Thursday, 29 September 2011

More Unionist Nonsense

The current craze for Unionists to belittle Scotland and tell downright lies continues unabated.  A recent entry into the fray was newly elected Tory MSP Ruth Davidson.  She offered us a piece in the Better Nation weblog entitled - Why I’m proud to be Scottish and British.  From her initial paragraph it looked like we were to at long last to get some kind of positive case for the Union.  Alas this was not to be.
The give-away came later on when she wrote:  “I believe Scotland is better off as part of the United Kingdom.”  Now this is not a case for anything, merely as she herself states, her belief.  Well, some people continue to believe that the Earth is flat.  I was hoping for something in the way of evidence to support her belief, but none came.  The most that came was this anodyne, “We are part of one of the worlds largest economies.”  But what difference, pray Ms Davidson, did this actually make when the financial crisis came?  It certainly didn’t stop the crisis from coming.  And despite all the claims from the Coalition to the contrary, the UK economy is still in a deep, deep mess.
She continues with this gem, “We have more influence over our future, as well as other parts of the world.  Scots influence the direction of a great nation.  That is something we would lose if we lost the Union.  Unfortunately, small independent nations don’t have that influence.  Look at the impact of the credit crisis upon Scotland and Ireland.”  Her assertion that we influence the direction of a great nation would be more impressive if she came up some concrete examples of this influence.  I can think of none.  She seems to think that the baling out of HBOS and RBS was some kind act of tremendous generosity by the UK government towards badly run Scottish banks.  But as all studies have shown, both these banks are UK banks.  They may have the word Scotland in their name and they may be headquartered in Scotland, but they are both integral parts of the UK financial system.  Crucially most of their business is done in England.  They are thus regulated by UK wide authorities.  Though precious little regulation seems to have taken place.  She provides no other examples of Scots influencing the direction of the UK.
Her broader claim that we have more influence over our future, as well as other parts of the world is just plain ridiculous.   It would have been nice if Ruth had explained in simple language and with a few illustrations just how Scots have more influence over our future than the citizens of independent countries.   The same applies to our apparent influence over other parts of the world.  This seems to boil down to the fact that a few Scots can and occasionally do, achieve prominent positions in the UK government.  This is not in any sense the same as Scotland as a country having influence.
It is also incredibly insulting to all those small independent countries who somehow manage to survive very nicely.  While Ireland may, just like the apparently great UK, be going through its own little difficulties, this is not the case with all small countries.  I wonder why she decided to only mention Ireland.  Could it be that the likes of Denmark, Norway, Finland and many others have been much less affected by the financial crisis than the UK?  And as regards the ludicrous notion that Scotland has some influence over the future of other parts of the world, is Ruth Davidson seriously of the belief that Denmark, Norway, Ireland, to name just three, all have less influence in the world than Scotland?
As usual what is missing from this article is any sense of the world beyond the UK.  If a small country like Scotland gets all these wonderful benefits from being part of a great nation, then surely other small countries would also benefit.  In particular, given her criticism of Ireland, surely she should be advocating that Ireland rejoins the UK so that it too can get all those benefits that now come to Scotland.  Is this in fact Ruth Davidson’s opinion?  It is amazing that no-one in Ireland is recommending this option.  Is anyone in the UK recommending it?  And what about other small countries.  Surely Denmark would benefit enormously from becoming part of Germany - the most successful of all European states.  And how come Portugal has not begged to rejoin Spain?  
The whole notion is of course absurd.  Yet the likes of Ruth Davidson continue to assert that Scotland and apparently Scotland alone, of all the small countries in the whole world needs the eternal support of a great nation.  Ruth claims she is proud to be Scottish.  Not sure why she should be proud to be part of a country that in her view is incapable of running it own affairs.  Methinks she is much more proud to be British.  Though God knows why.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Reading Challenges 2011 - Update

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post about Reading Challenges and this post is an update on my progress so far.  I have formally signed up for one just the one challenge - the East European Reading Challenge.  I didn’t specify the level, but as I have now read six books from Eastern Europe, I have already passed the tourist level, (four books) and need another two to reach the Amabassador status.  Which I will try to do between now and the end of the year.
The books have been a bit of a mixture.  I started with Boris Akunin and his Erast Fandorin series of crime novels.  Both The Turkish Gambit and The Winter Queen are set in the 1870s and are not your typical crime novel.  They tend to go at a rather leisurely pace and are full of strange and unusual characters.  They also give us a good idea of the world view of (probably) most Russians, not just then, but as of to-day.  Well worth trying out.
I followed up with two of the great classics of not just Russian, but world literature - Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  Not much to add about either book.  Both are wonderful creations, though very much on the long side.
Since then I have dipped into post Yugoslav literature.  Death of the Little Match Girl is by Croatian writer Zoran Ferić, while The Tiger’s Wife is by Serbian author Tea Obreht.  Ferić writes in Croatian, while Obreht, who left Serbia as a child, writes in English and now lives in the USA.  Book books are rather strange and unsettling affairs.  Not surprising as both deal, in an offstage kind of way with the wars that followed the break up of Yugoslavia.  Interesting and on the whole successful attempts at story telling.  I now need to find two more books from Eastern Europe.
In addition to the Eastern European Challenge I set myself some non formal challenges of my own for the year.  I had hoped to dip into Japanese literature again but so far I have not managed one.  I have however read three books about China which would qualify me for the Merchant level in The Chinese Literature Challenge.  Two are by Chinese women writers who now live in the West and both deal with the travails of growing up in China.  Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah is the author’s personal story of her and her family’s life in both pre and post revolutionary China and then subsequently in the USA.  She had a pretty unhappy childhood as she was actively disliked by her stepmother.  Miss Chopsticks by Xinran is an altogether more upbeat and light hearted tale of how young peasant women are beginning to empower themselves in the new China.  River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh is the second part of the Bengali writer’s trilogy set in the 1830s.  As most of the action in this novel takes place in and around Canton it qualifies for the Chinese Challenge.  River of Smoke is a great book about the interaction between Chinese and foreigners at the time of the 1st Opium War.  I have also read one other book by an Asian writer.  The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim is set in Korea and vividly describes life in that country before and during the Japanese occupation.  This means that I have also made it for the East and South East Asia Challenge, as I can count two of the previously mentioned books for this challenge.
Another of my informal challenges was to continue reading lots of Scandinavian crime novels.  In particular I wanted to finish the Jo Nesbø series.  This I have managed to do quite easily and very enjoyably.  Just about everything I read from Scandinavia is very, very good.  I am now up-to-date with Jo Nesbø’s works.  Luckily I have come across a writer new to me - Mari Jungstedt from Sweden who writes about a detective based on the Baltic island of Gotland.  So far I have read one of this series, The Death of Summer and very good it was too.
Reading some books in German was another personal challenge and I have stubbornly stuck to it.  I say stubbornly as it is not at all easy for me to read books written in German.  But with the help of the dictionary I usually manage to get through.  So far I have read three books in German, two by Swiss writers - Die Haushälterin by Jens Petersen, a tender tale about the fraught relationship between a teenager and his widowed father; and Silberkiesel, a crime novel set in Basel, by Hansjörg Schneider.   The third was another krimi by Austrian writer Heinrich Steinfest.

I also planned to read more books in Spanish this year.  The challenge was to read one each month.   This I have not managed to do, partly because I have interspersed Spanish language books with German language books.  Nevertheless I have read four books in Spanish.  All of them crime novels and all very good.  In order of reading they were:  Un Crimen Imperfecto, by Teresa Solanas;  Ojos de Agua by Domingo Villar:  Ritos de Muerte by Alicia Gimenez Bartlett and Dulce Amor a Muerte by Guillermo Arriaga.  The first three are by Spanish writers, while the last is by a Mexican author.  As part of my Spanish language challenge I intend to sign up for another challenge - the Argentina Reading Challenge.  I hope to achieve the Student level, which requires me to read three books by Argentinian authors.  I now have two such books, again both crime novels - Plata Quemada by Ricardo Piglia and El Enigma de París by Pablo De Santis.  This challenge ends in February 2012, so I have until then to find one more book by an Argentinian author.  Wish me luck.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Photo of the Month - August 2011

August was quite a good month photo wise.  Early August sees the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival.  Below are some photos from the town.  The first is a view of the harbour, followed by an unusual use for lobster creels.
Next are some of the sculptures which dotted the main pier.  They were all made from discarded bits of motor bikes.
The following two photos come from the Tay estuary.  The first is a rather strange collection of objects which I found lying on the beach and then comes a little tug on the waters.
August is one of the school holiday months and we had the pleasure of Liam and Jamie's company for some of the time.  Here they are enjoying themselves.
During August we had some rather spectacular sunsets and here is my attempt to capture one of them.  It is the view looking across to the houses on the other side of our street.
Below is one of Kathleen's lovely flower arrangements which brighten our rooms.
For a few days in August Dundee hosted a Youth Festival with guests from all four of the city's Twin partners.  This included a delegation from Nablus in Palestine.  Below, one of the Nabulsi guests show off her new kilt.
August is also the birthday month for Liam, who is now eight years old.  Below are a couple of photos of Liam and his birthday cake, with first up the two Grannies in riotous form.
One of the highlights of August is to enjoy the full flowering of Hydrangeas.  The lace cap variety is Kathleen's favourite and below is a lovely specimen.
I end with one of my bargello pieces.  This one is entitled Petals and was stitched in shades of violet and lavender.  I think it goes well with the hydrangea above.

Monday, 19 September 2011

In Switzerland (4) Up and Down the Etzel

Over the last year Emma and Alessio have been trying to complete the series of walks which talkes you all the way round the Zürichsee.  We have accompanied them on a few of the sections.  Though the walk does go round the lake, many of the sections  take you quite a bit away from the lake itself and some involve quite a bit of climbing.  This is the case with the section which goes from Richterswil to Pfäffikon.  Emma and Alessio had already the first part of the walk which goes pretty steeply up to Schindellegi, and was as much as Alessio could manage in one go.

So last Saturday I accompanied them on the rest of the way.  Schindellegi is 685m above sea level which meant we had over 400m climbing ahead.  The town is nothing special, though it does have this spectacular church.

 The walk starts off by following the southern bank of the river Sihl.  Most of this part is through a forest and is pretty level.  For some reason there were scores of walkers coming the other way.  Walkers of all ages and shapes.  Some even had beer bottles with them.  Below are some photos of this part of the walk.

After we cross the Sihl again the real climbing begins.  At first through lovely farmland and then back into more forests.  To get into the woods you have to climb this sheer vertical ascent which goes through a very narrow opening between two fields protected by electric wiring.  A bit scary!
Once past this little hurdle the walk continues ever upward.  En route we passed two strange bunker like buildings, which apparently are stores for the Swiss army in times of emergency.  You can see one below.
The final section is very steep though we were rewarded with some fine vistas, such as this one.  Below that Emma and Alessio on the final few metres before the summit.

Once up, we were rewarded with a fine mountain restaurant where we partook of refreshments and enjoyed a little bit of relaxation.  Luckily there was an adventure playground which was much to Alessio's delight.  You also get great views from the restaurant grounds, particularly of the Sihlsee and Einsedeln.  Here is yours trully high above the lake.
You most definitely need some recuperation, because the onward descent is even more steep than the ascent.  It starts with a shortish and brutal descent to St Meinrad, where there is a chapel in honour of the saint, who was the founder of the famous monastery in nearby Einsedeln.  Here is a view of the chapel.
The remainder of the descent is just as steep and brutish and is almost all through dark forest.  Not really my scene.  I prefer open country for walking.  Though Alessio just loved the forest sections.  Anyway after much puffing and sweating we all emerged safe and (almost) sound at Luegeten.  This is a charming little restaurant above the Zürichsee.  We have been there a few times by car, but this was the first, and probably the last time on foot.  So it was an even more welcome sight than normal.
The restaurant is a very popular place and as on a previous occasion there was a fancy wedding reception enjoying the outdoor views.  Alessio somehow managed to join in and play with some of the children, while Emma and I just sat back and tried to recover.  From Luegeten we got the local bus down to Pfäffikon and then the train back home.  All in all a great day out.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

In Switzerland (3) - Just Windows

Yesterday I made a short trip into Zürich to get some fresh vegetables at the weekly market.  With some time to spare I wandered around the old town for a bit.  I ended up at the Lindenhof which is usually a fairly quiet spot with great views up and down the river Limmat.  There are also some lovely views of windows on the flats surrounding the square.  So what follows is simply a selection of these windows – nothing fancy, just pleasant and satisfying windows.  

 For something completely different to end with I have added a couple of shots from the market.  The first two are some of the stunning flower displays and the last two show some speciality pasta and cheeses.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Palestine - State No 194

The Palestinian bid for full recognition as a member state of the UN will come to some kind of climax next week, when the proposal is expected to go before the UN.  At this stage it is not clear just how this bid will pan out.  The proposal which has the backing of the Palestine National Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization seeks recognition for Palestine as the 194th member state of the UN.  It seeks this on the basis of the so-called 1967 borders.  This would mean a state which included the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.  The full statement can be read here.

Palestinians have already secured the support of most members of the UN, though they need a 2/3 majority in the General Assembly.  At the moment this is close.  The precise role of the Security Council in this is a bit unclear.  However the USA has already indicated that it will veto any resolution the comes before the Security Council.  Once again the USA falling meekly in behind Israel.  Quite where the UK stands is also unclear.

What is odd about this is that the Palestinian bid for statehood within the 1967 borders is what all countries and international organizations have been calling for since, well, since 1967.  The USA has regularly re-iterated its support for this outcome.  Even Israel is supposed to be in favour of the two state solution.  So why this opposition?

The reality of course is that Israel, despite all the lip service it gives to two states, is and always has been adamantly against any such outcome.  Pray why does Israel constantly annexe Palestinian land and build settlements after settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank if it was serious about a two state solution?

Israel and its western backers have had over forty years to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.  And all the evidence shows that Israel has never seriously tried to reach a just settlement.  As the leaked Palestinian Papers showed, Israel always asks for more and more.  Trully there is no partner for peace and that is Israel.

However, even if this statehood bid does succeed, it will not immediately effect the situation on the ground.  There are in fact some Palestinian groups who oppose this bid precisely because it may make things even worse for Palestinians, at least in the short run.  The argument is that Israel may well react with its usual show of brutal force.

What we must never forget in all this is that the fundamental call from all Palestinians is for Justice.  And this is best summed up in the three basic demands as follows:

1  End Israel's occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in 1967;

2 Honour the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality by ending the Israeli system of legalized and institutionalized racial discrimination (which conforms to the UN definition of apartheid);

3  Respect and enable the implementation of the UN-sanctioned right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were expelled.
These are the key principles on which a just and long term settlement must be built.  Whatever the outcome in the UN next week the struggle for justice will continue both in Palestine and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

In Switzerland (2) - Arancini, Cafés and Culture

After the excitement of Alessio`s birthday things calmed down a bit.  Partly due to Kathleen not feeling too well.  So I decided to use my time to make some Arancini.  These are delicious Sicilian delicacies which look a bit like oranges, hence the name.  I have tried them once before in an Italian restaurant in St Andrews, but, in honour of Alessio`s Italian heritage, I wanted to try and make the real thing myself.

Preparing the arancini is a bit like slow cooking and comes in stages.  First you make the outside - a mixture of rice, saffron, eggs and cheese.  Then the filling, which traditionally is a meat sauce (ragu) with peas.  Once this has been done you flatten the rice paste and leave everything to cool.  When ready to restart you put the whole show together.  A bit of rice paste, enough to fill the palm of your hand, fill it with the ragu and a bit of cheese, then cover with more rice paste.  Gently massage the mixture into the shape of an orange and leave to set for a bit.  This is what they looked like at this stage.
The final preparation is to dip the arancini, one by one, into beaten egg and then cover with breadcrumbs.  The arancini are now ready for the final cooking - deep frying in hot oil.  Making arancini is not an easy undertaking, in fact it is a rather complicated and time consuming venture.  However it is worth the effort.  Everyone enjoyed them and even Alessio managed to eat his.  Here are a couple of the cooked arancini, ready to eat.
If you fancy trying them out yourself, then here is a very good recipe with accompanying video.  It`s in Italian, but if you scroll down you get photos and instructions for each stage.  Bon Appetit!

By Thursday Kathleen was much better so we spent the day in Zürich.  For breakfast we went to Café Sprüngli on Bahnhofstrasse.  This is a charming café with a 19th century Viennese feel about it.  Everything is high class including the prices - but, hey, we`re worth it.  This is me below, about to indulge in my café crème and croissant.
The highlight of the day was a visit to the Design Museum or Museum für Gestaltung as it is known locally.  This is a pretty non-descript building, but does house some great exhibitions and there are three on display at present.  The main exhibition is High Rise - Idea and Reality.  This is a collection of photos with some mock-ups of some of the most influential and famous high rise buildings in the world.  The main focus is on New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Zürich.  Some of the photos are incredible and some of the most fascinating are those that show what it is like to live in one of these buildings.  Very impressive.  For a slide show of some of the photos visit the museum`s website here.

The other main exhibition features the work of Swiss artist François Berthoud, who is apparently one of the outstanding fashion illustrators of the present day.  The examples of his work on display are wonderful and the overall tone is light, playful and sexy.  Below is the poster for the exhibition and some of the works on show.

After this brief interlude of culture we popped into another of our favourite cafés, this time the Caffeteria am Limmatplatz.  Here is Kathleen relaxing after a hectic day.