I love the ‘new normal’


We’ve never eaten so healthily as we have since we went into lockdown in mid-March (no, we didn’t wait for Bozo to announce it). We’re eating more fresh fruit and veg than ever before, even if the weekly fruit-and-veg box route means I’m cooking up some strange combinations. There’s been nothing that hasn’t worked so far.


As part of my birthday present in May, I got a copy of Antonio Carluccio’s ‘Vegetables’. One of the first things I did was to see what he suggested about turnips. He maintains the only thing you can do with them is purée them. So we’ve been discovering the joys of neep puréed with Normandy butter (while I can still get it), a pinch of sea salt, fresh-ground pepper plus a soupçon of whatever else I grab from the spice rack – anything from garam masala to nutmeg. Nectar of the gods.

Antonio also has a recipe that uses up not only cabbage but stale bread, and is delectable. 

As for cabbage slow-sautéed in butter and red wine!

Carnivorous OH gets weekly deliveries from our local butcher & fishmonger.

I’ve cured my angst over the national shortage of dried yeast by buying a matured sourdough starter & thus acquiring another pet that needs regular 

In short, I’m pretty damn happy with our curtailed lifestyle, at least as far as food goes. And I’m even finding time to do plenty of writing.

No more expensive and disappointing meals out – and I’m sorry, but Britain really doesn’t do ‘eating out’ well. I don’t like to pick on my home area, but it’s where we used to eat out most.

Several local and localish places pride themselves on their cuisine. One in particular seems to labour under the illusion that vegetarians favour food with the consistency and flavour range of cardboard. Another, which is rather up its own backside because it has a chintzy, country-house vibe, responded to my remark that surely the chef could whip up an omelette for any of my veggie visitors who didn’t fancy veggie-burger or pre-frozen, catering pack veg lasagne, with, ‘Only if he has the ingredients’. Ye gods. A chef without eggs and a cheese grater?

What a contrast to many of the places we’ve eaten abroad. I have particularly fond memories of a tiny restaurant several streets back from the smartest avenue in Lisbon (we’d shunned the eateries on that street not on the grounds of price, but because they were overcrowded and had very pedestrian menus). We ended up in a place that looked as if the owners had put a few extra tables in their sitting-room. Our fellow-customers were mostly workers still in their working gear. The menu was, predictably, solely meat and fish dishes, but they produced a salad and a superb omelette for me without the batting of eyelids and heavy sighs such a request would produce in most of the places we’ve eaten here. A three-course meal for two of us (including carnivore OH), plus coffee, plus a carafe of a very acceptable house red, cost well under €20.

I could cite similar experiences in cities all over Spain, Italy, France and Portugal.

If one good thing comes out of the extended hiatus in Britain’s ‘hospitality sector’, I’d hope it might be that it raises its game considerably and starts to focus on good-value, honest cooking using local, seasonal ingredients. And apologies to all of you who already run such establishments: I’m just sorry I haven’t happened upon you thus far.

Being Scottish in 2019

Many factors make me proud to be Scottish. Some of them are geographical: our islands (in particular Arran, Tiree, Whalsay). Our capital (apologies to my native city, but really Glasgow with you it’s not the place, it’s the people; Edinburgh, on the other hand – I love you as if you were a person). Some are historical. Some are cultural: Peploe’s paintings; CRM’s architecture; everything Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh set her hand to (and don’t bother telling me she was born in England. I know, but she’s ours now); Nan Shepherd’s books (if you haven’t read The Living Mountain, read it. Today); Edwin Morgan’s poems. I could go on all day.butterfly

But mostly, it’s the people. The innate hospitality of Highlanders. The way my fellow Glaswegians have an infallible bullshit detector that means toom tabards like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mr Trump had better not spend too long there. The perjink yet multicultural society that’s Edinburgh.

And in recent times, I’d have to add to that list: our politicians. People like Mhairi Black and Joanna Cherry who speak with such passion and sincerity. Those like Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Blackford who always maintain such dignity. People like Alyn Smith, MEP (if you’ve forgotten his speech to the European Parliament the day after the damned referendum, listen again Here)

I was particularly conscious of that last night, watching BBC’s Question Time. My blood boiled as a particularly obnoxious London audience laughed and jeered when Ian Blackford, MP, made the very valid point that we Scots refuse to be dragged out of the EU against our will. I’ve never met Mr Blackford, but I’d hazard a guess he’s not one of nature’s showmen, as some of his predecessors at Westminster have been. However, he always rises to the occasion, with determination and quiet dignity. Seeing how he simply ignored the jeers and sheer rudeness last night made me very, very proud to be Scottish.

Ian Blackford, I salute you.

This entry was posted on March 15, 2019. 1 Comment

Don’t stay sad, get mad


When I was at school (from age 5 onwards; the one I was at had kindergarten, primary and secondary departments all on the same site), I passed the Glasgow School of Art – the Mack – every school day. I also went to painting classes there on Saturday mornings for several years. The building was part of the fabric of my life, as it was of my mother’s: she lived just a stone’s-throw away from it during her school years (and attended the same school I later went to). She subsequently studied there for many years  – just evening and Saturday classes, but she studied not only drawing and painting but pottery, glass-blowing, ceramic painting and textiles. The vases in the photo are just two of her artefacts from that time.

So I was heartbroken by the first fire at the Mack, in 2014. It seemed to me – and to many insiders – that it started due to a cavalier attitude to fire safety in an incredibly flammable building, plus the fact that a sprinkler system had been purchased but not yet installed. But that tragedy simply provoked much public wringing of hands, and not a few crocodile tears. In any case, it turned out that the damage, though considerable, could be repaired, to a certain extent. The building lived on.

I can’t describe how I felt when I saw the TV footage of what was clearly a catastrophic fire on Saturday morning. Heartbroken doesn’t begin to cover it this time.

But, in common with many former students of the Mack and other fellow-Glaswegians, by today my sadness has turned to fury. How could the people with a duty to look after an irreplaceable and iconic treasure like this have failed to learn any lessons from the previous fire? Where were the fire prevention and control measures in the almost-completely-restored building?  The structure was covered in scaffolding, thus making it vulnerable – any fool knows that. Where were the nightwatchmen? Where was security?

This time, thank God, people are starting to ask the right questions. Enough of the hand-wringing. They’re getting mad, not sad – and in this sort of scenario, anger can be very productive. It leads to action. Sadness, all too often, leads to apathy.

Know what I’d like to believe? That the Mack hasn’t died in vain. People are waking up. Maybe now they’ll get thoroughly angry about some of the other abominations we in Scotland are subjected to at the moment: the Brexiteers’ lies; Russian interference in the referendum; Westminster’s despicable treatment of Scotland’s devolved powers and of the elected politicians who try to defend them.

Stay angry, folks! Stay angry and keep asking the right questions of the bad guys, whether it’s dodgy politicians, sleazy businessmen or people who have stewardship of buildings we love and value.

It’s here at last!

It feels like it’s taken forever (mainly because I worked more slowly during 2017, distracted acoverkindlePermaculturend depressed by the lunacy that’s Brexit), but PERMACULTURE is published at last. On Kindle meantime, but the paperback will be available shortly.

Many thanks to those who have helped me get it to this stage: Lin White, Dawn Tomlinson, Helen Baggott, Larisa Bochkareva, and the ever-helpful Brad from Vellum.

As always, reviews and opinions very welcome – all writers are keen to get honest feedback, and by the time we’re published, we have normally grown very thick skins!


The how many? days of Christmas

IMG_1625On 14th November, I saw a truck on the A75 loaded with Christmas trees. TV news this morning was full of stories of Christmas lights being switched on. It’s impossible to find what you’re looking for in most shops because they’ve moved everything around to make way for shelf after shelf of Christmas tatt. It’s still more than a month until Christmas!

I’m not exactly antediluvian, but I remember that when I was young my father worked until lunchtime on Christmas Day, if it fell on a weekday – that was quite normal in Scotland, not only in shops but in offices.

What has happened to us, that we can’t wait until Christmas to celebrate Christmas? Easy answer: John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Tesco etc have happened to us. No semblance of a traditional festival (whether you’re Christian, pagan, or anything else). Commerce, not-so-pure and simple. At a time when it’s been flagged up that the UK is carrying a dangerous and unprecedented load of personal debt – a time-bomb of personal debt, in fact – how immoral is it for the retail and hospitality industries to start putting the squeeze on us from the middle of November?

How many of us can keep up the “Festive Spirit” for forty days?

This is MY Christmas tree. I’ll bring him into our less-heated hallway around 22nd December, to acclimatise, then into the sitting room on 24th December, to be decorated. Around 3rd January, he’ll go back out (again via the hallway for a day or two), and he’ll live in the garden until next 22nd December. After that, I may take pity on him, plant him in the ground, and start over. He cost me £5, and this is his 5th Christmas – admittedly, in the first two years, he didn’t exactly hold many decorations, and the shortest string of lights was more than long enough.



My life in cats


My mother with Peter

I can’t remember not having a cat, from my earliest memories onwards. Aside from brief periods when I was at university and away from home, they’ve been an omnipresent part of my life.

And it struck me today: the ‘cat chain’ is unbroken. From Peter, the very first cat I remember (probably my earliest memory of all: sitting up in an old-fashioned Silver Cross pram, with Peter sitting at my feet), right through to my most recently-acquired feline companions, there are links – each ‘new’ cat having spent time with earlier ones. We acquired Teko while Frisky and her son Gilbert were very much alive; we’d adopted Frisky during Peter’s lifetime; Sammy & Freddie joined the household alongside Teko, then (when I moved house), Magnus and Susie and Sasha joined Sammy and Freddie for a time; Sasha was adopted after a friend ran him over and thought he’d killed him (he hadn’t, fortunately; no one came forward to claim Sasha, so I had him for many, many years until he passed away aged at least 18, and possibly 20). Sasha lived alongside the next few successive adopted cats: Kiki; Fidel (a very vocal Havana cat rescued from the vets where he’d been taken to be put down, and with us for several years), Pablo, and Sarah and Scritty (Birman mother and daughter).



Fidel outlived the rest, and was joined by Pushkin, who was subsequently joined by Misty and Honey. We lost Pushkin last year, and Misty in January, but Honey’s still with us, and has been joined by The Twins.


The Twins

So there you have it – an unbroken line of cats, from pram to present.

Democracy: a tricky concept

I attended another pro-EU/anti-Brexit rally yesterday (haven’t been to so many demos since I was a student).
One of the handful of random hecklers who wandered past the part of the Newcastle Rally where I was standing, and attempted to comment on proceedings (and who appeared to have had quite a lot to drink) yelled “Democracy”. That was his only contribution to the debate.
The referendum has achieved something that even Earl Grey, whose monument we were gathered around (he was responsible for starting the move to a universal franchise in Britain) didn’t manage to achieve: it has put this word “Democracy” in the mouths of millions of people who don’t actually understand what it means.
If you ask someone to vote based on the premise: ‘Do you want an extra £350m a week for the NHS, and a free unicorn for every household?’ the answer’s going to be pretty obvious for the third of the electorate that doesn’t have the gumption to say: ‘Hang on a minute – unicorns don’t exist. And HOW much money for the NHS?’
The dictionary definition of democracy is “A system of government where people choose their rulers by voting for them”. It is not “mob rule based on lies”.
This is the biggest task for those of who see the concept of a “good” Brexit for the mirage it is: to keep bringing forward convincing arguments for why a referendum based on misinformation and blatant lies is in NO sense an example of democracy!
As Akash Paun points out in this article, the referendum and the British Constitution are very strange bedfellows.

‘The centre cannot hold’



I almost became a historical demographer. Back in the ’70s, I started a PhD in that field (I didn’t finish; my life might have taken a very different course if I had). My main area of study was the application of centre & periphery theory to migration into British towns from the mid-19th century.

Predictably, then (as now), every country had its town or region which was a migration magnet: towards it gravitated the brightest and the best, as well as the desperate. The problem (then as now) is that these ‘centres’ (normally capital cities) tend not to be particularly central in geographical terms.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is at the root of Europe’s current political ills. The people of the ‘peripheries’ have, at long last, had enough of centralised power. It’s at the root of Brexit, and I suspect it’s at the root of the rise of far right parties all over Europe, and of the current stand-off between Spain and Catalonia.

I live in rural Scotland – not all that far from the Border, as it happens, but in an area with atrocious roads and lousy public transport. How many times I have seethed to read that taxpayers’ money (including mine) has been used to buy a painting or a sculpture or an archaeological hoard ‘for the nation’, when it has clearly been bought primarily for the citizens of London. If I want to visit that town, it means an incredibly expensive series of bus & train journeys; it takes a day to travel there, and a day to travel back – so realistically we’re talking train fares plus two nights’ accommodation, plus meals. A trivial example, perhaps, but an example of the irritants of living at the periphery.

Guy Verhofstadt, a politician whom I greatly admire, recently Tweeted: ‘There is a solution for the situation in Catalonia: reform Spain into a federal state in a federal Europe.’

He is absolutely right. During my time as a full-time seafood trade journalist, and as a lobbyist, I had a lot to do with the EU – both the Commission and the Parliament. I love the EU; I am much prouder of my EU citizenship than of “British” citizenship; I believe the European Parliament is an excellent model of true democracy. But possibly the ‘centre’, typified by the Commission, has indeed become too powerful, to the detriment of the periphery. That is something that the UK – a federal UK, comprised of three autonomous countries, if not four – should be helping to remedy from the inside.

Walking away from the success story that’s the EU is going to do nothing – not one solitary thing – to remedy the imbalance between centre and periphery in the UK. If anything, it will make it much worse. But I fear by the time that becomes clear to those who believed they were empowering themselves by voting ‘Leave’, it’ll already be too late. Meanwhile, although many tens of thousands of us strive to make our voices heard in opposing Brexit, the country in general appears to be drowning in apathy.



This entry was posted on October 5, 2017. 2 Comments

My favourite tree

IMG_0749More than thirty years ago, I grew a ginkgo tree from seed. Because of the length and coldness of winters in the Aberdeenshire hinterland, as it grew the tree was kept in a series of containers, and taken into the greenhouse every year.

When we moved to the softer (if rainier!) climate of south-west Scotland six years ago, the removal company informed us at the last moment that they couldn’t transport any ‘living things’, so I made a down-and-back dash of over 500 miles to bring my tree to its new home. Once we were settled, it was planted in a sheltered spot in the garden.

With having been grown in a pot for so long,  it had become a semi-bonsai, with a maximum height of around four feet, and a trunk that’s sinuous rather than straight. It also produced leaves that, although perfectly-formed, were miniature.

Over the past three years, while the tree hasn’t gained height, I noticed that its leaves were becoming a more ‘normal’ size. This year, for the first time, it has full-sized leaves – and they are lovely in their autumn colours; like miniature fans.

Ginkgo biloba is the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta, all the others being extinct. It is found in fossils dating back 270 million years. The species was around at the time of the dinosaurs.

I’m very, very glad that I brought mine with me! Phooey to you, removal men.

Robbing the dead



Next February, it will be 30 years since my mother passed away. It was a particularly cold month, and a large amount of snow was on the ground in the small village where she lived, in the Central Highlands.

Because of the house’s remote situation, and my mother’s health, she had help in the house, and there was more than one local keyholder. After the immediate trauma of the funeral was over, I had the task of clearing the house. I’m an only child, so all of that task fell to me; my youngest son was under two years old, so all of the house-clearing had to be done with a toddler in tow. Due to the distance from my home and my other three school-age children, and the weather, for the first month or two I could only be at the house occasionally.

That’s when I discovered that, even in rural Scotland, people think nothing of robbing the dead.

Of the several things that had vanished, there are two I have never quite got over. The first was the inscribed gold watch given to my father when he retired after spending all his working life in J&P Coats’ Glasgow office. Because ours was a somewhat dysfunctional family, I really knew my father very little (he died when I was in my early twenties), and I have very, very few things that belonged to him. Having the watch would mean a lot to me, and no doubt its fate was to be melted down anyway, because of the inscription.

The second stolen item that haunts me still was the small brass figure of a sleeping, nude woman, lying on her side. Although she was nude, there was nothing immodest about her. She was, quite simply, exquisite. My stepfather (who was also my grandmother’s cousin, and therefore a blood relative I’d known all my life) had brought her back from France, where he had a most distinguished service record in WWI. She had no identifying marks, and would hardly have been worth melting down for all the metal that was in her. I’d like to think that at least she is still intact, somewhere, and that whoever stole her, or whoever has her now, appreciates her as much as I did, and my mother did, and my stepfather did.

Little things mean a lot.