Nicola Barry

Category Archives: Random Musings

Farewell to my Faithful Friend


DSC00066Many years ago, a young journalist cut me to the quick when he said: “I don’t know how you could waste an entire column writing about your dog.” He was talking about the love of my life, my child and my faithful friend. I don’t know what it is about pets. Why it hurts so much when they die or suffer or are neglected. Is it because your dog or cat is quite happy to be your best pal for nothing more than the odd tasty morsel or treat. He or she accepts you unquestioningly. It is unconditional love, in its finest form. Not for nothing did George Bernard Shaw say: “Animals bear more than their natural burden of human love.” Therefore, when a pet dies, our whole world collapses.


Brilliant vet

Our Westie, Coll, had Cushing’s Disease. Four years ago, we were told he had between six months and four years to live, so, every symptom, real or imagined, was viewed by us with hyper-vigilant suspicion. He lasted four years and died on May 28th at the age of 12. We spent a lot of time with the amazing Donald Mactaggart at Thistle Vets at Clovenstone, here in Edinburgh. Despite his illness, Coll was never afraid of the vet. He always jumped out of the car and trotted to the front door, without the slightest hint of trepidation. After we moved through to the east from the west in 2004, he developed his first major problem – inter-digital cysts on his front paws. Whenever we left the surgery – usually after having a cyst burst under anaesthetic, Coll would ignore us. He would attempt to sustain a massive huff, while stumbling into furniture – making a sulk difficult to maintain with any degree of dignity. The last time I left that surgery, it was without Coll. I left him dead on the table. Despite the terrible pain of losing him, I could not have left him to go through that alone. The day before he died, he seemed to be fading away in front of our eyes. He lay on the chair and barely seemed to be breathing. The following day, he was the same. He could still eat but… Coll could always eat. My friend Anne-Marie Birch came with me to the vet and Donald Mactaggart took X rays which showed that Coll’s heart was double the size it should have been. He said kindly: “I’m afraid we may have reached the end.”

A peaceful death

Donald was so dignified and caring. He was upset as well. He let me say goodbye. I held Coll in my arms while Donald administered the injection. One minute, my dog was there. The next he had gone. It was so peaceful. My guilt was assuaged by Donald saying I had done the kindest thing I had ever done for Coll. He said if I had taken him home, he might have had a massive heart attack during the night and we wouldn’t have known what to do. I also felt bad that my husband, Alastair, wasn’t there but he had to work and told me to follow Donald’s advice. There is something about Westies. No other breed can compete with that cheeky upturned face, the tiny black, damp button nose and those huge brown eyes. We miss so many things : the way his paws would hit the floor exactly the same time as I got out of bed in the mornings. I miss those ecstatic greetings whenever I come home – to have this fluffy, white ball hurl itself at me, whining, gasping, wagging its tail so hard you expect it to spin into the ether and disappear, is wonderful beyond belief. No human being could even begin to emulate the sheer, undisguised enthusiasm of such a welcome. I miss the way Coll loved opening parcels. The more paper there was to unravel, the more intense the experience. His brand new squeaky toys lasted all of three seconds before the squeak was chewed up and spat out. I miss the walks in the dell, the way he would never give up on trying to catch squirrels outside. I miss his contented grunts, his snoring, the way he ran to fetch toys and his many neuroses – particularly the look of panic whenever he passed his water bowl – because once a tennis ball landed in it and splashed him. I miss looking after him when he was ill. Pets bring so much joy to a household and to life. Once we took Coll to the Old Course Hotel where the manager was a dog lover. I was there to write a travel piece. Every evening we received a special call. A polite voice asked: ‘Is Coll ready for his tuna?’ Even though Coll was used to being spoiled, not even he expected room service – a decent-sized serving of tuna, brought by a charming flunkie, on a white china dish. Our dog was able to dine in his own suite without having to bother dressing for dinner.

Farewell my faithful friend

It has taken me three months to write this. I apologise to those who do not understand. I often wonder whether I loved my dog too much. So many of us do.  Many vets, like doctors, are on call at night and at the weekend. At three in the morning, the poor souls can be found on the telephone, listening patiently to some neurotic owner describing his guinea pig’s stool consistency in gruesome detail. We will get another dog in the autumn. Meanwhile we look after other people’s pets when we can but none will ever take Coll’s place in my heart. My Coll, I feel nothing but gratitude for the joy and love you brought us and which we returned every minute of every day. Finally, you are free from pain and the anxiety for us is over. We are slowly but surely coming to terms with the dreadful hole you have left behind.

Referendum Poll

George Horace Gallup, founder of the Gallup polls.

George Horace Gallup, founder of the Gallup polls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predicting the unpredictable: the referendum poll

No one likes a smart-ass, a know-it-all, a clever dick. Or, for that matter, no one likes polls which pretend to predict how we will react to everything from whether we eat our five-a-day to whether we’ll buy holiday insurance or not. Their favourite subject seems to be our voting intentions, with today’s from Nate Silver, predicting that the Yes campaign has “virtually no chance” of winning the 2014 referendum poll on Scottish independence. Oh, really. Who, exactly, did he ask? Certainly not me or anyone I know. And, if he did ask, would we tell the truth or just mess with his head? You can’t pick up a newspaper these days without reading smart remarks about opinion polls. You read a story which says “according to a public opinion poll …” on the next line the story will say: “And we all know what a large pinch of salt you can take them with”.

It all started with the pollster of pollsters, George Horace Gallup, who died in 1984. He was a statistician, originator of the Gallup poll. The poor man will be turning in his grave at the things people say about polls, yet Gallop was no fool. He founded the American Institute of Public Opinion (1935) and the Audience Research Institute (1939), both at Princeton. His polls tend to be best known for pre-election surveys and the 1936 presidential elections brought public attention to his organisation because of the accuracy of its predictions. Since then the Gallup poll has had a good record, except for its prediction in 1948 that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman. I would love to know what exactly is so wonderful about opinion polls and why we rely on them so much. For a start they are incredibly expensive. If a newspaper commissions a poll, for example, it costs thousands of pounds. Alas poor Gallop, sorry to make you turn in your grave once more but why can’t untrained people carry out polls? Experts like Nate Silver say it’s difficult, that you have to be highly skilled to break people down into the right group, class, age etc.

I find that hard to believe. All you have to do is walk down any main street in any city, town or village and someone will thrust a clipboard in your face and start asking a load of stupid questions. In Edinburgh, you can never walk in Princes Street without being stopped. And pollsters are always so pushy. They come barging up, shouting the dreaded words: ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” At one time you could just wave a hand dismissively. Things have changed. There is almost a sense of desperation. These people practically pin you up against the wall to ask their infernal questions. As for being experts in their field, ahem: don’t tell me they have assessed my age, class and which end of the bath I sit, all in the space of two seconds? Any fool can ask questions and write down answers. There’s no need to pay thousands of pounds. These power-dressed nuisances, who stop you in the street, rush off to their offices with your answers, stuff them into a computer and come up with naff results such as Scots will vote no at next year’s referendum poll. They never report don’t knows. The pollsters might ask 100 people whether they intend voting yes or no at the referendum and only three will answer. Two say no, one says yes, the rest don’t know. The next day someone like Nate comes along and announces that 66.5 percent intend voting no and 33.5 percent will vote yes. It’s farcical.


Then there are all the people against whom market researchers discriminate, like us, poor journalists. We are supposed to specialise in unbiased opinion. Yet pollsters don’t want to know. A friend of mine was walking down Oxford Street in London when a large woman approached him to ask whether he liked lager. “Stupid question,” he replied, “you might as well have asked whether the Pope is a Catholic.” Totally unfazed by his cheek, the woman asked him if he would blind test a lager she was developing. He thought about it then agreed. This guy would do anything for a free pint. She then asked if he was in any of the professions on her list. Like a fool he confessed to being a journalist. The woman was aghast and said: ‘Sorry, you’re no good.’

The methods used in the early polls made no claim to being scientific. Polling was usually done by canvassers hired to go out and question people or by “straw ballots” in newspapers, which readers were asked to fill out and mail in. A more scientific method of polling called sampling was developed in the mid-1930s. This method enables the polltaker to question a small percentage of the group whose opinions he wishes to ascertain and to analyze from their responses the opinions of the whole group. The superiority of this method over the old straw-ballot system was demonstrated in the 1936 presidential election when the Literary Digest poll, which based its predictions on the older technique, produced a staggeringly inaccurate forecast, while the poll of a newer group organised by George Gallup predicted the result of the election correctly. By the 1940s the polls were concerned with social and economic questions as well as with political issues. But as the misguided defeat of Harry Truman proved, inaccuracy is the pollster’s watchword. If you don’t believe me, go out and ask 100 people.



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Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival Out of Control

I never believed I would turn into one of those people who moaned about the Edinburgh Festival; a Philistine, in other words.But, lo and behold, that moment has arrived.I have never been indifferent or hostile to artistic and cultural values, always loved theatre, cinema and books. It’s this packing people into a small city until it is, quite literally, bursting at the seams I hate.I would join the Edinburgh Complaints Choir, some locals who have become part of the Festival and are voicing their disapproval of the city’s most annoying features. Their complaints were collected and set to music by two local composers. Top of their pops are the trams – a £776m project due to begin running next July, years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget.Another complaint is The Edinburgh Festival, which is now out of control. The Fringe, for example, is far too big. Why can’t we have quality, not quantity? Nine times out of ten, you end up paying to see a load of rubbish. So much of the so-called comedy is not funny and many of the plays are badly acted and boring.

Ian Rankin, writer

Ian Rankin, Edinburgh’s top crime writer


Please don’t bring up the old chestnut about the Edinburgh Festival being elitist and inaccessible. If only. It isn’t elitist. Anyone can come: the more people trampling over the locals, the better, apparently. Money, not art, is the big draw. Tourists can only be good for Edinburgh’s coffers. There is nowhere to stay since hotels and bed and breakfasts are booked up months in advance.If you happen to live in the city, long-lost friends always seem to manage to track you down – people you haven’t seen for thirty years or more. You will be familiar with the old adage: a friend in need is a bloody nuisance? Well, never were those words more apt as during the Edinburgh International Festival. The call always comes in July: someone you haven’t seen for years.“Hiya. It’s Judy. Remember me?” You have absolutely no idea who she is.”We were at primary school together. I’d love to see you again. My husband and I are going to be in Edinburgh for the Festival and wondered whether we could pop in and, er, well, stay for a few weeks?”Long silence during which you try to say no. However, instead of saying ‘no’, you hear this other charming voice say: “I’d love to have you, of course, no problem. Stay as long as you like.”Yes, it WAS your voice saying all that. You replace the receiver and try to calm down, even forget about Judy.Then, a couple of weeks later, the phone rings again. It’s Judy. Again. No, of course you don’t mind driving out to the airport at 8 o’ clock in the morning to pick them up. No, of course, you don’t mind getting the theatre tickets. Two shows every night for four people, certainly? They’ll pay you back. Of course, they will.”Just one little problem,” she goes on. “My husband, Roger, is a vegan, and, er, he only eats organic meusli.” They arrive. Would it be too much trouble if they both had a bath and a meal early because they planned on taking in a couple of shows straight away?Fine.At two o’ clock in the morning, they come staggering home, waking the whole street in the process. Everyone hears them coming into YOUR house, everyone knows they are YOUR friends. The next night they stay in, so you immediately decide to go out. You come home at midnight to find your so-called friends absolutely legless, having drunk all your booze. They let slip that they have invited a Danish juggling troupe to stay as well for a couple of weeks. Before you know where you are, your house has appeared in the Edinburgh Festival brochure as venue 143. When the Festival is finally over and your awful guests leave, your houseis a tip, your cupboards are empty and you are flat broke. You are not the only one. This happens to a lot of people who live in Scotland’s capital.


One wonders how long Edinburgh will be able to go on sustaining all these festivals. There are so many: there’s the Big One, on now, and The Fringe. There’s the Science Festival, The Television Festival, The Children’s Festival, one for jazz, books and films. There is even a Festival of Politics.As soon as these horrors are over, the wretches start preparing for the Hogmany Party, the biggest in the world, I’m told. Could council worthies not have come up with something more imaginative than a lot of pigs in kilts getting drunk, vomiting and urinating all over Princes Street? Scotland was once a country where, every New Year, people wandered into their neighbour’s house with a bottle of whisky and something black for an impromptu get-together. Not that difficult to re-invent, you’d think. It surely beats standing in Princes Street for five hours, knee-deep in people, staring vacantly into the sky in the vague hope of seeing a firework.It was a Labour Government who decided to lift the post-war gloom by creating an international celebration of the Arts, selecting Edinburgh as the prime location.And why not? Edinburgh is, after all, a literary city. The list of writers is impressive: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J K Rowling. The Book Festival is selective and does bring in good names. That isn’t true of the Fringe, however. You are far more likely to see Joe Bloggs from Neasden’s Amateur Dramatic Society than any respected actor.

Unfortunately, downtrodden residents who dare to criticise The Festival are the pariahs of this 21st century; written off as ignorant Philistines. There’s more stigma attached to a Festival basher than someone in the advanced stages of leprosy.Yet, thousands upon thousands of people descend on our small space. They deposit all their rubbish, and, three weeks later, they go away without it.By September, Edinburgh looks as if five major hurricanes have swept through it. The city is deserted, bereft, like a former war zone. The battered residents cautiously crawl from beneath the heap to see if the space invaders really have gone.The Festival used to be a showcase for real talent: comedians such as John Cleese and Michael Palin. It was never a midden for endless talentless drivel. Not an infestation of comedy, if you can call it that. Comedy, I mean. You can certainly call it an infestation.Still, I do have a solution to the vast numbers descending on Edinburgh. Move them all to Glasgow and let us, for God’s sake, reclaim our city.


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Stephen Lawrence

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Racism lives long after Stephen Lawrence

No one knows the pain of bereavement better than Doreen Lawrence, who is having to battle claims that the Metropolitan Police tried to smear her family’s reputation. She endured the racist murder of her son Stephen – and murder is a million times more painful than any other bereavement. All the boy did was try to get home after a night out – oh, and have black skin. I forgot that bit. If you are standing waiting for a bus, you don’t expect to be knifed by a complete stranger. By all accounts, Stephen Lawrence was a charming, intelligent young man going home to see his parents, when he was attacked with a knife. He fell to the ground then managed to stagger to his feet, his clothes and hair soaked with blood from his wounds. Moments later, he fell down and died.
That was April 22, 1993. A number of highly unpleasant young men were charged with Stephen’s murder but the Crown Prosecution Service in England claimed there was insufficient evidence. For Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s brother, Stuart, and sister, Georgina, much of the past two decades have gone past like a bad dream, one from which they never seem able to awaken.
As I said, being black was Stephen’s only ‘sin’. Black death. No convictions. End of story. So, why didn’t the Lawrences just give up? Because the senseless murder of the son they adored hurt them beyond belief, because they are brave people who vowed they would seek justice for Stephen. Neville and Doreen Lawrence have spent all these years fighting back, overwhelmed again and again by a combination of Stephen’s brutal loss and the rampant disease of official indifference.
Isn’t it ironic how politically correct we have become since Stephen’s death? So quick to object to various words people use when they describe minority groups.
Half-a-century ago, Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Pertinent then, it is even more pertinent now, especially here in Britain where racism is an everyday story, whether it be name-calling, extremes of physical assault or worse.
Remember King’s immortal words: “I have a dream: that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths self-evident that all men were created equal’.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today”.
Doreen and Neville Lawrence had a dream as well. They dreamed their sons would live a long and happy life, enjoy good careers, marry and give them grandchildren. The fact that their dream turned into the worst of nightmares is an indictment on us all. Imagine if the victims had been white. It would be unheard of if no one went to jail after murdering two white boys. Just think of the fuss we make in this country whenever white children go missing or die a horrible death. Think Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, think April Jones. It does not happen very often, but, when it does, all hell lets loose. Once convicted, murderers of children go to prison and everybody from the governor down hates their guts. They killed a child. They did the unforgivable and they will be punished – by all of us. Either the child is found alive amid great national rejoicing or the evil perpetrator is caught as quickly as possible – mainly in order to still the inevitable public uproar – unless the child happens to be black. Then, suddenly, nothing is quite the same on the criminal justice front, is it?
The Lawrences have been hurt beyond our comprehension, because they lost a child they adored, because they have had to fight for justice on behalf of their boy. Their lives have been turned upside down and inside out by one single act of evil. Nothing will ever be the same again. Abandoned by every person they thought would help them, the family must feel destroyed by the latest revelations about the police operation to smear their reputation.
Racism in the UK is alive and well. And it is not just about a violent minority. It is about prejudices and assumptions which are ingrained. If urgent action is not taken by the criminal justice system, we will continue to see black people die violent deaths, followed by no convictions. Shame does not even come close.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry had profound significance for race relations in Britain. It struck at the heart of all that was rotten within the police as well as within society. Or so we thought at the time. But the rotten stench never really went away. It hid its head in shame for a while, before, slowly but surely, coming up for air and stirring up the poison – all over again.











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Lying husbands

Lying husbands advised to stop fibbing

When Mr & Mrs Joe Public divorce, there is, by and large, a fair financial settlement between the two parties, which, apart from anything else, reduces any subsequent legal bills. However, the rules we play by are being bypassed by the super rich. Take, for example, the case of oil tycoon, Michael Prest who has had to pay his ex-wife, Yasmin, a massive £17.5million – money he tried to conceal in various companies. A judge at the Supreme Court, in London, described Prest as “deceitful, obstructive and wholly unreliable.” The ex-Mrs Prest has warned lying husbands to beware and always behave “honestly and fairly”.

Yeah, right. That’s going to happen. Remember the saying: ‘All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to remain silent”? What amazes me most, however, is the way we all profess to be so shocked about somebody lying, especially if that person is an erring husband or a politician. Human beings lie all the time. Politicians lie even more. We are a nation of fibbers; people to whom lying has become second nature. The advertising industry is the worst offender. Most adverts whitewash our lives, giving us a sanitised version of what we are really like. I mean would we want to see an obese, toothless choir singing the praises of a top cola? Would we want to see a plain, frumpy couple, breakfasting on black coffee and aspirin instead of golden flakes in the California sun? I used to think truth was the be all and end all, until I discovered advertising. Honest.

Most lies are self-serving, protecting the person who utters them from conflict, disapproval or shame, although we also tell little white lies to protect the feelings of others. The truth can cause a lot of trouble. Sometimes you might want the truth, even if it is hurtful. Did your husband really go to the cinema with a male colleague? Was your best friend Sharon really out of town on your birthday, or did she forget like she has every other year? But do we always need to hear the truth? What answer do we really want to the question: ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ Supposing our partner replied: ‘It looks absolutely enormous’ or ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you, your bum looks massive in everything’ would we thank them? More likely we’d descend into a terminal sulk. Should we tell the truth about how much money we really spent; how much chocolate we eat and whether we have given up smoking completely? According to research, women are more effective liars than men. We lie to placate people or to make them feel better, for example: ‘Honestly, you look much more handsome fat, bald, ugly’. The truth can hurt. Lies do not. Lies are not so clear cut. They are multicoloured: white are the ones you tell to avoid hurting people’s feelings and black are the more serious and there are many shades in between. There are good liars as well as bad. A really good fibber makes his porkies sound convincing while bad ones make it so obvious they’re telling lies that they might as well have told the truth in the first place. Amateurs should never try telling lies face-to-face, not with e-mail and text messages to do the dirty deed for you. In political circles, not answering a straight question with a straight answer has been turned into an art form in this country. It is called spin and spin, basically, is shorthand for telling lies. Why would a politician tell the truth when an outright lie or piece of obfuscation will do instead? Other than watching a person’s nose grow as they speak, there are various ways of telling if someone is lying. Saying you want to know every little detail will force a fibber into a tangled web of deceit and you can then enjoy watching them try to worm their way out of it. A liar will become nervous, feel guilty, or just grimace with the strain of inventing the lie as they go along. If they start twitching or trembling when they don’t normally, that’s a pretty good yardstick.

Sadly, if anything, we have discarded the idea of truth as a social good and replaced it with a very banal form of honesty. Look no further than the popularity of so-called reality TV where truth is, of necessity, distorted by the presence of viewers. Of course, programmes such as Big Brother claim they are showing us the truth but, we all know, the minute a camera is present, people start behaving differently. The truth is that Big Brother and its ilk are nothing but an elaborately constructed lie. Sad, isn’t it? Honesty has to be the best policy, especially within marriage. So when my husband tells me I am beautiful and that he only drinks three pints a week, I believe him. Now, where did I put that large pinch of salt?

Edinburgh Waste Collection

Edinburgh waste collection is rubbish!

Recycle-get this...

I want to be re-incarnated as a bin man, or, rather, in these days of politically correct jargon, a sexually neutral waste disposal operative. I have loads of experience – what with carting our rubbish to a council tip week after week.

What a great life these people have over the festive period.  They enjoy the same time off as everybody else and then all those little extras – whenthere is too much snow, the pitter patter of heavy sleet, ice on the pavement, a strike or one of the myriad of reasons they seem to have for not showing up to work.This particular festive season will stay in my mind for a very long time, for all the wrong reasons. The gap between collections of our wheelie bin was 22 days. We took it to a dump ourselves. The recycling didn’t come on the allotted day so I took it myself. Guess what? They came 48 hours late.

Edinburgh City Council has decided to only empty our domestic bin fortnightly. It’s bad enough leaving stuff to fester in a wheelie bin for one week. The thought of leaving it for two weeks turns my stomach. It really does. We already have all the fun of sifting through our rubbish, sorting the paper, cartons, tin and glass from the smelly, rotten leftovers. All the council has to do is drive it away … occasionally. What do they pay our public servants for exactly? We spend hour after hour, day after day, sorting the wheat from the chaff, rifling through our bags to remove the glass from the paper, the cardboard from the onion peel. And they get paid for our work.

It’s not fair.

The message is: “Listen, folks, recycling is where it’s at. So, we are going to charge you exactly the same council tax but leave a stinking pile of rubbish on your doorstep for two weeks instead of one. OK? Fine.” This is a clever scheme. It means we are doing a large part of the bin men’s job for them. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in recycling. Landfill sites have had it. We are all doomed if we carry on the way we’ve been going. But as the wee dug Churchill says in the car insurance ad: “Steady”. It takes time to change the habits of a lifetime.

I am fortunate enough to have been trained by very own recycling fairy. This is how it goes in our house: I take a tin of tuna, give some of it to my dog for his dinner, go to throw the tin out into the bin when this stentorian voice bawls: “Stop right there” before grabbing the offending article from my clutches. It’s the same with beer or wine bottles. I clean them, go to chuck them in the bin when, lo and behold, they too are grabbed from my hand by a whirling dervish on legs.

The other evening I managed, with great difficulty, to pull corrugated metal tops off two used beer bottles which had been opened and drunk, the empty ones left in a neat row on the worktop with the tops stuck back on. OK, I thought, by all means recycle the empty bottles but not with the tops still in place. How wrong could I be? Whoosh, the big, hairy recycling fairy grabbed them out of my hand – only to rush out to the conservatory with said tiny items and place them in one of the many boxes, kindly left for us by the wretched council. Red ones, blue ones, brown ones, sacks for newspapers, little grey bins for food. On their last visit, Edinburgh City Council emptied the inner basket into the lorry and drove off with it.

Some would say we pay an average amount in council tax. I happen to think it is an obscene sum. Still, I have always assumed that the fact I had always paid up would stand me in good stead.


Winter is bad enough but do you really fancy a pile of rotting food and nappies sitting outside your house for two weeks at the height of summer. It is quite the most revolting arrangement I have heard in a long time. Politicians are assuming that once your average Hamish and Jean learn to separate plastic, glass and paper, they will realise there isn’t a lot left in their normal household rubbish bin. Therefore, a domestic collection once a fortnight will suffice. Wrong. Yes, I know that across Scotland, the problem of landfill sites needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We have to recycle far more. We know that. So, give us all blue bins or boxes and let us do your dirty work for you, but don’t, repeat don’t, cut our household rubbish service from weekly to fortnightly and dress it up as recycling.

If local authorities want us to continue to do their dirty work for them, they can pay us for it and reduce our council tax.

Article Focus: Edinburgh waste collection .

Photo credit: practicalowl on Flickr

Connecticut shooting

America is trigger-happy. After the Connecticut shooting, will they finally see sense?

The loss of a child is the one loss which never fades. Not with time. Not with anything. You take that loss with you to your grave.

Article on connecticut shooting, image of anti-gun sign

In Connecticut, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, bereaved parents will now carry an irrational feeling of failure and guilt. A child is so, so vulnerable. Their trust in their parents is total. They depend on them to keep them safe. Mothers and fathers cannot help but feel they weren’t there for their little ones when they needed them most. Not only that but these bereaved parents will have to watch the survivors, – their children’s friends; watch them grow into their teens, develop a career, find love, get married and have children of their own, then grandchildren.

The Connecticut parents have been robbed of all this.

The redoubtable Scottish father, Mick North lost his five-year old daughter, Sophie, at Dunblane Primary School in 1996. He had already had his share of suffering. His adored wife, Barbara, died in 1993, after a prolonged battle with cancer. To protect Sophie from the loss of her mother, Mick struggled to make the little girl the centre of his life. His efforts paid off. Father and daughter became inseparable, a total double act.

At least, that was the case until the darkest, longest day of his life and his daughter’s last on this earth: March 13th 1996. For Scots it sits in the memory in the same way as the shooting of John F Kennedy does for a generation. Because, on that day, little Sophie became one of 16 children slain in the Dunblane massacre. Thomas Hamilton fired five bullets into her small frame – one for each year of her life. Since then her father has become an expert on guns. There is nothing this gentle, amazing man doesn’t know about the subject. His anti-gun campaigning skills are sought worldwide.

To remind those who may have forgotten or don’t know: sixteen years ago, Thomas Hamilton parked his van in the school grounds. Then, dressed in combat gear, he made his way to the gym, unchallenged, carrying four handguns, two Brownings and two Smith and Westons. His indiscriminate massacre began in the gym. A spray of bullets scattered the toddlers this way and that. A few, like Sophie North, died instantly, others lay injured, frozen in pain and panic, while their attacker opened fire on a nearby classroom.

Looking back, it seems unbelievable that the police had had dealings with Thomas Hamilton for 20 years or so before the massacre actually happened; allowing the man who would end up a murderer to renew his firearms licence, despite justifiable concerns about his suitability and behaviour. Just like Adam Lanza, in Connecticut, Thomas Hamilton committed one final act of cowardice and turned his gun on himself; leaving the rest of the world with the agony of trying to process his unthinkable act of evil.

In Dunblane, the immediate aftermath of the massacre proved unbearable for the relatives. One group of families were called and taken away, leaving the rest still in the staff room. Mick North said it was 2.30pm when he began to feel sick with worry. I remember him saying in an interview: “We didn’t know whether the people taken away were the parents of the survivors or of the children who had died. It was just like being in a police state”.

Post Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton left so many people with a legacy of panic attacks and nightmares, not least the children who survived when their friends had not. How did parents explain the obscenities perpetrated by Hamilton to the children left behind? Try to imagine the conversation: ‘Well, you see, this maniac came into the school and tried to kill you. He killed a lot of other children. They died and now they are in Heaven. But you were lucky. He tried to kill you but, didn’t succeed. Instead, he left you physically disabled as well as mentally scarred. Oh and he killed all your friends, but, hey, you were one of the lucky ones. And, no, this sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in a primary school. It was a one-off.” How could a young child comprehend the incomprehensible. I don’t even understand it myself. Do you? Does anybody?

I remember watching a TV programme about what had happened in Dunblane. It was about a little girl; a tiny child of five who had been shot through the leg by Thomas Hamilton. At the time, this beautiful child kept waking up during the night, sweating and screaming in terror … all her little friends shot dead. What horrors must have been going through her mind? It’s time we did say something to five year olds on the subject of guns. It’s time we explained that nobody has the right to take another person’s life, even threaten to do so. Might is not necessarily right, very rarely in fact.

The horror of Dunblane produced a great deal of noise and guns were rightly banned in the UK. But laws need teeth. Teeth bite. Nevertheless, in the States, guns are commonplace. Believe it or not, almost 30% of high school children in America have firearms. What for? There are no longer any wild frontiers to be conquered in the States yet, for no particular reason, the gun remains God. In fact, guns are to Americans what umbrellas are to Scots. Too many Americans carry their faithful pistols around with them, just in case. This makes it very hard to enforce laws limiting the way guns are bought and sold. Nor does the National Rifle Association help. Charlton Heston – Chuck to his trigger-happy pals – maintained parents were to blame when kids started shooting people. A stricter upbringing would sort them out, he said. Poor old deceased Chuck, I would say to him that guns are to blame, not parents. Only by stopping guns being sold or owned, can you remove all potential danger.

Nobody ever explains why Americans carry guns like hankies anyway. What exactly are they going to do with them? Some people maintain they need guns to protect themselves from would-be attackers. This is nonsense. A woman living in New York may well carry a gun in her handbag. Imagine that one night she is walking home alone. She thinks the man behind is following her, intending to rape or mug her. The woman surreptitiously grabs her gun from her bag, turns suddenly and blows out the stranger’s brains. It later transpires that she dropped her gold watch a few blocks back and the man was hurrying after her to return it.

The American Constitution, which sets out that country’s rights and freedoms, says people are allowed to “keep and bear arms.” In the States, if you buy a gun from a registered dealer, they carry out a quick computerised background check on you and that’s that. If you buy a gun from a private collector, anyone who is not a registered dealer I mean, such a check isn’t necessary. You could be a crackpot, you could be the world’s next serial sniper; the world’s next mass child murderer. It really doesn’t matter.

I am sure many people who carry guns do so because they believe a weapon will somehow enhance their image – a bit like the hairy, try-to-be-scary – guys who own fierce dogs.

When he made a statement on the Connecticut shooting, Barack Obama cried, a first for any American President that I can recall. Maybe he will take action – now that he doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected. We need to stop peddling the idea that guns make a person powerful. They don’t. Someone who needs to carry a gun in a so-called civilised society has to be very scared of something. To carry a gun is to wear that fear on one’s sleeve for the whole world to see. It is to be a coward.

Sadly, people the world over are trigger-happy. Fortunately, in the UK nowadays, it is extremely difficult to acquire a gun, legally. First of all, you need a licence. To get a licence you have to give the police information about yourself, including your medical records. You also need to get two people to tell the police they think you are a jolly good chap, the sort who definitely needs to carry a gun. Guns for target shooting and farm pest control are one thing. Any other weapon within the civilian population is unnecessary, undesirable and desperately sad.


Article focus: Connecticut shooting


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