they are fumbling awkwardly towards.

I was born in Greenock in 1979, a year when Benny Rooney’s Morton once straddled the summit of the old Premier League and Scott Lithgow, formerly the world’s biggest privately owned shipbuilding firm, still employed 12,600 men, among them my grandfather, Jimmy. Life on the Tail O’ The Bank was not perfect – Peter McDougall’s Just A Boy’s Game was broadcast the same year by the BBC – but there was a purpose and energy.

Growing up in Inverclyde in the 1980s and 1990s was to bear witness to the dismantlement of the fabric that gave the area its identity. Jimmy would take me fishing for flounders on the banks of Custom House Quay, where his Golden Virginia would mix with the acrid stench of glue blowing downwind from Poynters bone factory on Dellingburn Street. Along the shore, the JCBs moved in.

After he died, I remember wishing he was beside me as I watched the demolition of Lithgow’s Goliath crane, a 267 foot high leviathan which made the high-rise flats look like dominoes. It took 50 kilos of explosives and two attempts before its vast structure would yield, leaving a snarl of steel and memories. I grieved for a life I never knew, but the emotion was fleeting. I grew to resent the place and the changes enforced upon it.

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It was 1997, the year I left for university, heeding the advice of elders. “You’re best out of this place, son,” came the refrain. “There’s nothing for you here.” Most of my generation concurred. In 1975, nearly 106,000 people called Inverclyde home. Today the figure stands at 81,000. The General Register Office for Scotland estimates that, by 2035, the population will slump to 66,000. It is an outflow with many factors, not least an unemployment rate that soars above the national average and the aftershocks of a post-industrial hangover which continues to inflict a ruinous legacy; even now, the average life expectancy of a boy born on the lower Clyde is 73, an ignominious statistic only Glasgow can eclipse. Whatever the causes, it seems they stem from one source – that sense of place that has been lost in the journey to renewal.

A Hollywood sign will not restore that, nor will it summon an upsurge in civic pride. Among the ghosts, there are better monuments to speak up, such as the handsome Titan cantilever crane which bestrides the red-bricked row of Sugar Sheds. Maybe, though, the only way to forge a future is to stop yearning for what has gone and accept the ebb and flow that both preserves the place you are from and alters it. The waterfront is now home to a thriving arts scene and a college campus that should be the envy of every student in Scotland.

Where once I begrudged the metamorphosis that has taken grip of my hometown, there is now an awkward and abiding love. I still anchor myself in memories, although I have come to appreciate I was remembering not my own past, but the echoes of Jimmy and others who went before. Greenock’s compass can cause you to lose yourself in a land of myth and romance. Look up every now and again and you see that while the subject changes, the picture remains the same.

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The Secret of Parenthood … from The Scotsman

IT is sometime either side of 4am, when even the clock face on the kitchen wall looks surprised to have company. The cool slivers of first light pry through the blinds, revealing just how much of breakfast ended up on the floor. You beam as podgy hands smear the rest across the tablecloth. This is my favourite time of the day. These are the hours that belong to us.

When the night’s soundtrack has faded and the dawn chorus is yet to strike up, an inexhaustible city yields to a fleeting repose in which we are the only interlopers. All around is still and silent, save for you at its centre, laughing and bobbing and tugging at honey-blonde tufts tangled with clods of cold porridge, a dynamo intent on jolting the world’s machinery back to motion.

These little lulls are the least expected of your abundant gifts. On Friday, we will celebrate your first birthday, a milestone in our fledgling adventure. From the earliest shuffling crawl to the look of euphoric bewilderment which greeted your first taste of food – an apple stewed to within an inch of its life – the others that have come and gone are as vivid as they were first time around.

Cumulatively, these memories plot the course of our journey’s beginning and, by delineating each step taken, guard against the blurring of days into weeks. In years to come, when we are tourists to our misremembered past, the permanence of these signposts will lead the way through uncertain echoes.

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But as the latest milestone draws nearer, I have begun to doubt whether this map might prove an unreliable guide, a fragmentary sketch dotted with landmarks, yet injudicious in its detail. Its topography leaves the lulls uncharted, showing a world extraneous to the one we know, where breakfasts, bathtimes and countless other incidental routines are those most cherished.

These lingering transits which usher night into day are moveable feasts, filled heedlessly by whatever fancies comes our way. Yesterday, you left a trail of toast crumbs from the kitchen to the books piled by the coffee table. Buttery fingers plucked a spine from the stack and flipped the cover back and forth, its picture of a cat greeted anew each time by a gentle coo.

The day before, the crumbs reached only as far as the hall, where each of us clutched a plastic maraca and, like sirens luring distant boats to our den, drowned out the warm background burr of the 5:20am shipping forecast with our shrill rattle.

There are mornings where we sit and sing along to Baby TV, a satellite channel comparable to being assaulted by a rainbow if exposed to its looped glut of sound and colour for anything longer than three minutes. Others mornings, mercifully few in number, have been hushed by illness, when those big blue eyes of yours lose a little of their lustre and, hunkered down in my lap, you drift gently back to sleep.

If the past year is a fog of exhaustion and sentiment, these are the hours that provide clarity. They are the punctuation between parenthood’s transformative flashpoints. They are the most precious because they are the easiest forgotten. They have shown me how parenthood confers an improbable esteem on ordinariness.

Perhaps it is not clarity, but anxiety. Of late, the months seem to gallop by without us in the saddle, stealing with them something imperceptible. Time is our most valuable currency and I give as fully of it as I can when I have never been busier, throwing myself headlong into a frenzy of work projects I relish one day and resent the next.

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Some evenings, you are on the cusp of sleep when I race manically through the door, my brow glazed after cantering up the close three steps at a time. Inside, your wonderful mother is waiting, your head lolling limply on her shoulder. I come near and press my nose against the towel-dried fuzz of your hair. I count as I breathe in deeply. Time plays its old tricks. An hour or two later, I exhale.

On the evenings I tear home in vain to find you are already down, I retrace your day through photographs, videos and the resonant stories of soft play and music, painting and picnics, rambling walks and restorative naps. I listen on intently and swell with pride and happiness at the magic of the everyday.

Yet there are times when neither emotion is sufficient to suppress an agitated greed just below the surface. It waits in hope for you to roll onto your stomach and awake crying, all so that I might be the silhouette that soothes you in the darkness. If a newfound selflessness is the most edifying bequest of starting a family, the neuroticism that follows not far behind is its most crippling.

When life is at its busiest, this ruinous influence lies dormant. Only at the weekends, when the days are unburdened by obligation and rich with possibility, does it rear its head. Just when we should be unhurried and at our most content, the freedom can feel debilitating. A nagging tension questions whether we are squandering its finite resources. It is a destructive force that cannot be sated. I know that now.

All that really matters in the time we have is that we spend it together. The year has brought good choices as well as bad and I know just as little now as I did at the start. The first flush of parenthood is a storm in which we are asked to flail gracefully, poised on the surface while thrashing against strange currents below. But I am still afloat. The strokes come easier now that I trust their rhythm.

It is sometime either side of 7am now. Outside, the city creaks awkwardly into life as a mellow light dapples the hall floorboards where you sit, toying with a bucket and ball. Behind the bedroom door, I hear your mother rousing. I take you by the hands and lift you onto your tiptoes. One small step at a time, we go to her, a father and daughter stumbling on our journey, a trail of crumbs in our wake.

Good morning, my darling Vaila.

A city out of step … from The Scotsman

THE cascade of steps at the summit of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street is the stage for Scotland’s greatest theatre. They are the habitat of buskers and shirkers, bankers and workers, a place to take pause from the urban bustle over a wild crayfish and rocket bloomer or a sausage supper, a realm in which predatory Glasgow bams in search of an audience for their improbable tales of woe know they will find easy prey and 20 pence for that fabled bus to East Kilbride.

Last week, Glasgow City Council’s planning committee approved the demolition of the steps, which hug the southern entrance to the Royal Concert Hall. A quarter century after their installation – part of a sweeping metamorphosis of Glasgow’s urban environment in its year as European City of Culture – they are to be replaced by a tubular glass atrium that is half neomodern budgie cage, half translucent pedal pin; a gateway to a £390 million vision that will expand the floorspace of the Buchanan Galleries shopping centre by 392,000 square metres.

The decision was greenlit in spite of the protestations of senior politicians and a petition to which more than 14,000 people put their name, pointing out that the steps are one of the few remaining places in the city centre when people can sit freely. Planning mandarins reasoned that from a townscape perspective, the steps are of “little value.” In the proscriptive, anal lexicon of their trade, that may be true, but the report also dismissed them as an “access route.” Its author would presumably categorise the Grand Canyon as a gap site or Machu Picchu as a hillock.

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What falls outside the remit of material planning considerations is the standing of the steps in the eyes of ordinary Glaswegians. Judged on architectural merit alone, the steps are of no great consequence, but the true value of a public realm feature is not its physical fabric, but the purpose it serves.

Those who have followed Gordon Matheson’s administration will not be surprised at this dissonance between the song it sings and the chorus of the people. From the ignominious folly of the shelved George Square revamp to the aborted proposal that would have raised Carlo Marochetti’s equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington beyond the reach of mischievous undergraduates, the authority’s disregard for how people interact with their city has blighted commendable initiatives such as its stance on the living wage.

The demise of the steps is borne of the council’s primary impulse: commercial space. You need only glance at the Glasgow Retail Prospectus, a glossy pamphlet produced by Invest Glasgow, the local authority’s inward investment team, to appreciate how the civic fathers believe shopping is the foundation of the city economy. Glasgow, it vaunts, is “the UK’s largest and most successful shopping location outside of London” boasting “prime and super prime shopping.”

Anyone who has strolled Buchanan Street’s tributary avenues of Sauchiehall Street and Argyle Street of late – the so-called Golden Z – might disagree. Discount stores, bookies and payday loan hustlers pepper characterless streetscapes where increasing numbers of long-established independent traders roll down the shutters for good. Indeed, amid the outcry over the fate of the steps, there has been a troubling lack of scrutiny of the enlargement plans for Buchanan Galleries, especially given £80m of public money has been ploughed into the scheme via a financial instrument known as Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), which allows councils to fund infrastructure projects by borrowing against future additional business rate income generated by the development; in short, the retailers must succeed.

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Although new shops will whet consumers’ appetites, research by Invest Glasgow suggests the owners of Buchanan Galleries – Land Securities, a London-headquartered commercial property firm – are swimming against the tide, with units lying vacant and footfall waning. There were 1,043,481 visitors in June 2014, compared to 1,226,897 twelve months previously and 1,272,159 in June 2012. The business strategy is also questionable in light of the redevelopment plans of competing emporiums like Braehead and Silverburn also have redevelopmment plans. The evolution of those shopping centres will colonise unheralded out of town land, the plans for Buchanan Galleries impact directly on the anatomy of Glasgow’s heart, continuing the pervasive trend that repackages the privatisation of public space in the guise of regeneration.

A few years ago, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the New York Times, lamented public spaces which are “not really public at all”. They are, he raged, “quasi-public, controlled by their landlords”. What faith can we place in the landlords of Buchanan Galleries when it comes to safeguarding the top of the street as a place to congregate, protest and idle? With FTSE 100 status and recent pre-tax profits of £1.1 billion, Land Securities has the capital to rip up the atrium blueprints and create a truly communal alternative, but does it have the will?

Two years ago, it lost a court battle with HMRC over a £60m tax bill. The firm had sold shares in one of its group companies to a Cayman Island subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, which inflated the value of the shares by pumping money into the subsidiary. Land Securities bought back the shares at the higher price, claiming they made a loss of £200m that could be used as a deduction against tax. The tribunal disallowed the loss and HMRC described the scheme as “flagrant tax avoidance”.

Who then, will stand up as Buchanan Street’s guardians? Only the councillors of Glasgow, once they realise their role is not that of catalysts, facilitators or brokers for commercial interests, but servants of the people. People Make Glasgow, we told the world during last summer’s Commonwealth Games. It is a mantra with more truth than most, but as scaffolding rises over sites we hold sacred, it rings increasingly hollow.

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Let Scotland give shelter … from The Scotsman

FOR close to half a century, the colossal structures of the Red Road flats have been a conspicuous presence on Glasgow’s jagged skyline, yet the shadows cast by their steel frames reach far enough to hide the most uncomfortable of truths.

This month, the notorious Brutalist tower blocks bade farewell to their final residents. It was a departure that went largely unheeded. Goodbyes to Petershill Drive were said in a variety of languages and in haste; when you are an asylum seeker in 21st century Britain, home is as transient a concept as it is complicated.

If it is a proud British tradition to tend to the lowly and comfort the afflicted, Westminster’s disdain for Glasgow’s most vulnerable inhabitants suggests it is no longer in vogue. In a city which owes its very identity and industry to the toil of immigrants, an invidious process of outsourcing is inflicting untold pain on those who are already victimised.

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Every horror story requires a chilling cast. In the sorry narrative of Glasgow’s asylum housing, the Home Office takes the lead role. Three years ago, it enlisted two redoubtable support acts: Serco, a global security group, and Orchard & Shipman, a property services firm. At the time, the choice of partners for the government COMPASS contract seemed anomalous. Serco had no experience in the asylum housing sector, while Orchard & Shipman was best known for its estate agency work selling oak beamed piles across the Thames Valley for seven-figure sums.

The contract, worth up to £1.7 billion UK-wide, sees the Home Office pay Serco £30.28 per day per claimant, for initial accommodation. The remittance falls to £11.71 per day per person for dispersed accommodation, used to house those deemed eligible. Only now is the folly of this scheme clear. Those seeking solace from conflict and strife are being forced to exist in lamentable housing conditions in an initiative which makes a mockery of the public purse.

Around 700 of the city’s 1,200 strong asylum housing portfolio are private properties, a number growing by the month as housing association stock becomes increasingly scarce. It is a trend that reaps handsome profits for private landlords, some of whom rent out scores of properties to Orchard & Shipman, making vast sums compared with what they would recoup in standard rentals.

Much of this private stock is to be found in places like Shettleston, scarred and stranded communities who struggle to help themselves let alone others. Little information is available about the quality of the stock or what, if any, stipulations are set out in lease agreements, but the stories from the ground are ominous.

In Ibrox, two Eritrean men were put up in a private flat with no heating or hot water; in another case, outlined in a Scottish Refugee Council report last year, a young mother with three-year-old twins and a baby was moved to a third-floor flat with no lift. Others say their properties had no locks on the doors, or that they were infested, or had leaking ceilings. Others said they were subjected to racist abuse in shared accommodation, or had their belongings confiscated. Some who made complaints – a minority given the omnipresent fear that speaking out will affect their claim – said they were met with hostility or abuse.

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With the Red Road chapter closed, there is doubt and suspicion over alternative dwellings for initial accommodation. Serco and Orchard & Shipman endured a backlash after proposing a backpackers’ hostel be used. Those plans have been shelved, but disquiet remains. The recently refurbished Glenavon high rises in Maryhill provide a good standard of living, and the locals have extended a warm Glasgow welcome to their new neighbours, yet there are only 60 or so properties set aside for single claimants and couples.

It is not only asylum seekers who have been critical of the COMPASS deal. The Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office have been damning in their assessments, condemning the lack of initial property inspections, unacceptably poor standards, numerous defects, and the fractured relationship of the tripartite arrangement..

In Glasgow, the need for change grows ever more acute. Last summer, there were around 2,500 people going through the asylum process; today, there are approximately 3,500 and rising, a toll that is putting pressure on an already beleaguered system. When I called the Home Office to enquire if its relationship with Serco and Orchard & Shipman has been tightened, a spokesman explained that it “expects the highest standards of its contractors”. Regular meetings are held between the three parties and regular checks “ensure accommodation meets the levels required”.

With COMPASS not due to expire until March 2017, there is time to improve. Whether there is an appetite for it is another matter. In an announcement to the stock exchange earlier this month, Serco booked a £115.3 million loss on the contract. All indications are that over the course of the five-year initiative, its costs will exceed its revenues.

In terms of the bottom line, this is not ideal, but Serco is prepared to take the hit. One line given in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by Jeremy Stafford, until recently its chief executive of UK and European operations, betrays the motivations behind Serco’s involvement in the asylum housing sector. “We felt that we could establish a very good platform that we felt was scalable,” he told MPs.

This is how we give shelter to Scotland’s most persecuted and desperate people in 2015 – a grubby exercise in market positioning. We may not know what becomes of Red Road’s last residents, but only by wresting control of asylum policy can Scotland fulfil its duty to protect them irrespective of commercial considerations. Until then, let us hope they prosper in spite of Westminster’s barbarous designs.

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Migrant policy an affront to decency … from The Scotsman

GIVEN a fortnight of the general election campaign remains, it would be premature to suggest that the toxic narrative on immigration has reached a nadir. Still, it is difficult to conceive of a policy more heinous than the British government’s stance on the escalating humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean.

The harrowing accounts emerging from the waters north of Libya are flecked with uniquely macabre detail. Children’s shoes were found floating by wreckage; one body recovered was that of an African boy thought to be as young as ten; one Bangladeshi survivor said hundreds of those who perished after their fishing boat capsized at nightfall were locked in the holds below. “They died like rats in a cage,” he told prosecutors.

What is most disquieting is the haunting routine of it all. Once again, corpses of the desperate and dispossessed wash up on Europe’s doorstep. Ignominious records are rewritten almost daily while the subterranean graveyard of the Ionian basin grows ever more crowded. This is the shameful legacy of a concerted international strategy of neglect in which Britain, wielding death as a deterrent, plays an inglorious role.

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In a written answer to the House of Lords last October, foreign office minister Baroness Anelay said the UK would not support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. “We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths,” she reasoned.

With the might of Britain’s Navy playing war games on the Clyde in Operation Joint Warrior while children drown, the moral repugnance of pulling up the drawbridge to Fortress Europe is not in doubt, but recent events also demonstrate the folly in this logic.

Since last autumn, search and rescue resources in the region have been greatly diminished after Italy brought to an end Operation Mare Nostrum, a compassionate initiative which, over the space of a year, cost Rome around £84 million, but saved the lives of more than 140,000 migrants from floundering vessels and flimsy rubber dinghies.

The substitute scheme, Operation Triton, has an annual cost of just £28m despite being a Europe-wide undertaking managed by Frontrex, the EU’s border agency. Its primary remit is not humanitarian, but border management. The operation has just six boats, two aeroplanes and one helicopter at its disposal, and patrols only as far as 30 nautical miles south of the Italian coast.

Yet at least 1,500 migrants have died trying to reach Europe this year, at least 30 times the death toll at the same period in 2014. The latest tragedy took place 120 miles off Lampedusa, one of the Pelagie Islands to the south of Italy. The first vessels to respond were a Portuguese container ship and Italian prawn boats.

Faced with the gravest refugee crisis since the Second World War, we are in the absurd situation where commercial ship operators, bound by international maritime conventions, play a fuller role than countries. With the “pull factors” cited by Baroness Anelay disproved, what is of consequence is the “push” factors: people fleeing a succession of collapsed states in Africa and the Middle East; poverty; human rights abuses; disease; the rising threat posed by Islamic militants.

Many of those who take to the cold, dark waters of the Mediterranean do so out of despair and fear. The most recent statistical analysis by Frontex shows that of the 220,194 migrants who made sea crossings last year, the vast majority hailed from Syria (66,698), where a bloody civil war has created 3,977,538 refugees, according to the latest figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

If the nation which sanctioned the Kindertransport mission has a shared responsibility in this, it is doing its damnedest to shirk it. A government that has taken in just 142 Syrian refugees under its flagship Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme – compared to 38,000 across Europe – has an equally threadbare commitment to Operation Triton, with just one immigration officer seconded to help.

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In an uncharacteristic show of British regard for other sovereign territories, James Brokenshire, the Tory immigration minister, recently told the Commons that “matters of search and rescue remain with Italy and other member states in respect of their territorial waters”. The government, he stressed, was not turning a blind eye, but said the emphasis should to be on rooting out organised trafficking gangs. This is a crucial area of concern that must be tackled, but it is not the only one vexing the government, according to a paper from a meeting last year of the Commons European scrutiny select committee.

In it, the committee notes the government’s “reservations” over the European Commission’s Mediterranean task force, namely “legal migration, the relocation and resettlement of refugees, and the possibility of developing new forms of ‘protected entry’ to the EU”. In short, the desire to pander to anti-immigration sentiment at home is paramount. Self interest and political expediency reigns, trumping any effort to assist those who drown while dreaming of Europe.

The hand-wringing over border control and migration management that has come to define the politics of migration policy is not working. A continent-wide strategy should explore the viability of legal entry routes and better manage land borders, such as those between Bulgaria and Syria, so that migrants are not diverted to treacherous sea passings. Above all, Britain must step up and initiate a united humanitarian effort, one properly resourced and stretching beyond the Pelagie Islands. To do otherwise is to submit to the fear and loathing of the anti-immigration lobby and make a stranger of common human decency.

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Is this the best justice can do? … from The Scotsman

THE true measure of a criminal justice system’s competence is not only how it redresses harm but the way it rebuilds the lives of its most vulnerable offenders. If the case of Samuel Barlow is any guide, Scotland would do well to keep the hubris surrounding its historic legal apparatus in check. A story where opacity, inconsistency and maladministration play leading roles, it began on an overcast morning last September in the Shetland harbour village of Skeld. Armed with an airgun, Barlow set off from his family croft and crossed the The Deeps bay in a dinghy.

Arriving in Scalloway, the 16-year-old traipsed six miles across moorland to Lerwick, where, over the next four hours, he trained his sights on police officers and members of the public before he was arrested without a single shot being fired. His aim was not to take lives; quite the opposite. “He was trying to get himself killed,” his father, Paul, said.

Four months earlier, Barlow had suffered a mental breakdown. His family say he was being bullied in school and online. Among those with whom the dyspractic and dyslexic teenager was in contact over the internet was a man who allegedly asked him to take part in pornographic activity; another, an individual Barlow took to be his girlfriend, allegedly implored him to commit suicide with her that morning. Both are subject to ongoing police investigations. In a psychological report prepared for court, he was described as autistic, the first time he had been diagnosed.

Photographs from the day showing Barlow brandishing the airgun augmented sensationalist press narratives. One wrongly reported gunfire. Subsequent stories mentioned Dunblane and Hungerford. Other pictures support a conflicting narrative. They show Barlow sat on a wall, the gun placed by his side. They are not snapshots of a killing spree but of a young man who once stood for the Scottish Youth Parliament and volunteered for the Red Cross now desperate, confused and looking for a lifeline.

Last week, that lifeline was denied him. At Lerwick Sheriff Court, he was given a three-year custodial sentence, reduced from four years in light of his earlier guilty plea to four charges of assault and one of abusive and threatening behaviour. Sheriff Philip Mann said Barlow’s “most serious” crimes had caused “the utmost fear and alarm.” He told him: “There is no alternative to a custodial sentence.”

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The decision is incongruous with Scottish Government community justice statistics. Last year, out of 11,203 people convicted of assault, just 1,598 were imprisoned, on average for seven months, while 225 were sent to a young offenders’ institution. The majority were fined (3,431), given Community Payback Orders (3,194) or admonished (2,210). Only 29 were sentenced to more than two years.

Why, then, did a vulnerable 16-year-old fall into this category? It is a question that has been asked via a petition calling for a rehearing. To date, it has over 1,600 signatories, demonstrative of the discontent with the sentence in Shetland and further afield. It is reasonable to ask what has become of the Scottish Sentencing Council, the oft-mooted organisation supposed to usher in uniformity of sentencing and a rehabilitative-led approach. That is one for justice secretary Michael Matheson, not Sheriff Mann.

Indeed, given we should prize our judiciary’s independence, answers should be sought from others. What guidance did Shetland Islands Council and NHS Shetland offer Mann as part of the sentencing process? Sources say the region lags behind the vast majority of local authorities in following the Whole System Approach, a government-led, early-intervention strategy launched in 2011 to find an alternative to prosecution for 16- and 17-year-olds.

According to its own internal strategy report, the health board has faced a “growing amount of dissatisfaction” over mental health provision. This includes staff retention and recruitment, a “lack of anticipation of crises” involving vulnerable people, and an insufficient psychiatric presence – it consists of one standalone psychiatrist. In an archipelago where the suicide rate for men is 40 per cent higher than the national average and the scope of charities and support groups is limited, the picture of a sentencing postcode lottery slowly emerges.

Barlow, Mann acknowledged, had faced “certain difficulties” but he said custody would protect the public and grant him “the opportunity to avail yourself of the support services that will be available to you in your place of detention”. That place is Polmont, near Falkirk, where Barlow has already spent four months after being refused bail. It will not give the young Shetlander the help he needs.

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The most recent full inspection report said Blair House, the unit for inmates of Barlow’s age, had “lost its way” in rehabilitating inmates. To quote the report: “During the inspection its main purpose appeared to be to keep young offenders from smoking.” There are commendable mentoring projects designed to bolster self-esteem, but sources say they will not address Barlow’s particular needs. Polmont’s mental health team work on a suicide-risk, management-based crisis basis with no regular psychological sessions other than for assessment. Recently, prison officers have been assigned greater caring roles, but there is no system of supervision.

The strategy, a source says, is “a bit of a disaster”, with seasoned officers unwilling to change their mentality. Add to this the absurdity that means the teen’s parents live 366 miles away, meaning visits will be as rare as they are costly, and the gloomy reality that 88 per cent of 16- to 20-year-olds released from custody are reconvicted within two years, then the odds are stacked against him.

Today, Barlow will meet with his lawyer to discuss a possible appeal. Mercifully, the death wish he held last September went unfulfilled, but until Scotland’s justice system gives him the chance to reclaim the future, his is a young life that is yet to be saved.

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A nation’s history in art … from The Scotsman

THERE are precious few secrets that can be guarded for half a millennia, but the Royal Collection is among them. One of the greatest collections of art the world has ever seen, it is a dizzyingly comprehensive chronicle of man’s cultural expression since the 16th century. From the drawings of da Vinci to the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet and Michelangelo to name but four masters, it includes some of the rarest and most valuable objets d’art from the Italian Renaissance and beyond, amassed over the centuries by members of the Royal Family.

Spanning 7,500 oils, 500,000 prints, 30,000 watercolours and drawings, and a barrage of sculpture, jewellery, ceramics, gold, silver, furniture, armour, manuscripts and textiles, its scale dwarfs the Tate’s treasure trove of 70,000 artworks and makes the 2,300 cared for the National Gallery look like a reception room in a community council building. It is a collection which bewilders those who seek to value what is essentially priceless. The handful who have tried suggest a figure of between £10 billion and £13bn. The truth is we will never know, thanks to the most remarkable fact about the Royal Collection: it is inalienable, held in trust for us, the nation.

This summer, Scots will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the collection’s artefacts thanks to the latest of several exhibitions to have been staged at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse. A showpiece of Scottish art featuring works by the likes of Allan Ramsay and Sir David Wilkie, some of which have not been shown in public before, the exhibition promises to be an absorbing affair, even it might lack the high-profile names for a broader appeal.

What it might achieve, however, is an appreciation of the Royal Collection’s hidden gems and why we are not given greater sight of them. The reality is that the collection’s custodians have never fully declared what treasures they have in their possession. A significant proportion of this body of art – which began to take shape after the restoration of Charles II in 1660 – has never been publicly disclosed, a fact that has gone curiously underreported down the years.

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Indeed, it was only last summer that the curators of the collection were finally able to establish how many oil paintings are under their care – some 7,564 works. Of that figure, around 1,700 are kept in storage, no information is available for over 2,000, while more than 3,000 do not have any accompanying photographs in the records that exist. A sizeable number of those that do are poorly represented by low quality black and white images. There is treasure, alright, but much of it has not been done justice.

It is a an enormous task. The art is kept across 160 locations, including the private and public rooms of no less than 13 royal residences. Work began recently on the largest ever condition survey of its kind, a process that will see every painting removed from its frame, checked and photographed, an endeavour that will take some time. Put it this way – by the time the work is completed, it is likely Prince George will be a teenager.

The project is regarded as the next step on a journey towards transparency that started in 1962 when the Queen gave the go ahead for the conversion of a conservatory to the side of Buckingham Palace into a gallery. It was replaced by a new facility – three times the size – 13 years ago, the same year that saw the opening of the £3 million Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh.

Such ventures, monarchists say, is testament to the Queen’s desire to share her ancestral hoard, an argument backed by statistics in the trust’s annual reports. Last year, 256 works were lent to exhibitions; in 2004, the figure was 20. It also has more than 15,500 items on long-term loans. The collection is moving in the right direction, but could it be doing so quicker?

Certain aspects of the way the bounty is viewed by the Royal Collection Trust – the body set up in 1993 to manage the artwork – give cause for doubt. A couple of years ago, the trust was discreetly invited to take part in the Public Catalogue Foundation, a charitable initiative which digitised more than 212,000 oil paintings in public collections across Britain. The trust declined, citing limited resources and concern that it would “take the focus off” its own projects.

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Given the curatorial challenges facing the collection, it seemed a curious decision, but then the perception of its status has long been unclear. It exists in the hinterland between public and private; hung in back corridors and recesses of royal residences, yet safeguarded for our collective benefit. Accounts are published yet it is exempt from Freedom of Information legislation. As with most matters royal, it is a mass of contradictions.

The collection is officially defined as being “held in trust by the Queen as sovereign for her successors and the nation, and is not owned by her as a private individual”. But not every member of her family has toed the party line. In a 2000 television interview, the Duke of Edinburgh reasoned that the Queen was “technically, perfectly at liberty to sell” art in the collection. Such a move would prompt an outcry, although there is maybe some sense in it. Critics of the monarchy who argue for the repository to be nationalised fail to acknowledge the lack of gallery space to accommodate its staggering size. It would require at least one, if not several, purpose-built facilities to do it justice.

The trust has demonstrated its ability to raise capital before – between 1993 and 2000, it contributed £25m to the restoration of Windsor Castle. Perhaps in a show of altruism it could seek out conscientious buyers for the odd Vermeer or Mantegna and delve into its funds (£45.7m according to the last annual report, more than the Sovereign Grant for 2015) to finance new galleries. It would rehabilitate its image and allow the public to take a long-overdue glimpse at the entirety of its wonders.

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Old Media and New Media … from The Scotsman

NAVEL gazing is an unbecoming habit of the media, but on occasion it can be constructive to take time to squint blindly into the future. Last week, I took part in a panel at the Celtic Media Festival exploring the rise of Scotland’s new media and its repercussions for the established press. It was a spirited discussion, but so rapid is the process of disruption, even the most salient points raised may soon be obsolescent.

Scant attention has been paid in the mainstream media to the growth of ventures such as Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, Common Space and Newsnet. By my count, the past year has seen the public contribute close to £900,000 to these sites and others through a crowdfunding and traditional fundraising initiatives.

A new vanguard is accruing significant sums. The most recent Indiegogo campaign by Wings Over Scotland drew in £108,000 last month, more than double its initial target. This wave is characterised as a flash in the pan, a legacy of an emotional referendum. The figures may be comparatively small, but the trend is here to stay. Those who dismiss it out of hand warrant accusations of Luddism.

As a newspaperman, I am expected to revile these digital interlopers. This is a petty, misconceived principle which continues to find favour. The clout enjoyed by this emergent media sits uneasily with traditionalists who regard their position in Scottish civic life as sacrosanct.

A minority in the press rail against the wrathful polemic of online scribes who target individuals and revel in their own cruelty, yet defend the august print trade’s right to find room in one of its best-selling titles for a controversialist who compares migrants to cockroaches.

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A wider disdain for the volunteerism of nascent digital ventures is borne not from the commendable belief that hacks should be paid, but a self-conceit which dictates that journalism is the preserve of salaried professionals. At a time when newspaper proprietors the world over are engaged in a destructive cycle of systematic retrenchment, this is at best an anachronistic view.

The other glove throws punches just as wayward. Some in the new media make the blithe assumption that it is a matter of time before they displace the dreaded mass media construct. The reality is that the online stature of established providers such as this newspaper are vast by comparison. They believe their mainstream counterparts to be engineers of nefarious conspiracies etched on the back of Peat Inn menus, a premise which charges the entire fourth estate with the sins of a few.

Those left indignant when a certain quote, event or viewpoint goes unheeded are so blinded by partisan instinct that they are unwilling or unable to consider issues such as news values or plurality. The word bias is bandied about just as fairweather football fans, buoyed by the roar of the crowd, call wrongly for offside. Cock ups are perceived only through the prism of conspiracy.

This seething antagonism is rooted in a polarised political climate, a primetime bout where Nationalists vs Unionists top the bill. The media at large is duty bound to deconstruct this fractious narrative; instead, the old guard and the new perpetuate it.

No -one wishes for a harmonious media but it is in all our interests to consider what the future holds for the newest players in the media landscape. Some believe mergers and pooled resources to be the way forward; given how the ether is littered with the cadavers of failed online news sites, institutional stability is essential, but amalgamation threatens to diminish their idiosyncrasies.

At their best, these sites demonstrate a vigour found fleetingly in the rest of the press. They can be offensive and misinformed but such foibles have found newsprint to be a welcoming home over the years.

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Their greatest challenge lies in maintaining momentum. Drawing in readers thanks to a shared political ideology is easy; keeping them requires a deeper trust, the kind only quality journalism can provide.

Too many stay true to their genesis as media monitors. Out of a dozen stories on the front page of one well-known site I visited recently, five were concerned with BBC coverage.

There is a place for holding the media to account, but in isolation, it is a prohibitive and lumpen remit. If Scotland’s digital parvenu are intent on changing minds, they must embrace orthodoxy and invest in original reporting.

Common Space has impressed with its exclusives on Dungavel detention centre and Castle Toward in Argyll and Bute – a rare non-political story. Still it is the press and the BBC who supply the canvas for debate by consistently breaking stories that set the news agenda: the others add daubs of colour.

A wider shift from reactive to proactive reporting that is rigorous and unafraid to criticise allies would grant legitimacy to the newcomers and attract audiences beyond their indigenous echo chambers.

For the traditional media, the challenge continues to better represent grassroots voices while maintaining quality and monetising new distribution models. This is chiefly a test for the press, but increasingly, established broadcasters, hamstrung by regulation and dwindling budgets, face losing disenfranchised audiences to fledgling initiatives such as Newsshaft and Left:Scotland.

Both sides can prosper in a climate of respect and fulfil the public appetite for news at an extraordinary time in Scottish life. Stoking opprobrium and wishing for the demise of competitors merely reaffirms embedded habits and dissuades people from seeking out as broad a range of coverage as possible. No journalist should desire that.

One day, perhaps, we will all have a convivial rendezvous over truffled potato beignets at the Peat Inn. The crowdfunder for dinner starts here.

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Social Media Tragedy Hipsters … from The Scotsman

ASK a hundred journalists for a definition of what is meant by news judgment and you will likely receive a hundred different responses. The method by which stories are selected and reported is inexact and capricious. Some editors will be guided by experience and instinct; others will give due concern to algorithms and reader metrics in an attempt to best sate their audience’s appetite. Whatever its workings, however, the media’s answer is nearly always seen to be wrong.

The unedifying posturing surrounding the coverage of the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, which saw the international press and broadcasters accused of ignoring the latter atrocity, is a regrettable case in point. The outrage visited upon the French capital by Islamic State was exhaustively covered here for a variety of reasons. It is a city near to us, both geographically and culturally, and the modus operandi of those who sought to bring it to its knees is consistent with the horrors inflicted on London and Madrid.

Yet according to the hierarchy of grief that makes social media such a dispiriting, unreliable forum in the aftermath of large-scale tragedies, the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook rang out to familiar chimes of disinformation and conspiracy. Take the tweet sent out early Saturday afternoon by Jack Jones, an English actor and comedian.

“No media has covered this, but RIP to all the people that lost their lives in Lebanon yesterday from Isis attacks,” he wrote. Despite the fact the message was accompanied by an erroneous image taken from a nine-year-old BBC report on cluster bombs, it quickly gained traction, receiving nearly 56,000 retweets as of yesterday evening.

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Hundreds of others expressed similar sentiments, each as incredulous and ignorant as the next. Even before Jones composed his tweet, the story in question – which saw 43 people killed in a southern Beirut suburb – had been widely covered, with some Scottish newspapers running reports of several hundred words on the blasts.

Come Monday, the journalist Martin Belam, eager to debunk the fast-­growing myth, tallied up no fewer than 1,286 articles that had been written about the event. Many of the stories, Belam pointed out, predated the attacks in Paris. It was a welcome call for reason but troublesome things like facts will always be lost amidst the fury of the ether.

The ultimate victim is the public who are trying to make sense of the chaos in a world where the old geopolitical rules and threats are being continually redrawn.

Whenever someone chastises the media for failing to report a story, it is invariably deflected frustration at their own ignorance. All of us curate our own media nowadays; if you elect to ­exclusively watch dancing cat memes, you forfeit the right to exasperation. As was the case with Beirut, the story is nearly always out there, but the prospect of carrying out a basic Google News search is seldom as attractive as the opportunity to project self-righteousness.

Bemoaning the low profile of a story is a valid complaint, given the way the power of the media can shape public perspectives and inform government policy. This, however, was not the motive at play. The virtue signalling of Jones and others like him – described by the American writer, Jamiles Lartey, as “tragedy hipsters” – is typical of the performative response to tragedy now so in vogue. It is a chance to invoke moral equivalency where none exists and shed light on other traumas, days if not months after the media have already done so.

It is irony not lost on members of the fourth estate that this whataboutery, sincere though its intentions may be, routinely distorts and misinforms the public discourse. On Sunday, as the world was still coming to terms with the latest show of force from IS, thousands of users on social media began to share a report of another attack, this time by the Somali militant group, al-Shabaab, which killed 147 people at Kenya’s Garissa University.

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Despite other global events, it was the most read story on the BBC website that day, with nearly seven million people clicking on the headline, three-­quarters of whom were directed to the webpage from social media channels. Was this, as some suggested, an example of another forgotten atrocity? No, the attack happened in April.

There is, of course, a legitimate discussion to be had about due prominence and proportionality of foreign coverage in our flawed media, and proprietors of news organisations who have culled bureaus and correspondent roles must bear some responsibility for the retrenchment of British newspapers and broadcasters from the more remote corners of the world.

But the accusation that journalists deliberately overlook tragedies in places like Beirut is a grave insult to those who routinely put themselves in harm’s way in order to give a voice to the besieged and the marginalised.

What of the 71 journalists who were killed last year, not only in widely reported countries like Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, but the hinterlands of Burma, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo? What of the 700 who have perished over the past decade – one every five days – in the line of duty?

The notion that these reporters and their colleagues turn a blind eye to global horrors is a convenient connivance on the part of those who are unable to face up to a more mundane truth: they are apathetic to distant tragedies unless they can be twisted so as to fit their own reductive narrative of grievance and sanctimony.

In an age when technology is breaking down barriers, it is easy to present yourself as a concerned global citizen. It is even easier to suggest that the media places a premium on white, European lives. What is harder is genuinely engaging with world events on their own terms and acknowledging that it is bravery and stoicism of journalists which provides the fuel for this misplaced indignation.

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The Simple Pleasures … from The Scotsman

THE sound of nostalgia is the epiglottal gurgling of a VCR, not so much playing a tape as digesting it. It can look forward to many more such hearty meals – over Christmas, my father passed on a sorry-looking sack that had been keeping his boiler company for the past decade. It contained a presidential library of home videos: a private, disjointed family biography, each tape a smoking gun of hairstyles befitting Crufts and fashions boasting the lifespan and aesthetic appeal of midge larvae.

Rewatching the tapes over recent evenings, these were the treasures I thought I would savour – slipping undetected into a generation past to spy upon loved ones innocently conducting their lives, oblivious to how the vicissitudes of time garner embarrassment like a squirrel would nuts.

Aside from a sudden glimpse of my grandmother’s gusset during a particularly raucous game of charades, the tapes held few such shocks or humiliations. Instead, what struck me were the motivations behind the recordings. My father purchased the unwieldy Ferguson camcorder with the annual bonus from his position with a multinational computer firm. It was a prize for diligence and graft, and accordingly, employed with little discretion.

The begonias that lit up the front garden consume reels of tape alone. Never quite in focus, the viewfinder lingers over the smudges of a distant summer, colour sprouting from stone wishing wells and hanging baskets, or creeping up on an unsuspecting gnome lazily surveying his kingdom of conifers and cat urine.

Then there was the coronation of the Nissan Sunny, footage directed by my mother of my father proudly inching his new charge into the driveway and applying the handbrake, followed by his documenting my mother performing the same steady manoeuvre.

Most scenes boasted curt, affirmative narratives. Whenever “that’s nice” was deemed an insufficient exposition, “that’s lovely” upped the ante. It does not sound like riveting viewing, and the comfort offered by personal memories doubtless clouds my judgement. But the footage revealed something I never realised – or at least, acknowledged – while living under my parents’ roof. No matter how mundane its manifestations, the simple, aspirant pride of a family cannot be scoffed at.

The sack of tapes now occupies the boiler cupboard in my tenement flat. Bereft of a driveway, let alone a lawn, I am in no rush to emulate my parents’ quiet acts of gratification. However, the appeal of a window box spilling over with begonias is starting to take root.

FIRST, it was M&S, now it is the turn of S&M. There has been no gentle introduction to 2009 for a host of businesses: Marks & Spencer has announced a raft of job cuts and store closures; the bull of recession crashed through the British institution™ of Wedgwood; and Woolworths took its last, drawn-out breath.

The latest victims of the ongoing financial crisis, however, are of less homely stock. Not even Viagra can stiffen the share prices of pornography barons. The squeeze on sleaze has heralded falling sales of adult DVDs, and Larry Flynt, the Hustler visionary, believes penury is rendering the world’s populace into a grey, sexless, pulp. Flynt is reportedly demanding the US Congress “rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America” with a $5 billion (3.28 billion) bailout. If the world’s oldest profession must look outside itself for stimulus, we are in dire straits indeed.

THE 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns will witness many fine celebrations, but a slew of cynical associations also await. The range of special edition cartons being launched by Robert Wiseman Dairies, each emblazoned with illustrations of his works, is a jarring tribute. The milk firm talks of “Burns’s connections to the milk industry”. History shows the poet spent a little over two years on a Dumfries dairy farm. Finding the soil exhausted, Burns declared it a “ruinous business”. We should celebrate the power of his poetry; juggling details of his brief life to bolster sales leaves a sour taste.

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Will Heath Robinson … from The Scotsman

THE demise of the hallowed pick’n’mix counter isn’t the only reason we should bemoan the loss of Woolworths. The famous chain may have been the retail equivalent of a great-aunt who makes out her will to feral cats in the form of postal orders, but treasures could be unearthed beneath all that mismatched merchandise. Woolies was one of the few stockists of products by JML, a company that puts the cheer into capitalism. Its Wham-O premise is as facile as it is laudable – conjure up ideas no sober inventor would consider and watch the public buy them in their thousands.

Take the Toastabag™. Tummy rumbling? Keen to avoid the protracted torment of making a toasted sandwich? Simply jam your piece as normal, seal in a Toastabag™, and pop it in the toaster. Venerable bearded men with Bunsen burners estimate such actions will free up four seconds of your life.

The ingenuity knows no bounds. The Magnicard™, a credit-card-sized magnifier, prevents miniscule font nightmares. Like many of the company’s lines, the marketing pitch is a question – “Small print driving you crazy? – to which JML hopes our answer will be, “Why, I thought I alone bore this terrible burden! God bless!”

It would be remiss not to mention of JML’s boffins, breakers of new ground in the magnetostatics field. Their industry means your reading glasses are forever safe with the Never Lost Readers Stand™. Yes, it’s magnetic and, yes, your glasses stick to it. Provided the instructions are in large type. Other Heath Robinson-inspired products conjure philosophical musing by name alone: Invisible Bra™, Slendesse Leggings™ Bling-A-Thing™. All potential props in the Coen brothers’ screwball comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy.

Yet this stuff is popular. From humble beginnings in the 1980s, its founder, John Mills (he had a lot of free time between takes for Gandhi), has overseen a rapid expansion. JML’s motto is “making life easier”, but I believe its contribution to mankind’s cause is greater.

It inspires closet Edisons who dream of Magnotoastabras™ or Invisible Slimming Pens™. More importantly, it proves that, no matter how inconsequential or offbeat your vision, someone will pay for it. Toastabags™ retail at £3.99 a pair. That’s the “sloth premium” people will pay to avoid effort. The skill is not in the merit of the inventions, but the opportunistic realisation that people will always cut corners.

As the late American wag Sid Caesar pointed out, the guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot. It was the guy who invented the other three who was the genius.

IT IS heartening to hear rangers are returning to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to a third of the world’s fragile mountain gorilla population.

The expanse of forests, snowfields and lava plains has become a battlefield for Hutu militias and Tutsi rebels, their war displacing the rangers for the past year, leaving the endangered animals even more vulnerable.

A friend once introduced me to Virunga’s senior warden, Jean-Pierre Mirindi Jobogo, who was visiting Glasgow (insert obligatory ‘from one jungle to another’ joke). He showed me scars from poachers’ bullets and recalled scores of colleagues who paid an even higher price.

“How many animals were here 1,000 years ago?” he asked. “Did man think of himself as a primate then? Do we now?” As Jean-Pierre and his rangers once more risk their lives, we should find him an answer.

AS FAR as potential murder weapons go, the effectiveness of the tenor saxophone has yet to reveal itself. The tuba, I suppose, is capable of delivering a mighty thwack, but the trusty candlestick need not have restless nights.

Why, then, has Boris Johnson described a cultural scheme that will pass on old musical instruments to young people as an “amnesty”? Will we see armed police smothering the maisonettes of retired bassoonists, demanding they slowly place their reeds on the floor?

But the real misdemeanour here is Johnson’s typically enthusiastic press release promoting the venture, which coins the term, “funkapolitan”.

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Peer Review … from The Scotsman

THERE is a wearisome irony in the fact that the House of Lords, a body that has long prided itself on the scrutiny of legislation, appears exempt from the laws of the land. The justification by the Metropolitan Police not to conduct a bribery inquiry into peers who allegedly made clear their willingness to amend legislation on behalf of paying lobbyists was succinct.The application of criminal law to members of the second house, reasoned the force, was “far from clear”. In any case, it pointed out, gathering evidence would be difficult in the context of parliamentary privilege, which grants members a considerable degree of freedom from civil and criminal liability.

Firstly, this emphasis on the sanctity of parliamentary privilege does not explain why the Met has seen fit to raid the offices of two MPs. Secondly, it offers yet further wearisome demonstration of the arcane and confused laws surrounding this issue. As things stand, the only action that will be taken over the recent allegation is an investigation by Baroness Prashar’s subcommittee. Should it find any party guilty, its punishment extends only to “naming and shaming” those involved. No peer can be suspended or expelled.

It is no accident that the legislation that purports to prevent corruption among MPs and peers is of their own design. Take, for instance, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, which supposedly exists to curb bribery, that states that an “agent” cannot “corruptly” acquire gifts or money as an inducement. Alas, the term, “agent,” does not apply to a peer, given that they do not necessarily answer to another person or body. The even older and increasingly righteous sounding Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889 does not apply either. Incredibly, it applies only to councils and municipal authorities.

Even the common-law offence of bribery, where the person bribed must be a “public officer” who “discharges any duty in the discharge of which the public are interested, more clearly so if he is paid out of a fund provided by the public” may not come into play. Despite a healthy expenses allowance, they are not salaried from the public pocket.If the people’s representatives are eager to reverse the growing public cynicism towards them, they must act swiftly and decisively to address these antiquated anomalies, which can be traced back as far as the Magna Carta.

The work of the House of Lords, despite what its detractors might say, is a vital democratic tool, and it is vital our legislators be able to speak freely without fear of prosecution. Laws, however, are not mere principles. Increasingly, the shield of parliamentary privilege designed for protection is being used for deflection.

CLOSE your eyes. Fate tells me you will meet a tall, strong man. He is wearing a black leather jacket. Concentrate. His name, something like Bill. No, not Bill. Biff? No, no. I see it! Bailiff! Call records from the directory enquiries service, 118118, show that last year, requests for information on palmists and clairvoyants surged 161 per cent.

Despite nurturing a keen journalistic scepticism, I have never harboured ill-will towards the sizeable spiritualism industry. Many of its practitioners admit it is an entertainment form offering reassurance and atonement, and the legerdemain is an artform. However, when it willingly targets those in strife or penury, accusations of exploitation become harder to shake off. One Glasgow psychic is even offering a “New Credit Crunch e-mail Reading”. For 30, she will answer three questions with “tender loving care”. It is one of the few professions which is surely recession-proof.

A FRIEND and I have started a good– natured competition to outdo one another with incredible statements culled from Wikipedia – an invaluable resource, but one that cannot always be relied upon for accuracy. I thought he had trumped me with “the Macarena song is cited by many as being the beginning of the downfall of modern civilisation” and “decapitation is invariably fatal”. I, however, found a beauty. “Nick Hancock has a twin brother. I know this, because I approached him in a Stoke-on-Trent restaurant for an autograph, only to be greeted with the words: ‘I’m not Nick Hancock, I’m his f****** brother.'”

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The Roast … from The Scotsman

I HEARD my first Roast at a young age, courtesy of a crude bootleg cassette passed under the school dinner table. Entitled Stars At Their Worst, I knew nothing of the personalities involved – US comedians Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle – and the jokes seemed weaker than a Labour majority. Nonetheless, I played it until the tape wore thin. The appeal was not the material, but the notion that I was eavesdropping on a secret rite, surreptitiously recorded for the pleasure of strangers – a 1950s version of the Paris Hilton tape, if you will.

The Roast is a form of American comedy that sadly has never quite translated to these shores, despite its straightforward premise: take one celebrity, preferably in their heyday; add a generous quantity of caustic comedians; insult until boiling. Since the days of Hackett and Berle, the Roast has encountered and demolished new boundaries of decency. Take the time Richard Pryor, the great stand-up comic who once set himself alight while freebasing crack cocaine, was the Roastee. A pre-Mrs Doubtfire Robin Williams dubbed him “the man who proved that not only is black beautiful, it’s flammable”. Or there is the more recent Roast of rapper Flava Flav who, according to comedian Jimmy Kimmel, is “responsible for more homeless black children than Hurricane Katrina”.

There are countless other jibes, but all are unfit for publication on a pub toilet wall, let alone a national newspaper (I direct you instead towards YouTube). The Roast, nevertheless, is hugely popular, attracting record ratings for Comedy Central, which began broadcasting heavily edited versions of the events in the late 1990s. The closest British equivalent is Jonathan Ross, but occasional discomfiture at the host’s remarks is nullified by the fact nearly every guest is a consenting cog in the promotional machine.

I am not advocating unchecked crudity for the sake of it, but the Roast has much to offer audiences and comedians alike. It encourages brutal candour from its participants, and demands an inventive, testing strain of comedy. For too long, young British comedians have cited as their inspirations Pryor, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin – agents of truth and anger who scorned compromise to continue ranting while all around them fell into awkward silence. If we introduce the Roast in Britain, where people are not plugging books or films but simply testing their own comic mettle and moral barometers, we might find their successors. And in the process, who would not like to see the great and the good have their egos bruised?

WHATEVER pain and profanity the purchase of a proper tent might guarantee, it will doubtless prove less bothersome than its ‘pop-up’ equivalent. It was not always thus. Having arrived in Dumfriesshire for the Wickerman Festival on Saturday afternoon, my party had set up camp after a mere five minutes. Sat back soon after with a bottle of Kopparberg, we sang the invention’s praises, our conversation repeatedly employing words such as “handy”, “simple” and “ingenious.”

Less than 24 hours later, our vocabulary had turned blue. For a full half-hour, we struggled to fit the tent back in its supposedly handy, fold-up bloody bag, swearing profusely in only the way an inanimate object can provoke. In a fit of pique (or rather, a nasty pear cider hangover), my co-camper threw aside all notions of delicacy and proceeded to twist and wrestle its frame until finally there came a satisfying crack. There is no such thing as ease where music festivals are concerned. Someone should tell the inventors of the pop-up tent.

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A Voyage of Remembrance … from The Scotsman

ONLY a handful of people bore witness to the MK Andholmen’s gentle putter into Scalloway harbour, as she recently completed a journey last made more than six decades ago. The attentive among them, however, knew the significance of the flags fluttering upon her mast; one a saltire, the other bearing the cross of Norway. Having visited my girlfriend’s homeland of Shetland earlier this summer, we made a point of visiting a small but poignant memorial that looks out on the ancient capital’s bay. Atop a pile of rocks and a plaque bearing the names of 44 men, a small sculpture depicts the same boat riding high on the waves.

The story of the Shetland Bus is one that appears to have slipped quietly from the compendium of great wartime daring deeds, but it is a stirring tale of ordinary young men and forgotten heroes which, we thought that morning, deserves the ear of a wider public. It began in 1940, when thousands of young Norwegians sought escape from their German-occupied homelands. Having secured passage across the North Sea’s perilous waters aboard the Andholmen and other small fishing vessels, they arrived in Shetland carrying their dead and wounded.

The boats, however, were not used for evacuations alone. As the war waged on, a British spy base was established in Scalloway and Lunna, and scores of the vessels shipped young Norwegian men, British agents, and equipment to Norway to help train the underground resistance. The boats’ crews disguised themselves as fishermen, their guns secured out of sight in barrels. In all, 205 crossings were made as German submarines carried out their patrols. The enemy’s mines, air attacks, and the fierce weather conditions combined to sink ten boats and claim the lives of many of the so-called Shetland Gang – or Shetlandsgjengen, as they are known in Norway.

After the war, the Andholmen fell into disrepair for many years, but in the mid- 1990s, she was discovered languishing in northern Norway. Lavished with a caring restoration by a group of enthusiasts, she was reinvented as a floating museum and one of the few tangible reminders of the Shetland Bus operation. Last month, she and seven of her crew made an emotional return to Shetland, with Magne Stensland, a retired submarine captain who is now the boat’s skipper, describing how she “danced on the sea”.

It was an event which passed by everyone bar the Shetland press. Those in attendance at Scalloway harbour did not seem put out, however. For them, the trip to Scalloway offered a simple opportunity to remember, with the group then laying a wreath at the kirkyard where some of their fellow countrymen are buried. They did not crave a wider audience, or reams of coverage. The most poignant tribute they could pay had already been achieved – that one last safe crossing.

IT IS a rare occurrence for major organisations to abandon all sense of reason, but when such instances coincide with a press release, I give thanks to the Great Unknown. With a third of Scots pensioners unable to afford a foreign holiday in the past five years, Bupa, one of Britain’s largest residential nursing home providers, has devised a solution altruistic in intent, but crude indeed in its execution.

“We’re really excited about Cannes and can’t wait to get started,” the firm enthuses. “The cruise is a perfect way to explore cultures and customs of different countries, and the residents will have a great day aboard.” Alas, Bupa is not footing the bill for its customers to sail off to the Cte d’Azur. Instead, it has created “virtual cruises”, where nursing home staff will dress up, can-can dance and play boules to conjure up the decadent atmosphere of the Croixette. The company may have noble motives, but the idea seems to me an unintentionally cruel reminder of its residents’ penury.

SHAME on the three hypersensitive residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos, who demanded that the Greek courts ban the word “lesbian” when describing gay women, having claimed it causes incalculable damage to their identity. The authorities in Athens rightly threw out the request, ruling that the word in question did not specifically define the islanders as such, but was rather a reference used by gay groups. Lesbos, birthplace of Sappho, the ancient poetess whose love poems inspired the L word, is an enclave popular with gay women from all over the world. Would the insulted trio rather their idyll be renamed Yobbos so they might experience the calibre of tourists that other, less fortunate Greek islands must contend with?

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Parties Need … from The Scotsman

IF THERE is to be a seismic shift in the way politicians reach out to the nation’s voters, the revolution began in dowdy surroundings. Ordinarily, Carmichael Hall’s modest facilities are used by the Giffnock Theatre Players. Should the occasion prove special, then the redoubtable sisterhood of the East Renfrewshire Ladies’ Bowling Association will bust out the mascarpone cheese vol-au-vents.

No such delectable treats awaited David Cameron when he took to the Carmichael’s stage last Friday: his only greeting was a gaggle of true blues with well-rehearsed enquiries as to the Tory leader’s take on the West Lothian Question. A seemingly ordinary party political event, it was devoid of spirited debate and ignored by the national media. The hacks’ absence, however, need not have dispirited the Tory faithful.

At the back of the hall, a small camera relayed the proceedings live across the internet. The webcast was the first time Scotland has hosted a webcameron (do you see?) event. Devised by Rishi Saha, a former hip-hop promoter now ensconced in the Conservatives’ communications team, the website is envisaged as a portal into Digital Dave’s world. Online are video clips of him at the breakfast bar musing about muesli, coupled with his take on pedestrian policy seldom given prominence in newsprint.

In theory, all of Scotland could have viewed Cameron’s Q&A, but the image of a handful of policy wonks sitting in their housecoats and logging on in spare bedrooms across Henley is, sadly, closer to the reality. At a time when our country’s political situation has seldom been more interesting, e-democracy has a long road to travel. For all its New Conservative gimmickry, and frankly dated technology, the inaugural tartan webcameron show must stand as a notable exception. None of our parties seem interested in building a thoughtful, interactive web presence.

Take, for instance, Scottish Labour’s website. At the time of writing, its homepage boasts a solitary photo of Rod Hull, sorry, Lindsay Roy, taking his seat in the House of Commons. Next to it is visible Javascript code, which, to those are not tech-savvy, is akin to leaving the L-plates on your car after passing your test. Only political bloggers – mostly right-wing – attract serious numbers of hits, and few parties are willing to affiliate themselves with individuals that may go renegade.

Such amateurism pales alongside the slick and informed use of the web across the Atlantic. During the US election, any number of initiatives were seized upon to attract voters, from Flash games and social networking groups, to YouTube broadcasts and, perhaps most importantly, well-produced online donation sites.

It is online that grassroots activism was at its most active, mainly among the young, well-educated classes that proved an invaluable aid to President-elect Obama and his team. Doubtless, their counterparts here, nearly all of them web neophytes, will continue to bemoan voter apathy and media bias. New media affords them the opportunity to tackle both, but one suspects the East Renfrewshire Ladies’ Bowling Association will be quicker to take up regular podcasting.

HOW long does it take to find salvation? I suspect the answer is considerably longer than the average working day. Therefore the Vatican’s reintroduction of a “clocking in” system is surely a dangerous route to go down – nearly 50 years after swipe cards were phased out, senior clerics in Rome must again submit themselves to time-and-motion studies.

From office staff to priests, everyone must now clock in and clock out under the new and improved meritocratic body. As of January, meanwhile, a performance-related pay scheme will begin. It is not known whether Pope Benedict XVI is subject to the same ruthless business efficiency, but surely the new system will introduce an uncharacteristic disharmony across Vatican City? Pity the poor Father who carries out more exorcisms than any other, yet still finds himself struggling at the end of the month

GIVEN their unrelenting ability to fall out of nightclubs blind drunk and demand ever-increasing salaries, it is difficult to find sympathy for the actors of Britain’s beloved soap operas. But the next few months will prove particularly testing times for the members of this elite breed who have fallen on hard times.

Once upon a time, the pantomime was the safety net for Britain’s middling thespians. Taking into account the indignity of having children laugh at them in drag (the actors, that is, not the children), the act paid well and gave tainted stars a fleeting flicker. Now, however, the trend is to import the main attractions. Steve Guttenberg, once upon a time the fresh-faced lead in the Police Academy films, is coming to Britain for a production of Cinderella. So too Mickey Rooney, the only child star now in his ninth decade, is paying the bills with panto. Thanks to their ability to distract us from the important things in life, our soap stars have served us well. Surely now is the time to settle the debt.

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Obama’s Failure … from The Scotsman

TEN months into his historic first term, ill winds gather round President Barack Obama. Domestically, an automotive industry that was beleaguered a year ago has now collapsed altogether, and growing ranks of unemployed demonstrate on the streets. Abroad, hopes of a new dialogue with Russia lie in ruins, his exit policy for Iraq has become the joke of the Senate, and Tehran is on the verge of testing a new nuclear arsenal.

Alone in the Oval Office, drumming his fingers on the timbers of what was once HMS Resolute, Obama looks out at the cold Washington winter and makes what will prove to be the most important decision of his presidency: walking out to the Rose Garden, he bends down at a clump of chrysanthemums and retrieves a small, rectangular packet hidden beneath their flowerheads. After checking the First Lady is out of sight, a flame flickers, and the 44th President of the United States closes his eyes and draws longingly on a Marlboro. “Of all the crises I face,” he says to himself, exhaling a billow of comforting smoke, “not one will now go unsolved.”

His status as a smoker is a facet of President-elect Obama’s character that has rarely been reported. Yet the publication this week of a photograph of a louche young president-to-be, filling his lungs with carcinogens, has ignited debate. The picture, taken during Obama’s college days, kicks into touch the carefully managed presidential campaign that ensured the C-word was seldom mentioned. Now, the US media is keen to establish Obama’s smoking routine. Has he given up? Cut down? Or does he continue to bum cigarettes from aides and light them away from the glare of cameras?

Obama’s position has been contradictory. He has quit, he insists, but admits to periods of “falling off the wagon”. That middle ground, I’m afraid, does not exist. Obama is a smoker, but for that he should not be lambasted. Even President Bush has admitted to smoking a cigar on rare occasions, claiming it helps him think – apparently, he has one every 20 years.

Obama’s habit is far more ingrained, but in numerous other ways he has demonstrated the remarkable self-discipline and resolve that has taken him to the highest political office in the free world. Smoking is not a sign of his weakness, but of his humanity. Were he to admit his battle, it would inspire America’s smokers like no self-help manual or nicotine replacement therapy could. For the moment, though, we should let him puff away. The above hypotheses for 2009 may be grim, but it will be a strenuous year for Obama – if the odd cigarette can ease his stress levels, so be it.

THE time has long since passed when it was novel to be shocked by those programmes from the outer echelons of the digital TV channels. The other day, however, the usually tranquil and jolly nature of a well-known children’s channel was shattered by an advert unequalled in its and depressing message. The placement was for Kidz Claimz, a body of solicitors which specialises in compensation claims for children. Now, financially strapped parents can demand sizeable cheques for those humdrum mishaps that are part of an ordinary childhood.

Little one lodged a Meccano part up the left nostril? You’re entitled to thousands. Has your toddler suffered emotional torment after an unfortunate unison of letters in his plate of alphabet spaghetti? You’ll be a millionaire! How long before hard-up parents, sensing a ruse, push that bit harder on the swing?

GIVEN that he launched the Teletubbies’ musical career, I hold no faith in Simon Cowell’s powers of aural discernment. But I fail to understand the internet campaigners determined to prevent The X Factor winner’s single becoming the Christmas No 1.

Alexandra Burke’s recording of Hallelujah is on course for the top spot, but tens of thousands have downloaded Jeff Buckley’s version. Organisers claim to be fighting “cynical manufactured pop dirtying up our charts”. Surely this is akin to protesting about greed in the financial sector? It is, and will forever be, one of life’s givens.

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With the Obscene … from The Scotsman

THE last time I checked, a meteorite hadn’t turned Stansted Airport into a smouldering Abbadon where the horned one and his locust minions danced amid the rubble and flames, sacrificing the two remaining teenage virgins in Britain in honour of the impending arrival of mankind’s new giant ant rulers.

The chap in seat 7C, however, did his utmost to suggest that, since Armageddon was upon us, we might as well enjoy a carbohydrate-rich last meal. Such was the haste with which he destroyed a ciabatta, it had been digested before the wrapper was off. When the drinks trolley teetered out of sight, a packet of cheesy biscuits had fallen victim to his appetite. By the time the scratchcards were dished out, a Twix was meeting an ignoble yet dignified end, each finger slipping silently into the black hole of his gullet.

Apart from following Nicola Sturgeon to her hairdresser to ascertain whether she pays him or vice versa, I do not consider myself the prying sort. But it was impossible to look away from this snack serial killer: only an hour before, I witnessed his consumption of a full English breakfast in a departure lounge cafE.

Snacking, it seems, is an omnipresent force that knows no limits – least of all the vast mark-ups on in-flight grub. Consumer watchdogs this week warned passengers they face paying through the nose for airline foodstuffs, pointing out that Ryanair charges as much as 16 for a sandwich, crisps, coffee, water, and red wine.

“It’s hard to believe some airlines charge so much for food and drink, especially when the cost of the flight is often so low,” was the flabbergasted response from Lorna Cowan, the editor of Which? Holiday.

What guff. It is precisely because the flights are so cheap that the meagre, reheated fare costs an arm. In any case, such a report is meaningless whatever the alarm its conclusions cause. Expense will never deter passengers from opening their wallets and stomachs, even on the short flight times of budget airlines. It has become a human condition that whenever in transit, we are obliged to graze – no wonder the term cattle class exists.

Even a perfunctory bus or train journey has become punctuated by the popping of crisp packets and the sound of melting chocolate being stirred around by eager tongues. I have every sympathy for the time-pressed commuter who squeezes in a nutrition hit on cramped, early morning journeys, but I doubt the majority of those who partake are plagued by hunger. It is, more likely, a combination of boredom and elephantine greed. We have already banned smoking on public transport. Next, we must line up the sweet chilli Mini Cheddars in our sights.

SECRETLY, today is cause for celebration among the nation’s menfolk. Birthdays, anniversaries and times of heartfelt apology aside, we need not wrap another present for a full year. Gift-wrapping is an act women cherish, part of the entire Christmas experience. Every little ribbon, tag and flourish is symbolic for the special place the recipient holds in their hearts. Men, on the other hand, see a necessary evil. Hence the genius of one company’s ‘Crap Wrap’ service, which uses ripped paper, uneven edges, and brown parcel tape, so as to fool wives and girlfriends into thinking it was all their own work.

It is not, you understand, that we are incapable of emulating a woman’s artistry, but nature has denied us the temperament and poise to spend an hour in the company of Sellotape without uttering two hundred profanities and draining four bottles of mulled wine to numb the emotional trauma.

POPE Benedict XVI has infuriated and perplexed many by suggesting the battle to save humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is as important as protecting rainforests. “I’m gay and I work for an environmental organisation,” one reader pointed out. “Does this mean I’m going to hell?”

Though I do not agree with the Pontiff’s message, I was rather taken with his all-encompassing and Euro-cheesy rhetoric, what with mention of the “language of creation” and an “ecology of man”. Has he been listening to his Dana International albums, by any chance?

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Exercise and Monster Munch … from The Scotsman

MY FATHER always knew best how to handle The Questions foisted upon him by parenthood. It was around 23BG (Before Google) when, aged six, I offered him the opportunity to deal with the hardest of them all. Enthused by a particularly Walter Hill-style wildlife programme on the friendliness enjoyed by the Kalahari desert’s meerkat community, I prompted him to put forward his rationale of rumpy pumpy.

Judging by his expression, I thought I was receiving my answer in mime. Turned out he was simply mulling – panicking, to be precise – over how best to dispel the myths of the stork and the cabbage patch. His twin-pronged solution should form the centrepiece of every parenting manual: take your child for a gruelling four-hour hike, before sitting them down with a packet of roast beef-flavour Monster Munch.

The first ensures fatigue will have sapped the child of any remaining inquisition; the second guarantees silence when they are being told the lurid detail (albeit with a small risk of choking). The ruse proved successful and to this day I hold a full, healthy and invigorating meerkat neurosis. A year or so later, he refined his approach (pickled onion this time, my palate was maturing) to break the news that some people did not believe in Santa, but everyone was entitled to their own view.

Again, it proved a sage tactic, but it has been trumped by events this week at the Lapland New Forest attraction in Dorset. Envisaged as a magical festive experience for all the family, featuring reindeers, log cabins, a skating rink and a magical tunnel of light, visitors who paid 25 a head discovered a winter wonderland fit only for Dickens’s Tiny Tim, with huskies tied up on wasteground and the Nativity scene crudely rendered on a billboard.

So irate was one patron after waiting in line to see Santa for four hours, he duly delivered a right hook to Saint Nick’s not inconsiderable jowls. One child was reported to have burst into tears after discovering Santa smoking out the back of his grotto, while three elves were slapped (even when fury blinds your senses, you still can’t punch little people).

The park, run by Victor Mears, once convicted as a tax fraudster, has elicited more than 2,000 complaints, while Dorset County Council’s trading standards department is reporting “terrible stories of real human misery”. That, I suppose, is one way to look on it. But surely Mears and his staff are doing parents a favour of sorts? There is no need for awkward, stilted answers to the Santa Question. Simply take your children to Lapland New Forest, where not only will they learn Santa relies on the helpers he can muster, but that he is often a poor judge of character.

One wonders, for instance, whether Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg is conscious of the ironic nature of his downfall.Presiding over the last remaining grand duchy in the world, Henri was expected by most to avoid controversy and follow a quiet path of self-preservation. Instead, the 53-year-old is to be stripped of his executive power to veto laws passed by parliament after threatening to block a Bill. The subject of the legislation? Euthanasia.

OUR LURID and damaging fascination with celebrity may have become so all-encompassing in modern culture that protest seems churlish, but when such pursuits are dressed up in the robes of academia, new depths are being plumbed.

The troubled life of Amy Winehouse is to form the basis of a new diploma and degree-level course at a Scottish university. The University of the West of Scotland, which only came into being last year, is striving to compete with other seats of learning by scrutinising the breakdowns and addictions of pop’s leading lights.

“Amy is a great example of the potential pitfalls in the music industry,” reasons Allan Dumbreck, head of commercial music at the university. “She is recognised as a multi-award-winning great artist. But the by-product of that lifestyle can be stress and illness.” What possible career can graduates of this course aspire to? Fact-checkers for Heat?

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Take a Tip … from The Scotsman

IN THE city of romance, even the rogue elements obey the rules of sentiment. Such was the splendour of our surroundings, my girlfriend and I took little notice of the well-heeled young Parisian walking towards us as we meandered along the Quai d’Orsay.

To our right, the Eiffel Tower’s pyramid of iron rose from a light carpet of snow, while on the other bank of a peaceful Seine, the pomp and glory of the Grand Palais shone through the January fog. The pavement, therefore, was the last place our eyes were trained. The young man, however, suggested that was where the greatest treasures lay. As we passed, he pointed to the ground. Stooping down, he picked up a gold band and attempted to slide it over his ring finger, letting out an audible sigh upon discovering his knuckle a stubby barrier to progress.

Gesturing to us, he took my hand and found the ring an effortless fit. “Bonne chance, bonne chance!” he exclaimed with a smile, before turning on his heel and making to walk away. There would, though, be one final thing, monsieur. “Je n’ai pas d’argent, pour manger,” he pleaded. Still laughing, I handed him a few euros and returned the band before it stained my finger a lurid shade of green.

The ruse, I later learned, is as old as a bottle of vintage Chateau Margaux. Over the next two hours, we were stopped no fewer than three times by practitioners of the old trick, some more convincing than others (hint to the young lady outside the Louvre: don’t be seen to throw the ring on the ground before affecting your surprised expression). It is a deceit that has doubtless lightened the pockets of many tourists too befuddled with pocket maps, or too damn gullible, to see through it.

Yet the genteel charm of the concept means it is no scam in my eyes. Where else in the world would the machinations of a con artist leave the victim with a warm glow? Between the late-19th and mid-20th century, our streets were awash with all manner of refined hustlers, men who realised criminality need not be a crude affair. Their sobriquets are all but forgotten: the Limehouse Chappie, Overcoat Kelly and my favourite, Slobbering Bob.

Nowadays we harbour only apathy or suspicion towards any passing stranger wielding nothing more than a smile, while the only artifice we encounter is through spam e-mails from the proprietors of Nigerian gold reserves.The grifters are overdue a return. Given how fatigued we are of chuggers, perhaps they could work the streets on charities’ behalf, keeping the odd coin as reward for their skill and insouciance?

THERE are certain routine occurrences in the realm of Scottish politics that send the nibs of the fourth estate into a flurry of disapproval – none more so than the annual list of MSP expenses.The transparency of the scheme is a joy to journalists, who can quickly harvest major stories, the latest of which involved Bill Butler, the Labour MSP who appeared to try and claim back a 1 charity donation, before claiming it was an oversight.

The categories of expenses cover a spectrum of ordinary costs, such as office rent or stationery bills. Mischievous hacks, however, might choose to closer examine other claims. Only four MSPs – Jim Mather, Jamie McGrigor, Jamie Stone and David Stewart – recouped money for “exceptional needs refreshments”. Does the fact all four represent Highland constituencies prove that old central-belt stereotype that they drink a hell of a lot more up north?

IT IS impossible to second-guess the attitudes of the general public, even less so to rationalise their myriad idiosyncrasies. This month, Oxfam Scotland has been touring the nation’s boltholes in an effort to encourage people to make changes for 2009 that will benefit not only them, but also the environment. Unprompted, some citizens have offered the charity’s staff their own mystifying top tips. One shopper, tired of throwing out unused milk bought for his teabreak, enthused about freezing the white stuff in ice-cube trays. It’s admirable, if curious – who wants a cold cuppa?

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Australia Needs … from The Scotsman

THE image of Olive Oyl wearing only an under-sized leather-look bondage suit, her mouth faintly visible through the steel zip, is not one I wish to have burned into my retinas – though perhaps, in a rare moment of weakness, Popeye, bewitched by her gummy grin after a dearth of spinach, would disagree.

Such a vision, or some approximation of it, doubtless exists – the internet is home to countless such dark nooks. No matter how inscrutable their purpose or lewd their design, these pictures are created because someone out there enjoys the result and believes others will share their appreciation. All it takes is Google and a few words that most people would never think of putting together.

Alan McEwan is one such individual. This week, he found himself the owner of a criminal record after an Australian judge ruled a series of cartoons featuring characters from The Simpsons engaged in sexual acts was tantamount to child pornography.

The animations, found on his computer, depicted figures based on family members from the animated show. They included child characters, such as Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, all of whom had been rendered with human genitalia.

Appealing against his conviction in February of possessing child pornography and using his computer to access it, McEwan argued that such fictional characters could not be considered people, as they “plainly and deliberately” departed from the human form.

Justice Michael Adams, however, ruled that under the relevant laws, even a likeness of a cartoon character could be classified as a “person”. “The mere fact that the figure depicted departed from a realistic representation in some respects of a human being did not mean that such a figure was not a ‘person’,” he said in his ruling at the New South Wales Supreme Court.

Child pornography is not an issue that lends itself to nuanced discussion, and few would argue McEwan’s hard drive contained the most enlightened of material. It was without question boorish, and to many offensive, but to consider it sufficient to name him as a paedophile is bewildering.

If McEwan is guilty of any law, then it is breach of copyright, but more importantly, he has demonstrated poor taste. One suspects he is the kind of individual who would forward such material to his colleagues’ inboxes on a quiet afternoon without recourse to thought or possible repercussion.

But for a court of law to wield such powerful legislation to prosecute against personal inclinations – or perversities, depending on your viewpoint – is an absurd step. The likes of Spongebob should keep his Squarepants firmly on, but for those unable to resist temptation, we should not confuse crassness with criminality.

I WAS still in short trousers when the last broken beer bottle was swept from the Apollo’s floor, but the music venue’s legend lives on in Glasgow. Notorious for its baying crowds and drunken atmosphere, some of the biggest names in music spent uneasy evenings on its stage, including the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and The Clash.

Now it’s to be commemorated in a new musical, entitled I Was There. It seems a candied medium in which to pay homage to tales of excess and violence, but the Apollo’s stories deserve to be cemented into rock folklore. A personal favourite comes from the theatre’s first general manager, who recalls the crowd being distinctly underwhelmed by a tired, emotional Lou Reed. Noticing two parallel lines scraped across the stage floor, he asked a member of staff what had caused them. “They were made by Lou’s boots as they dragged him back into the dressing room,” came the reply.

THE Foreign Secretary’s wish that India and Pakistan forge “close links” after the Mumbai attacks is all very well, but Britain has done little to ease the two nations’ volatile relationship.The Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued licences for 82.5 million of British arms exports to India last year, including components for electronic warfare equipment and components, combat aircraft, and munitions-launching gear. Pakistan, meanwhile, benefited from 18 million of exports, including components for air-to-air missile control and military utility helicopters. Regardless of your enemies, the British government is always your friend.

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Baleful Tirade … from The Scotsman

IT WILL be the great Hollywood moment that trumps even From Here to Eternity for emotional frankness. In a desolate land ravaged by a war that has claimed the lives of generations, a lone leatherclad warrior bends over the cyborg he fatally wounded only moments before. Cupping its metal skull, he kisses it softly. “I’m so, so sorry, Cyberdyne Systems Model 101,” he cries, “I’ll never understand why we fought so hard for so long.” Gently jutting towards him, the machine whispers its last power cell, before its flickering red eye becomes one with the night sky. “No, no, that’s not true!” howls the warrior. “You’re not my father!”

It would be a jumping-the-shark moment for the Terminator films, but according to the apologists of Warner Bros, it explains the callow pique of Christian Bale, who has been roundly condemned for his tirade against a humble crew technician he accused of “trashing his scene” on the set of the latest addition to the series. The four-minute recording, during which Bale employs language that would curl the corners of a carpet in a Niddrie pub, has been defended by Bruce Franklin, the film’s assistant editor.

“If you are working in a very intense scene and someone takes you out of your groove …” said Franklin, tiptoeing his way unconvincingly towards an explanation. “It was the most emotional scene in the movie, and for him to get stopped in the middle of it… he is very intensely involved in his character.” Correct me if I am wrong, but this is Terminator Salvation, not Othello. To what degree must Bale prepare himself for a popcorn franchise, the plot of which boasts more holes than a doughnut factory?

Bale has been silent on the issue, but his sympathisers – mainly men in their early thirties who eat sandwiches prepared by their mothers from Dark Knight lunchboxes – draw parallels between him and gifted hellraisers of Hollywood past. Figures like Richard Harris, who sculpted memorable screen presence despite, or perhaps because of, confounding and infuriating personal flaws. This is not on. First, Harris and his ilk could swear with far greater inventiveness and aplomb. Second, and more important, they were spared the self-conscious love of their craft that afflicts Bale.

He undoubtedly has acting ability, but seems to consider it necessary to engineer hardship and trauma to do justice to his role, once insisting it is the actors “prepared to make fools of themselves who are usually the ones who come to mean something to the audience”. And a fool he surely is. What will he do to prepare for Terminator 5? Hang around a Meccano factory in the name of method acting?

WITH crushing inevitability they bombard Britain in heavy flurries, sparing no front page or breaking news bulletin. And by the time the streets are awash with an unwelcome slush, so too they have melted away. So is it not time for us to question the curious science of business leaders who claim that icy spells cost Britain millions, if not billions of pounds?

This week, prominent coverage was given to the claim by Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses that snowy weather-related absenteeism will deny the economy some £3.5 billion. It is a figure derived from the FSB estimates on Bank Holidays and some guesswork.

Mr Alambritis – a man who one suspects times how long he spends on the loo – gave examples of the huge losses. “Schoolchildren are not buying sweets, they are not buying dinners,” he panicked. I know childhood obesity is a problem, but £3.5 billion is a hell of a lot of Crunchies.

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Persuading Obama … from The Scotsman

THERE are times on the international stage when the politicians of our capable country forfeit all dignity and discernment to behave like drunks attempting to gatecrash a house party, doggedly shimmying up the drainpipe even when it is clear an invitation has not been extended their way. In a way, one cannot blame Murdo Fraser or Gavin Brown. Conservative MSPs are like own-brand supermarket batteries: without power or promise. Their only opportunity to affirm their very existence is a fanciful motion or photocall – and so it proved this week.

At a time when the world has cause for reflection and renewed hope with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the US president, the Tories hitched their trailer to the bandwagon. The shadow education and enterprise ministers have urged the 44th president to celebrate his new office by creating his own tartan. On Obama’s behalf, they claimed him Wan Of Us, courtesy of a distant ancestry stretching as far back as William the Lion. Describing his masterplan, Mr Brown, a man spared the burden of self-awareness, said: “I am writing to President Obama and I hope he looks favourably on the idea.”

Apologies for crushing the member for Lothian’s dreams, but were President Obama to receive another letter, the words scrawled in green crayon and slevver spelling out “I kNOw wHERe THe rOSWEll aLIeNs aRE hiDDEN”, it would be welcomed more favourably. Modern genealogical research is a remarkable tool by which anyone can uncover stories seemingly lost to time’s tide, and glean a rounder appreciation of self.

However, when shamelessly employed to tie the world’s elite to a tenuous and immaterial Caledonian lineage it harms, not aids, Scotland’s reputation. Such a gesture suggests our country is without worth or validity unless we can bask in the reflected glory of someone whose far-off forebears chose the route of emigration.

In our Year of Homecoming, the pride of the Scottish diaspora is a wonderful asset, but it should remain an amorphous, romantic notion. To dissect the ancestry of the world’s great and good gives the impression of a country whose only source of nourishment and respect is the past.

There are other nations with more right to claim President Obama as their own than ours, but if he is to wear his own tartan, let it be because he is impressed with the modern Scotland, not because his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather got his arse skelped by Henry II.

HOLLYWOOD’S reputation as a town that eats itself was further enhanced yesterday, with the announcement that a live-action Tom and Jerry movie is in pre-production. Self-cannibalisation has been a prevailing trend in the film industry for the best part of two decades, and it is no longer surprising to find old ideas reheated and repackaged.

The mooted Tom and Jerry feature, however, takes the biscuit for sheer desperation. According to Variety, instead of simply rendering the pair’s frantic chases and fights in CGI, the producers are marketing it as “an origin story”, examining how the two met and the basis of their ongoing rivalry.

What would William Hanna and Joseph Barbera make of an “origin story”? I’ll explain the backstory of Tom and Jerry concisely as possible: one is a cat, the other is a mouse. No further context required. What next? The story of Yogi Bear’s harrowing formative years in a Moscow circus?

EVEN if it’s only temporary, it is heartening to see a reprieve has been given to Gary McKinnon. The computer hacker could spend the rest of his life in a US “Supermax” prison, simply for his fascination with UFOs and conspiracy theories.

The Scot’s extradition has been postponed until next month, and his lawyers are calling for a judicial review on the grounds the courts have not taken into account his Asperger’s syndrome.

That a confused and vulnerable citizen faces extradition to the US with such ease shows how terrorism legislation brought in by our government to protect its people is having precisely the opposite effect.

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The BNP … from The Scotsman

I HAVE never agreed with the journalistic school of thought that the British National Party should be exposed or derided at every turn. This is not because I believe it should be denied the oxygen of publicity, I simply feel external scrutiny is not required when the party’s own members do such an outstanding job of ridiculing their own cause.

The BNP has come under fire for selling White Cliffs of Dover, a compilation album featuring classic wartime songs. Two of the numbers are by Dame Vera Lynn, and the 91-year-old has had to interrupt her retirement to threaten Nick Griffin’s party with legal action and denounce any association with its ideology. Employing every iota of his charm and wit, Simon Darby, a BNP spokesman, countered: “She can complain but it is not going to do her any good.”

Such grace towards an upset nonagenarian adds fuel to the fire, but the BNP has also provided ample ammunition for self-ridicule in the rest of the album’s songs. The track listing includes recordings by bandleaders Joe Loss and Bert Ambrose, comedian Bud Flanagan, and composer Irving Berlin, all of whom where Jewish.

The highlight, however, is the inclusion of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, an iconic wartime hit about a virtuoso trumpet player. It was made famous by the Andrews Sisters, but the BNP has favoured a version by Leslie Hutchinson, or as London high society knew him, “Hutch”. As a bisexual black man who enjoyed mixed-race affairs with the upper echelons of British society, Hutch is not the sort one would expect to curry favour with ardent nationalists.

Born in Grenada, he mastered jazz and ragtime piano in New York, where he enjoyed a tempestuous affair with Cole Porter. By the time he arrived in Britain in the late 1920s, stardom beckoned. Resplendent at his white piano, he captivated audiences with his strange new sounds, including several members of the Royal family.

Perhaps his most ardent fan was Lady Mountbatten, with whom it is alleged he enjoyed an on-off affair over three decades. So taken was Edwina with the young musician, she showered him with expensive gifts, including, it is said, a jewelled penis sheath from Cartier.

Even if this information stifles sales of the CD, the BNP’s commercial arm, Excalibur, can count upon a wealth of merchandise to boost its coffers. It has taken to selling a comprehensive range of golliwogs “in response to the increased politically correct leftist hysteria”, and markets the branded rulers, jewellery, letter-openers, T-shirts and mousemats – not all of which, one suspects, have been manufactured on these shores. Jingoism – some may prefer harsher words – leaves no room for nuance.

APART from the permanent fawning over Apple products, has any company received so much free publicity as Twitter? For weeks now, printing presses have been clogged with the same four-step process that awaits all new online trends:

(i) The technology trade press marvel about its potential

(ii) Days later, broadsheet tech journalists offer similarly effusive praise

(iii) Double-page spreads pop up offering “how to” guides for the uninitiated, with customary side panel on celebrity users of said trend

(iv) Mainstream commentary pieces begin a backlash, with expressions of deliberate bewilderment, and start claiming it is “just a fad”.

All this happened to Friends Reunited, Bebo and MySpace. Yesterday, though, a story in one newspaper set a new standard. The headline read: “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer.”What if you’re drinking a glass of red wine at the time?

THE worldwide economic rammy has claimed many a scalp, not least the new rich of Russia’s hinterlands. Given that the buoyancy of their bank accounts depends on the health of the energy markets, it is no surprise the number of Russian billionaires has fallen by half in just 12 months. The nation’s richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, has even pulled out of a deal to buy the Villa Leopolda, a Belle Epoque mansion on the Cte d’Azur, in the process losing his £37m deposit. All of us are discovering new lessons and discipline in this time of hardship. A minority, though, will remain forever ignorant to the difference between price and value.

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Thirty Pounds … from The Scotsman

IAN WILSON is a man with a face like a clenched fist who believes he is the vanguard of a moral crusade.

Having taken early retirement from his career as a childcare worker, he has time aplenty to devote to his cause. Every morning, he fills the pockets of his overcoat with crisp pink notes and maps, before tightening the knot of his tie so that his complexion assumes the exact shade of outraged purple.

After a well-balanced breakfast, he leaves his well-appointed home in the Renfrewshire commuter village of Kilbarchan, and wanders the streets and thoroughfares of Glasgow in search of the Fallen. It does not take long. They are plentiful on the streets of Scotland’s largest city – sorry forms, hunched unblinking before a flurry of polished brogues and heels.

Mr Wilson is one of the few who stop. Here, like a man sat in a bath of whisky, he will preach his sermon of indignation and resentment. He asks his unwilling flock why they squat on pavements and in doorways without shame or pride. Then, he reaches into his overcoat. He hands one of the Fallen a 20 note and a sheet of paper. The note does not bear the face of the Queen, but that of a children’s cartoon character. On the paper is laid out directions to the nearest Jobcentre Plus.

The gift, says Mr Wilson, represents a “helpful suggestion.” He does not understand the Fallen. Why, he wonders, do they sit on cold streets holding up pieces of cardboard, when they could devote their time to searching for gainful employment?

Mr Wilson resents the fact many of the Fallen receive benefits, yet continue to beg. Some of them, he has been told, can make up to 30 a day. That turns his cheeks an even richer hue of purple. Only the junkies madden him more.

Mr Wilson insists he bears no animosity to any other member of mankind, and denies the suggestion that his gift is more insult than suggestion. One of the Fallen, he recalls incredulously, reported him to a constable of Strathclyde Police, who warned Mr Wilson that while he was not breaking the law, he might get into “bother.”

It has not deterred him. When prompted, he will recount an ideology as strong and resolute as a ship’s hull. “This is about our culture of having decent, hard-working folk paying for this lot who harass us and hang about our streets,” he states.

His work for the day done, he returns to well-appointed home for a well-balanced evening meal. He prepares more crisp, pink notes, before settling down for a full night’s rest. Tomorrow, after all, Mr Wilson must pose yet more questions, the answers to which are infinitely more complex than he could ever imagine.

IT IS with embarrassment that I now consider a documentary on tarmacadam an ideal evening’s viewing. The blame for this EL Wisty-esque development lies squarely with my girlfriend, who was born and partly raised (her family relocated, she’s not semi-feral) on Fair Isle.

At the start of our relationship, I could not shake a romantic fascination with her birthplace. She met every query with the same answer: “I was three when we left.” But this week, we finally tracked down a 1978 documentary on Britain’s most remote inhabited island from the Scottish Screen Archive.

Within three minutes, we were watching her father, Jim Wilson, resplendent in a polyester tie-dye T-shirt and bell-bottoms, commandeering a steam roller, resurfacing one of Fair Isle’s single-track roads. I like to think that courtesy of her surname, she has some Byzantine legal right to return and live on Fair Isle. What better place to escape the recession?

I WOULD never dare to accuse Joe Galliott, the man who this week became trapped under his sofa for two days, of hoodwinking a nation. Perhaps his traumatic experience has laid siege to the clarity of his recollections. Something, though, is askew. Wearing a white vest and sloppy grin, the 65-year-old told the press this week of how he fell against the three-seater sofa in his Somerset home, which suddenly flipped, catching him “like a rat in a trap”. Stranded for over two days, the retired bricklayer survived by sipping from a bottle of whisky that “had rolled within reach”. Am I the only one to question the chronology of these events?

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