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Jan. 31st, 2011

The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection (Edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews)

When I bought this book a couple of years ago, it was partly out of curiosity and partly for historical research, particularly to get an idea for the language of the 17th century, a period of history that is fast holding my interest as a writer.  However I had no idea this was more than just another primary historical resource until I started reading it in June 2010.

2010 was the year a number of 350th anniversaries were celebrated, namely 1 January (when Samuel Pepys first began his great diary), 16 April (the birth of Sir Hans Sloane, the Royal doctor and fellow Royal Society member who would go on to become a good friend of Pepys, perform the autopsy on his body in 1703 and amass enough money to buy the manor of Chelsea) and also in May 2010, there was the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the Monarchy.  The latter event is describe in vivid detail in this diary along with the coronation of Charles II

The first thing that struck me about this book as I got into it was the honesty of Pepys when writing about himself.  If you read the introduction (and it is referred to in one of the entries for 1664) you would know that in 1654 he attempted to write a novel, a romance he titled "Love a Cheate" which he never completed and ended up tearing to shreds: a huge loss to future readers.  He never paints himself as though he was Mr Wonderful but gives us a rounded human portrait in words, showing us all his faults as well as his plus points.  On reading some of these entries, a few things sounded familiar: getting up, going to work, meeting friends, going to the bar, getting drunk and waking up with a major hangover the next day (or, in the case of 23 April 1661 soaked in his own vomit after an all night bender to celebrate Charles II's coronation), complete with the occasional cheating on the spouse for good measure.  Makes you wonder if anything has really changed, does it?  Personally I think Pepys would be mortified if he knew that his private thoughts were available for anyone to read.

Throughout the diary there is wonderful descriptions of people, incluidng incidental characters like boatmen, for example, are brought vividly to life by an ordinary government official who, in private, was becoming an extraordinary writer.  These descriptions are evidence that the skills gained from writing the incomplete "Love a Cheate" had not gone to waste.  What really impresses the reader are the descriptions of events like the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great FIre of London" in September 1666.  Although he quotes constantly from the weekly Bills of Mortality during the plague, Pepys is genuinely shocked at the amount of indiscriminate death there was in London during that year and although he sent his household away for their own safety, he stayed until he himself was forced to leave: something I think shows bravery on his part. 

There are a number of accounts of the Great Fire of London but it is Pepys who gives us details as such as the cat that refuses to move from its refuge only to get its fur burnt off in the blaze.  Whether or not that poor animal survived is not known but it is detail like this that makes the diary read, even in this abridged format, more like a novel than an account of one man's life. 

One event that is documented in honest detail that is just as unforgettable was the time Pepys was caught cheating on his wife, Elizabeth with her maid, Deb Willet.  Although this is unacceptable behaviour, Pepys doesn't shy away from his part in the whole affair and accepts the blame as well as the punishment dished out by Elizabeth which not only involved paying her the clothing allowance she yearned for but also her insistence that he never see Deb again and that he never goes out without a chaperone.  This role was, for a while, played by his clerk Will Hewer who would go on to become his closest friend as well as a very rich man in his own right.

By the time he signs off from his diary on 31 May 1669, there is a feeling of regret both from the author and his reader who has accompanied him through this period of his life so far as well as grown quite fond of him.  Like a number of readers of Samuel Pepys, I feel that if he had not worked such long hours at the office and therefore had more time to write his entries by daylight, perhaps he would have continued writing his diary.  He certainly regretted it himself and for him it was like killing off part of himself.  This was a man with a genuine talent for writing which would certainly have grown over the years.  If he had continued this great diary into the 1670's through to the last years of his life, he would have left behind an historical record of such events as the Popish Plot of 1678 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which would have been of great interest to historians as well as readers in general.  There are other letters and journals written by Pepys but the narrative detail of the diary is lacking in these.  However, I have heard that the same engaging tone used in the diary can be found in, for example, the Tangier Journal of 1683.  I have yet to read that and will look forward to doing so in due course.  By writing a diary of over a million words, Pepys proved he did have the discipline necessary to write a novel and maybe he should have stayed the course with "Love a Cheate" and left us a work of fiction any writer would be proud to leave to posterity.

As a reader, I found this to be a book well worthy of any five star ratings it gets from reviewers.  It certainly has from this reader who also admires a man who can be honest enough with himself to portray himself as a charming but flawed human being. 

Jan. 29th, 2011

Reporting of High Profile Cases in Scotland

As a reply to some positive comments that were recently received on entries about a high profile murder trial in Boston almost three years ago, I wanted to discuss how such cases, particularly those involving those rarities of child murders, are reported in Scotland.  The example I will be using is the trial of Mark Simpson which took place at the High Court in Aberdeen in late 2010.  The details of the case were published in the local and national press and I have no wish to repeat them here.  The charge against this accused was the murder of a six week old baby girl, something that would have been handled very differently in America.

In America details of high profile cases can be published by the press pre trial which must have a bearing on how a potential juror would view the accused.  If anyone had read the comments posted on the Boston Herald's website about articles referring to the case against Neil Entwistle before, during and after the trial, he/she would have seen comments that were vitriolic.  However this didn't happen much during the Mark Simpson trial, so how did this happen?

Much of the reporting of this case was done by the local newspaper in the North East of Scotland, the Press and Journal, and articles were posted on the website.  However, this newspaper is selective about what it allows readers to comment on and many of the articles in this case were set up in such a way as to not allow comments.  If anyone wanted to comment on this or any other article set up in a similar way, they would have had to use the space in the letters page for this sort of thing.  Also, many of those registered to comment on the Press and Journal website had other things on their mind, in particular the proposals to destroy Union Terrace Gardens and in their place build a public space that would be a cross between a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park.

In this part of the world, no pre trial reporting is allowed so as not to prejudice the case.  Any information given to the press at the earliest stages normally includes the basics: the name and address of the accused and their fate (whether released on bail or remanded in custody).  Also no photo of the accused is published before or during the trial although sometimes this changes as the trial nears its end.  Normally a photo is only published once the verdict is in.  However, during his trial, Tommy Sheridan's face was on the news probably because he was such a high profile figure that it would've been pointless not to publish his photo.  However the details of that case were not reported before the trial.

Whether or not a defendant in an American trial gets a fair trial is up to the justice system in that part of the world.  No one, least of all this writer, has the right to make a judgement on something they don't understand so I will leave that only to those who know about it  So, if you wish to comment about this, please feel free to state whether or not a defendant in the US gets a fair trial, which is everyone's right, isn't it?

Kelly's Cats

First of all, let me apologise for taking so long to post recently and I will do my best to update this more regularly.  Today local writer's group Lemon Tree Writers hosted a workshop which was led by young adult author Gillian Philip who gave us lots of useful advice on how plot comes from character, not to give up on the dream of publishing a novel and how to market yourself, after all most publishers won't do that for you.  To this end, I decided to use this platform as one way of promoting the latest Lemon Tree Writers publication, "Kelly's Cats" which will be launched on the afternoon of 12 February at the Douglas Hotel on Market Street (time to be announced).

This is a chapbook of about thirty pages which features four members of the group and if you're interested in finding out more about it, that information can be found on www.lemontreewriters.co.uk complete with photos of the four contributors.  Originally the book was to be launched on 29 November 2010 but due to the snow that covered the North East of Scotland that day, the launch was postponed and hopefully the weather will be kind on 12 February.  Without spoiling the book for anyone who might be interested in reading it or coming to the launch event, all I will say is that the content has a very Scottish theme to it.

The title comes from the cast iron cats that line Union Bridge, the north side of which remains visible to this day.  The south side of the bridge was obliterated in 1963 when an air space development, which probably made a lot of money for the developers of the time, turned the south side into a row of shops which are now part of the Trinity Centre.  The cats that were taken down from that side of Union Bridge can now be seen in the Duthie Park.  However, if you want to know more about this collection of poetry and prose, please feel free to come to the launch and pick up a copy there.

Dec. 10th, 2010

Garrow's Law

Over the course of the last month, I've been downloading the second series of the above acclaimed historical drama onto my BBC I-Player simply because I didn't have time to watch it when broadcast.

For anyone who is not familiar with this programme, it is based on the cases presented at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) in London and is centred around William Garrow (1760-1840) who was mentored as a young lawyer by attorney John Southouse.  Garrow went on to become a barrister and became the pioneer of the adversarial system that is still in use in our courtrooms today.

Before I go on, let's have a look at legal practice in times gone by.  For a start accused people had little or no rights in a court of law.  Normally they would be poor people who may be committing crime simply to feed their families.  Not much of an excuse, I know, but no one who was brought to justice at one time was ever presumed innocent until proved guilty.  Prosecutions were slanted in favour of the accuser who would usually be wealthier than the accused and motivated by profit, usually some sort of reward.  With no professional police force until Robert Peel became Prime Minister in the 1830's, suspects would usually be captured by thief takers or, in 18th century London, the Bow Street Runners.  Corruption was rife and defendants were forced to try to defend themselves, having no right to legal advice and no right to address the jury.  Is it any surprise that nearly everyone brought to trial before the 1780's and 1790's ended up convicted?

The only concession of this came in the late 17th century when the law was changed to allow treason defendants the right to legal representation.  Also, it was very common for the death penalty to be prevelant due to the expense of keeping people incarcerated for any length of time.  In the Middle Ages wealthier prisoners would be held until a ransom was paid while poorer ones languished in dungeons and ended up forgotten about by their captors, hence a dungeon with access only through a trapdoor was called an oubliette.

William Garrow came from a lower middle class background, unlike most other lawyers, and that probably gave him an infinity with the underdog.  When he first practiced in the Old Bailey, he was a prosecutor but for most of his career he was a defence barrister.  During this period of his career he mastered the art of cross examination of prosecution witnesses, usually in quite an aggressive manner.  As a result of his pioneering methods, defendants began to be acquitted by juries (all upper class men as men of the middle and lower classes and women couldn't vote at the time) if they felt the prosecution case had not proved their case.  By 1791, the phrase innocent until proved guilty was coined and defendants were presumed innocent until the prosecution could prove their case.  Garrow would go on to become Solicitor General, Attorney General, a Judge and ultimately an MP.  By the time he died in 1840, he had changed the legal system in England beyond recognition.

The series broadcast by the BBC concentrates on those youthful battles in the Old Bailey and gives a real flavour of the layout of a courtroom as well as the rules of society in the late 18th century.  The programme would appeal to anyone who likes legal dramas as well as those who enjoy historical costume dramas.  The language may be a little old fashioned but that doesn't mean it isn't accessible.  At four episodes in a series, it's a bit short but I suppose that means as a viewer it leaves you panting for more. 

For myself, as someone who is interested in history, it has taught me more about the emerging modern era than I would have learned in a classroom.  I am not a legal student but even if I was, I would be using this as a research tool and the history of the modern adversarial system, which is also used in Scotland, the United States and a number of other countries which I'd be interested in discovering.  What amazed me was not only the fact there was a separate stall in the courtroom for witnesses (nowadays witnesses would be in a separate witness room and not allowed to talk to each other).  One danger of this is that witnesses could confer with each other and concoct stories.  After all, in a world where rewards for a conviction was commonplace, people would go to any lengths to ensure they would profit at someone else's expense.  The jury box was in the middle of the courtroom and, in the Old Bailey anyway, they would not deliberate in a separate jury room but would stay in the box and be pressed for an answer by the judge who would dominate juries.  There was even someone waiting with the black cap which would instill fear in any accused person, its meaning clear.  Even at a time of immense change, people still had flaws and nothing can change overnight, can it?

This series also taught me to be grateful for what we have now in the 21st century.  After all, we take the adversarial court system for granted and judges now are there to ensure order in the courtroom and to direct juries in points of law before they consider their verdicts.  We also take for granted the presumption of innocence until proved guilty and it is only on a guilty verdict that sentence can be passed.  The system isn't perfect and it is still possible to make a mistake, after all, it is administered by humans who are not infallible.  However it is a lot better than what went before and the hope is the system is balanced fairly as the scales of justice should be.  For that we should thank William Garrow.

Until "Garrow's Law" was made by the BBC, I had never heard of this man and, now that I've seen the second series, I'm itching to learn more about this man and may try and get a copy of his biography and learn more about his work.  As someone interested in writing historical fiction, I'm taking notes that I can apply to the third draft of my Jacobite story when I get round to redrafting it.  Most of all, I'm asking myself one question: why didn't I think of downloading the first series when it was available?  At least I can make up for it one day by picking up a copy of the DVD but maybe I'll wait until next year and see if the first two series are being sold together.  Here's hoping for a third series.

Dec. 3rd, 2010

Daylight Saving TIme Bill

The above bill is a Private Members Bill which has been tabled by Rebecca Harris, Conservative MP for Essex Castlepoint.  If I have the name of the consituency wrong, I apologise.  If this becomes law, it will result in a three year trial of what will effectively end up being the same time zone as much of Europe (Central European Time).  This isn't anything new as it was tried between 1968 and 1971 only to be deemed a failure, having been opposed by farmers, particularly in Scotland, where I live.  However I don't know much about it as I was born after this experiment took place so would appreciate it if anyone reading this journal who remembers the last experiment could please enlighten me.

I live in the North East of Scotland and, since I learned of this Bill, I've been observing the times the sun comes up in my particular area ever since the clocks went back to Greenwich Mean TIme.  At the moment I've found that daylight doesn't begin in North East Scotland until around 0740 hours although this might change as the winter progresses.  If we were on Central European Time this would change to 0840 hours by which time most people are already in work and children in school.  Effectively people in the North East of Scotland would be going to work and children to school while it's still dark.  Right now, if you rise at 0600 hours, it's still dark where I live.  So, the question is how would this benefit business and tourism, cut road accidents or make people more active when it seems that those in the northern reaches of the UK would still be plunged into darkness?  One argument from those who oppose such change is that it would compromise the safety of children in Scotland and the north of England.  Whether or not we adopt daylight saving time in the summer under these changes would remain to be seen.

Aberdeen's roads are already choked with parents who insist on driving their children to school whether it's spring, summer, autumn or winter.  If the North East of Scotland was to be plunged into an extra hour of darkness this factor would increase.  As for reducing road accidents, anyone who investigates deaths for a living would tell you that many accidents aren't necessarily caused by whether or not it's dark or light when driving: accidents can still happen in broad daylight.  How many road accidents each year are caused by drivers failing to drive to the road conditions they're presented with?  If it is the majority of accidents then whether or not our clocks are set one hour ahead of GMT at all times is not going to make that much of a difference unless the causes of dangerous driving is tackled in some way.

Next question is will an extra hour of daylight reduce crime?  Once more crime is most likely to be reduced if the causes of crime are tackled in the first place.  Another thing that will reduce crime is a more visible police presence but this may change if there are serious cuts in police numbers over the next five years.

How will an extra hour of daylight benefit business?  The only benefit I can see is being able to talk to business contacts in most of the European Union without checking the clock to see if the office is likely to be open or closed.  However many UK companies trade with the USA and bringing the clocks in line with Europe could mean less time to do business with America unless e-mail is used or workers stay at the office to await a telephone call from the States.

How will this benefit tourism, particularly in the winter?  Some winter tourists come for winter sports rather than sightseeing and this tends to be the skiing resorts in places such as Snowdonia and Cairngorm.  These people will come to these shores to enjoy the slopes regardless of what time zone the clocks are set to.  If tourists come to this country in winter for any other purpose, they are most likely to go to the South coast of England where it's much milder and this is the area most likely to benefit from increased tourism should our clocks be set at one hour ahead of GMT.  How many leisure tourists would want to come to Scotland or the north of England where it's much colder and darker for longer in winter?  If anyone out there can answer these questions for me, I would be very grateful.

Farmers in Scotland have softened their opposing stance on this issue this year but only if it can be seen to benefit the UK as a whole.  My interpretation of that is Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, not just one small corner of England.  Perhaps someone out there can outline how this change will benefit Scotland and any other area where it's likely to be darker for longer.  If you can, I don't want rhetoric, I want tangible facts and figuresbut at the moment those would be speculative at best.  If this is deemed a success, it will become permanent.  Before it does so, people out there should be able to debate this issue freely.  In the interests of free speech, the forum is now over to you.

Oct. 31st, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

Just decided to enter this as of tomorrow.  Part of me is wondering if I'm crazy but then again I'm always on the lookout for a new writing challenge and after reading about this in last month's issue of "Writing Magazine" I thought this would be ideal.  I know I'll be writing rubbish so I'd better hope I've done my homework regarding the setting of my story or the whole thing will come apart at the seams.

Aug. 10th, 2010

A First Step to the Big Dream

What is the dream of every aspiring writer out there?  I would have to conclude that that has to be publication.  However, this can be difficult to acheive without an agent and the next problem is some agents ask to see a publication CV so they can see if you've had success with your writing in the past.  When you've written and perfected your book but have had no other experience, how can you solve this problem?

Competitions and Women's Magazines

Many writers have gone downt his road, whether it is women's magazines or competitions.  If you are a poet, competitions could be the only route, other than specialist publishers such as Koo Press in Aberdeen, to publication.  Short story writers seem to have slightly more options but that normally seems to be competitions and women's magazines.  The Weekly News, published by DC Thomson, also accepts short stories, but like many of these publications, you need to send for their submission guidelines first.  A bit like looking for a publisher or agent for your book.  Seeing your work in print this way is one way of filling out that CV but this isn't the only way to get those first few pieces of work published.

Writers Groups

These provide a welcome social outlet for writers, allowing them to see that they're not alone and that there are others like them out there.  Writers groups also provide constructive criticism but that's not all they do.  Many writers groups are also small publishers who publish anthologies featuring all or a group of ten or more writers and chapbooks which tend to feature the work of four writers.  My writers group falls into this category and produces both anthologies and chapbooks.  Anthologies tend to be the more expensive to produce so chapbooks tend to be more attractive as the costs can be lower as can the print run.  When an anthology is being produced, members are invited to submit anonymously and panels, one for prose and another for poetry, are formed to select those who will see their work featured in this.  Last year my group produced an anthology for which I submitted.  Sadly my story never made the grade which left me disappointed and, like most writers, wondering when my chance would come.

This year the group has decided to produce two small chapbooks, each featuring the work of four writers.  When the first group was announced in March, my name was among those called out which meant I felt I had finally got that first step on the ladder.  As the group is a small publishing house, the four members of a chapbook group have to go through the entire publication process from idea to print run and that includes deciding the content, choosing the content and the cover artist and laying it out for the selected printer, not forgetting taking the next International Book Standard Number from the block bought by the group.  My group is at the stage of deciding the running order of the book, which will make it easier for the layout person (me) to create a contents page with page numbers so that the only thing left to worry about is the ISBN and the cover.  The hope is to get this out later in the year, just in time for Christmas in fact.

It will be nice to end the year as a published writer but it's only the beginning.  At least when I put on my writer's CV the fact that I've gone through the publication process, produced a book and sold it, an agent and, ultimately, a novel publisher will be able to see that I appreciate how this industry works.  It might be short stories and poetry as opposed to a novel but sometimes it's best to start small.  So, my final advice to anyone out there whose work is accepted for an anthology or are chosen to produce a chapbook by their writers group is to see it as the first step the the big dream of publishing that novel you've always wanted to write.

Aug. 9th, 2010

London Trip 2010

After waht seems like forever, I thought it would be an idea to restart this journal with an entry about my latest holiday.  Yes, once more I took the train south and spent five nights in the British capital, which flew in so quickly it felt like I had arrived one minute and returned home the next.  There were times over these five nights that I started to see London as my second home.  Any further visits and that's exactly what it will feel like, especially as I get to know the place better.  So, please find below a summary of the trip.

Sunday 1 August 2010

After an early rise in the morning, my friend and I set off at 09:48 hours on the direct train to London.  On the way down, there was a bit of a scene after a Londoner returning home was found to have an invalid ticket because he didn't have his Young Person's Railcard with him.  He was quoted a fare of over £158 to get home, the fare being calculated from Aberdeen, and refused to pay such an extoritionate amount.  This meant he was ejected from the train at Montrose and I don't know what happened after that.  I hope he got home okay.  If you were that person and happen to read this, please let me know if you got home safely and I hope you enjoyed your visit to Aberdeen.  Shame it had to go sour on the return journey.  After a slight delay, we arrived at King's Cross at about 17:30 and got a taxi to our hotel.  Once more we chose the Victoria Inn, 65-67 Belgrave Road, London.  After checking in we went to the nearby Pimlico Tandoori for a meal and walked around the area before stopping at the Constitution Bar on Churton Street for a quick drink before going back to our room and relaxing after our long, exhausting journey.

Monday 2 August 2010

This would have been my Grandad's 97th birthday and instead of waking up in the Granite City, I woke up in London and the two of us set off for Green Park Tube Station after breakfast to do the Mayfair walk, one of many run by London Walks.  If you'd like to find out more about the company, please feel free to visit them on www.walks.com.  The walk started at 10:30 and took us along some nice streets to see buildings worth millions.  Unfortunately there are also some buildings that are becoming run down after being bought by investors from the Middle East who seem not to care about the maintenance of the buildings.  One was a huge white plastered mansion which I think dates to sometime in the eighteenth century and was once lived in by Lord Palmerston, a past Prime Minister.  This once proud house was behind a locked gate and the pathway and the door had weeds growing out of it..  To see what should be a well preserved piece of architectural heritage decay like that is heartbreaking and I hope someone does something to stop these buildings turning into ruins.  After the walk we had lunch in a Mayfair bar, which was quite reasonably priced, and made our way to Oxford Street to get a bus back to Victoria Station.  In the afternoon we met up with some friends who took us to the area around Covent Garden and Theatreland for a meal in a small vegetarian restaurant opposite the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, where "Oliver!" is currently showing.  We rounded off the evening in Covent Garden Market which is marking its 180th anniversary this year.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Today we met up with a friend and her daughter and spent most of the day in the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road.  However we entered from Exhibition Road just round the corner and had to join a queue.  It wasn't a slow moving queue and in about 10-15 minutes, we got into the building and the first thing we saw, at the child's request, was the dinosaurs.  One of the displays was a model of Tyrannosaurus Rex which I never photographed but wished I did.  After seeing the mammals, we made our way to the cocoon area which is in a modern extension to the museum.  Here visitors had the opportunity, if they wished, to scan their favourite content onto cards to view online when they got home.  Access to this part of the museum was through an automatically programmed glass lift which took you to the top floor.  Once there, you followed a ramp down about two levels before taking the lift once more to the lower ground floor.  This allowed you to access a beautiful courtyard area before returning to the main buidling and, in particular, taking the stairs to the old part of the building.  For lunch we sat down in a cafe which wasn't exactly cheap and spent part of the afternoon looking at exhibits on being human.  We left and returned to Pimlico where we met our companions for our evening trip to the theatre.  We had a much cheaper tea at Spud You Like in the food court area of Victoria Place, the shopping centre at the back of Victoria Station.  The only way to get there is by escalator and I'm quite scared of it but rather than starve or appear antisocial, I plucked up the courage to go on one for the first time in a long time.  It wasn't a long one, like on the underground and my legs were a bit shaky but I did it and was quite happy about that.  Then it was time to go down.  Once more it was planned like a military operation and during the descent I had to readjust my feet as the stair behind me brushed past my leg.  I survived and we made our way to the Victoria Palace Theatre and enjoyed "Billy Elliott."  Although a little different from the film, the story takes you through every emotion you can think of, especially happiness, sadness and anger.  If you're ever thinking about a London show but don't want the hustle and bustle of the West End, then I'd definitely recommend "Billy Elliott."  We then returned to Pimilico after a very enjoyable evening.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Today we went to Tower Hill by getting a boat from Westminister Pier.  We got off at the Tower of London and made our way to Tower Hill where I had a look round the memorial to those lost from the Merchan Navy in both World Wars and found a plaque with a poignant family connection.  We had a quick snack at the Weatherspoons across the road and then got the boat back to Westminister.  From there we took the bus to Sloane Square Tube Station from where we set off on another London Walk, this time around Chelsea.  It was quite an interesting walk and I learned that it's only in the last fifty years or so that Chelsea has gained its expensive reputation.  Before then, it was a largely working class area mired in poverty.  Until being swallowed up by the growing city of London, it was a small village bought by Royal physician Hans Sloane, hence the name of a few streets in modern Chelsea.  One of his two daughters married into the Cadogan family and they own Chelsea to this day.  The walk ended on Chelsea Embankment and we decided to go to Morden, on the outskirts of the city, for a curry and to meet a most beautiful cat.  The curry house was a buffet place where you can eat as much as you like for £5.99 per person.  To get back to central London, we took the tram to Wimbledon Station, where there's a shopping centre called Centre Court, then took the Tube (District Line) from Wimbledon to Victoria.  Much of the journey was above ground until just after Earls Court where it went underground.  The train rocked back and fore a bit but the journey wasn't too bad.  We arrived at Victoria some time after 20:00 and just set off for where we were staying.  It was worth the journey just to enjoy a reasonably priced meal and meet a new feline friend.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Our last full day in London and it was unbelievable just how quick it went.  First stop was Harrods on Knightsbridge where we spent money in the Food Hall (the cheapest part of the store) and ended up eating fudge on the bus up to Soho, near Theatreland.  Once there we went into a vegetarian cafe and takeaway (one of our party went into another cafe for a baked potato) and sat in Soho Square Gardens.  En route we passed the offices of Bloomsbury Publishing which, like Random House, is in an unassuming building.  In the afternoon we went into the British Museum, a legacy from Hans Sloane, along with the Natural History Museum and after that made our way to the National Portrait Gallery where we saw portraits of people such as Princes William and Harry, Samuel Pepys, Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, Charles I, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, Oliver Cromwell and, not forgetting, London's biggest philanthropist Hans Sloane.  Photography is banned in the National Portrait Gallery but you won't forget the portraits in a hurry and can always go back in the future to see them again.  We then went to the Chandos pub across the road for a quick drink before going back to Pimlico.  After a lovely meal at Sole Mio on the corner of Belgrave Road and Churton Street, three of us went to Victoria Station and enjoyed a sightseeing trip of London by night.  That rounded off a wonderful holiday.  Just a shame it had to go so quick.

Friday 6 August 2010

After checking out of our hotel, we crossed the road and hailed a black cab to take us to Kings Cross Station.  We set off at 10:30 and after a largely uneventful journey, arrived back in Aberdeen after a short delay at around 17:45.

Coming home to Aberdeen I found the bus fares had gone up, the price of a day ticket now £3.50, the equivalent of a day ticket in London two years ago if bought from the dispensers at the bus stop.  Is it time for a Transport for Aberdeen umbrella organisation to take control of fare pricing with the bus companies operating under licence and access to all buses enabled by our very own Oyster card (which is a godsend in London)?  How would you generate income to give the Oil Capital of Europe a transport system to be envied and the infrastructure to match?  Please let me know.


Jun. 21st, 2010

Union Terrace Gardens and its Proposed Development

In 1794 Charles Abercrombie, a Glasgow-based surveyor, proposed his plans for a wide street which would provide a grand entrance to the Medieval  burgh of Aberdeen where none currently existed.  The proposal was mind boggling, especially as it involved taking fifteen feet off St Catherine's Hill and building mostly blind arches to support the new street.  The resulting street became known as Union Street and included the bulidng of Union Bridge which spanned the Denburn Valley.  When this grand entrance waws completed in 1817, the project came in overbudget and the city found itself unable to pay the interest on the loans taken out to pay for it.

Later in the 19th century, Elizabeth Duthie, whose former home of Maberly House on Maberly street was pulled down a couple of years ago, gifted a large proportion of her lands to the people of Aberdeen on her death, having never married or had children.  That legacy lives on today as the Duthie Park.  She expected nothing in return and made no conditions.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Aberdeen City Council gave contemporary Arts organisation Peacock Visual Arts planning permission to build in what is now known as Union Terrace Gardens.  As the banking crisis turned into recession, their £13.5 million project was afforadable and would have regenerated the Gardens, which have sadly been neglected by successive councils.  However, within a month of Peacock being granted planning permission, local businessman Sir Ian Wood launced his vision for the same area: the City Square Project, which he envisioned would be a cross between "a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park."  This proposal involves the raising of Union Terrace Gardens to the level of the surrounding streets, ridding the city of that most rare of city features: a sunken garden.  This resulted in Peacock's proposals being put on hold while Aberdeen City Council investigated the proposal with a public consultaiton.  The results were announced on 13 April and 55% of the respondents (just under 12.000 people) voted against the proposal.  The Council held a vote on 19 May 2010 and on 15 May the opponents of the project held a picnic.  On 19 May 2010, the Council chose to ignore those who had said no and voted to go forward with the City Square Project, with help from the Lord Provost's casting vote.  Another protest picnic was held in the Gardens on 22 May 2010 ( a beautiful sunny day) and many of those who enjoyed the sun in the Gardens felt that democracy had died.  What do you think?

The City Square Project is being spearheaded by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF) and they propose to fill the £85 million plus black hole in the project's finances by hoping for another £15 million from the private sector, an anonymous businessman having already pledged £5 million on top of Sir Ian Wood's £50 million.  The remaining £70 million plus is to be raised by Tax Increment Finance (TIF) which has been used in the United States for over 50 years but is not yet legal in Scotland, needing legislation to be passed by the Scottish Government before it can become a reality.  This involves the raising of business rates, which could hit small businesses hard.  A number of financial experts have warned that TIF might not be sound.  As I'm not a financial expert, if I am inaccurate in my description of TIF in this entry, please feel free to correct me.  It is the concern that this project will run overbudget, forcing an already cash strapped council to pay the difference along with the destruction of a beautiful green oasis in the city centre that is the major cause of the opposition to this project.  Also the arts community in Aberdeen is furious at the shocking way in which Peacock Visual Arts have been treated by Aberdeen City Council and ACSEF.  There is a dearth of performance space in Aberdeen for amateur dramatics groups, dance schools and writers' groups which the Peacock proposals would have helped to plug.

On 12 June another protest picnic, organised by Friends of Union Terrace Gardens (http://friendsofutg.org), took place, attracting over a thousand people to Union Terrace Gardens.  To coincide with this event, ACSEF changed the name of their project from City Square Project to City Garden Project.  This was an enjoyable day, despite the weather, evidenced by the numerous photos and films that have been uploaded to sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Daily Motion.  So, why do our wealthy businessmen think this is the only way forward for the city centre?

Arguments for the City Square/Garden Project

1.  Aberden needs a new attractive heart to attract the renewable energy industries that will succeed the oil industry

2. Union Terrace Gardens are inaccessible therefore raising them to a higher level will rectify this.

3. Having a cross between a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park will improve the connectivity of Aberdeen's city centre, thus improving links from the bus and rail stations, leading to the regeneration of the city centre as a whole.

4. Aberdeen will prove it is open for business if it has this amenity is not built on the site of the Denburn Valley.

5. This development will be a safe, relaxing environment people will want to use and will have more green space than the present gardens.

Arguments Against the City Square/Garden Project

1. The City Square/Garden Project had destroyed Peacock Visual Arts' proposed plans for a contemporary arts centre that would have been sympathetic to the existing topography, made Union Terrace Gardens more accessible to the disabled and provided much needed cafes and toilet facilities which would have attracted more people to the Gardens.

2. No economic case has been put forward for the proposed Tax Increment Finance to plug the huge funding gap nor for the project itself.  Any rise in business rates could put a lot of small business owners out of business.

3. Union Terrace Gardens are used and a much loved site of historical, cultural and environmental importance.  The Gardens are also a thriving ecosystem and home to a number of birds, including crows which nest in the trees in the more heavily wooded Union Street end (Corby Haugh).

4. 55% of those who took part in the public consultation for the then City Square Project voted no to those proposals yet ACSEF wanted to pursue it and the city Council voted for it to go forward to a design competition, making many people feel disenfranchised.

5. The project is likely to go over budget, like many major projects have in the past, including Union Street in the early 19th century and the more recent Scottish Parliament building.  Should this happen, Aberdeen is likely to end up bankrupt with future generations struggling to pay off the debt.

Sir Ian Wood has been hailed as a philanthropist by his supporters and that may be true in Africa.  However, Elizabeth Duthie wanted people to enjoy the lands she gifted, which we still do today.  Does her desire for no personal gain make her any less of a philanthropist because she donated land, not money?  You are the jury, so please feel free to announce your verdict here.

May. 5th, 2010

Battle For The Denburn Valley

I appreciate that this should be a blog about a creative writer trying to get published.  However, at the moment, there is a burning issue that is dividing opinion in Aberdeen which deserves as much coverage as my own attempts to publish my fiction.  I have already detailed this in previous blogs but to recap, 18 months ago Peacock Visual Arts were given planning permission for a contemporary arts centre, a badly needed facility here in Aberdeen, to be built into the slope of Union Terrace Gardens, providing lift access from Union Terrace itself for the disabled.  However, just as Aberdeen City Council began work on Peacock's lease for the site, oil industry tycoon Sir Ian Wood announced his plans for a civic square on the same site, halting work on the lease for Peacock Visual Arts and with it their fundraising drive.  A consultation was carried out which many feel was flawed.  Out of almost 12,000 responses, around 55% came out against the proposals with 44% in favour and 1% not sure.  Instead of walking away as he had promised to do so if the City Square Project didn't get public backing, Sir Ian Wood left his £50 million investment, conditional on his vision being realised, on the table.  Aberdeen City Council will meet on 19 May 2010 to discuss the proposals along with other options, which should include Peacock Visual Arts.  So, exactly what is it people in Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland are fighting over?

History of the Denburn Valley

Evidence of early settlement in Aberdeen has been found in the area that is now Hill Street, just off Rosemount Place, in the old Freedom Lands of Gilcomstoun.  Over time people moved from Gilcomstoun down towards the Denburn, a small stream that has its source in Kingswells and flows out to the harbour past the present site of Aberdeen Grammar School and through what is now Union Terrace Gardens.  The name Aberdeen itself means at the foot of the Denburn and for centuries the ecosystem, including a forest habitat, developed in what is now part of the city centre.  The area of the Gardens closest to Union Street is known as Corbie Haugh.  A haugh is an old Scots word for a meadow in a river valley, the river in this case being the Denburn.  Corbie is the old Scots word for crow and to this day crows nest in the trees that grow in today's Union Terrace Gardens.  Through much of the 18th century, the floor of the Denburn Valley was a bleaching green for the linen industry.  Over time, the Denburn became polluted which led to the stream being placed in a culvert in 1850 which allowed for the present railway to be built.  The bleaching green was moved further north and the Denburn Ravine, as it was also known as, and the former site was landscaped into a pleasure park and given to the people in 1879.  This park later became known as Union Terrace Gardens.  At the height of its popularity in the 20th century, there were games of draughts being played below the statue of Robert Burns, bands, dance displays and other entertainment provided as well as people using the space to subathe, relax and just play games of football or frisbees.  Due to council neglect the Gardens have declined as a place for people to spend time in, many believing the area to be unsafe and home to junkies and homeless people.  In 2000 the toilets, which were once kept clean to the point of obsession, were closed.

The Present Battle

Without doubt there is a real need to regenerate the Gardens, which, despite misgivings, are a good place to spend time in.  On a windy day, once you get onto the floor of the Denburn Valley, you are sheltered and on a cold day, it can feel warmer below the level of the present day city.  Peacock Visual Arts came up with a viable proposal which has been costed at £13.5 million, of which 75% is already in place, with an iconic building designed by London based architects Brisac Gonzalez.  The building is sympathetic to the topography of the Gardens and would be built into the slope of the valley.  When Sir Ian Wood and ACSEF announced their plans, this project was put on hold and despite two extensions for the Scottish Arts Council (the latest deadline expires in June), Peacock's plans were put indefinitely on hold.  This is an organisation which works with the most vulnerable members of society and potentially the proposed contemporary arts centre could generate £5 million a year for the local economy.  Not according to ACSEF, unfortunately.

Their proposal for a City Square means raising Union Terrace Gardens to the level of Union Street and Union Terrace with walk on, walk off access from all four sides.  To achieve this, the dual carriageway and railway need to be decked over, listed building consent from Historic Scotland for buildings on Belmont Street and its junction with Union Street (the odd numbers side), the remaining north side of Union Bridge (the south side had been sacrificed to retail development in the 1960s which, 20 years or so later, gave way to the present Trinity Centre) and the Gardens themselves.  This proposal would rip away more of Aberden's heritage but this is not the only reason that people in Aberdeen are up in arms.

Mainly it is the attitude of the buisness community which has irked a lot of people.  In order to get their proposals looked at, a lot of people feel the council has been bullied by these people (mostly men) who are millionaires themselves.  If you read the comments on the Press and Journal website, this sentiment is echoed time and time again.  Sir Ian Wood is determined that his money is for his vision and nothing else.  ACSEF accuse Peacock (a registered Scottish charity who I believe has been treated appallingly through this) of not being willing to compromise.  The flip side is Peacock are willing to compromise and all attempts by Brisac Gonzalez to come up with a compromise have been rejected by ACSEF.  On 18 February, at a public meeting in the Citadel on Castle Street, Sir Ian Wood admitted that he didn't like the bowl shape of the Gardens and wanted to get rid of it.  That may be a problem as nature designed the Denburn Valley and it isn't always easy for humanity to manipulate nature into a design to its liking.  Any funding from the Scottish Government, should the City Council take the City Square Project forward, is conditional on a compromise being reached: at least that's what Finance Secretary John Swinney has been quoted as saying.   Sir Ian Wood has asked the council to show leadership and now 50 businessmen have signed a letter to the council asking for the same thing, stating the city centre's reputation is at stake.

The city centre has declined over a number of years thanks to unsympathetic developments in historic areas, for example, the old Union Bridge shops, the Trinity, Bon Accord and St Nicholas Centres and, most recently, Union Square, and the hotel developments on the Shiprow and Hardgate, both historic entrances into the medieval burgh.  The Bon Accord and St Nicholas Centres in particularly have cut George Street, in particular, off from the city centre, resulting in a tired street also badly in need of regeneration.  In his programme, "Off Kilter" Jonathan Meades praised the Peacock proposals as "discreet", said Union Terrace Gardens is "a complex landscape", stated that "mediocrity announces itself with a whimper" when describing the buildings and science parks put up by the oil industry over the last forty years or so and denounced the City Square Project as "vainglorious."  I'm sure there are a lot of Aberdonians out there who would agree.

However, there are people who can write about these issues better than I can, one of those being Fraser Denholm, the author of the Blerr Der Blerr blog.  To finish this off, I would like to conduct my own unbiased consultation on this subject.  Unfortunately it won't be presented to the council on 19 May but if you want your voice to be heard, there are petitions on Go Petition for both the campaign to save Union Terrace Gardens and to support the City Square Project.  Please feel free to sign the one for the campaign you favour and let's hope the council decides for itself and ignores the pressure of 50 businessmen aiming for their own £140 million plans to go forward.

Poll #1560695 City Square Project

Do You Support the City Square Project?

Don't Know

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