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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A visit to Scotland

Just returned from my first visit to Scotland for 7 years. Scotland is a small country but in my 11 days I saw four very different aspects.  An important wedding – that of my youngest daughter! - took me south to rural Dumfries county for the initial three days. I stayed in a glorious mansion with a roaring log-fire (needed for the cold) just outside Ecclefechan village – home to Thomas Carlyle whose commentary on the French Revolution lives on. 
For the wedding I hired (fom Annan town) the full kilt regalia – complete with sgian dbu (dagger) tucked in my right sock! 
Of course there are a lot of myths associated with tartan – in which the writer Walter Scott played a significant part – although it is true that its wearing was banned by the English for 40 years after the 1745 uprising. But I do enjoy wearing it (now mainly when entertaining guests) and did indeed buy a new one later in Glasgow.

Wigtown is Scotland’s only booktown – and led me to undertake my first tour of Galloway which hugs the Solway and River Clyde Estuaries and which is highly agricultural. Such well-kept farms and grass – and such large animals! And such narrow roads. Serendipidy pulled me off the road at Gatehouse on Fleet – where I discovered precisely the sort of second-hand bookshop I was looking for – Anwoth Books located in a superbly-restored old mill. Two of the five books I emerged with were by a forgotten writer from my home town – George Blake -  whose novels are based in the shipbuilding town of Garvel (Greenock) in the 1930s and 1940s. Both books covered topics close to my heart. 
My “Late Harvest” was a first edition (1938) from Collins with a suitable elegant old book cover and glorious font (Fontana – “a new typeface designed for the exclusive use of the House of Collins”. The book starts with evocative passages about the handover of a church by a retiring minister to a serious young cleric - just at the time my own father was taking up his new charge in that same town. 
The subject of the second book is the return of an engineer in the late 1930s to Garvel after several deacdes in the Far East to take up retirement (as he had hoped) in a small town on the other side of the river – the arches which are in the title - The Five Arches – refer to the stages of life.
Both books are written in a style we find difficult these days - with people and scenes painted in a detail we seldom now encounter. Evidence perhaps of the effect of television?
For those interested in Britain's second-hand bookshops (one of the few things I miss about the country) a very useful website can be found here.
Two days then followed for me in that same Greenock area – but fast forward 70 years to a town which has known very hard times now for some 30 years with the almost complete disappearance of the shipbuilding industry. IBM has had a presence in Greenock since 1951 and seemed to offer some hope as shipbuilding collapsed. But the labour force there no longer build PCs (IBM sold that division out to Lenovo of China a few years ago); is now reduced to 2,000; and work now only in an international call centre. Official unemployment is just over 10% - but in reality much higher as people give up trying for jobs.  The only booming places are the huge Tesco hypermarket and the Amazon distribution centre. 
I am always depressed when I visit the town centre – bodies and behaviour tell a grim story of hopelessness. And so different from the spirit I felt in the East End of Glasgow a few days later – which has, however, the same history of insecure jobs, low wages, industrial decline and recent property regeneration. 
I was staying in Dennistoun and had the chance to explore, for the first time, Glasgow’s East End which has been experiencing massive physical change over the past 3 decades. Now it is positively exhilarating to see the greenery - where there was once smoky industry – and the superb red sandstone public buildings of the Victorian era – with glorious carvings - now cleaned of their grime.  

In between times I had a day touring in my favourite place - Cowal and Kintyre - starting with the lovely ferry trip to Dunoon. Once the location of the US Polaris nuclear missile base, it is one of several towns and villages now threatened with terminal decline.

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