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Friday, 21 June 2013

Tidying and clearing the house in the Highlands

Tidying Brin Croft

I would, while she was alive, think of how it would be, sleeping and eating in her empty home, going through her things, sorting, allocating, disposing. I knew the day would one day come when she would be gone, Indeed it was an ever present understanding, once I was a grown-up, that intensified the joy of all the days we were together. Lin and I have spent nine days in Brin Croft, sprucing up the house, inside and out, deciding a ranking of the many things that must go - some, depending on what they offer, to antique dealers, some to auction, some to be sold on ebay or Gumtree, some to the family, some to charities, some, that can't be sold or donated, to house clearance. I've had a word with Sandy, the regular postie, who'll halt the flow of catalogues mum used for her bedside shopping. I've taken sacks of junk mail to be recycled in the bins by Inverarnie Stores. As I heaved handfuls of unread glossy catalogues into the recycling bin by the shop, I spied a slip of paper with typical scribbles in mum's hand...
'On the divan are piled (at night her bed) stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays…'

I didn't throw it out thinking of the only context I've come across the word 'carbuncular', known those resonant lines since I was taught about them at school. I recognise Watson and the Gaelic place names reference, but what's that 'Sister Theresa' and 'Hullo Hullo Hullo'? How mum shrank from 'apathy'. The Wiesel quote in Against Silence 'The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference...' She and Jack, between them, taught me, entirely indirectly and by example, that being 'bored' is nearly a crime, something to be scorned.
The house will be cleared, but for a few things left on the estate agent's advice - "so the house is not entirely empty" - in mid-July. All valuable items removed, we've reduced the contents insurance; given the place a short back and sides - washing, scrubbing, vacuuming, dusting, weeding, pruning; taken photos for the agent's website, lined up auctioneers, dealers and other potential buyers; made dates for van hire and moving; kept detailed lists of everything...demonstrated some of mum's disability gear...

Apart from those the family wanted, we've sold or given away what remains of mum's books - a good number bought by Leakey's in Inverness and Logie Steading Bookshop in Forres - both places where mum was a customer. Roger from Auldearn Antiques, often visited by mum...

...came to Brin Croft and made offers for us to review and compare with other valuations.

The house goes on sale in mid-July

I've got to find someone who'll climb the roof to recover the wind vane I've known for sixty years. It's followed mum around since it was first designed by my stepfather, put together by our blacksmith, showing a lurcher, whose name I've forgotten, and a Jack Russell called Sukie.

I've had times to go walking with Oscar, following familiar paths through the woods that march along the edge of Strathnairn along the Farnack...

Brin Rock

Brin Croft from the south
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For two days of our time at Brin Croft the once winding narrow road with passing places - the B851 that runs two and a half miles to a T-junction with the busy A9 to Inverness, was closed for the completion of 'improvement' works - in this case at the bridge over the river Nairn near Mid-Lairgs. To transport the big turbines for Dunmaglass Windfarm, just beyond Croachy, to be sited four miles down the strath from Inverarnie, the only route there has to be widened.
1. Littlemill Bridge
RES aims to commence construction work for the new bridge at Littlemill in early 2013 to replace the existing double arched stone bridge with a new, wider clear-span bridge. This bridge will require minor re-routing of the B851 to link in with the new bridge and provide approaching traffic with a clear view.
The new bridge works will take approximately six months to complete. No road closures are anticipated. However, temporary traffic lights and speed restrictions will be used for a limited time when the bridge is connected to the existing road network. There will be a brief interruption to broadband and phone services over one night. Residents likely to be affected will be given advance notice.
2. Inverarnie Bends
RES will be widening a 400 metre stretch of single track road near Tombreck to create a twin track carriageway. The works will include replacement of an existing culvert and diversion of existing BT cables, which will cause minor disruption to broadband and phone services over one day. Residents likely to be affected will be given advance notice. The road widening scheme requires the section of road to be closed to traffic. Diversions will be put in place for general road users but local properties will continue to have access. The works are likely to take two months to complete. Temporary traffic lights and speed restrictions will be used for the duration of the road improvement programme to minimise the road closure period and to protect the workforce and the public.
3& 4 Croachy North and Croachy South
Works at Croachy North will extend the twin track carriageway from its current extent near Brinmore School Bridge for more than one kilometre to the entrance to Croachy village. At Croachy South an upgrade of the B851 from single track to twin track will be undertaken on a short stretch of road between Blarachar Bridge and the existing twin track carriageway near the Aberarder Estate.
The improvements will include diverting existing BT cables and water mains to allow construction to begin, extending the road and embankment and creating new drainage. Residents will be given advance notice of minor disruption to water, broadband and phone services. Interruption to each utility should last no longer than one day. RES will work with The Highland Council to maintain access to fields and properties for adjacent landowners affected by these road improvements....

I approve renewable energy but this scheme deprives the route down the strath of a marker, the old humped bridge with traffic lights that pinched the road to Tombreck; always noted near the end of a long journey. It's gone; sidelined to a farm road and footpath beside a steel fendered clearway for the necessary trucks, incentive for speeding motorists. The building of a new parapet of 'old' stone where the river runs under the flattened crossing is an unconsoling excuse. Seeing the wide straight tarmac that's replaced the familiar delay I felt almost relieved to be ending my connections here.  I remembered something my stepfather had written a year before his death...lines from an ode to a book he never wrote...
...I said I must write a warning. But I was angry and - as the
Japanese say - to be angry is only to make yourself ridiculous.
So we will live out our days in the cracks between the
concrete. And then they will pour cement on top of us.
Road 'improvement' at Littlemill in Strathnairn
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Jan comments on our letter to Highland Council:
Subject: Some thoughts
Date: 18 June 2013

Simon. I have read with a mixture of bemusement and despair your experience with the Highland Council. It is beyond me how councils get themselves into this mind set but I suspect it is an accumulation  of trying to cover every eventuality and solve ‘problems’ by drawing up more and more elaborate rules and regulations and double/triple checks on everything, combined with a dilution in decision making and a defensive mind-set. Instead a system of delegated decision-making based on some simple but effective principles and procedures would improve the situation. We had a similar experience when we cleared out my mother-law’s council flat in Middlesbrough. The person on the phone informed us they could only deal with the tenant. As she was dead this was rather difficult and we had a bizarre ‘Pythonesque’ dialogue for over 20 mins, reminding me of the dead parrot joke, before it was resolved by us informing them that we were just leaving the keys in the door and driving away. This, not surprisingly, jolted them into action. There are times when it is difficult to defend councils.
On a more positive note it is pleasing to see that some councils are now trying to co-ordinate their actions in respect of all the welfare changes. Manchester City Council is taking a lead on this. I think developments in and around the Greater Manchester area are worth a bit of study. They offer some models of ‘recalibration’ with government, albeit on the latter’s terms, but it think they have been rather astute at exploiting what is on offer whilst also being robust in defence of their own communities.
Did you see the letter in the Observer from a large number of Council Leaders across the country pleading with the government not to be too harsh in the next spending review. I think this will fall on deaf ears and is a lost cause but it was interesting to read that they all now claim to be in or close to ‘insolvency’ in terms of not being able to fund their core statutory responsibilities. I believe most councils are beyond that ‘tipping’ point already. I think district councils in particular are very vulnerable to becoming ‘redundant.’ What was depressing was the tone and focus of the letter. It read like a drowning person without a lifejacket  crying for help and rescue to an imaginary rescuer on the beach (The Child believes the Parent will come to its rescue but the Parent believes the Child has to either sink or swim and this will make it stronger). 
It is frustrating that there is a lack of real meaningful strategy and narrative being developed by councils themselves other than the now rather old ‘innovation and transformation’ mantra, or a straight forward ‘help us’ message to government. As I have said before I think councils are hoist by their own success. They are by far the most competent and best performing sector across the whole public sector and this combination of Competence and Compliance is being ruthlessly exploited by Government and we’ll see this even more clearly in the next spending review. The most acute part of this is Adult Social Care, where numerous hospital, care homes, domiciliary reports, not to say scandals, point to a collapsing service for a very large proportion of elderly people. We are talking about basics such as not feeding and watering people, leaving people unattended and worst of all treating vulnerable people with contempt. Yes I know that there are examples of good service and committed people but when according to published figures between a quarter and a third of older people receive sub-standard services, then we have a national scandal which nobody is getting a real grip on other than by voicing rhetoric and platitudes; very depressing. Sadly, it can only get worse, especially for the most vulnerable. If you are old, ill and poor, then your end of life is likely to be a very distressing experience indeed.
There are no quick fixes but anybody who says “throwing money at the problem is not the solution” is either a fool or incompetent (or worse, driven by politically motivated ideologies). The key to it is to throw the money at the right things at the right time, but I can think of numerous examples where this approach has worked very well and often paradoxically (but not surprisingly) been more cost effective in the long run. 
It is disappointing that the various organisations representing LAs and its various professions have not developed more robust strategies and alternative narratives around such an approach although in fairness I see the occasional ‘green shoot’. The dialogue is dominated by Government around ‘cutting bureaucracy’, ‘efficiency’, ‘being creative’ etc.; in themselves OK, but in an ideological context, merely a smoke screen and hardly a substitute for proper strategies and investments. It is strange (or perhaps not) that concepts the government is keen to apply elsewhere (as long it’s not public investments) hardly feature in this debate, where it is absolutely vital. 
We can see the way the Welfare State is being phased out. The first stage is being completed; the removal of all universal benefits and services. This is being replaced by discretionary services across the board. The big prize here is the State Pension. We are being ‘softened up’ for its replacement by a means-tested state pension after the next election. The final stage is the emergence of a new form of ‘poor law’ heavily dependent on ‘voluntary’ contributions. Just look at Food Banks and Wonga Loans to see a glimpse of the future. Zero hours employment contracts are also a pointer to the future allowing government to claim employment is rising; but income is actually falling (15% since 2008) and growth stagnant. There is psychology at play here. Actively manage people’s expectations downwards. The new feudal elite (neo-feudalism) will use certain localities, mainly the financial centres of the world, as their docking stations; their connection to any locality merely guided by investment potential eagerly sought by Local Enterprise Boards, probably adopting a race to the bottom approach (e.g. as in Ireland). I am trying to put this and much of our previous correspondence into the context of Localism and the managerial-political arena, but I can’t get it to gel yet. Best, Jan. 
Until just after Easter - the Orthodox that, this year, wasn't until the start of May - a collection of potholes on the country road between Ipsos, Ag.Markos and Ano Korakiana, endangered cyclists and people on motorbikes, and did little for any vehicle's suspension. Linda, adept at driving around them even at night, took pictures and showed them to a friend at Sally's Bar, her son Rob Groove. He's half in love with inventing impossible images.
"Rob! Can you make it look as if I'm stuck in one of those big pot holes?"
"No problem. Take a pictures for me of you looking as if you're holding on to the edge of one"
The Demos had sent a crew round and filled all the holes by the second week of May but Rob has just sent me a clever image.
Στο δρόμο προς την Αγίου Μάρκου - eίναι το ποδήλατο μου, ανησυχώ για!

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And in The Irish Times, Richard Pine writes from Corfu on the closure and reopening of Greece's public TV and radio:

Dispute over Greek broadcaster illustrates how essential public broadcasting is

Protesters demonstrate outside Greek state television ERT headquarters in Athens last week. Prime minister Antonis Samaras was forced to climb down over his decision to close the state broadcaster. Photograph: Reuters 
Imagine waking one morning to find that RTÉ radio and television services had been taken off the air by an overnight government decree. Many, it is true, might say “good riddance”, while others would scarcely notice. But the social and political repercussions of such a decree would be far-reaching. That is precisely what happened in Greece last week when ERT (the Greek equivalent of RTÉ) was suspended by a ministerial ruling of New Democracy prime ministerAntonis Samaras without reference to his junior coalition partners Pasok and Democratic Left. Samaras claimed that ERT was responsible for “incredible waste” and suffered from a “unique lack of transparency”. 
In the face of huge international criticism and opposition from his partners in government which might have broken the coalition and provoked a general election, the prime minister was forced into a climbdown, while Greece’s supreme court declared his actions beyond his power. ERT is now back on the air.
The episode is crucial to Greek society because it calls into question whether the country actually wants public service broadcasting.
Even more importantly, perhaps, it highlights the government’s announcement that ERT would be replaced within three months by a new organisation, “a state company owned by the public sector and regulated by the state”
“Regulated by the state” should alert all proponents of public service broadcasting to the dangers of too close an association between a public broadcaster and a government. It was Seán Lemass, as taoiseach, presiding over the formation of RTÉ in the 1960s, who saw the station as merely “an arm of government”.
Conversely, the European Commission, which denied it had any part in the Greek decision, has supported the role of public service broadcasting as “an integral part of European democracy”. 
National airlines in recent decades have largely succumbed to market forces, but public service broadcasting is a different kind of entity: the need for public channels which are not profit-motivated, which are supported by the state but not subject to government interference, is generally accepted as a necessary means of ensuring that information, as well as entertainment, is available free of market forces.
It also provides a common reference point in this case not only for Greek residents but also (as for Irish people via the RTÉ Player channel) for an enormous diaspora.
To give Greeks a sense of Greekness at such a crucial time for the country could be seen as one of the principal justifications for public service broadcasting. Given my background as a former RTÉ employee I might be expected to have an affiliation to the concept of public service broadcasting. But there is no room for either sentimentality or complacency. In the 1980s I wrote RTÉ’s mission statement “to commission, produce and transmit cost-effective programmes of excellence”. When the public broadcaster falls short of those standards it deserves a reprimand. In Ireland we have seen RTÉ putting its house in order by internal revisions in budget, structures and staffing, not least in the light of the Prime Time Investigates debacle in regard to Fr Kevin Reynolds. Yet it can also provide programmes, such as the recent Breach of Trust expose of Irish creches, which are of national importance and 100 per cent in the public interest.
In Greece a review of ERT’s performance and market share, on an already reduced budget, had been signalled for some time.
This is amid general agreement that the organisation was overfunded and overstaffed, and that its current affairs programming sometimes tended to follow the government line rather than conducting its own investigations.
However, on the basis of my knowledge of RTÉ’s budgets and staffing levels, it seems clear to me that in the case of ERT the proposed reduction of the workforce from 2,650 to a third of that, and a comparable budget reduction, is untenable if responsible quality programming is to be maintained on three TV channels and a nationwide network of local radio when Greece also has seven nationwide private TV channels and literally dozens of regional ones.
ERT channels may not necessarily be the viewing and listening options of first choice – they have only a 15 per cent audience share while private channels are thriving due to the popularity of their mindless diet of foreign soaps and “spin-the-wheel” programmes.
But that is not the point. At a crucial period for Greek society, with issues of identity and national self-confidence at the centre of public debate, the existence of a public broadcaster, even a faulty one, is of paramount importance.
Richard Pine is a former public affairs editor at RTÉ. He now lives and works in Greece

Barbara Burnett Stuart 1917-2012: 'a life of favourite days'

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