Monthly Archives: February 2014

Wendy Doniger: it’s the brackets!

indiamapRecent news that Penguin India is to pulp copies of The Hindus: an alternative history, by Wendy Doniger (ISBN 978-0-19-959334-7), is, of course, shocking.

India has a web of laws designed to prevent the horror of communalism. This euphemism disguises the horror of different sets of people killing each other in the name of various religions including Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

Doniger’s 779 page book is an idiosyncratic look at Hinduism. She is an academic. It’s an entertaining enough book – I read it a few years back and re-read it following the Penguin India controversy.

The thing that mars the book for me is her excessive use of brackets.  I turned at random to page 528. On this page alone there are seven pairs of brackets and a hanging bracket at the top of the page.

I haven’t counted all the sets of brackets in the book, but if you multiply up seven by 779 that amounts to 5,453 sets of brackets. That’s way too many brackets!  Brackets break up the flow of a narrative, don’t you know? ♥

Councils can’t cost FOI

mikeonabeachI had two rather sweet replies to my most recent freedom of information requests to Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council.

I had asked them if they could tell me and the world+dog how much it cost to fulfil their legal obligations to provide info about stuff.

Oxford City Council said: “Dear Mr Magee

”Further to the acknowledgement below, I can respond to your FOI request received on 3rd January 2014 as follows :

”There is no specific budget for dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests. The Corporate Secretariat Manager acts as the Council’s Freedom of Information Officer – it is not a full-time role. He is supported by an administrative assistant who works 20 hours per week. In addition, individual departments have officers who provide information to the Freedom of Information Officer so that responses can be sent. It is very difficult to ascertain the costs involved.

”Yours sincerely

”Michael Newman
Corporate Secretariat Manager
Oxford City Council”

→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→

Oxfordshire County Council said much the same: “Dear Mr Magee,

”Thank you for your request of 3rd January 2014 in which you requested
information about the estimated annual cost of administering and
responding to Freedom of Information requests.

”Oxfordshire County Council does not hold information relating to your
request. This is because the role of administering freedom of information
requests is carried out as part of an officers wider role.

”In order to advise and assist, the Council has co-ordinators in each
Directorate of the Council who assist with FOI requests as well as other
administrative tasks. The Corporate Team has two members of staff who
advise on FOI legislation but they also have other roles, such as logging
corporate complaints which are made in writing or via the telephone as
well as responding to Information Commissioner and Local Government
Ombudsman investigations. Therefore it is not possible to provide you with
a figure, estimated or otherwise, as to the cost of administering FOI
requests in isolation.

“Please let me know if you have further enquiries. I would be grateful if
you could use the reference number given at the top of this email.

”Yours sincerely,

”Claire V Buller
Complaints and Freedom of Information Officer
Oxfordshire County Council
Law and Culture
County Hall”

You can make FOI requests of your own, at this excellent site,  here.

On being a letterpress printer

William CaxtonFor some reason, I decided I wanted to be a letterpress printer in the mid 1970s.  Being a letterpress printer, autodidactically, is a baptism of fire.

OK, you got the press, you got the forme, you got the reglets, you got the type, you got the text. Surely all you do is assemble the type, use the quoins to put it into the forme with bits of wood and that, apply the ink and press, press and press again.  No such luck. My first attempt was a disaster.

Quel catastrophe. I learned how to put the letters of the alphabet, all made of a lead alloy, upside down into the instrument of mass journalistic destruction, five lines at a time, separated by lead for the lines and lead as spacers, all beautiful fonts designed by Plantin, Gill and the rest.  And came up against a huge dilemma. The fonts are “type high”. That’s a type lie.

Apart from the fact that unless you had a Linotype machine you were condemned to buy more and more fonts, again and again and again, letterpress printing on a small press, at least,  is not a matter of pure pressure. As the rollers turned and the form with a page of lead in hit the press, it took hours, days to get the print to print regularly. Basically, you made an impression, and then got little bits of paper to make sure the so-called standard bits of lead delivered the right impression.

My first impression was really not very good at all. I printed an edition of 200 copies and sold them all, but I was very dissatisfied. These days you can buy Khephra Press books at a considerable premium.  Even a SOTHiS postcard costs £20. The Wild Ass is £23. One of my better attempts at hand letterpress printing.

Over the next two years, my technique improved but as I was  a solo letterpress printer, another problem presented itself to this solo printer. I could not afford the fonts. In those days, in the mid 1970s, you could actually go down to Fleet Street and buy whole trays full of the fonts you needed. But as I had a cash flow probbo at Khephra Press, I swiftly realised there was only one thing I could do. After I had printed two pages, and put them on drying lines, I had to carefully disassemble those carefully made pages in the form with the reglets and that, and start all over again. Then there was the paper that you had to choose carefully – and the pagination. The printed sheets had to dry before you could print and print again. That gave you time to disassemble the forme and start filling the quoin again.

In this way, at the Khephra Press, I think I put together eight or nine books – a labour of love. Or perhaps just a labour.

Being a letterpress printer is being like a top notch bricklayer – every piece has to fit together – if it doesn’t work out right, you have to disassemble the whole lot.

I do not regret one single bit of putting together a book bit by bit. It taught me patience. Although I should have had more sense.

The first book I created was Aleister Crowley’s Leah Sublime. The edition was my first experiment, so much so that I created a second edition which built on the first.  Meantimes, David Hall, Jan Bailey and myself were creating a magazine, SOTHiS which is still remembered. And produced using offset litho and then rather modern techniques of printing… and then there was SOGAT, NALGO and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

I flogged my books to the bookshops interested in the sort of books I was printing. One of these was The Equinox bookshop, owned by Jimmy Page. The big problem I had – as I hinted before – was that you had to buy all the materials up front and then wait for the bookshops to pay up. This sometimes took some time. The Equinox, once, rather than paying, invited me to take the value of my invoice in books.  The Equinox also took multiple copies of SOTHiS magazine and produced editions of occult books.  A negative review of one of these books led to the chap running the bookshop cutting out the pages with the negative review before putting them on the shelves for sale.

In this way I managed to get hold of Sir John Woodroffe’s English digest of the Tantrarajatantra.  This, I guess, was 1976 or so.  I am still struggling to translate the Tantrarajatantra, nearly over 40 years later. It is written in beautiful Sanskrit and I am only any good at ugly Sanskrit.

This text has been, for me, one of the most important in my development.  It is a fusion of Indian jyotisha and severely impressive practical spiritual values – it is so shakta that even your dad is a form of the goddess. I’ve explored some of these ideas on www.shivashakti.com. I was still a member of Kenneth Grant’s OTO at the time – but in 1974 I had had a spiritual experience that jolted me so much that my being was yearning towards India.

I am often asked why a technology hack – that’s me –  is interested in India. It’s too hard to explain so I fall back on the excuse that my Uncle Mac, in Ballater, used to run the railways in the Bombay Presidency. His house was jam packed with Indian curios.  My dad’s Hindustani was more than passable and he told me this  story once. When he was in the RAF in India, on sentry duty, a sadhu came walking in his direction. “Halt! Who goes there”. The sadhu explained that this was an ancient track that he and his kind also took, but my dad, with bayonet drawn, refused to let him pass.  The sadhu cursed him and said that because he refused to let him pass, his second son would become a sadhu.  I haven’t written about Dadaji yet.  Life is interesting.

Still, I found the craft of putting books together most interesting and satisfying, if not financially rewarding. I did a great deal of jobbing printing too.  Now that a font does not consist of a collection of “type high” alphanumeric characters, you can tote them all around on your iMad or your PC.  The fonts I still have require really heavy lifting, a relic of the past dot com.

Vote yes for a free Scotland

David BowieAn old age pensioner called David Bowie (67) said in a statement at the Brit Awards last night that he wanted Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom.

As a Scot myself, with three Scottish grandparents and one Irish grandparent, I don’t have the vote.  But I am of the very strong opinion that Scotland should say “yes” to independence.

Despite the Labour, Liberal and Tory parties all lining up to support David Bowie’s stance, I am of the clear view that no-one should interpret a “yes” vote as a vote for the SNP.  If Scotland does split from the UK, it will create a whole new political dynamic both north and south of the border. The left will continue to win seats in an independent Scottish parliament. The Tories are largely irrelevant in Scotland and will continue to be so. A glance at the 2010 general election results is very revealing.

A “yes” vote will create a lot of changes in UK politics – Scotland returned 41 MPs in 2010 to parliament.

I don’t really have much time for Alex Salmond after he backed the egregious Donald Trump over his nutty scheme to turn a slab of the wild Aberdeenshire coast into the modern equivalent of a desert, that is to say, a golf course.  Nor, if Scotland says “yes”, do I care about being tied to the pound or to Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

My gut feeling is that an independent, democratic Scotland has every chance of being a viable, progressive force in Europe. And, again, folks of Alba, voting “yes” does not mean voting for the SNP. ♥

The Marrakesh Express: I didn’t make it!

FrancoMy first visit to Spain was in 1969 – I hitch hiked from Leeds to Dover, caught the ferry then hitch hiked all the way through France although the motorists thought my hair was too long, and so crossed the border between France and Spain at the usual spot, not far from Bayonne

We caught the train across the border – in the carriage the Basque people introduced me to goatskins full of wine. They were good company and sort of understood my schoolboy French. San Sebastian was tough, but we survived, sleeping in a field.

In Spain we found the going even harder than in France although a kind English couple gave us a ride over the Pyrenees and took us as far as Burgos.  This is an ancient city with soldier ants bigger than we’d ever imagined them to be and quite prepared to take on a curious 20 year old youth.

From Burgos we were forced to take again a train in Spain to Madrid – long haired youths were obviously not considered to be worth picking up – Spain was such a poor country then anyway. My pesetas went a long long way, San Jose.

A nice young guy on the train said that Spanish wasn’t a hard language, and proceeded to give me a bit of instruction in the lingo/bhash. It’s a shame I never learnt Spanish, it seems a lot more intelligent than Esperanto, or I hope so anyway.

The Madrid underground system had just opened – so recently that it hadn’t got round to putting signs on the individual stations – we had to count the stations to get from one side of Madrid to the other. Already having given up on any chance of hitch hiking, we took the milk train down to the Costa del Sol.

Andalusia, ah Andalusia. Here our thumbs started to work again and a kind American gave us a lift all down the Costa del Sol main road. He said that he’d been down there just a while ago when the coast road didn’t exist and every single town like Torremolinos and Marbella were fishing villages, pure and simple. In Marbella, I learned to my alarm about The Troubles, in Northern Ireland.

In the American’s  car was a Danish guy and his German girlfriend. Although Danish, the German Army had called him up and he was a draft dodger, having a lot of fun in the south of Spain.

I’d already noticed that there were a heck of a lot of different police forces in Fascist Spain – every time we needed to sleep we had schlafsacks and that and just camped towards the beach. One morning we woke up to find three members of the tricorn wearing the uniforms of the Guardia Civil pointing their machine guns at us. As their motto is “Everything for the Fatherland”, we took their advice about sleeping on the beach and decamped rapido.

To Algeciras  and to the Morocco ferry. Queuing up I made some observations to my fellow travellers in English about my impressions of Fascist Spain and the number of police forces there seemed to be. In those days, speaking against the  regime could get you thrown in gaol. A very nice Spanish gentleman, must have been in his mid 30s, turned round to us and said: “Please keep your voices down. Spain is getting better all the time, but it is still unwise to speak out about the regime.”

And so to Morocco – or rather to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast and no doubt as irritating to the Moroccans as Gibraltar is to the Spanish. Here we fell in with some conscripts in the Spanish Army, and just the way you can do when you are 20, we discovered they were paid the equivalent of one shilling a day.

My Moroccan adventures don’t matter too much here – but I found myself once again on the ferry going back to Spain  with some very foolish companions I’d met in Tangier – a couple of young American up and coming tennis stars, who had stuffed the barrels of their rackets with cannabis. The journey was rough and the bows of the ferry caused many a passenger to vomit like there was no tomorrow and go green. I was OK – I don’t mind turbulent seas. What was really fantastic was passing through a vast shoal of tuna fish.

The customs house in Malaga was staffed with hundreds of  officials and I did fear for them. But they somehow got through customs and we had to say goodbye to each other. I was going to fly, for the first time in my life, from Malaga Airport. I had a ticket, but no money at all, only enough to buy a lemon in the old town. My flight wasn’t going to happen for a day, and I hadn’t realised there was something called airport tax you had to pay.  There was a member of the Guardia Civil in the airport, and for one brief moment I contemplated nicking his pistol and shooting myself in the head. But a kindly English girl took pity on me and paid my airport tax so I could fly back to Blighty. In return, I carried an extra 200 tabs for her back to UK plc.  Oh, she bought me a meal as well. I was a bit starving and down on my luck.  At Heathrow, I was lucky. Customs even let me keep the drum I’d bought in Morocco and which contained nothing but African air. I walked along the tunnel and hitch hiked all the way back to Leeds with only one thumb up.  My dad wasn’t very happy with me, all told.

Morocco was so very very different from Fascist Spain

In Ceuta, in Ceuta and the mighty bats flew and the little claque of hitch hikers quivered and quavered on the beach all night, worried that the Guardia Civil would carry out their threats and machine gun us to our deaths before we’d hardly started living.

The brave band of 20 year olds decided to park on the beach and maintain an all night vigil against the possibility – we were ready to repulse any Fascist threats, if necessary we would die for the cause like the anarchists did in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

We survived the night for several reasons. One, we were obviously paranoid kids that weren’t even threatened with intelligence and two we were young kids that liked to sit on the beach and hear the waves beat against the North African sand.

But we survived the day to be able to go to the Ceuta bus station and pass through Spanish emigration into Morocco. My school kid French held me well once we’d crossed the border – this was the former French Morocco I’d passed into. There were strange things on the road to Tetuan – we got stopped quite often and the Moroccan police sailed into the bus to inspect the chickens people were carrying and to cast a kindly eye on our British and German passports. And the Moroccan people were so hospitable and friendly. The bus played Moroccan music and the Moroccan music was good and we all loved it.

To Tetuan. You could hear the guns firing in what was then called the Spanish West Sahara.

My colleagues wanted to score the best Moroccan hash, but I’d already learned of the draconian Moroccan laws. You could get thrown into a Tangier jail forever if you scored. Plus les flics were complicit in the deal. The deal being that some western kid scored hash and paid a fortune for it, the dealer and the cop were in cahoots, and once money had passed hands you found yourself in jail, the dealer got his hash back to re-sell and the cop got his payoff. A simple circle, simply completed.

In Morocco in 1969 you did not buy from the dealers. You met the locals who would give the European and American kids a pipe full of the freshest kif from the mountains, show them hospitality, give them a mint tea, and fare us well on our way.

The Danish guy with a German girlfriend who found himself conscripted and went on the run went native in Tetuan – a delightful little city in those days but so small that everyone knew everyone else’s business. I particularly liked Coca Cola written in Arabic and beautiful mint tea in the very beautiful square.  Met a couple of Brits there – I don’t think they were looking after themselves very well – one had sores on his legs with maggots as garnish – probably just as well he got the maggots, they were probably eating away the rubbish on his leg. They had come from Marrakesh.

I met the most beautiful Glaswegian lass who had been convinced that it would be a great idea if some Moroccan guys took her down to Marrakesh. We tried to persuade her this probably wasn’t a great idea, but off she went. She was skint, she was young, and she was going to risk it for a frisket. She was probably all right. I’ll never know.

Never saw the Danish guy again or his German girlfriend – me and my companions went to the Tetuan bus station en route for Tangier, or Tanger as the French called it. A rather beautiful city full of kids trying to earn a crust and who addressed you in what they thought was your native language. I largely escaped detection because I was said I was from Island (Iceland).

I   tracked down Barbara Hutton’s palace, complete with Nubian slaves with drawn scimitars. After a few weeks in Tanger, we took the boat back to Algeciras – Gibraltar was still out of bounds from Spain. I’d run out of money. I was waiting for my daddy’s air ticket at the Tanger post restante and had to catch a plane from Malaga back to the UK. I learned the value of a good siesta.

I had to say goodbye to my friends that had been with me during our Spanish and Moroccan time – apart from the great Dane, of course. He was still in Morocco. 

MP responds to West Oxford floods

Nicola BlackwoodDear Mr Magee,

Many thanks for your recent email telling me of your concern about the current flooding in Oxford, and in particular around the Botley Road area. Please accept my apologies for the delay in my reply, which was due in part to the large number of letters and emails I have received in recent weeks.

For many local families what should have been an enjoyable beginning to 2014 was quickly turned into quickly a nightmare by the distress and disruption of flood risk to their homes and businesses. I am sorry to read that a number of your friends have suffered flooding in their homes on the Botley Road, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you in the last few weeks.

Please be assured that as your local MP, I am absolutely determined to keep the issue of our flood defences firmly on the local and national agenda. In recent weeks I have travelled back from Westminster to the constituency on numerous of occasions to meet local residents, Environment Agency (EA) officials, local councillors and emergency response teams to see and hear for myself the situation on the ground as it is developing. On the specific subject of Environment Agency staffing, as you may be aware, the Prime Minister announced a few days ago that in light of the current situation, the planned 550 job losses at the EA will now be put on hold.

I have met on numerous occasions with all the key players in the response effort, including the EA, the Police, Fire Brigade, local action groups and local residents, many of whom have  been working tirelessly almost since Christmas to pump out water, repair burst piping, confine sewage leaks and restore normal services to our communities. While there will always be ways in which we can improve our response to flooding, many local residents affected regularly by flood risk tell me that locally the emergency response and resilience to flooding has improved year on year since the terrible floods of 2007.

Burst Sewage Pipes

However, whilst I applaud the hard work of these teams to reduce and repair the damage, I am bitterly disappointed that yet again this year recurring problems such as leaking sewage pipes have still affected so many. The truth is that we need urgent action on our drainage infrastructure, a point which have raised repeatedly with both Thames Water and the Environment Secretary. Hard-working local groups such as Oxfordshire Flood Alliance and the Ock Valley Flood Group, have done a great deal to highlight these problems to relevant authorities and I will be holding a half day meeting with Thames Water in the near future to go through the detail of the problems that have arisen in each part of my constituency and discuss how this appalling state of affairs can be more effectively prevented in the future.

Local Term Solutions Necessary

On flood prevention more widely, I was pleased to see that this year many local flood defence measures implemented since 2007 have been successful in protecting people and property; but there is clearly a great deal more work to be done. Yet again many properties have not escaped the flood water and countless more residents have been affected by closed roads and delayed buses and trains. I have therefore continued to put pressure on the local and central Government, response agencies and utility companies to improve and strengthen our flood defences going forward.

Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State

I have also ensured that local flood prevention and defences remain firmly on the Government’s horizon by asking a number of oral and written Parliamentary Questions in the House of Commons. You can read these questions and the responses here:
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/search/?s=flooding&pid=24842
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/search/?s=river+bed&pid=24842

Oxford Western Conveyance Plan

At the end of January I co-signed a letter with Andrew Smith MP and Councillor Bob Price to the Prime Minister, highlighting our ongoing concerns about the impact of regular flooding on Oxfordshire’s economy and calling for extensive investment in our flood defences. In particular the letter requested support for the Environment Agency’s flood alleviation scheme for Oxford and the Oxford Western Conveyance Plan, which would provide a viable long-term solution to the flooding problems that the city and its neighbouring villages has been experiencing in recent years.

David Cameron replied, assuring them of his determination that the right measures are taken over flooding in Oxford and offered a meeting with key Downing Street Advisors to discuss the practical details involved in the Western Conveyance Proposal. You can view the Prime Minister’s full reply at:
http://nicolablackwood.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=744&Itemid=37

River Maintenance, Including Dredging Operations

I am also raising with both the Secretary of State and the Environment Agency the issue of putting in place more regular maintenance of key tributaries around Oxford, including the Hinksey and Osney Stream areas. Continuing maintenance by riparian owners along the banks of Thames and its tributaries, smaller streams and watercourses on a regular basis is vital in order to clear obstructions and remove overgrown vegetation. Whilst the Environment Agency may not always have official responsibility carrying out these maintenance operations themselves, it is nevertheless important that they play a central role in advising and encouraging landowners to clear obstructions, providing practical assistance where necessary.
I also feel strongly that it is time we gave serious consideration as to whether future dredging operations along the Thames and its key tributaries would help to maintain water levels during times of heavy and persistent rainfall. The Environment Agency have not prioritised this method of flood control in recent years and to that end I have sent a series of written Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asking that his Department look into this subject in more depth.

The Future Of Flood Insurance – Flood Re Scheme

I am pleased that after many months of painstaking and detailed negotiations, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the insurance industry to ensure affordable flood insurance for households in high risk areas without placing unsustainable costs on wider policyholders and the taxpayer. This new agreement with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has been incorporated in the Water Bill, now in the final stages of passage through Parliament, and replaces the current ‘Statement of Principles’. It will bring peace of mind to people who need to renew their insurance from next year.

The new agreement will cap flood insurance premiums by linking them to council tax bands so that people will know the maximum they will have to pay. Customers will also be free to shop around to get the best overall deal from an insurer of their choice with some customers seeing prices fall. This agreement will also constrain the excesses that could be imposed on households at high flood risk. To fund this, a new industry-backed levy will enable UK household insurers to create a fund that can be used to pay claims for people in high-risk homes. The agreement will have legislative backing and will last for at least 20 years. The Scheme is due to come into effect in July 2015 and until then, the industry has agreed to continue to meet their commitments under the ‘Statement of Principles’.

Further information from the ABI on the Flood Re Scheme can be found here:
https://www.abi.org.uk/Insurance-and-savings/Topics-and-issues/Flooding/Government-and-insurance-industry-flood-agreement/The-Future-of-Flood-Insurance

And here is a link to my most recent Parliamentary Questions on Flood RE:
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/search/?s=flood+re&pid=24842

Flooding is without doubt a very serious problem for Oxfordshire and what we need now are long term solutions. I have been raising all of these issues locally and in Parliament and I assure you that I will continue to do so. I will also remain in close contact with local people, flood action groups, Thames Water and the Environment Agency as the flooding continues, vigorously representing the concerns of my constituents.

I do hope that this response has been helpful and thank you once again for taking the time to write to me. Please do get back in touch if I can be of further assistance.

Kindest regards

Nicola

Nicola Blackwood
MP for Oxford West & Abingdon

I wasn’t supposed to live, but I did

Panch HanumanI wasn’t supposed to live when I was born, with Mars and Saturn straddling the midheaven at 6AM on the 7th of December 1949. That is what my father told me – for some weeks I hovered between life and death because of gastroentiritis. That meant that I escaped baptism for some three or four weeks. Saturn and Mars – the two great malefics of astrology – have passed by to say hello several times since in my life. I quite like them really, they rule Saturday and Tuesday respectively. I got baptised two months after I was born, according to my birth certificate. Didn’t they want me to go to heaven? Was Limbo an option?

My father was a civil servant in Aberdeen – he was in charge of the National Assistance Board at Regent’s Quay, close to the trawlers that sailed in the North Sea and beyond to catch the then plentiful herring and cod in those waters. He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne – his father was born in Dublin.  As the IRA blew up the Public Records Office in 1922, I am unable to substantiate my father’s claim that the Magees are descendants of the kings of  the Hills of Tara. A friend of mine, much later in life, also had a father of Irish descent who claimed descent from kings – wittily, but rather cruelly, she said his royal antecendent was the most successful of royals, the King Edward.

My mother was born in Aberdeen and loved the city. She loved the Scottish traditions too – there was nothing she loved more than the sound of the pipes, dancing to Scottish airs. Her father was a seedsman, not that far from Regent’s Quay. He died in 1928 but was accomplished in bee keeping – he won medals in apiculture. I never knew my grandmother on this side of my family either – she died the year before I was born. My mother said she herself was the seventh born of a seventh born – this is supposed to bestow psychic abilities and she did profess to read tea leaves and the like, as well as allowing the possibility of fortunes being told.

I was the second born  – my elder brother is three and a half years older  and my earliest memory is easy to date. Her Brittanic Majesty Queen Elizabeth the IInd was crowned in June 1953 – just three days later my younger brother was born. I remember the coronation as it was celebrated in Aberdeen, with flags, floats and large fires and just a few days later remember that I was kicked out of my cot to make way for my younger brother. I didn’t resent it in the slightest – I was just slightly surprised.  I was told I fell out of my pram when I was 18 months old and my head hit the deck. I don’t remember this. I have often been accused of throwing my toys out of my pram. I remember what my pram looked like, because my younger brother took it over – a beautiful perambulator of the 50s kind.

During the Second World War, my father was in the RAF – shipped first to Skye where he told me later the inhabitants all spoke Gaelic and had never seen a bus – he later got shipped to India, where he described the flying fish before he tipped up in Delhi. My mum was a Wren – working for the Admiralty. Her brother-in-law  had run the Indian North West railways but after independence had moved to Ballater, not far from Balmoral. He owned a garage “by Royal Appointment”. I stayed at their lovely house, full of Indian curios and memories. When my father went to India, he used to tell me and my brothers of how “Uncle Mac” had hired an entire luxurious carriage for him, shunted around the Presidency, as Maharashtra was known in the pre-Independence days.

I never went to nursery school – instead one day my mother took me down to St Peter’s School in Aberdeen and told me that this was my first day at school. The day was heaven – we were given heaps of toys to play with, and I was given paint and a brush which I used to create my first and probably best painting ever, a red jug. Unfortunately, the paint was not yet dry when the teacher put it up on the wall. Fortunately, the paint dripped from the lip of the jug so it looked pretty OK, almost as if I’d intended it.

Day Two at St Peter’s was a different kettle of fish. We started to learn our ABCs and our 123s, using slate, chalk and an abacus. I also had my first taste of school dinner – the teacher told us that if I closed my eyes as we said grace, I would see Jesus. I closed my eyes and couldn’t see him. And said so. Trouble.  My mother was forced, as a Presbyterian, to adopt the Catholic faith when she married, and bring her children up as papists. Somehow or other, she managed to imbue me with some scepticism for the Catholic faith.

It’s 1956. My Uncle Mac is driving me and my elder brother around some sights not far from Aberdeen, including a statue of the hated Rob Roy. As an owner of a garage in Ballater, he was obviously rather upset by the Suez Crisis. He threw a newspaper into the back of the car, where Ian and I sat, not far from the Devil’s Elbow, and said “look at that, Michael”. The newspapers, all under D Notices, had decided to print blank spaces where their stories had been censored.

This was my first introduction to journalism.

Pre-oil Aberdeen was most interesting. Based primarily on the fishing and the granite industry, I saw most of it. Over in the fishing part of the town, there were basking sharks hung up to dry. The granite industry was in some ways harder than the fishing industry – the poor buggers had to grind stuff into shape and determine the “Silver City” – Aberdeen. Grinding marble and stuff into shape is not my idea of a job of work, but that’s what needed to be done and it was.

My father promised me early on that he would take me out on a trawler into the treacherous North Sea but regularly in the newspaper called the Aberdeen Press & Journal there were reports of what happened to the trawlers. On their way to catch cod, herring and other fish, the masts of the ships would ice up, and all hands would be lost.

This happened so regularly when I was at St Peter’s School in Old Aberdeen that several of my schoolmates lost their fathers at sea. I could not help look on and sympathise and empathise.

My father took me to see what happened when trawlers came back to port, successfully. Their chapped hands were only matched by the chapped hands of the women in the fish market. As the trawlers disgorged the fish into the docks, a whole army of women set to work to gullet the fish, empty the intestines into the waiting maw of numerous gulls, and despatch them south, for people to liberate the fish by eating them – probably with chips.

I have an undying memory of seeing these women work in the fish market, not very far from Regent’s Quay. My father said, look, look at what these people have to do to live. The women would slash the throats of the fish, gullet them, and despatch them into crates for distribution southwards.

They were always kind to me, a slight observer, and showed me what happened to the herring, rather than the cod. The women would separate the fish, and the herring would go to a place full of brown paper, a cancerous place, said my father, where they would become “Aberdeen Smokies”.

The men on the trawlers were hard working men and needed a tot or two when they hit the dry land of Aberdeen. They, I think, were on shift rates, so could only earn money when they trawled in the sea. Sometimes there were off periods, so they applied to the National Assistance Board (NAB)  for assistance. My daddy said in the 1950s that the work was so hard that they would resort to shoe polish for a drink. Quite a few of the kids in my school lost their daddies as trawlers toppled in the search for fish. I never did get taken out on a trawler.

Aberdeen was hit very  hard by the Nazis in the Second World War, as I saw when I was a kid in the 1950s. For some reason, the bombers rained huge explosives on the city, probably because we were the nearest thing to Norway. For some reason, some Germans hated Norway. It was then, with some interest, that my dad said when I was seven, come down to Regent’s Quay, son. There I was escorted onto a Norwegian schooner, all made of wood, and we were piped aboard. Perhaps Norway and North Scotland do, after all, have something in common. The schooner was beautiful and the Norwegian sailors delightful, in the extreme.

Aberdeen, pre-Oil, was beautiful in the 1950s. Forget Ballater, and forget Balmoral, the city between the Don and the Dee was delightful. The beaches were fine too. In the rock pools, you could find every species of fish known to man and woman. The museum in Aberdeen showed you how beautiful Scotland was, by demonstrating fowl, fish, flora, fauna and animals native to Caledonia and Alba. The summers now, seem to me have been warm and pleasant. The winters were a bugger. Snow fell so hard that we often had to dig ourselves out of the house, with high walls of snow separating us from the rest of the community. Coming back from school one day, all the buses stopped because of a dreadful blizzard. I had to walk back from school but in between times laid down in a drift. A guy lifted me up, I managed to tell him where I lived, and he took me back home to Hillcrest Place. A grateful mum gave him a tot of whisky. Lying in a snow dirft is not unpleasant – I guess if I’d lain there much longer, I’d have been one of the casualties, rather than a guy kissed by Saturn.

Culture, too, was not unknown in Aberdeen. We had the example of the Aberdonian witches burnt at the stake to remember. We even once caught sight of the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, and Marischal College, a centre of culture. Maybe.

Let me tell you how beautiful Dyce was in the 1950s – then it was an airport but a pre-oil airport in Aberdeen. My mother took her three sons brambling then, we collected a huge amount of berries which when washed and the grubs were washed out, made an enormous amount of very beautiful jams, all carefully labelled so we knew when and how and where the brambles were collected. The streams were clean, in Ballater, on the Dee, you could even guddle trout, you could see the Cairngorms from my house, and walk a few miles you would be in the middle of a rural idyll – well, it’s Scotland. But the Red Admirals flew, the summers were sunny, and the light was pure and free, without taint of American missionaries in the Western Isles.

Dyce is now a nightmare of helicopters and international frights.

In my childhood there was a lot of conflict between the Presbyterians and the Catholics. The Boy’s Brigade was the Protestant version of the Cubs and Scouts. As I had been brought up a Catholic, therefore I was expected to adhere to the Catholic Cubs and Scouts. Guess what? I got expelled, actually framed. This was an East Coast version of the war between Protestants and Catholics in Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast. As I was a hybrid, I could never quite answer the Aberdonian question. “Fit are ye?” – my mum was a proddie and my dad a Catholic. A beating up always ensued as I attempted to cut the Gordian Knot.

I learned gang warfare in Aberdeen. There was the Mastrick Gang, our gang, and another gang based in the estates. We were the hunted, we learned to fear the gang from the estate because it had no chivalry, nor beauty. They just wanted to hunt us through the beautiful parts of Aberdeen. We were the Cummings Park Gang. We saw what Old Aberdeen was like, complete with Gypsy caravanserai. We were just kiddies, but gang warfare in the 1950s in Aberdeen was far, far more vicious than in Central South LA today. There was little mercy, and far less compassion. The mean gang not only tortured kids, but tortured animals. When I saw the mean gang roasting a tortoise to the sound of skylarks and peewits, I realised Aberdeen was no paradise.

England was a very very rude awakening after the sort of very but not so  beautiful Auld Aberdeen.