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Of the people, by the people.

October 7, 2017

More  by accident than design, I have found myself in Spain for the past week, over the period of the Catalán Referendum and its aftermath.

I have been in and around Valencia, three and a half hours south of Barcelona, so I can make no eye witness claims as to happenings in Catalunya – but it has been interesting to view the week’s events developing, from a position in Spain, but   outwith  the “eye of the storm”.

State broadcaster, TVE, much like the BBC’s coverage of Scots affairs, is unsurprisingly very much on the side of the status quo, and this has shown in its unbalanced reportage of events in the Catalán capital. However, this has been an occasion when “citizen journalism”, often much, and rightly, maligned, seems to have come good – a lesson for some involved in Scottish political affairs, perhaps – that balanced and fair reporting has more impact that partisan half truth. Also, a  special reference to the Ferret’s Peter Geoghegan for his insights during the week.

A couple of years ago I was in Valencia for  their October 9th Valencia National Day parade, also marked as the Feast of San Dionisio, the patron saint of lovers. It was a glorious festive occasion with the Valencians’ obvious love of their history, culture and autonomy superbly displayed. Of Spanish flags, there were none, only those of Valencia, and the parade was unremittingly positive and upbeat, the atmosphere  only faltering slightly as the local Commander of the Guardia Civil and his entourage passed. It was a reminder that, while the majority of Valenciens seem to accept their current level of autonomy, the Spanish state might well be advised not to take that acquesience for granted.

On that basis, I wondered about local reaction to events in Catalunya. Many, Valenciens, I suspect, are bored with the ongoing focus on the country to the north, and others may fear the consequences of their rich neighbour becoming independent. However, generally, as is the case in the more progressive parts of Spain, irrespective of personal political beliefs, there seems to be an acceptance that the Catalans have the right to vote on their future and the right to act on the result.

As is often  the case, however, it is the central power’s reaction  to the attempt to exercise those rights which has engendered most attention. The heavy handedness of the Madrid government, in sending in paramilitary police and Guardia Civil to attempt to block the vote, has not gone down well with those who remember and reject the years of Franco (though those who have privately kept the Falange flag flying are delighted at the sight of “firm government”). The downright and demonstrable  lies of Spanish Government officials, coupled with a supremely ill judged intervention from the pathetic remnant of a discredited monarchy, have only served to ignite fire in the middle of the smokescreen of obfuscation.

Where nations are united in a political state, there is generally a declaration that this is “a union of equals” – for the good of all involved. However, if one partner attempts to act as an equal and is slapped down, the foundation and rationale of that union becomes less and less tenable. It happened in Scotland when after many “declarations of love” for Scotland during the Referendum campaign, David Cameron made an ill judged attack, along the lines of “back in your box”, before the vote counting was even finished, and the current UK Government makes no secret at all of its disdain for Scotland’s democratic rights, especially in its handling of a  Brexit for which the country did not vote. The UK Government’s unsatisfactory response to Spanish state violence at the polls in Catalunya serves as an indicator of its current  thinking on Scotland’s rights as a nation within a state.

Catalunya, and watching millions, have seen clear evidence over the past week that Madrid is as much an enemy of its people as it was in Franco’s day, and that its continuing membership of the Spanish state is not in its best interests. The fact that, as I write this,  Spanish state army convoys are headed towards Barcelona, merely underlines this fact in graphic form.

Similarly vivid was the contrast between press pictures of Guardia Civil violence against would be voters, and the iconic pictures of Catalán police saluting the people as they sang “Els Segadors”, the Catalunyan National Anthem.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.27.24

Picture SER Catalunya

Apart from the fact that Catalunyan independence seems inevitable, the precise way forward is still unclear. The country looks likely to declare its independence on Monday and will then put in place its contingency plans. These, of course, will very much depend on the reaction of Madrid and their European and international colleagues. Whilst negotiations would seem to be the only rational  route to progress, there are currently few signs that this will be the favoured first option of the Spanish government.

When people are convinced that a government is not serving their wishes or is not hearing their concerns, the result can be either insurrectional violence, or a dysfunctional politics where voters chose to give the politicians a bloody nose, rather than vote for meaningful policies. In Scotland and Catalunya, this has ended in votes towards independence, in England, long bereft of a post colonial sense of its own  identity, this has translated into votes for UKIP and Brexit.

Where government is broken, people will either attempt to take events into their own hands, or seek alternative models.  Where the ruling powers have a post colonial need to “rule” others, this will be seen as sedition, rather than an evolution towards more effective and appropriate  models of governance. Both Spain and the UK are entities looking for a role in the world after having lost Empires. In both states, devolution was born out of a desire to keep control, rather than any recognition of a democratic deficit; it is universally accepted that power devolved is power retained, and both states are currently providing clear proof of this in their actions – towards Catalunyan independence and Scotland’s place in Brexit. All views of “British values” involve a looking back towards “world power” status and war time exploits. Even where these views are accurate, and often they are complete misrepresentations of what actually happened, they present a view of the current UK which is hopelessly outdated and accepted by nobody with a balanced or informed view of history

For Scotland or Catalunya to gain independence is not a condemnation  of what has gone before, nor is it the product of hate, disdain, or bigotry, it is merely a recognition that a construct, which once may have worked to the benefit of both partners, no longer works  for one, or indeed, both,  of them, and should therefore be remodelled.

This is obvious to all, outside of the most non-progressive thinkers in both Spain and the UK. Even the Labour Party, which espouses the majority of SNP policies, need to understand that a progressive Scotland, and its neighbourly example, is the most hopeful means of promoting progressive policies in England, a country which often seems enthralled by the self interested policies of Conservatism. Labour needs to jettison its current  obsession with the Union, and move away from  a mindset which seems to suggest if the Labour voters of England can’t benefit from a Labour policy, then neither should SNP voters in Scotland. Listening to the people? Serving their wishes?

Catalunya is not Scotland. In much the same way, Scotland is not a Nordic country. However, it should be understood that, when comparisons are made, there is not necessarily any attempt to allege huge similarities, but rather to point out that if Scotland where in a  position to  work with such countries and adapt such policies as would be appropriate, this would be of benefit to all. At present this possibility is severely limited by the UK government’s anglocentric view of the world.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating of all UK weaknesses is its refusal to learn from others, and its deluded belief that “British” ideas are always best. Such parochialism is disastrous in terms of the political and social health  of the state.

Both Scotland and Catalunya can benefit from joining the international community, learning from it, and sharing with it. Just as importantly, these benefits can be felt in Spain and in England too. Post independence, all countries involved would benefit from a stronger and more equal partnership.

How good it would be to proceed on such a positive course, where a country’s politics is able to reflect the wishes of its people, where the voter could be engaged by the link between political process and the realities of everyday life – and how far we seem to be from politicians in London or Madrid who can espouse such vision!


Somebody who knows me

August 29, 2017

I became a guidance teacher  in 1978, 18 months or so  into my teaching career. Having been to school in England, I wasn’t sure what “guidance” entailed, but the headteacher who appointed me assured me that my commitment to the school, and good relationships with pupils, parents and staff, equipped me well for this new sector in Scottish secondary schools.

The “Orange Paper”, which suggested the need for a guidance support system  had been published in 1968, under the name of “Guidance in Scottish Secondary Schools”. Its central tenet was that “that each pupil knows and is known personally and in some depth by at least one member of staff”.

The establishment of the  structure was timely and was put in place relatively quickly. It was a response to changes in society which had impacted on the  stability of family life and the longevity of jobs and residential locations. Teachers realised that there were more “second families” and single parent families, and that there was a greater movement of pupils between schools than there had been immediately post war. Young people reacted to these life changes in different ways, some coping better than others, but all affected by instability, unpredictability, or uncertainty. In some cases, this  influenced their behaviour in school  and the chances of fulfilling academic potential.

The “Orange Paper” recognised that the presence of somebody outside of the family who could maintain a neutral view and support the pupils and their families,  in and out of school, would have a highly positive impact on the education of the “whole child.

The guidance role was one which I loved and maintained through 38 years in the profession, ending up as a Depute Head in charge of Guidance. To me the importance of a pastoral approach in schools was beyond dispute.

The ten year report on Guidance in 1986, called, appropriately, “More than Feelings of Concern”, reflected on the structure’s initial success but correctly stated that there was a need for more professional training for guidance staff – a progression which came to pass.

The need to accept and act on the premise that a young person’s development within and outwith school was something to be promoted and safeguarded generated many initiatives. In the Lothians, the redoubtable Councillor Elizabeth McGiness developed the idea of a “Youth Strategy”. This brought together professionals from Education, Health, Social Services, Educational Psychology, Community Education, and the Police.

At monthly meetings, their brief was to discuss pupils in the school who were considered in danger of losing their place in school, family, or community, through their behaviour or the particular challenges they faced. Early intervention was the key – and the ability for a professional to offer specific support at the meeting, rather than weeks’ or months’ delay in a decision being made, was invaluable. Class teachers and parents also contributed to the discussions and reports so the child’s needs were monitored, and met wherever possible.

Where the various professionals respected each other on a personal level, the teamwork which followed was highly effective and the most vulnerable and troubled pupils, and families, benefited greatly. Young people were offered synchronised support and the reassurance that somebody was looking out for them.

Inevitably, the more effectively the guidance structure operated, the more it identified areas for support. Equally, the more of a demand there was for resources, the more difficult it  became to meet these increasing needs, and the services which were best placed to provide support were on many occasions those whose budgets were being cut.

The McCrone Report: “Teaching in the 21st Century” restructured the profession. It scarcely mentioned “guidance”, and nobody was sure if that reflected its obvious and undisputed importance, an oversight, or a heavy hint that its days were numbered. A Director of Education telling a room full of guidance staff that “the days of ‘touchy feely’  guidance are over” provided a clue to the thinking of some.

Part of the efficacy of guidance was that its structure was flexible enough to meet the needs of different schools, but, generally, the model into which I found myself placed in 1977 would have been common. The guidance group would be a year group of 180-200 pupils. Their guidance staff would be an assistant principal teacher with responsibility for around 60 pupils and a principal teacher with around 120. Neither guidance teacher would have more than 4 or 5 classes to get to know in depth. In most cases they would teach their “guidance classes” Social Education and so would be in class with them for at least one period a week. Somewhere between a half and a third of their “teaching time” would be freed up for guidance matters, meeting pupils, parents, class teachers, partner agencies and so on.

In this model, there was every chance to get to gain good knowledge of the pupils for whom you had responsibility, and the assistant principal teacher could learn from the principal teacher as their partnership progressed. In addition, with two staff allocated to the year group, pupils knew there was an alternative support in cases of personality clashes or unavailability of their particular guidance teacher.

After McCrone, assistant principal teacher posts were abolished and principal teachers became “curriculum leaders”. In subject terms, this meant they had responsibility for two or three departments instead of just one. For guidance “curriculum leaders”, this meant that their “guidance load” could increase to anything from 200 to 300 pupils.

The loss of “subject departments” under a principal teacher meant that weekly “departmental meetings” changed in their content. Certainly the former model, where there would have been a slot for class teachers to bring to the attention of the Principal Teacher the names of pupils whose academic progress was giving concern, became less feasible. This in turn meant that traditional meetings between principal teachers subject and  guidance, to exchange information about “causes for concern”, were no longer viable.

Clearly, the original model for guidance and support was being demolished – not through philosophical and educational discussion, but through the removal of the structures which made the job possible.

It wasn’t long before interviewees for guidance posts were being told their approach was “too pastoral”. A bit like telling Gary Lineker he should stop going on about football.

The decision makers were faced with a number of dilemmas.

Clearly, the idea that every pupil would have a teacher who knew them really well, and had the time and resources to support them, was no longer seen as sustainable. However, an increasing number of pupils still needed additional support.

Furthermore, disruptive and challenging pupils not only hindered their own academic progress, but also that of their classmates, and now that schools were under increasing scrutiny over exam results, this was bad news.

Equally, a number of pupils, especially those who did not “act out” in school, but may still have had support needs, were reporting that they hardly ever saw their guidance teacher – or in some cases, that they did not even know their identity.

The fix for these problems was reflective of the times.

Schools moved away from pastoral care and instituted “tracking and  monitoring”. Computerised school management systems would flag up where pupils were underperforming in a subject. Pupil Support staff were required to interview “flagged up” pupils and set them targets. This would lead to improved academic performance, and headteachers could report that all their pupils were seen by the guidance staff on a regular basis.

If education was simply about exam results there  might be some justification for this “remodelling” of pupil support. However, most would agree that the philosophy of “teaching the whole pupil” serves pupils, their families, and society far better than does an “exam factory”.

Furthermore, the original approach was also geared to improving academic performance through addressing a pupil’s individual challenges or concerns. A happy and supported pupil, who feels valued by others, will generally perform to their academic potential. In simplistic terms, the progression the pastoral system followed was: “You don’t seem happy, your work is suffering, what is wrong, how can we support you, we do understand, here is some support to help. I’m seeing you because I’ve noticed you’re not yourself”.

With the best will in the world and the most conscientious guidance staff, a “tracking and monitoring” model delivers a very different message: “You’ve missed your targets in these subjects, what are we going to about that, how can we get better results, I am seeing you for your bi-termly interview.”  In such a structure, it is difficult for staff to convince the pupil that there is a genuine interest in their wellbeing outside of their academic potential, and, as has been suggested, pointing out to a child that they are  failing does not necessarily lead to them succeeding. A child in need of support will not find it easy to approach a person of whom their chief experience is the  indication that they are failing in class. The opportunity, and time, for class teachers to discuss concerns with guidance staff has also vanished – and nobody pretends that ticking boxes as an “alert” adequately replaces such discussions.

There are, of course, countries and education systems where schools and teachers have no responsibility for the “whole pupil” at all. There is a philosophy that the child’s life outside of school does not, or should not be allowed to, impact on their academic work. Maybe that is the route being taken in Scotland. I hope not because that way lies a horrible mess for society.

Currently we know that there are more teenagers than ever before self harming in Scotland as well as elsewhere. This statistic clearly reflects the increased pressures that our young people have to handle.

Politicians and academics all have their theories as to causes and means of addressing the problem, but most agree that a basic concern is that an increasing number of youngsters feel they have nobody to whom  they can talk: an ironic situation in an age which purports to have us more “connected” than ever before.

Of course, what young folk are seeking is not just “communication” but a meaningful version of it: to know there is someone they can trust, who will listen and empathise, who may, or may not, have solutions to their concerns, but who, ultimately, will help them feel valued, that they are worth the time spent, and reassure them  that they are possessed of ideas and attitudes which are worth consideration. In the absence of this, despair or self hate can set in.

In addition, children who come from unsettled or disturbed family backgrounds often feel unable or unwilling to “trouble” family members with their problems, judging them to be   insubstantial, compared to the daily struggle they witness around them in the home.

The virtual world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat excels at giving instant feedback, but struggles to promote anything more socially valuable, and can often add to the stress felt by many adolescents.

There is, of course, thankfully, an ever growing awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing amongst teenagers and young people: SAMH, See Me, Penumbra and many other organisations highlight the problem and seek to provide support for those in need.  Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) continue the work pioneered at the former Young People’s Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, but a sentence on the Royal Edinburgh home page reveals the struggle to adequately address the problem: “We have places for 12 patients and are 1 of only 3 adolescent inpatient services in Scotland”.

Not all young people who self harm, have major mental health issues – but they clearly have a need for support and understanding. In short, one means of addressing the situation would be to ensure that every child had someone outside of the family who knew them well and who they felt they could trust.

This is not a requirement met by the new “Named Person” Act: each Named Person will have responsibility for far too many youngsters to get to know them in a detailed way, and, in any case,  the focus of their remit is to promote a  positive connection between families and support services.

However, it does echo a need that was originally met by Guidance back in the 1970s – the availability of someone to support each child –  whom they see on a regular basis and whom they know has their wellbeing at heart.

Would a return to pastoral guidance be expensive? Financially, of course it would be, though possibly not beyond reasonable cost, when balanced with the costs of supporting damaged adults through their lives.

Would pastoral care solve all the problems? Of course not – but it would give our young people the chance of early intervention  in  their troubles and vulnerabilities – and all are agreed that early intervention is vital if we are to have an impact.

Would pastoral care lead to improved examination results? Statistics suggest it would, because well  supported pupils are better able to give of their best, and are less likely to disturb classes and the progress of their classmates.

Another point to be made at this juncture is the store theoretically set on examination results by the “majority of parents”. I can only speak from my own professional experience, but, in 38 years I can remember less than a handful of parents whose first priority was examination results. Generally, and almost uniformly, their priorities were as follows:

Is my child happy at school?

Is he safe at school?

Is he doing himself justice?

Has he got friends?

Is he well behaved?

Parents knew instinctively that, with good teaching and home support, if the answers to these questions were all positive, then  academic potential would have been  achieved when the results were published. What is important in schools is how young people are equipped to deal with their lives in general rather than examinations specifically, though academic success is obviously one of a school’s aims.

You don’t make pupils happy, valued and successful by ensuring they get good exam results, you make sure they get good exam results by ensuring they are happy, valued  and successful. And a good guidance teacher supports their colleagues as well as the pupils, and  their families.

Anyone who has retired is always open to the charge of nostalgia or old fashioned thinking: “You don’t know what it’s like today!”

Fair enough – but some successful approaches fit all times, and a child who feels known and supported will flourish, and the way to tackle current concerns is to prioritise support for young people in our schools – support for the pupils, not the examination system.

Last Friday night I met up with some of the pupils from that original guidance group in 1978. I was touched that they wanted to see me again after all these years, and excited to discover what life had brought them.

In those individuals, all over 50, I could see the children I had supported, and I could see how they had taken that support into life. Some had fared better than others – such is life, but all were recognisable, emotionally speaking, as the 12 year olds I had welcomed to secondary school that day nearly  40 years ago.

In their varying ways they thanked me for the differing support I had given them, the confidence they had received from knowing someone knew them and was looking out for them.

Obviously it was an affirming moment for me, and hugely gratifying to know that they appreciated the concern I had shown for them – even as adults all this time later. I was greatly moved by that.

However, that meeting of some of our guidance group, 33 years after they left school, was more than an illustration of mutual affection, it was pretty strong evidence that pastoral support is effective, and it resonates far beyond school days. It is needed in our schools more than ever, and if we try to ignore that fact, our children, and our society, will pay the price.

From City to Coast 3

June 29, 2017

This is the third and final “Letter from France” written after a recent short stay.

Writing about Paris is in some ways like writing a love song: it has been done so many times that the temptation is to ask: why bother?

The answer to both, of course, is that every relationship is unique, and, on that basis, should be celebrated. It depends what is brought to the partnership by each side, and how the writer choses to portray it.

My relationship with Paris is as a tourist – I can claim no more than that. However, even that relationship matures through time. After the frenetic activities of the first few visits, when every tourist box has to be ticked, every site seen, there comes a time when just being there is enough.

Strangely, the less organised your itinerary, the more you may discover, and the better you are able to appreciate the place.

With just over 24 hours in town and in temperatures forecast to be in the high nineties, there was no way we would be racing about the place, but we are staying on the Ile de St Louis for the first time, a few hundred yards from Notre Dame, and even that gives us a new perspective on the city.

I love the architecture of Paris, Haussmann’s boulevards, the elegant stonework and the myriad side streets all over the city. Most of all, however, I love the people who throng the streets and the Seine as it flows through the centre, drawing the eye with its constant movement: along with its bridges, very much a part of the city itself.


It performs the same role as the Liffey, the Potomac, the Clyde, and the Thames and other rivers with cities built around them and through which they flow. Though the East and Hudson rivers are crucial to New York, the Charles forever associated with Boston, and the Spree with Berlin –it is possible to spend time in these cities without being overly aware of their rivers;  in Paris, nobody escapes the notice of the Seine. The two are synonymous – and this is not just a tourist thing. What fascinates me is the way in which the Parisiens embrace their river, make it a part of their daily lives, eschew the idea that it is for looking at, or photographing, and incorporate it into so many aspects of their routine.

Basically on this visit we follow the Seine from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries by the Louvre. As it happens, that’s not a bad tourist route, but our eyes are on people rather than buildings, sights rather than sites.

Although since 2002 the Paris-Plages scheme has converted parts of the banks of the Seine into “beaches” every Summer, this scheme has been extended and now large lengths of the banks, formerly expressways for traffic through the city centre, have been closed to cars altogether.

The transformation, which we are experiencing for the first time, is quite stunning in its impact, and we have not been expecting this – nor have we predicted the calm atmosphere in the city overall.

After the terrorist atrocities that Paris has suffered, and the continuing French State of Emergency, I suppose we wondered if that would be manifested  as we moved round the city. We see soldiers twice, I think – once in the gardens by Notre Dame, and once on patrol  in the courtyard at the Louvre. I’m sure there may be signs of increased security in other places, but in general, the people and the police seem much as usual.

To be fair, Paris, and France in general, have always had  a fairly   militarised police structure: officers bearing arms, CRS vans in side streets, a variety of sirens and flashing blue lights are part of the normal streetscape.

As it happens, there is a ‘contained’ terrorist incident while we are in the city. A car rams a police convoy on the Champs Elysée and the driver is shot dead. We are a mile or two away from the scene and vaguely aware of a number of police vehicles speeding by, but nothing which suggests a serious incident. French phlegm, I suspect, is a potent defence.

The car free river banks are a revelation. Pedestrians and cyclists seem to coexist amiably and small open-air cafes have sprung up at intervals. There are fitness machines, a climbing wall, flowers, hammocks,  and benches – everything you might want to attract folk to the riverside.


We made our way, slowly in the heat from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries, stopping regularly to shelter from the sun and to take in our surroundings. Paris is as impressive as ever – crossing the bridges and going down to the river bank we catch glimpses of familiar sights: the Hotel de Ville, Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Rue de Rivoli before arriving at Les Tuileries to seek some shade and some rest.

At the side of the pond a heron lands and settles not ten feet away – maybe too hot to be wary, or maybe displaying some Parisien sang-froid. The trees provide the shade for which they were planted and in the quiet of the gardens we can look around at Les Invalides, the Eifel Tower, the Pyramid at the Louvre, but what still holds my attention most is the parade of people we saw on the banks of the Seine.


Young and old, trendy and business like, relaxing and busy, moving and still. They are a cross section of Paris life – portraits against a busy background of tourist boats and commercial vessels. Some are active – cycling, boarding, or trying out the fitness machines or climbing-wall fitments. Some listen to music and a few play – a guitarist, an accordion, and a distant saxophone blowing jazz over the water. Remarkably, a bagpiper on the bridge above us. What takes the eye – and the ear – most of all –  are the conversations, people talking and listening, facing each other with intent, reflecting and positing, hearing and replying.


There is something glorious about all this human interaction at the heart of one of the world’s great cities. It something we often miss in the hurry and scurry – this ability of humanity to talk and listen in the midst of bustle and movement, the willingness, even the need, to communicate, exchange views, pass comment and hear our neighbour’s voice.

Despite popular belief, personal music players are quite scarce; drink tends to be soft or a discreet glass of wine, pizza boxes are completely absent, and most rubbish is neatly stacked in litter bins. It is like an assertion of sophisticated behavior, a choice to be the best and not the worst, a celebration of togetherness rather than divisiveness – and all colours and races are represented – when you think of all the Seine has flowed past down the centuries, how could it be otherwise – and why on earth would you want it to be?


I’m well aware I could seek, and find, a very different Paris, were I  willing to look, but I don’t feel in any way that reduces the impact of these river banks and their city dweller inhabitants

Later on in the evening, the streets still busy, the air still stifling, we take a  walk back to the riverside, and find a quite remarkable number of people sitting in twos and threes, seldom bigger groups, more wine bottles – usually with glasses – on show, musicians, cyclists, skaters, sometimes solitary  thinkers, but mostly talkers and listeners, a coming together of citizens, the babbling conversation of the Seine flowing past, mixing with the interaction between its people.


It’s a sight which is strangely moving – as if the people are taking over the city from the buildings. It is most obvious, of course, on the parts of the river bank which had been the “Pompidou Expressways”, once  a steady line of hurtling vehicles, now moving to a gentler beat of evening walks, casual chats, and gentle exercise.


However, as has long been the case, the older parts of the banks, always accessible to the city’s residents, are thronged tonight as well. Benches, steps, ledges hewn out of the river walls, tree stumps, the gunwales of barges and houseboats and smaller craft tied to the quays,– they all serve as a place to sit or lean and contemplate the Seine, Paris, and life in general. The groups of people form patterns, dark against the light stone, disappearing off into the distance, with the occasional movement seeming to fade into the general stillness.


There are still boats moving on the water, but, generally, the Seine is a quiet river rather than a centre of noise. It means that car horns, police and ambulance sirens, and the music of the buskers all seem to exist individually and distinctively, rather than form a carpet of noise. It gives this bustling city an intimacy – which of course is one of its great attractions, be it by the river, in the gardens, or in the squares and alleyways of Le Marais or Montmartre.


A setting sun lends drama to the scene, as the water flames and the people become shadows.

It brings our short stay in France to a perfect end, an impressionist message from the Seine and its people.


Tomorrow we will fly out over those northern green fields and we’ll be thankful for a France that is diverse, thoughtful, vibrant, and very much its own person.

An Auld Alliance indeed.


From City to Coast 2

June 29, 2017

This is the second of three letters from France, based on a short stay in June 2017

The stretch of seaside promenade from Lion sur Mer to the port of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast is around six kilometres long. It is well maintained and provides good space for pedestrian and cyclist alike, running alongside a beach of gently sloping sand, fringed by peaceful rolling waves. The locals call it “La Digue” or sea wall.

Overlooking the promenade is a mixture of old Norman houses with that familiar half  timbered appearance, no doubt holiday retreats built by prosperous Paris merchants in the later 19th century, and more modern seaside homes with architected smoked glass, balconies, and modern versions of Calvados design. The older houses predominate, and create a unique atmosphere, close as they are to the beach.



Every few hundred yards, an alleyway leads between the seafront houses back to the small villes behind –  Lion itself, Hermanville, Colleville – villages in every sense, narrow streets, hotel de ville, boulangerie, town square and tall thin buildings. The alleyways provide access to and from the beach, but also allow the promenaders a snapshot of everyday life behind the glorious escape of sea and sand, and the workers in the villages the promise of that blue and gold relaxation.

I am brought here because my niece and her family live in Lion, but others have been here before me for reasons not of their choosing.

As it happens, this  stretch of coastline between Lion sur Mer and Ouistreham, coincides almost exactly with the area designated “Sword” on June 6th 1944 – D-Day, as it is known. At this spot,  British troops, along with French commandos, stormed the beaches, as part of the attempt to secure Caen.

The official histories will tell you that around 29,000 men landed in this area and there were between 600 and 1000 casualties. The landings started around 7.25am and the beaches had largely been secured by 9.30am. German defences were lighter here than in other areas, though Lion was the scene of one of the German counter attacks with Panzer tanks. The main problems were caused by the narrowness of the beach and the speed of the rising tide, which increasingly minimised the space for the assault troops, given  the detritus of machinery, bodies, and beach defences.

Official histories are fine catalogues of warfare – with their sweeping arrows, their unit titles, their order of battle, their timelines, and their glossaries – but they seldom capture the humanity – or the inhumanity –  of the fighting. The reports from Sword Beach rightly point out that, comparatively, losses were light in this section of the coastline, but, of course, to the people who were here on Sword, British, German or French, that statistic is rather meaningless.

Walking that stretch of seaside today can prove a conflicting experience. How should one react to what have become known as “The D Day beaches”?

It is a quiet June weekday, and there  is a sense that those young men who fought and died and fell and survived here in  1944 were doing so for peace: so that the old man walking his dog, the speedy cyclist, the teenagers in the sea pretending to revise for their exams, the women snatching a moment to chat in an unseasonably hot sun, could use this place for relaxation and re-creation. This achingly blue sky and spotless bright sand should be accepted for what they are today – a tiny piece of paradise, rather than what they were then, a huge part of Hell.


Well, yes – I can understand that argument, but it’s easier as an aspiration than the reality which is declared by bullet scarred stonework, houses refurbished or rebuilt because of shellfire, those alleyways –  which 70 years ago offered actual escape rather than relief from work or routine.

This is not seaside in the sense of Brighton or Blackpool – or even Deauville up the coast. It is quiet, and even at the busy height of summer is rarely raucous or overcrowded. Certainly away from Riva Bella – the beaches around Oiustreham – this a  seafront for relaxation and reflection. The occasional cafe or food outlet is understated and to scale. It feels, perhaps, as if the people here have taken the decision to welcome the tourist and the holidaymaker, but also to remain aware of their history, and the events which took place during the Liberation. It’s an approach which feels right.

Every three or four hundred yards there are interpretative noticeboards, showing the houses in front of you  as they appeared from the beach on that June morning – they are not intrusive or over elaborate and there are not too many of them, but they quietly make the point, and place you in the position – geographically if not emotionally – of those young men all those years ago.

And there are the memorials. Towards Ouistreham, they become larger and more imposing, matching the scale of the engagements: grass covered bunkers, carefully sculpted statues, and representations of courage and sacrifice, tributes to whole divisions or units of troops.

But it’s the smaller things which resonate.

There are sets of flags – British, American, Canadian and French – in so many windows – not just along the beaches, but in houses in the towns, a moving signal of gratitude by a generation mostly unborn in 1944. It’s a symbolism which casts a bitter shadow over the mean spirited, isolationist, Brexit voters, so desperate to be “non-Europeans” and to cast themselves adrift from a centuries old relationship – and with it to take Scots, whose Auld Alliance with France stretches back even further. There are many arguments to be had over the reason why the allies fought, but the simple gesture of these flags in so many windows makes the point about  mutual support with great, if silent, eloquence.

And then there are the names and individuals.

About half way along the beach is a small, almost private, memorial, no more than waist high. It faces inland, so, reading its inscription you are facing the beach on which these three young French commandos landed on D-Day morning. The “Kiefer Commandos” were given the honour of being first ashore here, these three never made it off the beach, their pictures on the stone reveal their youth – 32, 24 and 26. They came ashore like so many thousands that early morning, with heads filled with plans and hearts filled with dreams. How happy they must have been to step once more on a French  beach, and how sad it is  that they would not survive to see children flourish or grandchildren grow.

It’s hard not to think about what spaces may have been filled by those children – in schools, on beaches, in sports teams, if these three – and thousands of others – had survived the maelstrom on these beaches. I’ll be haunted by these three soldiers  for days, and by the simple record of their bravery which encourages the young of today to remember the young of yesterday.

Most folk have never heard of Sgt Jim Mapham, yet, along with a half dozen colleagues of the Army Film and Photography Unit, he was responsible for the most outstanding picture taken of the landings on Sword Beach. The faces of the troops, pictured just yards from where I stand are vivid reminders of the reality of war – and the bravery of the photographer.

A more familiar name is that of Bill Millin – the piper to Lord Lovat – famous for walking Sword Beach playing the pipes as an encouragement to the troops as they landed. Some were encouraged, some thought him mad. The Germans certainly did, and ceased fire in amazement for a minute or so when they saw him, and the pipes rang out in the silence before death and destruction resumed. Lovat’s command to ignore War Office instructions and play during the landing was made on the basis that “That’s the English War Office, and we are Scottish!”

There is now a life sized statue of Bill opposite the point where his unit landed. He would have appreciated the fact that it is a solid sculpture, because looking  at it from ground level you would otherwise be able to see up his kilt! It is, I suppose, somehow, a sign of hope to remember that – even if only for seconds – the Piobaireachd was more  powerful than the might of the German defences. And, though the Germans said they withheld from targeting him because they thought he was mad, it would be nice to think that music reached deeper than military training.


A quote from Bill lies on  the base of the statue:

If they remember the bagpiper then they won’t forget those who served and fell on the beaches.”

and, in a sense, that describes the feelings evoked by this stretch of beach. Too often these days, military commemorations are used for political purposes, by those too young to have experienced the realities of conflict, and come perilously close to glorifying war. That is no way to remember those who fall in battle or who are scarred for life by their experiences. We honour them best by remembering them as individuals – who lost their chance to live the lives that we have lived.

The piquancy of these beaches is that they cast the brutality of battle against the beauty of nature and the commonplace of everyday life. Troops talk of crouching for cover behind walls alongside hens pecking for food, or seeing children’s toys, of noticing hairbrushes and washstands through windows shattered by bullets – death in the midst of life.

War – all war – is a full stop for many. At least the memories on these beaches, carefully and quietly preserved, afford some lingering recognition of the men who came here, what they did and what they suffered – and a message which is as certain as the ebb and flow of the restless tides: that they will not be forgotten.

For them, and those who loved them, these sands of time will not run out.




From city to coast 1

June 29, 2017

This is the first of three “Letters from France”, based on a short stay in June 2017.

We fly into Paris across the  flat green  fields of northern France. Under a blue sky, with wisps of  cloud, they stretch on and on for miles. Ten minutes has us across them, it took armies fatal months  to cover the same ground.


Trains are like veins in the insight they give to a country or a city’s nature. From the airport, the RER heads for Paris Gare du Nord through northern suburbs of upright French architecture interspersed with blocks of modern flats and all purpose industrial units: the old and the new, past and present, side by side, like the passengers around us: elegant suits and the hijab and jeans.

The graffiti is internationally incomprehensible and the weeds grow between the goods siding tracks like an attempt to ruralise the city.

Rusting lines branch off towards long forgotten sheds, dusty trains line up as if they are waiting to be called, whether permanently out of use or ready for tomorrow, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

In some ways the arrival at main line terminal stations is the same in all cities. The lines multiply, the buildings on either side grow taller, the expansive station roofs cast shadows, and travellers stumble to their feet, reaching for bags and coats  in a kind of hurried desperation.

The Gare du Nord is railway busy and commercially packed. Shops abound and arrows point all ways to various connections and exits. If you never escaped from this warren, you would think everybody in the world had an urgent mission.

After stairs and escalators, corridors and passageways, the metro slides into place like an obsequious servant, exactly on time and where it should be.

The short ride to Haussmann Lazare is followed by a break out into the Paris streetscape – which is so familiar  with its high and ornate stonework, its wrought iron balconies, and its huge wooden doors leading to hidden courtyards – that it feels like a film set.

Sainte Lazare is a commuter station for passengers heading towards the northern coasts – a manageable size and a familiar layout: platforms, departure boards, shopping mall, and people in suspense waiting for their platform number.

Shortly after the train leaves the station for Caen,  Paris pulls off its most famous and repeated stunt – and you cross the Seine without warning or preparation – with its wide waters, its high stone banks, the bridges, the barges and the houseboats. Like an ID flashed at a checkpoint it instantly validates your location – you could be  nowhere else,   but as soon as you’ve made your recognition the grand old river is gone, and the train flows over smaller streams and canals,  auxiliary vessels to the main artery.

To remind you of the country through which you are travelling, there is a huge Citroen-Peugeot plant by the side of the tracks, the cars in lines like soldiers waiting for battle, transporters holding them in double decked rows, thousands of tiny mass produced elements of trade and industry. Later there is a sprawling Renault site, massive barns of machinery,  and endless white vans and shining cars, even the signal box location named “Renault Poste 1”.

With greenery growing in every available space, the suburbs pass by: like the workers they house, there to do a job, half turned towards the countryside, pulled ever closer by the city’s power.

Then the fields take over – rolling and green and of good size – they are interrupted at intervals by solid farmhouses and buildings, the rubble of their domesticity scattered around them: machinery, cars, tractors, children’s toys, signs, and pylons, country and people carefully united, lives merging into the land.

Neat stations serving small and widely spaced communities don’t merit a stop from this inter city express, they are a blur of platforms, half full car parks, and the mismatched sheds of local industry and commerce,  till the fields reassert themselves. This is arable land –  no cattle, scarcely a person or car to be seen, just the greens and golden browns of growth, the reaping  and sowing of rural repetition.

Here the sky is bigger, the light less fraught, there is a sense of heading for somewhere, somewhere different. Approaching Lisieux the towering Basillica of Saint Thérèse, its dome shimmering in midday sunlight, is somehow a reminder of the connection between the country and the spiritual – be it pagan or theocratic, and the fields have changed again. Now we have the bocage for which Normandy is famous: the fields smaller, the hedges thicker and more like small trees, and the crops have given way to cattle – heavy, strong looking beasts, scattered about the fields, sheltering by hedges, reminders of the tough nature of this terrain.

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This feels like the Normandy you carry in your head, from distant geography and history lessons in school: the farming and the war, the richness of the ground and the impenetrable nature of the small, well surrounded fields.

But then you are reminded that you are headed to the coast as we approach Caen and the fields flatten, water towers appear – huge white concrete mushrooms across the landscape – you can see for miles across these featureless flatlands, to the city, its factories, its periphrique, and its strange confusion – of post war modern and middle ages ancient. Throughout its history, war has come to Caen and left its confusion, but continual rebuilding breeds a people adaptable to change, and on the platforms of the modestly sized station there is a vibrance.

Caen is a city of transition and opposites, destroyed by war and rebuilt by peace, far enough from Paris to be defiantly normal, close enough to the centre to be of some  importance.

The journey has been a definition of France, or, at least, a part of it; the old alongside the new,  commerce and agriculture, flatlands and bocage, country encroached upon by town, suburbs and cities, tiny towns and huge factories.

Through it all there runs a strong sense of where we are: this is France, this is how we look, diversity brings conflict but also strength.

Owen arrives at Dottyville

June 26, 2017

One hundred years ago today, three years into the Great War, a diffident young Second Lieutenant stepped off the overnight sleeper at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and emerged on to Princes St. He  had only sixteen months left to live of his short life, but what he achieved in that time would bring him fame, and create a powerful and important legacy.

He was going to Craiglockhart War Hospital because he was suffering from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was then described.  He was lucky because, for most of the Great War, such a condition was recognised in officers but not in other ranks, who were in danger of being shot at dawn for desertion if they exhibited signs of what was called “funk” in the “Poor Bloody Infantry”.

Though Wilfred Owen had only been a serving soldier for around a year, he had been involved in heavy fighting and some personally disabling incidents. He had spent a day and  night trapped in a shell hole next to the body of a dead comrade, and he had experienced the trauma of his batman, whom he had posted sentry at the top of the dug out stairs, blown up by a shell, blinded, blown down the steps, and reduced to a quivering wreck.

As he headed for Craiglockhart War Hospital, he was closing in on two relationships which would have long lasting ramifications, and would be a catalyst for him achieving his dream of being a published and respected poet. One was Dr Rivers, the innovative psychiatrist at the hospital, and the other, of course, was Owen’s much admired poetic hero, Siegfried Sassoon, who was at Craiglockhart largely as a means of silencing him after his “Declaration of a Soldier” embarrassed the Establishment in its forthright denunciation of the extended war.  Owen would gain poetic confidence and resolve from Sassoon in his time in the war hospital. He would be inspired to write as never before.

He would also change my life.

Wilfred Owen changed my life? That’s a bit of a large claim, is it not?

Well, maybe so – but it would be impossible for me to ignore his impact.

On a Thursday afternoon in 1968, my English teacher, Ernie Spencer, read Owen’s poem “The Send Off” to our English class. I was sixteen, loved reading, and was competent at English. In keeping with the times, our school was not an institution which encouraged self confidence, so the idea of having “flair” in any subject was rare. For all my liking for English, it never occurred to me that I might have ability, or, God forbid, some talent in the subject.

And then, Ernie started going through the poem. Line by line he deconstructed it: rhyme, rhythm, imagery, choice of vocabulary. Then, all of a sudden, I understood. It was a totally definable and unforgettable Eureka moment. From that moment on, I “got” poetry. Owen’s work spoke to me with a clarity which reduced lads like Keats, Shelley, and Byron to indistinct mumbling.

For the first time, poetry, and, by extension, novels and short stories, entered the part of my brain and heart which, until then, had been mostly reserved for rock music. This stuff meant something to me! There was a connection. I understood what he was saying it and how he was saying it. I could see the skill and talent, appreciate the craft.

It was an exciting moment – and I still recognise that it must be quite unusual to be able to identify such a crucial event so precisely. There’s huge credit to Ernie’s teaching as well, of course. I still wonder what might have happened had I had a different English teacher, or he’d chosen another poet or a different poem. Chances are I would have found my way to literature along some other, possibly less dramatic, path, but I’ll never know. Certainly, when I taught that same lesson to pupils through the years, I could see the impact it had on their attitude towards poetry – possibly due to my enthusiasm, but mostly due to Owen’s carefully crafted words.

That moment in class led to me deciding to study for an English degree and ultimately a career as an English teacher. By extension, the poetry of Sassoon,  other War Poets, and eventually a wider range of poetry came to be important to me, and eventually I took to writing myself.

At the start, I was unaware of Owen’s background. I soon learned of the connection to my birthplace of Edinburgh, and, much later, of his time spent in Southport, where I was living when I had my Eureka moment.

Over the years I have paid emotional visits to his grave in Ors cemetery in northern France, and the spot on the canal nearby where he lost his life leading his men, a week before the Armistice. I’ve walked the promenade at Scarborough past the hotel where he spent most of his last year, and wrote so much of his best poetry

Whether passing the New Club in Princes St, Summerside Place in Leith where he stayed with friends, the site of the old Tynecastle school annexe, where he taught briefly, or on the long hill up to Craiglockhart, I think about him often, his effect on my life, and that strange connection and its consequences.

Today I spent an hour at Craiglockhart remembering the shy young poet who arrived there a century ago. The campus was quiet – that lull between exams and graduation ceremonies – and it has changed in many ways since Owen and Sassoon noted the chilling, echoing moans of fellow officers suffering the “night terrors”,  in rooms off the long corridors.  Given all he had been through, it’s hard to recall that when Owen arrived at Craiglockhart he was of an age with many of those students who will be graduating here in the next few weeks. He was hugely attracted by academe and would have no doubt enjoyed the buzz of learning here on the Napier University campus.



However, in some ways it is easy to recapture the atmosphere of that old Hydropathic institution, with the neatly trimmed lawns and tree lined views over Edinburgh, the crunch of feet on gravel. The War Poets Memorial Room is in the former entrance to the building, the corridor still retaining the checked back and white marble upon which Owen would have stepped on this arrival, none too impressed by what he found.



It occurs to me that the distress and disorder of the officers here,  a place Sassoon referred to as “Dottyville”, must have rankled against the peacefulness of its location – but perhaps no more than the madness of war on the farmlands of Belgium and northern France. Maybe conflict was the condition of the times.



It’s still easy to imagine Owen walking these grounds, book in hand, deep in thought, searching for a phrase with which to impress Sassoon when he returned from the golf course. In some way it is a comforting thought, and makes him feel a lot nearer than 1917.

I hold him in great affection, as do countless others, and will always be grateful for the inspiration unconsciously provided by the poet whom Sassoon first described as that “funny little Welshman.”

A century later, Owen’s memory still walks in Edinburgh.



Clark Gable and your Grandad

June 12, 2017


                                                                                                                                                                                             (picture credit: Julia Urwin)

It’s a picture of a group of old men.

Except it’s not.

To me  they are all in their twenties – Spence scoring for fun, Alex with defence splitting passes, Big Red terrorising defences, and Colin Alty always doing all that was asked of him

This is the team, managed by Billy Bingham, in the centre, who, in 1967, won Southport FC. Promotion from the Fourth Division, for the first time in their history.

I was fifteen and hardly missed a match that season. Summer of love? You  could  stuff Haight Ashbury, I was at Haig Avenue, watching the Port.

In those days, it was not uncommon for players to spend 5-10 years at a club. If you went every Saturday (or sometimes in Southport’s case, Friday night) they became like family.

They mostly stayed in the town: Spencey taught your mate PE, Arthur Peat was someone’s next door neighbour, you saw Brian Reeves in his greengrocer shop, and Alex Russell was completing his Apprenticeship as a printer. They were accessible during the week, but, to us, at the weekend, they were as legendary as Law, Best and Charlton, plying their trade  down the road at Old Trafford.

There was hardly any football on television then. When a game was televised it was a special event – like Fireworks Night, or Gala Day – really good but made better by its rarity. The fun of football was going to the game, smelling the liniment, drinking sweet tea and laughing with your mates.

I’m sure the likes of Messi and Ronaldo will be remembered for decades to come – but their memory will be of ethereal genius flitting across a screen, rather than the flesh and blood of a Saturday afternoon or an evening under the lights. Everybody remembers Clark Gable because he is famous and appeared in the films, but he was an elusive fabrication; your grandad shines far more brightly in your memory because, though not famous, he was there, and accessible, and you could interact with him. That’s the difference between hero worship and human contact. That’s what watching Southport FC taught me.

Being there at the game was actually more important than the result. We had an understanding then that competitive sport meant that only very few teams could actually win anything – 4 division titles, 7 more promotion spots, and two cups:  13 opportunities for 92 clubs was not high odds. Most clubs had never won anything ever!

So a Cup run to round 4 or 5, a top ten position in your league, or even avoiding relegation,  were all celebrated. The idea that you would stop going because your team wasn’t winning would have been laughed to scorn. What did results have to do with support?  Long losing streaks would  make  you angry and belligerent towards players and manager,  of course, but largely because you knew you would be  back week after week to watch the team, irrespective of success or failure.

Maybe that was a sign of the post war times.

I remember the excitement building before the game, the nerves on the day of the match, the routine,  home and away, of getting to the game, the butterflies before kick off, and being utterly lost in the game for 90 minutes.

There’s no enthusiast like a teenage fan. I was totally hooked on Southport – even though I didn’t know I was establishing a lifelong commitment to watching live football. The essence of those games is still with me 50 years later – I only have to close my eyes to be there. And I often do.

On the 50th  anniversary of my first Southport game in 1963, I went with my son to Haig Ave to watch the Port and I was able to meet my heroes Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell.




I’ve written about that meeting a few times – but I don’t really have the words for it. A 60 year old man hugging a pair of 70 year olds and saying thank you? What is that all about? How do you convey to someone that you’ve carried the happiness they brought you as a teenager through the whole of your life? Without coming over as a complete prat, that is?

Well, you don’t. You hug them and say thanks, and hope they can understand without getting too embarrassed.


It’s a part of life that everybody believes that the music and sport of their youth was a golden age. You wouldn’t want it any other way. Maybe, just maybe, being a “child of the Sixties” I’ve got a good claim to that.

I saw three World Cup games at Goodison Park; Everton, Liverpool and Man Utd all had epoch defining teams, and I had Bingham’s  Boys at Haig Avenue.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world. They defined who I am as a football supporter, I measure everything against them. Their all gold kit still shines under the floodlights of my memory.

Looking at them in that picture, aged like me, but still the essence of that marvellous team that meant everything to me, I’m tempted to say I still love them.

But that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, it would be.

But it’s true.